Sunday, 18 June 2017

Light Entertainment

Doctor Who
The Eaters Of Light
Series Ten, Episode Ten

This episode is brought to you by Rona Munro.  Rona Munro!  Okay, so the only things I know about her are a) she’s Scottish and b) she wrote Survival, the last ever Classic Who story transmitted.  But I’m still excited.  Not only is she the writer who inadvertently saw out the old show (in style – Survival’s great), she’s also the first Ye Olde writer to return to Doctor Who since it came back.  (Meanwhile Mark Gatiss has written for it nine times.  Answer the door and let that sink in.)

It’s exciting because there’s a chance for something different.  That’s entirely self-driven hype and not Rona Munro’s fault, by the way: she hasn’t promised to reinvent Doctor Who or anything.  But I still went into this one hoping for a different flavour.  The title also suggests a story that’s somehow intangible, and maybe not as by-the-numbers as we’re used to.  Ah well, cancel the drumroll: The Eaters Of Light is pretty much like most other New Who, same sort of good bits, same sort of bad.  And fair enough: the average, oblivious, not-daftly-self-hyped viewer wouldn’t be the least surprised.

Average, oblivious, not-daftly-self-hyped viewer:
"Oh look, talking crows.  I am unsurprised."
The Doctor and Bill disagree about history.  (She read a book once and got an A* on an essay; the Doctor is a 2,000 year old time traveller.  No offence, but I think most of us are betting on angry-eyebrows.)  Bill believes the Roman Ninth Legion left Pictish Scotland in one piece, the Doctor thinks they all died.  Turns out they’re both sort of right, as an unknown horror from beyond space™ was unleashed by the Picts to devour the invading Romans.  A few Romans escaped.  They will need to work together to defeat the beastie.

I didn’t mean to scoop the entire plot into a couple of sentences, but… damn, there it is.  Of twists and turns, there are decidedly few.  So let’s talk about the people in it.

The Picts are mostly children now, as their parents and families were slaughtered by the Romans.  One of them (the “Gatekeeper”) has the dubious honour of keeping the Eater Of Light at bay.  One of these dog-like creatures arrives every 60-70 years and one warrior is chosen to stop it.  The latest, Kar, sees the Romans advancing and figures she has a secret weapon, so she lets it out, but the Eater can’t be stopped.  It eats the light from people, although we don’t generate light so… yeah, I don’t really know what it’s eating, but it sounds cool.  Rebecca Benson is wonderfully intense as Kar, particularly when she needs to make a heroic sacrifice at the end and says goodbye to her brother, wet eyed and just awkwardly hopping from foot to foot.

The Romans are mostly children too, as their commanding officers are all beast-kibble.  They’re a fairly charming lot and it’s not their fault their job is to show up and quash uncooperative Picts; they did run away.  There’s also an amusing scene where Bill rebuffs an advance by saying she’s gay, and quickly realises how quaint that sounds to Ancient Romans.  (Okay, this is inevitably a bit forced, as Bill quite often seems to correct people about her orientation.  Some kinds of Who fans are outraged by the gay thing full stop, so mentioning it again here is probably going to cause rage fits.  Poor things.  I think the scene works because of the rejoinder offered by the Romans.  If you’re mad that Bill keeps bringing it up, by all means try to figure out how else to represent gay people on TV when they’re not dating, and write to the BBC.)

There isn’t much else going on except Romans (avec Bill) and Picts (plus the Doctor and Nardole) surviving the beast, then meeting up and figuring out a way to stop it.  The monster isn’t much to write home about either: it looks like something from Avatar, a.k.a. a big dog with random tentacles on its face.  It’s a properly monsterish monster so it doesn’t speak, meaning it’s up to everybody else to figure it out and talk about it, which they do at length, the Romans in a cave and the Picts in their huts.  The monster seems happy enough to gambol about outside and wait, apparently doing stuff like recharging in the daylight (unseen) and causing the days to get darker (hard to tell from a production standpoint).  It’s not a very otherworldly menace, which sells that interesting title short.  It could just as easily be a panther that feeds on all the water in our bodies, or a llama that eats limbs.  Either way, it’s just a thing on the rampage.  The Doctor and everybody else furiously (and at times unconvincingly) join the dots about what it wants and how to stop it.  They tend to luck out.

Peter Capaldi is enjoyably (if excessively?) abrasive towards the Picts, encouraging them to “grow up” and fight the beast; he has some of his most crotchety moments since Series Eight here, loudly moaning about his lack of patience and mocking Kar for fighting the beast on her own.  There’s some nice “Grow up and work together!” stuff with the Romans and Picts; his Doctor has played that drum before, and he’s good at it.  He does get a bit nicer towards the end when it comes to his (bizarre) plan to save the day.  More anon.

Bill's argument is "Where are all the bodies?"
Um.  Tada.
Bill apparently hasn’t noticed the TARDIS language translator until now, but to her credit she figures it out by herself; an aptness for sci-fi is one of the things I like about her and I’m happy to see that in action again.  The whole plot starts because she’s confident about what she knows, which is lovely.  It’s still not a brilliant story for her, although Munro deftly has her sudden “TARDIS translator” realisation work for the plot, uniting Picts and Romans.  (Mind you, up to now thats not how the translator works.  You don’t just pick it up, you need to travel through time.)  Besides that she’s just chummy with the Romans, and briefly gets infected with “beast slime”.  (This is mentioned a few times but doesn’t seem to inconvenience her.  She faints once and completely recovers with a bit of sun.)  Meanwhile, Nardole does what he always does: hopefully raise a smile on the sidelines.  Shrug.  Not exactly vital, is he?

The episode’s so economical (and short – 42 minutes with Next Time trailer) it’s hard to find things to get excited about, or even say about it.  Oh no, the Doctor is missing for days, because time moves faster inside the gate!  Oh well, Nardole and co. waited outside.  Oh no, the Doctor has lost Bill!  Never mind, she finds her way back.  Oh no, Bill’s got beast slime on her!  Open a window, bob’s your uncle.  Oh no, we need to defeat the beast!  Well… the Picts have been managing that for centuries, how hard can it be?  Cue the resolution, and open a can of hmmmm.

The Picts send somebody in every 60-70 years (outside time), arm them with a magic-rock-magnifying-glass (no idea how they came up with those or where the Doctor gets loads more from at the end), and use “poisoned” light to force the beast back inside.  This evidently works, but the Doctor decides he’ll need to stay behind and keep the beasts out for all eternity, as he’ll live long enough to do so.  But if the Picts are happy to keep sending people in at each interval, and they’re handy enough to repel the beasts each time, why not just keep doing that?  Why does the Doctor, or anyone need to stay in there full-time?  Couldn’t he stop by every 60 years with his magic rock?  What difference, really, does the time difference make to all this?

Nevertheless he is absolutely bloody adamant about this, and the Picts and Romans have to gang up to stop him.  In his place, they then march inside the portal – to do what, though?  Inside there are countless Eaters of Light swimming around in… space?  Water?  Space-water?  Is there an atmosphere?  There’s nothing to say humans could live inside there, let alone give any beasties what for.  Later, the Doctor refers to them as if they’re still fighting in slow-time.  That’s a guess, and much good it’ll do Scotland or the world: 60 years is still going to mean about a week in blue goo for them, and the portal’s still going to open again on schedule next time.

Or is it?  As the Picts and Romans march inside (together; ah, bless), rocks start falling all over the place.  Then it’s left to Nardole – Nardole! – to explain that too many people have gone through it now and the place is “unstable”.  We hastily cut to outside the cairn, and they’re sealing it up with rocks.  So is it closed for good now?  The cairn is gone when we cut to the present day in the scenes bookending the episode, so… probably?  Honestly, it’d be much simpler if somebody guessed that sending too many people through would close the portal and sort everything out and that was the plan; it would mean a group sacrificing themselves, but it would lead to exactly the same ending.  Okay, there isn’t any information to support it, but Nardole quite happily guesses that’s what happened anyway, just as the Doctor decides that the monsters will break out en masse and eat the sun, and that the beast “homes in on sound”, based on absolutely sod all.  One more stab in the dark wouldn’t hurt.  As it is, the solution to the problem comes by complete serendipity, and is barely remarked upon.  And come to think of it, why the hell isn’t darkness considered as a form of defence?

Despite the wealth of irritating leftover questions, the episode bumbles along quite amiably.  It’s directed by one of Doctor Who’s more creative hands, Charles Palmer, but the setting isn’t as varied as Human Nature, nor the story as kinetic as Smith & Jones, so there’s not much to wring out of it.  (Even so, the monster could do with more than just “blue-screen monster vision” and trundling unflatteringly towards us in long shot.)  There are plenty of natty moments, like the Doctor using exploding popcorn to escape the Picts, and there are bits I don’t much like that others might.  Crows can apparently talk, mankind just forgot how to listen, so they’re all just sulking.  Which is very… shmoo.  (Except it then turns out the birds are still talking to us, but they’re saying “Kar” over and over.  Really?  Not a lot of interesting developments in crow world, are there?)

At last, Missy hears the magic Pict music that transcends time.
She is moved.  Which is more than I was.  It's like a bloody ringtone.
Bizarrely (but, y’know, second week running), the best bit of the episode is the bit with Missy in.  After Nardole laboriously and pointlessly tells the Doctor he needs to get back to the Vault – and yeah, hang on, about that?  They’re in a time machine.  They can arrive the minute they left.  Nardole knows this, they all do.  And even when the Doctor’s on Earth, he’s hardly ever sat outside the damn Vault anyway.  And last week – oh, this bit’s annoying – last bloody week it was Nardole who let Missy out of the Vault to save everyone.  And now he’s moaning at the Doctor to get back to work!  Unbelievable.  Anyway: once Nardole and Bill are finished whingeing at the Doctor to get back – no, really, what’s the rush?  Haven’t we established Missy isn’t in there because of teh homicides, but because of a cheeky loophole to avoid killing her?  What’s the point in the Vault any more?  She’s been out now, so any 1,000-year rule is broken.  If there’s an alarm to alert those assassin people, who presumably all this is for, it must have gone off by now.

Look, give over, will you?  Right.  Once Nardole and Bill shut the hell up about the Vault, it turns out the Doctor let her out and is keeping her on staff in the TARDIS.  She can’t get out because she’s bio-locked out of the controls – except hang on, didn’t she pilot it last week?  That’s why he let her out again!  GOD DAMN IT.  What I’m trying to say is, Michelle Gomez is fabulous here, relishing the unease from Nardole and Bill and then, privately with the Doctor, weeping at the thought of those dead Picts.  Yes, I know: this is Steven Moffat (via proxy) asking us to believe the Master might finally turn good.  Just as we were asked to believe the Doctor might die, or might not be a good man, or might reveal his name.  Yeah but this time?  Do me a favour.  No one further up the evolutionary chain than an amoeba should seriously entertain this, but Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi still make it bloody gripping to watch.  That’s practically alchemy, and I’m a bit in awe.

Let’s face it, that stuff’s probably written by Moffat anyway, so: back to The Eaters Of Light.  It’s… harmless.  It’s nice to have a historical episode without a famous person in it, and focusing on a bit of history I’m not too familiar with.  Still, it’s not like I learned anything: this is definitely history of the For Dummies variety, and my heart sank a bit when the Doctor pronounced that the threat was really “alien”, like that’s in any way unusual.  I’d love an episode that shook off some of those constraints, and either had something properly weird happening or just dropped us in history and let, y’know, stories happen.  But they’re not going to rock the boat this close to the end and Rona Munro isn’t magic, so I probably shouldn’t look at it through that lens.  It isn’t going to massively remind you of the Classic series and it won’t exactly rescue the New one.  Yet again, it’s fine, itll do.

NB: A quick word on spoilers.  That word is urgh.  I know the BBC are desperate to get bums on seats, and also to out-fox the spoiler bastards on the internet, and have already ruined this in general, but did they have to put both finale villains in the Next Time trailer?  Yes, we all know they’ll show up eventually, in the last episode at least, but couldn’t we have a little suspension of disbelief in tact?  How good can an episode be when you know, a week in advance, you’ll have to act surprised?


  1. This could have been quite magical but suffered from a potentially kinetic plot being reduced (again after last week) to too much talking in caves (and huts). There was a blurring of day and night as a consequence of being indoors so much and given the importance of light and dark to the creature, it led to confusion and blunting of the tension. No doubt too many exterior shots couldn't have been afforded notwithstanding the stunning scenery. I found Bill unusually daft (the excellent reasoning about translation aside), the Doctor ridiculously gruff and condescending, even rude in the beginning encounters with Kar and her group and Nardole relentlessly unfunny and still making me query his role now that the whole oath/vault nonsense has been discarded.

    With some more ruthless editing and refinement of the script and more focus on the wonderful sense of place this should have had a really lovely episode as the basic ideas are sound. It feels to me like another episode where limited effort has been given to consistency of tone and characterisation across the series, a sense of momentum and a thorough cleaning up of the saggy bits of the script. Obviously the Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi bits are going to be excellent but gosh this whole vault garbage has been the most tedious way to bring Missy back into the plot. It also means the length of each core episode has had to be pared back to accommodate it and also find some plot string with which to tie it in.

    No doubt next week will be the genius Moffat episode reviewers have been hinting at with it already being acclaimed as perfect, phenomenal, extraordinary, greatest since 2005 etc to lift a few quotes. I am sure it will be all those but for me anyway, it will have been at the expense of the rest of the series (and other authors) being allowed to breathe and probably largely unearned by these characters as so few episodes have given us any kind of logical character development or journey, Missy excepted, but even then I fear any interrogation by Missy of whether she is a good person will be thrown away for the benefit of broad winking at us, some very clever dialogue and loads of meta fanpleasing.

    Shrug. I guess the sheer 'can't give a stuff to make this as good as we can, so let's rely on Peter's acting prowess, Pearl being adored by the camera and Michelle going bats**t crazy to wing it' attitude has finally beaten me down.

  2. Have to say I'm surprised - the way you represent gay people on TV when they're not dating is of course the same way you represent heterosexual people on TV when they're not dating. But I'm not sure how you feel about this.

    1. Is it the same?

      Yes, a gay character should have the same opportunities and adventures as a straight one, but if they don't actually mention it then does it make any difference? It'd be like making a character a vegan and never making them think about dinner. Not so much representation as a footnote. The point here is to say to gay viewers, here you are, it's a level playing field.

      As long as characters are assumed to be heterosexual, which they generally are, it's a bit necessary to make a point that some characters aren't. If they're not dating, and you're not dealing with something like prose, it's trickier to elucidate that - you end up just bringing it up occasionally. Which is what we've got with Bill. That annoys some people, which is what I'm referring to.

  3. We thought the As You Know, Bob, I'm Gay scene clunked like a big clunky thing up until the lovely line where the soldier says he likes better looking men than Lucius, which was genuinely funny, nicely delivered, and the first time the scene sounded natural. We appreciate what they're trying to do, but it would be nice if it didn't sound so forced. And if we weren't grinding our teeth at how ahistorical it was (the treating Bill so well, not the gayness).

    This is the kind of episode that makes us question just what it is we like about DW. This has all the requisite components, but we were bored until Missy showed up.

    We read somewhere that Chibnall plans on using the stable of writers he used on Broadchurch, so you may well be right about seeing the back of Gatiss. If this is really true, though, WTF? You can't just chuck mainstream writers at science fiction and hope it turns out all right.

    1. I do feel a bit... dirty for thinking Missy was the best bit in this. I've hated Missy in the past, or the writing of her. (Still miffed she needed a special female name.) We all know this will end like a dropped blancmange, and yet... she's that good.

      Is it confirmed that the Broadchurch Bunch have no idea about sci-fi? That would stink, of course. Then again look who'd be leading them: knows a lot about Doctor Who, and in a just universe would be mopping the floor of the DW Experience. Every time I get bored or annoyed with Who, I look to the future. Egad.