"The Eaters of Light" is, at its simplest, a story of a monster threatening a village with an inter-dimensional rift and Picts and Romans thrown in. The background is the famous disappearance of the Ninth legion – generations of children in Britain and elsewhere read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth, as Bill did and the mystery has intrigued many before then. The story of how the Doctor, Bill and Nardole help the Picts join forces with the Romans is not surprising in its broad strokes, but we are dealing with a writer of subtlety and intelligence and the devil is in the details. The ‘gift of the TARDIS’ is explored more fully than it has ever been before, where the Picts and Romans are suddenly able to understand each other, and see each other as people. The story explores concepts of folk memories and oral histories and turns a typical Doctor Who joke (crows being in a huff and not talking any more) to something genuinely moving. The Picts and Romans are given understandable motivations which make their actions seem natural. The guest cast form a very capable ensemble with Rebecca Benson standing out as Kar.
The team of writers that Andrew Cartmel discovered in the final era of the Doctor Who’s original incarnation were bursting with talent and the one who has gone on to the most acclaimed career is Rona Munro and so, after 12 years, a writer from 20th Century Doctor Who has returned to pen a new tale; perhaps fittingly it is the one who penned the swansong. Munro clearly has her own ideas on who the Doctor is – he is keen to help, to sacrifice himself, even, but he has no patience for blind hostility and self-pity. Peter Capaldi excels when portraying this interpretation and his backup is well up to the challenge. Charles Palmer comes back to helm a very assured production, dripping with atmosphere. In the very best way, the feel is like a first rate BBC children’s drama – only the scene about Roman sexual orientations would look out of place in one, and perhaps not even that. The monster attacks are genuinely disorienting and the Doctor’s trick with the popcorn utterly joyous. It goes without saying that the march of Kar and the remains of the Ninth into the portal is genuinely moving. The production is flawless, with Munro’s evocative use of Pictish monument carvings forming an integral visual aspect of the story. Note also, that the Roman costumes are not recycled from "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang".
"The Eaters of Light" just shows what a brilliant writer can do with a few bullet points for a brief and is a story that will surely reward repeat viewings. There is not one ounce of fat in the story, but that is because it takes up less than 40 minutes. We conclude with a remarkable coda with Missy and the Doctor perhaps realising that their relationship will change in the future. But, as we all know, the past will catch up before then…
NEXT: "World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls"