One of the most enjoyable features of Doctor Who’s tenth series has been the old-school vibe brought to many of its episodes – see last week’s 60s-tinged Empress of Mars. It feels fitting, then, that the final standalone adventure of the Capaldi – not to mention Moffat – era should welcome the return of ‘classic’ Who writer Rona Munro, who penned the final episode of the original series. It turns out to be a mixed blessing, however. Though it possesses some intriguing mysteries, breathtaking visuals and a promising monster, The Eaters of Light lacks much of the high stakes energy we’ve come to expect of modern Who and it feels lacklustre as a result.
This week’s reason for the Doctor abandoning his guard of Missy’s vault is the need to settle a history-based spat with Bill. Both have their own theories as to what really happened to the Roman Ninth Legion, who historically disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and so they naturally hop in the TARDIS for a quick trip to second century Scotland to find out who is right. Of course, it’s not long before the time-travelling team find themselves getting involved in the usual interdimensional scrapes. As the Doctor and Nardole find themselves captured by a tribe of hostile Pictish warriors, Bill falls down yet another hole and uncovers a band of surviving Roman soldiers who are hiding from a strange creature that only comes out at night.
On the surface, at least, the Eaters of Light has all the makings of an entertaining Who episode. It’s a fun, light-hearted and slightly-strange adventure, featuring an enticing conundrum that blends folkloric mysticism with a timey-wimey plot device (the story revolves around a set of Cairn stones that encase a temporal rift). There’s also plenty of sweeping landscapes, with director Charles Palmer (Oxygen) making excellent use of real locations as opposed to the creaky set work we suffered through last week. The themes, too, will be strongly strongly evocative for fans: the futility of battle, the power of fear, and the benefits of working together for a greater good.
The only trouble is, the story doesn’t pull you to the edge of your seat and get under your skin in the way it should. As with many episodes this series, the Eaters of Light is more than happy to take its time, allowing the mystery to unfold gradually while it digs deeper into the lives of its main characters. The difference this time is that the characters are not particularly interesting. Bill, the Doctor and Nardole aren’t asked to do much beyond their usual roles – although Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas do get to exchange some superb banter, mostly at the expense of the Highland setting (“It’s Scotland, it’s supposed to be damp!”).
Meanwhile, newcomers Rebecca Benson and Brian Vernel don’t fair much better, with the latter’s Roman solider Lucius only required to pointlessly lust after Bill in another needless reminder of her sexual preference. Benson, in particular, feels like a missed opportunity. Her character Kar, the spirited leader of a Pictish tribe, is put at the centre of an interesting moral quandary, having allowed the monster out of the rift in the hope it would kill the advancing Roman army and save her people. Yet this plot point feels completely underfed because Munro never explores the pressures Kar feels in trying to protect her people or the guilt that is caused by instigating the monster’s mass slaughter.
Apart from a few instances of people poking pointy objects at each other, the episode is also lacking in action to help move the plot along, and it drags as a result. Part of the problem is that the monster is barely a part of the action. A glow in the dark dragon with sentient tentacles, the monster has an impressive, and no doubt expensive, CGI realisation, which perhaps explains its long absences from proceedings. That leaves it feeling somewhat peripheral to the plot, however, and severely diminishes its impact as an enemy to the human race, especially given its motivation seems sketchy at best (apparently it needs to kill all humans so that it can eat stars, or something). Without this basic threat level, there’s a noticeable lack of tension in the plot which is desperately needed to propel proceedings forward.
Overall, the Eaters of Light offers some intriguing concepts, beautiful exteriors and a few fun character exchanges to enjoy, but it suffers due to an undercooked script that would’ve been greatly aided by fleshing out it’s core characters. Instead, it remains a solid but unspectacular episode that will be swiftly forgotten come the first instalment of series 10’s two-part finale next week.