Saturday, 24 June 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-10 "The Eaters of Light"

I can't help but feel a little sorry for Rona Munro. Not too sorry for her - she's an award-winning, critically lauded playwright enjoying huge success in theatre, after all. Her Doctor Who credits, though, seem cursed to suffer ignominious fates. Her first story, Survival, was fated to be the last Doctor Who story of the original run. It wasn't meant to be - it was recorded third to last - but it was broadcast at the end of the 1989 season and as such has been tarred by the reputation of the story that ended the series. Twenty-eight years later, Monro becomes the first classic series writer to return to write for the new series, and her episode gets the lowest overnight ratings in the series' history. I think that people are making a bit too much about the ratings of the show - they have gone downhill, but then, BBC ratings have been dropping across the board. The new singsong show, Pitch Battle, which followed right afterwards got even less. Still, it's a kick in the teeth for Munro, which is a great shame, because both of her Doctor Who scripts are rather excellent.

The Eaters of Light is quite an old-fashioned script, which isn't too surprising. A historical mystery that turns out to be down to an alien life form, the Doctor and his companions getting split up, some heroic sacrifice and there you are. A nice, straightforward adventure. It also features some nice, strong characterisation and a potent anti-imperial. anti-war message. It's arguable that following Empress of Mars with this story was poor scheduling, but it also follows through on a strong thematic storyline that explores cowardice, readiness for war, and imperialism. The surviving members of the Spanish Ninth Legion are the ones who ran away in fear; the courageous soldiers all died. Of course, they all come good in the end, sacrificing themselves to protect the Earth. On the other side, we have Kar, whose fear provoked her to unleash the Beast against the Legion.

The characterisation of the regulars is a little off. Not Nardole - he's spot on, ingratiating himself with the proto-Picts and looking happy enough to settle down and learn "Scotch." Bill, on the other hand, has caught the same weird obsession with the Romans that both Amy and Clara had, something that seems to exist purely to give some reason to explore the mystery of the Ninth Legion. It's hardly like they need a reason to be there, beyond the Doctor fancying this period of history today. It's also a slightly odd moment when Bill realises that the TARDIS is translating for her. Both Rose and Donna had that scene, but at their first opportunity, not ten episodes in. It's very in character, though, that she immediately then realises it's a telepathic field, sci-fi savvy as usual. (The lip-sync line is great as well.) The Doctor seems to have regressed to his season eight persona, all Tucker-ish aggression and criticism. He's viciously dismissive of "brave people£ and is apparently "against charm." (It'd be fun to see Twelve opposite Ten someday - his earlier self would wind him the hell up.)

There's some intriguing characterisation for the Doctor, who seems thoroughly besotted with the Roman Empire. Only recently he was expounding the value of their imperial rule, and here he glibly raves about the indoor toilets to a young woman whose people were almost exterminated by the Romans. I do love his quiet acknowledgment that everyone in the universe looks like children.

The science of the episode is pretty flimsy, but then, this isn't a scientific episode. This is pure fairy tale, with the Beast's dimension being very clearly fairyland, right down to the differences in the passage of time on each side. The fate of the soldiers, reduced to bog bodies by the creature sucking the light out of them, is grim, but makes no sense scientifically. People's bones don't stay strong because they contain sunlight, they stay strong because the UV part of sunlight provides the activation energy for a chemical reaction within the skin that produces the needed vitamin D. As a storytelling device, though, it makes perfect sense; it just needs to be approached with a sort of child-like logic. Oddly enough, most viewers seem to have more of a problem with the use of light to hurt the Beast, but this makes more sense. The Doctor suggests the devices have optical cancellation properties, and the Picts say it poisons the light. Presumably, they remove the wavelengths of light that the creature needs to survive (UV, frequencies, I'm guessing), leaving only wavelengths toxic to it, rather like filtering out all the oxygen from air, leaving only nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

It's a sign of how far television has come that Munro can now have a casual discussion of homosexuality, instead of making sly references to lesbianism like she had to with Survival. I love the frank Roman acceptance of bisexuality, and Bill's surprise at the ease at which it is accepted. It's a timely reminder that cultural attitudes can vary wildly over time and location.

In spite of the slight old-fashionedness of the story, it kicks along at a fair pace, and is all wrapped up by about thirty-five minutes in. After this, there's the final scene, which exists as a set-up for the grand finale (which is just about to begin as I write this). I don't know if the scene was written by Munro, Moffat or both, but it's a far stronger characterisation of Missy than we've seen so far this season, and for once, I can believe that she might actually be able to change. As this is my last chance to speculate, I can't help but think of the Alastair Reynolds novel Harvest of Time, which posited that the Master's own existence through time was bearing down on him. Separated from the influence of his other selves, the Master was capable of acting out of goodness. I wonder if we are going to see something similar to this when John Simm's Master returns. Finally, the Doctor says that Missy needs to learn to hear the music. I think that the music have been the problem in the first place.

Stray thoughts: 

Nardole tells the Picts the true story of what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. Apparently they were eaten by the Enzomodans, who communicate by digesting people. We probably shouldn't believe everything Nardole says though - 1965's The Chase told us the real story: the Daleks did it.

Kar is the Gatekeeper. I am not clear on who the Keymaster is. The Easter of Light is clearly the Terror Dog though.

So, the Doctor was a vestal virgin, second class? Was he not able to become first class because he's a man, or because he's not a virgin? Or is there something we don't know about the Doctor's past? Is this another hint that he was once female?

As far as I know, crows can't talk, but ravens sure can.

Best line:

"Complete and total absence of any kind of sunlight."

"Death by Scotland."

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