5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE EATERS OF LIGHT
Urgh. This is the kind of episode we find hardest to review.
While it's never going to be mistaken for a Classic Who episode, nevertheless it's got a distinct Classic Who feel about it, no doubt enhanced by the return of Survival writer Rona Munro. And it ticks all the Doctor Who boxes, without a doubt. Monster. Timey-wimey spacey-wacey stuff. All of that. People who like that brand of Doctor Who would have liked this, and fair enough. But Doctor Who comes in lots of different shades, and this isn't one we enjoy. So we're not going to say it's objectively terrible. While parts of it are demonstrably bad, the rest is probably just a matter of taste. OK? OK.
Rona Munro takes a historical mystery, the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, and slots it into the Whoniverse. We used the word "historical" back there advisedly, because on the face of it The Eaters Of Light is a historical, given that it's set in Ye Olde Timez. That's where any resemblance to history stops, however, and that's one of the things we found maddening about this episode. Artistic licence is one thing but, in the manner of a lot of modern Doctor Who, The Eaters Of Light takes it way too far.
Picty Girl says that before the Romans came, they lived in peace. Well, maybe on their three square metres of hillside, but otherwise, the Picts? Peaceful? Hahahahaha! They were awfully good at repelling the Romans for a people who normally sit round knitting.
Roman Leader Boy repeatedly addresses the other soldiers as centurions. Huh? Centurions were officers: the grunts were legionaries.
The Romans treat Bill pretty much as an equal and end up doing what she says. Sure, she's speaking Latin as far as they're concerned, which would have raised her status, but let's face it, the Roman civilisation was hardly feminist. Highly unlikely.
The Doctor refers to both the Romans and the Picts as children as they're in their late teens, and they don't object. This makes zero sense in a historical context. In Rome military age started at sixteen and girls were considered old enough to marry at fourteen. We don't know as much about the Picts, but there's no reason to think it wasn't similar.
How we loathe it when Doctor Who grafts modern attitudes onto history. Why bother with historicals at all? They even prove in their own writing how dumb this is when Bill assumes the Romans would never have heard of homosexuality, only to be swiftly corrected. Gah.
So. Picts, Romans, standing stones. We love the idea of using standing stones in Doctor Who: personally, we think they're crying out for a Sapphire and Steely sort of time and space-bendy, shadowy, loomy kinda treatment, with a numinous foe positively reeking with nameless dread. Instead, what do we get? Party squid.
The squid on their own wouldn't be so bad: after all, Doctor Who has a proud tradition of rubbish monsters. But what they do with them is totally shambolic. This kind of plotting, vague, silly and laced with more holes than, er, lace, is utterly contemptuous of the audience.
Right, let's see if we can figure it out. The squid feed on light. Uh-huh, yup, got it. So they attack humans. Because….come on, we can't fall at the first hurdle. The soldier the Doctor finds has had its bones disintegrated "because of total absence of sunlight". Aha! Bones do deteriorate without light, because light is needed to create vitamin D. Maybe this plot makes sense after all. But wait! Yes, we know the Doctor says this usually takes a long time, but given that that's not the case there, what exactly are the squid slurping up? It's not the bones. It's not vitamin D. Nor is it light, because the human race is fresh out of internal torches. We're stumped. What's more, why is it attacking humans at all? If it eats light, why doesn't it just…eat light?
Meanwhile, Bill faints when she gets squid ink on her. When she comes to, it's gone. The soldier's talking about how they have to move into the sunlight to burn off the squid ink, but Bill's is burnt off by being next to the fire. They don't seem to have been dragging her outside and in again, as he's talking about going outside as if it's a new thing, so ???
Back with the Picts, Kar says the beast will die soon because it's weak. Say what? If it feeds on light and it's been romping around in the sunshine (such as Scotland can muster), why would it be weak? But wait, she has an explanation for this. Although she thought it would destroy the army, she also thought the army would weaken it. By…feeding…it…no, lost us there.
The Doctor waves the ping-pong paddle and asks what it does. They tell him it poisons the light, and he says it has optical cancellation properties, which hardly seems to add much to the discussion. The Romans attempt to sneak past the squid, with mixed success, and the Doctor manages to repel this terrifying, all-powerful entity by putting down a flimsy little wooden trapdoor. The inadequacy of this defence, of course, has not escaped our brilliant hero, who plonks a small pebble on the trapdoor and calls it a day. (To be fair, a couple of his henchmen then bring over a slightly bigger rock. Still, so what?)
Then the Doctor announces that the squid homes in on sound, a conclusion that seems entirely plucked out of the ether. The squid, now looking more like a first draft dragon from Game Of Thrones, galumphs up and the Doctor ping-pongs it into submission. Sorted.
Or is it? The Picts have had their system running successfully for yonks, but the Doctor wants to intervene. Humans just aren't good enough: they need a Time Lord to slam the gate shut every time it opens. Everyone behaves as if this is an utterly ridiculous idea, but is it? Is it really? If something goes wrong with the Picts' system, these things are going to devour the entire universe's suns, so flushing the Doctor's offer down the tubes is a bit on the hasty side if you ask us. As for Bill instructing the Doctor on how it isn't his destinee, well, excuse us, but how the hell would she know? Awfully quick, too, isn't she, to thrust the others forward into the portal? Why is it their problem any more than hers just because it happens to be in their time?
And about that sun-devouring bit - again, don't these creatures eat not rock, but light? You can't yank light out of a sun any faster than it's putting it out, so how exactly, will they be "eating" the sun?
And just when you think it's all over, the roof starts falling in. To deal with this, they block off the entrance. Didn't they say they needed to regularly vent the portal to stop it blowing up? What's more, they seem to be assuming that sending several people through the gate will be enough to hold it until the end of time. Why? How? Oh, never mind.
So the plot could use some work. But the characterisation's off, too: we normally like Bill, but here we found her insistence that she knew better than the Doctor because she's read a (single) book and written a (single) essay teeth-grittingly annoying. We're also getting tired of her treating every new situation as some kind of panto existing only for her amusement. Not to mention her lecturing the Romans on the evils of imperialism (see above about forcing modern mores on other time periods) and bossing the Doctor around about guarding the gate.
As for the Doctor, he's excessively nasty to Kar, putting down her culture ("kiddy face paint"), jeering at her, and loading the fate of the universe onto her shoulders when she couldn't have had any way of knowing what she was unleashing. Moreover, his telling both the Picts and the Romans to grow up seems remarkably unfair given that both groups are doing their best to play the hand that fate has dealt them. Being at daggers drawn when someone appears who's previously tried to kill you is hardly immature. All of this seems far more like this Doctor as we first knew him, although even then we think it's taken too far. Even so, he has his moments. We love his expression as he surveys the field of slaughtered Roman soldiers and his delivery of "not always fun to be right".
The other characters do a good enough job with some unpromising material. Nardole is completely thrown away. Kar in particular does some great lip-biting in the face of the Doctor's criticism and tear-welling as she prepares to leave her brother. The rest, both Roman and Pict, are largely interchangeable.
So there you go. It's not terrible Doctor Who, but it's just not interesting enough.
Until we go back in the TARDIS. Which is something else again. As soon as we saw Missy, we all sat up straighter. The rest of the scene is intoxicatingly good, and the last part, the two-hander, is completely electric. It's those moments when you can see just how astonishing this Doctor could have been, given half a chance and consistently better writing. If you hire an actor who can do these things, why for the love of God would you not endlessly give him those things to do? Sigh.
THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT
Bill's clearly intelligent, so why is this the first time it's ever occurred to her that the whole universe probably doesn't speak English?
There are a few lovely lines in here. "Burning huts, slaughtered locals, sweetie wrappers…" "This is worse than jazz!"
THE TWIN DILEMMA
It's really odd that they put this episode right next to The Empress of Mars, given that both involve cowardice and two warring groups being forced to work together.