Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And this time, our roster is full, with Scarves, Scribbles and Tibère all there to answer the call (we’ve been doing some tai chi together through Skype, it is di-vine), along with guest contributor Ruth Long (who has already written for us, go check her stuff out! Also, her Tumblr is that way), aka the Lazy Cat, aka the world’s leading expert on Clara Oswald, aka an all-around awesome person.
Spoilers follow, obviously.
1) General Thoughts
TIBERE: This was a pretty incredible story, really. It’s not really in the veins of “Extremis”, or “Heaven Sent”, big, ambitious structural conceits – no, it’s a quiet, low-key slice of Who that just happens to lead to some incredibly powerful and beautiful beats. For me, it’s part of the magic of Who – meaning and poetry coming from the most unlikely places. It’s not the most ambitious episode, and it’s not perfect, but it touches what is, in my humble opinion, the blood and soul of the show. And as a result, it’s my favourite story in ages. Since … “Last Christmas”? I think that’s fair.
SCARVES: Well, I loved that. One of my favourites of the season – it pushes all my buttons in the way that “The Girl Who Died” did in season nine, by being a low-key, contemplative episode, that pushes some lyrical and strange themes in lovely, charming ways. It slips up a little at the resolution – the episode never quite makes the mechanics of the Gate clear enough – the Doctor makes it clear that no one can protect the gate in the way that he, who is functionally immortal can, so it’s not completely clear how Kar and the legion taking his place saves the day. There’s some dialogue just before the resolution that mentions the gate only being able let one person at a time through, and the Doctor says the gateway has become unstable because too many people crossed it at once, so I assume it’s that that saves the day, but again, could have been slightly clearer. But otherwise, the characterisation was perfect, the dialogue was beautiful, and the story was constantly exploring its themes of translation and communication, childhood and coming of age, and critiquing imperialism. And it explored those themes beautifully. It’s exactly the kind of Doctor Who I want to see.
RUTH: I can safely say with absolute certainty that this is my favourite episode of the series so far. Series 10 has been remarkably strong for the most part, albeit with what I felt was a slight dip in the middle with the Monk trilogy not fully coming together. However, up until now I’ve been waiting for that story that really resonates with me, that touches on something kind of difficult to describe, this sense of pure wonder. “The Eaters of Light” accomplished that and then some, so much so I don’t think I’ve been left quite so delighted by an episode of Doctor Who since “Hell Bent“. Soft and gentle and beautifully lyrical, exploring its themes with confidence and clarity, this was pure distilled Doctor Who magic.
SCRIBBLES: Really, it’s this year’s “In the Forest of the Night” I think. It’s a slow, methodical piece luxuriating in imagery, atmosphere, and character. And that’s absolutely delicious. It’s an outright Doctor Who fairytale, complete with explaining the cawing of crows as a bit of mythological origin story. Hell, the ease with which it just says, yeah, crows can talk, they always have, and then neglects to go into any further detail, sums up what this episode is going for. It’s about putting wonder into Doctor Who, that’s really its vision. Doctor Who in epic myth, legend, and fairytale, with poignancy and bravery and song. I love it. That’s what I want to see from Doctor Who. Every once in a while an episode just sums up my vision of the show, and this is just what I’d want to see from an average episode of Doctor Who. Something odd and wonderful.
TIBERE: There definitely are “In the Forest of the Night” parallels – the opening scene, with the two children exploring the ruins of the cairn, could be directly lifted from it. And I think both of the episode have this same sort of focus on nature and spirituality. Maybe the most important tension in Who is the one between Earth, home, the ordinary, and the vastness and impossibility of space – at the very least, my favourite Who stories, “Listen” of course included, are the ones that explore and tackle this tension. So it’s very interesting when you get stories like this, or “In the Forest of the Night”, because they are about those myths and legends that are at the same time absolutely, completely Earthly terrestrial. They talk about a transcendence, an absolute, that’s deeply, deeply human.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, what is Doctor Who if not a myth or legend, really? One that goes mon and on into new storytellers and new molds, never dying, just building into infinity. That parallel gets made a lot within the show, like in the lovely speech at the end of “Robot of Sherwood.” But it’s nice to really see Doctor Who go all out and make itself a slice of myth. It adds to the wonder of the show and makes it what’s worth loving.
RUTH: My favourite episodes often tend to be the ones that incorporate elements of myth, legend and fantasy. They represent the boundless reaches of human imagination; the ways in which throughout history we have used them to bring meaning to our chaotic universe and to ourselves. They are stories at their most fundamental and enduring, and I think that touches on the very essence of Doctor Who. It’s such a prevalent, crucial theme in the Moffat and Capaldi eras especially, which has very much deconstructed the idea of the Doctor, this mythic figure, and asked what it truly means, how it applies to a madman in a box telling stories, or a scared and lonely little boy in a barn, or a young woman whose arc was magnificently used to facilitate the notion that the mantle of the Doctor belongs to no single person, but is something which we can all aspire to. In that regard “The Eaters of Light” is the perfect adventure for the Twelfth Doctor’s final standalone episode; like “In the Forest of the Night”, it thrives on this mystical atmosphere, the feeling that this world, representing our own, is infused with something enchanting and ethereal. And what better location to set such a story that ancient Scotland? It calls to mind old runes and ominous standing stones, the eerie mists that settle on the moors, or will-o’-the-wisps, mysterious lights that can lead unwitting travelers to fortune or doom. It’s a place and time steeped in folklore, as well as the homeland of our current Doctor, Master and Showrunner, not to mention Rona Munro herself! You couldn’t ask for something more fitting really.
TIBERE: The episode builds on that in a very nice way by doing some explicit parallels with the previous series’ arc, I feel. The whole concept of the music, that we’re probably going to tackle in more details later, feels like a deliberate riff on the “memories become songs in the end”, and on Clara’s fate – which also was a small part of “The Pilot”.
SCARVES: Songs have been linked to endings throughout the Moffat era thanks to River, really – it’s in her name, and the fact that her story begins with an ending – this is made explicit in “The Husbands of River Song” where we finally go to Darillium, and the Doctor’s relationship with River is likened to that of the singing towers.
SCRIBBLES: Mitigating peace between warring factions, of course, that’s a big one, too. I said last week that “Empress of Mars” felt like a bit of a retread of the early Capaldi soldier theme, whereas here we get a beautiful condensed version of the Zygon speech, hung on the powerful hook of the TARDIS translation circuits as what enables that. Unlike “Empress“, I really do think this one says something new with it, and has me rather sad to know the era is winding down when there is still more to say.
TIBERE: At the same time, there’s a really clear sense of a journey ending here. The era feels like it has come full circle – the Scottish Doctor is in Scotland, the Master that tried to tempt the Doctor in “Death in Heaven” is coming herself close to redemption … Speaking of parallels with series 8, it’s interesting to see how their tenth episodes are both leading to a Master-led finale: I think “The Eaters of Light” does that a lot better – I feel like there’s a weight given to the character interactions that “In the Forest of the Night”, despite its many qualities (it’s a good story! I’m sorry!), does not always have, even if the Clara/Danny beats are quite vital in the end (not to mention they’re maybe the purest exploration of this form of earthly spirituality I was babbling on about a couple of paragraphs earlier).
RUTH: Indeed, it’s almost a calm before the storm. A final moment of quiet contemplation for this era of Doctor Who before the climactic battle, one which promises to be explosive.
SCARVES: The episode does a great job for the regulars – although it felt like a reprise of a similar scene from “Knock Knock” when I first watched the episode, the scene where Bill discusses sexuality with the Roman soldiers worked a lot better for me on rewatch – while it’s simplifying history somewhat, it is true that the Romans were aware of same-sex attraction being a thing, making the scene a nice chance to explore the fact that history, as Scribbles has said before, isn’t a straightforward progression to society becoming more accepting – in the case of sexuality, different societies have different understandings and responses to sexuality, and it was nice that the episode acknowledged that. And otherwise the story just gets her really well – I loved her banter with the Doctor over the fate of the ninth legion, and the episode gets that she’s clever, and how to portray her type of cleverness – I love that she figures out that she understands the Romans because the TARDIS is translating, and that she figures out that it is translating via the telepathic circuits – she’s a girl who knows her sci fi tropes. Nardole’s bits with the crows were delightful, as was him seamlessly fitting in with the locals. And there was some great Doctor material – lovely fun moments such as him distracting the Pict with the popcorn to escape – that was beautifully written into the scene – he gets a lovely anti war speech that has all the power of the “Zygon Inversion” speech, and achieves said power with a fraction of the time, but the episode critiques the paternalistic attitude that is written underneath said speech at the resolution by making it clear this isn’t his fight, and that it’s actually irresponsible of him to try and fight it when he has duties of his own.
TIBERE: That scene about sexuality is just lovely, isn’t it? I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate, but it’s still perfect to have. It gives the characters a real identity, even if it’s only a couple lines, which makes their final fate and sacrifice hit a lot harder. Plus, really, it’s sort of a continuous commentary this series – how society changes and adapts with time. We saw that in “Smile”, “Thin Ice, “Oxygen”, “Empress of Mars”, and now this – there’s just the loveliest element of thematic coherences to the whole proceedings. And absolutely agreed on the story being a sort of concentrate of all the best elements of the Zygon two-parter – really, all the stuff about adopting someone else’s face, communication and warfare being influenced by the image of the people that partake in it, all of that is basically condensed in that one glorious beat where the Picts and Romans realize that yes, they are indeed humans, as soon as they can talk to each other and understand each other. Plus, it’s tied with the TARDIS’ telepathic field in a really compelling way – the previous scenes where Bill figures out how it works become not just an opportunity for her to showcase her many talents as a companion, but also intrical to the plot’s resolution. It’s historically anchored in a nice way, too – the term “barbarian”, at the root, means “someone that doesn’t speak the civilized languages”. Roman nationalism didn’t made a distinction between plenty of little countries and provinces, it was “citizens vs. barbarians”. Several Capaldi episodes tackle this us/them divide, but I think “Eaters of Light” manages to do the best, most concise summation of that beat. Without the bad politics of that Harness story, too …
RUTH: I thought that scene was marvelous. Yes it’s similar to the exchange in “Knock Knock”, but the context was a bit different here, and the response from the Roman soldiers, though not entirely historically accurate, made for a brilliant moment of subverting expectations while playfully yet effectively showing characters discussing their sexuality in a natural and positive way. I think that’s a wonderful message, and one of the reasons why Bill is such an important and refreshing character on television when it comes to LGBT+ representation and beyond.
SCRIBBLES: Tragic that we didn’t get the scene with them all going to go have a nice night with telly and popcorn, because it means moments like Nardole using the popcorn as a distraction don’t hit as well, and it’d just in general be a cute scene to have.
SCARVES: Oh, was it meant to start with that? Explains Nardole’s costume. Which was glorious, by the way. Incredible knitwear. I just love the way his costumes capture the way he isn’t quite human.
TIBERE: Yeah, that does feel like a bit of an awkward edit. Although it does feel like they wanted to keep the flow from the (great) pre-credits scene, that probably wouldn’t have worked with cross-cutting or if anything was added to it, really, to a beginning in medias res. Still, Nardole works really well in that episode, I found – he still hasn’t contributed much in the way of vital beats, but he’s a really nice presence that allows the inner flow of the scenes to go in new, kind of unexpected directions. And Lucas is just funny, really – “death by Scotland” and all that.
RUTH: Oh, Nardole was fantastic. He has real a knack for adding levity and his own brand of humour to each episode without impacting on the gravity of the plot or taking the focus away from the Doctor and Bill. He just fits into this TARDIS team dynamic really well. Rona definitely gave him some excellent lines here, and I appreciated the more meta jokes as well, such as Nardole’s declaration that he and the Doctor “aren’t even slightly Italian” – a cheeky nod perhaps to Peter Capaldi’s (his last name alone gives it away) Italian lineage.
SCRIBBLES: Oh, this is the best Nardole story since, well, the last one. He keeps surprising with how well he’s deployed, really, and has been, perhaps not a surprise because I expected him to be fleshed out, but a welcome addition with his growth. Shame we didn’t get to see his plans for the night with pajamas and popcorn, but in a way, he’s that kind of guy enough that it’s not totally needed. That said, the McCoy era always did have loads of extended editions on DVD releases with extra bits to fill it in. I guess I can hope for that with this. But on the flip side, it also lends that manic energy of McCoy to this episode a bit. It does lump on ideas and character without always setting up all the plot, and that’s what makes it so loveable. This episode is all charm and wonder and character, and if plot slides just a little bit, who cares? It’s got everything firing when it matters.
TIBERE: That’s not the only thing it takes from the McCoy era, too. I feel like Twelve, here, is a fiercer and a bit less kind than usual – taking a bit of inspiration from Seven, that’s a possibility, but really, that also feels like a repeat of this whole “coming full circle” motive. You get a sense of Twelve getting a bit cocky, arrogant, some of his series 8 persona coming up. Now, personally, I’m not going to complain, because series 8 Twelve is by far my favourite Twelve, and Capaldi’s talent for abrasiveness is truly something to behold. The “that was the sound of my patience shattering into a thousand little pieces” beat, especially, now that was glorious. Some critics interpreted this as Rona Munro not being too concerned with the specifics of characterization within the story, but I’d disagree – placed near the Doctor’s thirst for space in “Oxygen” or his antics in “Lie of the Land“, it seems like a deliberate decision that could pay off in the finale and during the regeneration episode.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, Bill calls him the hell out when he tries to make it all about himself in the climax. Not the way Clara would, with indignation and words, but her own earthier way, by whacking him over the head. Moffat has talked before that that’s where Bill came from, finding a more down-to-earth contrast to Clara, and I think that method of calling the Doctor out is a nice subtle reminder of what makes Bill Bill. She’s grounded and physical, but also clever and genre savvy and a good student. But she just is open and acts on her will, there’s no layers of masks the way Clara and Amy were. Really, on the whole I think this was the most I’ve enjoyed Bill since “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” in her moments of making that deal. “The Lie of the Land” really should have done it, but it didn’t land its beats, and “Empress of Mars” really had her just be charming support, so it’s great to see her engaging on a personal level with the action again and making hard and interesting choices. Here, she’s wonderful. Probably my favorite thing in the episode, which is good, that’s what a companion, especially one on the newer side, should be doing. Glorious as her expressing agency at the climax was, though, my favorite scene of the episode has to be her talking about sexuality with the Roman young adults. That was a glorious scene, and I felt really represented by it. It felt like real people in that age group, really. I’m sure there’s loads of people complaining about the scene feeling forced or about history, but screw them. For one thing, immediately after the episode a Roman history buff came enthusing to me on social media about how they found it to be a refreshingly accurate depiction of the period, at least as far as those outside the highest classes are concerned, so I’ll take their word for its veracity. (They’ve done a lovely post about it here.) But, more importantly, that’s how young people are in the present day. There are more people talking about their sexuality and gender identity nowadays, and that’s a perfectly normal thing to discuss. Seeing a conversation like that felt real to me, because that’s what the world I live in is like. Plus, the touch of the black soldier just not thinking the white guy was hot enough for his standards was great
SCARVES: You’re absolutely right that there are, of course, fans who are complaining about Bill’s sexuality being “forced into every episode” and that “the writers are making too big a thing of it“. But can I take a moment to point out why Doctor Who fans are being the actual worst when they say things like that? Five episodes this season – “Smile“, “Thin Ice“, “Oxygen“, “The Lie of the Land“, and “Empress of Mars” – don’t mention Bill’s sexuality. So mentioning Bill’s a lesbian factually isn’t “all they do” with her character, much as some fans say it is. Compare to series one (to take one example, you could probably do the same for Amy in series five or Clara in series eight – heck, Martha and Donna’s romantic interests get a fair share of focus, too): 9 out of 13 series one episodes feature romantic subplots and/ or major romantic storylines for Rose. “Rose“, “Aliens of London“, “World War Three“, and “Boom Town” all explore Rose’s relationship with Mickey, she’s explicitly attracted to Adam in “Dalek” and “The Long Game” and to Jack in “The Empty Child“/”The Doctor Dances“, and the whole series, the “The Parting of the Ways” explicitly, shows her falling in love with the Doctor. Yet no one complains about Rose’s straightness being “shoved in our faces“. It’s almost like people have harsher standards for portrayals of non-straight characters’ sexuality than they do for straight characters sexuality.
SCARVES: Sorry, rant over, but some parts of Doctor Who Who fandom need to take a look in the mirror, and think about why they react the way they do to portrayals of LGBT characters in the show, and ask themselves whether they’re being as objective and reasonable as they think they’re being.
SCRIBBLES: It is a good and necessary rant. Sexuality doesn’t define a person, but that doesn’t mean it’s out of their lives, either. And particularly in a world where LGBT people don’t feel safe being themselves in public – hell, I feel scared at the idea of holding my boyfriend’s hand outside! – it’s stuff that absolutely should be visible. If straight people can have their relationships in everyone’s faces, and indeed they do, all over real life and fiction, it’s hard even to find superhero movies without straight romances shoehorned in, gay people deserve to be visible. That’s not all Bill is. Of course it isn’t. But dammit, it’s vital to make it seen. It’s part of Bill, there’s no shame in her expressing it. And it’s a part of the world that gets limited in how much it can express itself.
TIBERE: And above all, straightness is not “the norm”, and straightness is not politically neutral. Having a gay black character talking about their skin colour and sexuality is not more political than having a white straight character do that.
SCRIBBLES: I rather liked the cheeky line about bisexuality as the Roman norm. Feeling empowered as hell by that.
TIBERE: Oh, god, yes. It was utterly lovely. I felt pandered to in the best way. Pandering is good, really! Just be sure it’s equal-opportunities. There’s no reason that only straight white audience should get that kind of treatment! But, back on track – I do love, too, that for all the diversity that’s on display on screen, the people that drive the action for all are almost all women. The Roman soldiers are hidden in a cave until Bill gives them a big motivational speech – by the way, one of my favourite Bill moments right there, because it feels like a really cool exploration of the dynamics of activism (the promise that not everyone’s going to make it, but everyone’s going to contribute to something greater, isn’t that what activism is all about). And that feels very unique to her – I can absolutely see Clara deliver that kind of speech, but in her case, it would probably be more of a calculation, a deliberate move, something she does because she knows how the show works and how to use the red shirts with maximum efficiency (cf. “Flatline“). Bill has a lot more fire to her – I wonder if that’s a deliberate riff on the “angry black woman” stereotype, like Tanya was in Class (read Scribbles’ article on it, please, it’s so good) – but if it is, it’s a positive, empowering one. Plus, she’s a student, so you get another tie to activism there. A student while Clara was a teacher, too, that’s a nice contrast. But anyway – Bill motivates the soldier on one side, and on the other, it’s Kar that takes the reins, lets loose the beast on the Roman soldiers, and makes the final sacrifice. Oh, and it’s also there in that pre-credits scene – it’s the little girl that leads her brother to the cairn (kind of teasing the other brother/sister pairing in the episode, too).
RUTH: Bill absolutely shined in this episode. She’s always a joy to watch, but this story especially felt like a showcase of why she’s such a brilliant character and match for the Doctor. All of her greatest strengths; her ingenuity, her curiosity, her cleverness, her empathy, her strength of heart and unique perspective were on full and wonderful display. There’s a great sincerity and passion to Bill, a spirit of a different kind to Moffat’s previous two core companions, who both had their own special qualities. I love that every modern companion has a distinct energy, and thinking about how each would act in a given situation is rather fascinating. I agree Tibere, Clara, especially as we see her in Series 8 and 9, would take command, assume more of an overt leadership role with the Roman soldiers. Bill on the other hand, though still stepping up to lead, does so because of what she believes, because she is willing to be brave where the men before her are afraid, because she has hope where they have given up. That’s a true testament to her character; she has the fervent resolve and conviction present in many of the greatest companions.
SCARVES: I think it might have been the best showcase for what makes her a wonderful character since “The Pilot”. On top of the details I mentioned earlier, the scene where she encourages the Roman soldiers to fight back is particularly significant – she’s open about the fact that they probably won’t all make it, and seems more at peace with the fact than she was in “Thin Ice”, when she was first properly confronted with death in the Doctor Who universe. It gives us a nice sense that, even as she’s still the character we met at the start of the season, she’s grown over the course of her adventures with the Doctor, and her outlook on the universe has changed notably.
SCRIBBLES: I really loved the psychology of the soldiers in this one. Because, unlike is sometimes the case in Doctor Who, the big sacrifice at the end, the final battle, did get glorified. It was heroic and the Doctor was wrong to prevent it. Which is, sort of, a marked change. Doctor Who has even had speeches against heroic self-sacrifice in the likes of “The Rings of Akhaten.” Here, though, fitting the development and growth of the Twelfth Doctor and the themes of his era, it’s turned on its head a bit. The epic fight through the portal was less based in militarism and violence, the way Doctor Who tends to reject, but an extension of the love and sacrifice the Capaldi era has defined its best soldiers as. They do something every bit as great as Danny Pink, and the song remains as a testament to their loving sacrifice. There’s something wonderful about that. Sure, the Roman army charging through to fight in another world could easily have been a satirical plot about imperialism, but we’ve got plenty of that this series, and even in this episode. Instead it’s about love, solidarity, and sacrifice. The Romans and the Picts working together in song.
RUTH: It is a very fitting evolution of those themes. The critique of the Doctor’s paternalistic disposition, the attitude that he alone must be the one step up to make this sacrifice, in accordance with what he believes is best, harkens back heavily to the previous series. “I can’t bear brave people” is, intentionally or not, a significant parallel to Face the Raven, where the Doctor looked on in horror as his best friend stepped out to die for who she was and who she loved. Coming to that understanding, the realisation that regardless of his impulse to do otherwise in order to prevent more loss, he must respect and honour the will and agency of those whose battle, whose story, it ultimately is, marks his growth as a character.
TIBERE: I’m impressed that they managed to pull of that beat as well as they did. It could have easily been kind of distasteful – ignoring the Romans’ imperialism and banding with them against a greater threat; making peace with the dictator to fight the Devil. But no – that’s not at all what the episode is about. Really, it takes that very important idea of “passing into adulthood”, passing that kind of threshold, and reverses it. Ordinarily, the moment of adulthood is the one where you embrace the symbols and responsibilities of your rank, gender, social class, country, whatever – but here, “growing up” is to let go of all that and accept, simply, the beauty, the richness and the universality of humanity. And, because this is a very clever script, it does that in a story that’s literally about a threshold. Crafty Rona.
SCRIBBLES: Like “Survival,” it’s an ode to a generation, and the struggles they face. A certain age group of young teens to adults, and lives in that moment on the edge of Doctor Who wonder. They’re both loaded with ideology and poetry and angst and raw truth, really. Like I said earlier, these teens and young adults talk like the people I know in their early twenties, they feel like that world. It’s telling a story about them, about a society that pushes these Roman kids into fighting and dying for an empire they don’t necessarily believe in, about growing up beyond those confines. It’s lovely.
TIBERE: In that way, it’s kind of a “In the Forest of the Night” sequel. It was about childhood, this is about the onset of adulthood. You could maybe even sandwich Class in there somewhere for a global reading – if Class is about teenage years and the awakening of a class (pun!) and political consciousness, this is about a sort of poetic reconciliation done through self-sacrifice. And after, the soldiers and Picts do “go on, and on, and on” in their battle … And of course, you do get the apex of the “dying well” beat here – it was negated in “For Tonight we Might Die”, teased in “Oxygen”, and actually happens here. And if we’re trying to read the episode as a conclusion to some of Capaldi’s big thematic arcs, you can also read that final charge into the portal as the end of the “Kill the Moon” – “In the Forest of the Night” – “Thin Ice” series of scenes about the Doctor’s relationship with humanity. He went from exerting an agressive control to becoming a wise, helpful ally giving advice to humanity in times of crisis, and now, at the end of his tenure, it’s like humanity has outgrown the need for him, has evolved far enough to take their fate into their own hands.
RUTH: To me it also feels like a spiritual successor to “The Girl Who Died”. Like “The Eaters of Light” it drew from the mythology of the age and region, in this case the Vikings and Norse mythology, but also used its setting and characters to explore some similar themes.
3) Gateways, Translation & Music: the symbolism
SCRIBBLES: The duality of light and dark hangs pretty heavily over this, certainly. Some of it feels a bit unclear: why are the killings in the day if it can only hunt at night? But overall, it creates a very pleasant sort of seasonal connection, I think. I half felt like this episode should have been aired in autumn, because the closing in of the dark and the passing of days, that feels like a story about approaching winter, particularly a Scottish cold winter. And in a story so connected to themes and symbols and Scotland, I can hardly see that seasonal feeling as anything but deliberate. Winter in general is hanging over this closing bit of series 10, I think, drawing near. The Martian snows threatening to bury the Ice Warriors, the seasonal change of “The Eaters of Light,” going into an apparently bleak finale and a Christmas story about transition, change, and indeed changing of the seasons to spring along with changing to new life for the show, as the Christmas regeneration tends to be. We’re in a time of Doctor Who that feels very connected to the seasons, the way Paul Cornell often did, really, to get back to the McCoy/wilderness years roots of this week’s installment. I can’t escape the thought of Cornell’s “Circular Time,” probably the story most tied to seasonality. Because it really does feel like it’s hanging over series 10 and adding meaning to it, passing of the episodes tied to a year at its cold, bleak end, the hope of new life ahead. It’s brilliant and lyrical and evocative, but it feels a bit odd to be watching in the midst of a heat wave in southern California as summer begins in earnest.
TIBERE: Really, the Capaldi era has kind of an Autumn vibe all around. That’s probably just his first two seasons airing on a September-December schedule, though. But yeah, this is one story that’s just drenched in symbolism – it’s hard to tackle everything, but I guess the Eater of Light itself is a nice starting point. It’s an interesting antagonist, partly because it’s defined as a simple animal, as a, what was the term, “sun-eating locust”, I think? But at the same time, there’s a pure element of cosmic horror to them. A cosmic horror that expresses itself in different, pretty compelling ways – on one side, it directly echoes actual myths and legends: the beast that will devour the sun is a theme you find in several civilizations; I’m thinking Apophis, the snake-god that is to be battled by Ra every night in the Egyptian mythos, for instance. But at the same time, it’s also a nod to the show’s own past – the whole “ancient evil that lays dormant and is periodically awoken” thing. I guess it is there in the McCoy’s era, with the Nemesis orbiting around Earth, the Hand of Omega buried in a graveyard, or Fenric and his Haemavores, but these stories are kind of already a re-telling of the Holmes/Hinchliffe brand of horror stories, where the ancient demons from the past/future are a constant (Magnus Greel, Sutekh, Morbius, the Fendahl if you go a little bit beyond the era’s frontiers stricto sensu …). But here, this kind of very Classic-inspired beat is used to feed very New Series themes. The Ancient Beast is defeated by a coalition of people from different cultures, different ethnicities and different sexualities locking themselves into an eternal battle – it’s kind of Holmes and Hinchcliffe being sacrificed on the altar of Social Justice, and it is a glorious sight to see if ever there was one.
RUTH: Continuing with the seasonal theme, is it strange of me to say that “The Eaters of Light” kind of feels like a warm, rich mug of hot chocolate on a cold Winter’s night to me? It evokes tales told around a campfire, legends and fables narrated to listening children, their imaginations set alight. We see such images in the episode itself: the little girl climbing the hill to hear the music while her brother frets about ghosts, Nardole recounting a strange story to the young Picts about digesting aliens, and a number of scenes where characters discuss truths in the light of a burning fire.
SCRIBBLES: I think you’re absolutely right on that. Or a nice bag of popcorn on a freezing night. Presuming it hasn’t already been used to scare away some warring Scots. Tonally, it’s a bit series 5 Matt Smith, isn’t it? The fairytale wonder and the recording of stories, in stones and song and told over fires, to keep childlike wonder alight. There’s something cozy about the imagery it plays with, both in terms of the tones it reminds the viewer of from past eras and the deeper legendary images that fill it. It’s not derivative, but it is tied greatly to myth and archetype and commonly held story and oral tradition.
SCARVES: Personally, I’m most interested in the theme of translation in the episode – I love the way the story makes the TARDIS’s translation circuits a part of the plot, and uses them to expand on the story’s themes of childhood and coming of age – language is a barrier, another threshold, that needs to be crossed in this story, and when said barrier broken down, the characters are able to understand one another better – Bill understands the Doctor, and how he sees the universe, the Romans can understand the Picts, and hear Kar highlighting the hurt they’ve inflicted. This understanding enables the two factions to confront their demons and face the Eaters of Light, Kar completing her coming of age story, and the ninth Legion rejecting the cowardice of fighting as an overwhelming force against a group of scottish farmers (there’s another parallel to “The Girl Who Died”, and that episode’s critique of the cowardice of Raiding culture with the Mire), and facing a foe that scares and overwhelms them, and facing it because fighting it is the right thing to do.
SCRIBBLES: It’s interesting that some fans are rather outraged that it took Bill so long to work it out.
SCARVES: No other companion worked it out in the first place! The Doctor told them when they asked! Bill’s the first to actually figure it out on her own. I think that makes up for the beat of her learning about the translation circuits coming up later in her run. Alisdair Wilkins, in his otherwise very good review of the episode, suggested she should have figured out that it was odd that aliens all speak English sooner, but once again, no companion has questioned that before! They only notice when they meet a non English speaking human culture, and the Romans are the first such culture Bill has encountered this season.
SCRIBBLES: I think the beat gained all the more power from that. As I saw one commenter point out, that’s how Bill is. It took her longer to work out that the TARDIS was bigger on the inside, and when she did, she got it perfectly. Bill’s studious, and it feels like the Doctor trusts her to study the world for herself and learn from it. And once she’s learned, she understands, like you say, the Doctor better, probably better than any other companion in regards to the translation, because it was on her to work out. It’s a refreshing dynamic for the TARDIS, and one here used to add a lot of wonderful thematic meaning from the character relationship.
RUTH: It says a lot about how Bill’s mind works. The woman who smiles when she doesn’t understand something, she possesses an inquisitiveness and infectious joy in learning new things. It’s far more rewarding for a character like Bill to discover these things organically, rather than simply having them explained to her outright. In a way I think this relates back to the theme of childhood, because there’s something undeniably childlike about Bill’s approach to the world around her, and I mean that in the best possible way. Not immaturity or naivety, but the honesty and wisdom beyond years of a child, the ability to perceive the beauty and magic often overlooked by older, wearier eyes. The ability to hear the music, as it were. You could use such an analogy when describing why the Doctor’s companions are so important, why they make him a better man just as he brings out the best in them; they often recognize what he, worn by time and pain and unimaginable loss, cannot. I love seeing how happy Bill makes the Doctor, his admiration for that bright and brilliant light within her is written on his face.
TIBERE: I think the TARDIS’ translation matrix allows, in a way, a pretty political interpretation of the episode. It’s not hard to see the world of “The Eaters of Light” as one being dominated by systems and structures – there are beasts of legends, but they awaken in a clear pattern and are to be fought according to ancient rules. The children try to uphold the system that was left to them by their parents without really understanding it, and fail. The soldiers can’t escape the fact that they are part of the military (although, interestingly, much like in “Empress”, the soldiers that save the day are the one that deserted in the first place). But when you break the language barrier, you allow for a chance to go beyond the systems, a chance for true human-to-human interaction, that gives humankind a chance to elevate itself. Hell, you could pretty easily cook up a religion-driven interpretation of the episode – according to the Bible, all human beings once spoke the same language, and worked together to build the Tower of Babel and rise above the heavens, which angered God and led to the tongues being mixed. And there you get the true potential of the human race revealed again, thanks to a magician in a blue box, a fat robot and a black lesbian showing the way to a bunch of pagans. If that’s the intended meaning, it’s extremely tongue-in-cheek. But I love it.
RUTH: On that note, the young age of the Romans and Picts really plays into this. In fact, before the episode aired on BBC One there was a lovely little segment where pairs of children were asked to talk about how they were different from one another, but they saw no division by race or gender or disability which sadly pervades our cynical adult society. Not only was it incredibly heartwarming, but it actually lent to the messages of “The Eaters of Light”, working as a fitting prelude. The eldest soldier among the surviving Romans was only eighteen years old, called ‘Grandad’ by his fellows (as someone who’s been teasingly nicknamed ‘Gran’ for being the oldest member of my friend group, that hit me pretty hard), Kar, gatekeeper and leader of the remaining Picts, was herself just a teenager. But, as the aforementioned segment showed us, it is the capacity of the young, moreso perhaps than anyone else, to see and reach beyond the walls built between us.
SCRIBBLES: It reminds me of “The Pilot,” in a way. In that episode, the Doctor is the way out of the system for Bill, offering her a way from the working class into the university life. And here, he offers a way out of a militaristic system to true unity. The Doctor’s been shown as a figure that uplifts people from their lives before, that was a prominent thing with Rose in series 1. But series 10 is really making a case for the real world importance of the Doctor, isn’t it? It’s finally connecting him to concrete social dynamics and methods of resistance. The Doctor as the way out of the working class was done with Rose, but here we get it connected to the concrete reality of the education system, arguing for working plass people to get that kind of chance. In “Eaters of Light”, we have common communication as unity thanks to the TARDIS, and one could even read that as unity through viewing the same television program across the world. And, of course, “Extremis” argued that the Doctor doesn’t need to be real to make a difference, transmitting the message to never give up, to strive to be the Doctor, is in of itself is the power. In a time of political strain and toxic systems, Doctor Who is positioning itself as a counterpoint to and resource against it, and that’s really wonderful.
TIBERE: Although “The Eaters of Light” kind of positions the Doctor himself as part of a system, and not necessarily a positive one. He says he’s the one guarding the doors of our world, but his devotion to this mission blinds him to the actual, much better solution. And there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy going on, with him adamant about fulfilling this task, but not overtly concerned with guarding the Vault. It’s interesting to see how both the Doctor and Bill, over the course of the series, find themselves in places where they end up robbing other people of their agency – Bill did that to the Doctor in “Pyramid”, and the Doctor does that to the Picts and Romans in here.
SCRIBBLES: I suppose that’s the distinction, really. Doctor Who, the programme and the idealized role, are uplifting and transcendent, but the Doctor himself is flawed and hypocritical while striving for better. But still, there’s a degree of uplift in his presence, and Bill and Nardole are empowered by their experiences with him to make the choice they do without him here.
TIBERE: I guess that kind of leads us towards the final beat of the episode – the persistence of the music, and the way it impacts Missy.
RUTH: Gosh, there’s so much to deconstruct there.
TIBERE: Once again, I feel like the episode builds itself in direct opposition with “In the Forest of the Night”. In that one, the final beat was all about forgetting, implying that moving on and moving forwards is kind of an in-built survival mechanism for the human race; but here, the episode celebrates remembrance (oh, so very McCoy …) – it implies that there is a sort of deep, fundamental memory that exists within the structure of our world and of nature. The carvings on the stones, and the voice of the ravens (seriously, how good a set-up/pay-off was that …), they all have meaning – we can’t decipher it, but they have one. It’s a very comforting vision of the world, I find – the idea that a good deed is never forgotten, leaves a mark in the grand scheme of things. I’m pretty sure one could dig deeper and make ties with certain form of religion and spirituality, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to risk myself on that kind of terrain. And that’s kind of the message of the episode, in the end, I guess? Learn to hear the music of the world, engage with it spiritually, be curious like that little girl in the opener. And Who, with all its iconic sounds – the TARDIS noise, the buzzing of the Sonic, the theme tune … – is the gateway to this music; the gateway to “everything that ever was or ever can be”.
RUTH: This story really builds on the ending of Series 9 in particular, though it stretches across the whole of the Moffat era. Nothing is ever truly forgotten, memories can become stories, and stories can become songs, for when the wind stands fair, and always when you need it most, you will hear it. “Music’s funny like that” says the Doctor: we’re reminded of “Hell Bent“, or “The Pilot“. There’s a melody playing in the back of the mind, whispering something that can’t be fully explained or understood, only felt in the depths of one’s heart(s). Like you my mind goes again to the little girl on the hillside, enticed by the mythical stories about the cairn, who smiles as she listens to an immortal tune that logically-speaking shouldn’t exist. This scene unifies the themes of the episode wonderfully, which is no-doubt why it serves to bookend it. What is music if not the universal language? One that transcends time and nation and creed, like the Doctor and his TARDIS translation circuit? And it’s a child who is willing to open her heart and mind to hear it, to find the magic. I think you could make a very good case that this magic, of the kind sensed by children and rediscovered by grown-ups through story and song, is the fundamental soul of Doctor Who.
SCRIBBLES: I’m most inclined to approach it on a meta level. As the Capaldi era has explored before, stories become songs. This story becomes that song that persists, with carvings and images of the story and the TARDIS capturing it. And we get Missy, in essence, coming to watch and emote in response to a Doctor Who episode. It’s suggested she watched some of their adventures in the TARDIS during the adventure, sort of a distracted viewing state of Doctor Who, but didn’t really hear it, which is particularly effective given the cut scene and the viewer experience that Nardole was prepared for, with pajamas and popcorn. As for Missy, though, the Doctor teaches her to really understand and listen to a Doctor Who story, and she cries. In essence, the Doctor is training Missy to watch Doctor Who, in preparation for her to try out starring in it next week.
TIBERE: I really love that interpretation. In a way, it makes Missy into the shape of Doctor Who without its soul – like, Who is this anarchic vortex of chaos, constantly rewriting tropes and shifting genres and subverting stories. But what it does, at its best, is to tie this chaos with deep, moving human stakes and human truths – and that’s what makes the Doctor, as well. Missy? She does it just for the fun of it all. She’s cleverness and intelligence without purpose.
SCARVES: Or, as the Doctor puts it, Missy understands the universe, but doesn’t hear the Music. The Doctor, meanwhile, makes Murray Gold’s score diegetic, and plays it on his guitar.
SCRIBBLES: The heart of the story becomes the song. The Doctor’s learned that lesson, but Missy still has yet to. That’s powerful, and I hope is a theme we see paid off further. And, let’s not forget, the Master is already connected to a certain instrument, but of awfulness rather than beauty: the drums.
TIBERE: It’s interesting that Missy’s playing the piano in previous episodes. Feels like a conscious evolution – by trying to tame music (and not just rhythm), she attempts to engage with the show.
4) Final Thoughts
SCARVES: Well, after the show had a few quiet weeks for me post “Extremis” (at which point this was easily one of my favourite seasons), this was exactly what series ten needed to get me right back on the hype train. An episode that embraced the type of Doctor Who I love, and did that type of Doctor Who brilliantly. Much like “Thin Ice”, this was a quiet story elevated by how well it delivered on the smaller beats, and has successfully moved the characters into place for what I hope will be a barnstorming finale, that can see out an enjoyable season, and a wonderful era, with a bang.
RUTH: I said recently that I didn’t get as much of a sense of thematic cohesion or depth in this series as the past two, but after this story I must eat my words. It’s different from 8 or 9, certainly, yet it forms such a superb final act for the Twelfth Doctor and closing chapter for Steven Moffat. “The Eaters of Light” brought everything together I feel; I saw someone point out that it almost seems like an ode to both eras. Indeed, a Roman legion and standing stones on the crest of a hill call back to “The Pandorica Opens“, and to Amy and Rory themselves. The crows, close cousins of ravens, who likewise are surrounded by myth and symbolism, brings to mind Clara’s fate, and the fact that they remember the name of a brave young woman so that her legacy and sacrifice will live on, accompanied by the enduring power of music, cannot help but be reminiscent of the character and previous finale. That said, this story also belongs so much to Bill, and feels tailor-made for her. Overall, I don’t think I could have wished for a better episode of this nature. Rona Munro has crafted a masterpiece brimming with poetic elegance, thematic insight and a soulful understanding of the show. It’s one I can see myself watching over and over again, with each view yielding even greater meaning.
SCRIBBLES: Like “Survival“, I think this is an episode that leaves a lovely but low-key first impression and then sticks with you, gets under your skin, grows on you with the power of its themes and its imagery. My hope is, this will be remembered like “Vincent and the Doctor,” which I feel is probably the closest new series equivalent. A sleeper hit. I loved it from the off, of course. It’s evocative and wonderful and connects with me with awe and emotion, the way the best Doctor Who does. It’s the most the show has held me in its palm for every moment of the episode since “Extremis,” and I really am glad it’s adding its wonder to series 10 after a slightly rough and disillusioning patch. This has been a strong run, really, despite a couple rough patches. And, heck, looking back at series 9, which is beloved now, it had a fair few rough patches along the way, probably more prominent than this year’s. I look forward to revisiting this run of episodes, and this one most of all, up there with “Thin Ice” and “Extremis.” This is the kind of episode that just captures why I love Doctor Who and what I want the show to be.
TIBERE: Oh, it absolutely is a strong run. A wonderfully cohesive one, too – there’s a real identity to this series, and the themes are always present and always incredibly tight, even when the stories themselves are a bit lacklustre. Which they haven’t really been – “Lie of the Land” is a mess and “Knock Knock” could not exist and leave as much of an impact, but as you very justly said, at this point, series 9 had just as many wobbly episodes (“Before the Flood” is just bad, and “The Magician’s Apprentice”, the Zygon two-parter and “Sleep No More” are all various shades of messy). Even “The Woman who Lived”, which is a pretty fantastic story, has some major plotting issues.
SCRIBBLES: I was thinking the lake two-parter and the slightly wonky but loveable Woman Who Lived, myself. Though, of course, the Zygon story is tremendously divisive, but it’s the kind of divisive I think this show does sometimes need, even while I don’t love it all. And compare series 10, all we’ve got is a slightly undercooked one and a big arc piece that drops the ball, which I think comes down to much the same. That’s nothing unusual for Doctor Who. And when it’s hitting highs, rough patches can be forgiven. This week was a high, for me at least, and I think for all of us here today writing this. And all signs say what’s to come in the next two weeks will be, too. If it hits the finale as well as series 9 did, I think this series could go down as a great one. Not long now to see.
TIBERE: Really, it’s part of the contract when you’re a Who fan. There is going to be bad stories, or at least slightly underwhelming ones, in every single series – that’s just fact, that’s how the show rolls. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact when you’re onboard the hype train and heading right into the series (and I do that too, guilty as charged), admittedly, but it remains true.
SCARVES: I feel like it’s worth pointing out that “The Zygon Inversion” is frequently cited as one of New Who’s high points, in spite of the fair criticisms of it that also exist, as is “The Magician’s Apprentice/ The Witch’s Familiar” – rough patches in a season are incredibly subjective, and for much of fandom (myself included), series nine is very low on said rough points. But overall, I’d say the same for series ten – after a brief wobble in the middle, it seems to be back on course in a genuinely encouraging way.
TIBERE: I still don’t get the love for “The Zygon Inversion” and its oh so questionable politics … But anyway. “The Eaters of Light”. Well … This was sublime. Just, properly, straight-up sublime. I’d have a hard time arguing it’s better than some of the big episodes of the series and a half that came before it, but I’m still considering it my favourite story since 2014. It engages with this sort of wild, crazy lyricism that only Who can really bring – that abstract poetry that’s at the core of episodes like “Gridlock” or “Listen”; that thing that made me fall in love with the show in the first place. So maybe it’s a flawed episode. Maybe the pacing is not perfect (I wouldn’t call it bad, but it’s a tad weird, with a plot that move pretty fast but individual scenes that feel very slow). Maybe it doesn’t have the structural perfection of some other scripts. But I don’t care – there are scripts that just remind you why you love Who, and television, so much. This is one, and, watching it at a pretty low point for me, I felt so, so very good for a while. It was a priceless experience: watching it, I think I genuinely heard that music they were talking about for a moment.