Doctor Who season 10 continues with a historical adventure whose plot doesn’t make much sense. But great character work means that doesn’t matter at all.
Generally, when it comes to modern-day Doctor Who fans, they break down into two types. There are those who prefer current showrunner Steven Moffat’s aggressively plotted, super complicated tales. They love the clever twists, hidden clues, and callbacks to things from three episodes prior. And there are those who miss the more character-driven era of Russell T. Davies. Davies, for his part, told messy stories featuring plot holes or resolutions that didn’t make much sense. But his work prominently featured strong supporting characters alongside the Doctor and his companions. These secondary figures had their own interesting histories and personalities, and could win or break your heart in forty minutes or less. In these episodes, the focus wasn’t on the story so much as on the people in it.
Season 10’s “The Eaters of Light” certainly skews much more heavily to the Davies-era style of storytelling than the Moffat one. So how you feel about it may come down to how you define what type of story you want to hear. Because if we’re being strictly technical, “The Eaters of Light” isn’t that great. The episode’s central mystery boils down to a monster-of-the-week plot, and its resolution is just this side of nonsensical. (I’ve watched it twice, and I still don’t understand how it works in at least two different places.) But, honestly, it doesn’t matter that much. Because the story of the trans-dimensional monsters who gobble up light isn’t really the point of the episode. It’s the people in it that matter.
"Kar: The Romans’ work is robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do this work and call it empire. They make deserts and call it peace."
Filling in the gaps in a historical tale
This week, Doctor Who deploys one of its best storytelling tricks. It takes a tale that we sort of know – a story based in actual historical fact – and fills in some of the gaps that we don’t know around it. The Ninth Roman Legion was real. And it did disappear from the historical record somewhere around 120 AD. No one knows what happened to it, for sure. There are several theories, most of which involve the Ninth getting wiped out by various armies, either in Britain or some other theater. But they’re all just that – theories.
“The Eaters of Light” kicks off with Twelve, Bill and Nardole arriving in 2nd century Scotland to try and solve this mystery for good. (Apparently, Bill is rather obsessed, and the two have competing ideas about what happened.) They learn that they’re both right – sort of. Because it turns out that most of the Ninth Legion is, in fact, dead, but missing all their bones thanks to an attack from a mysterious creature. And Bill does discover several survivors in hiding, while fleeing from that same creature. But then Twelve and Nardole stumble upon a stone cairn, and find themselves held hostage by a large group of Picts, lead by a rather ferocious young girl named Kar. And that’s when our story really starts.
Guest star Rebecca Benson plays Kar as something like an early version of a Slayer from Buffy. (You may have recently seen Benson on Starz period drama The White Princess, and she is every inch as excellent here as she was there.) Kar’s job – and the job of every Guardian before her – is to protect her people from these “Eaters of Light”. The monstrous creatures suck up all the light out of everything around them, even people. As Guardian of the Gate, Kar must prevent that from happening. Instead, she let one through out of desperation, in the hopes it might take out the Roman army that invaded her home and killed her people.
And so the cycle of destruction continues. Except now, the entire universe is under threat.
"Kar: But I’m afraid.The Doctor: Who isn’t? But you still have to face your beast anyway."
This story is kind of a mess, and that’s okay
The plot of this episode is kind of all over the place. The existence of the “light eating locusts” isn’t very well explained. They have no motivation other than destruction. And it’s not clear how Kar’s people have managed to be so successful at fighting them over the years off armed with only magical crystals and pseudo-TV antennas.
Plus, none of this touches on the logical problems with the story’s “we all hang together” solution. It’s lovely, of course, that the Romans and Picts finally find common ground once they’re able to listen to each other. And not just that – they join forces to defend humanity! But why does their combined strength allow them to fight at the gate forever? What happens if/and when one or all of them die? Why does that random crystal “poison” light? And once the Doctor’s gone, will the Romans and Picts still be able to talk to one another?
If you’re looking for answers to any of those questions, you’re headed for disappointment. Because this is an episode for the heart, not the brain. And as so often happens in Doctor Who, the point of the story is in the people we meet along the way. “The Eaters of Light” is full of interesting new supporting characters. And they all get much more in the way of personalities and things to do than pretty much any other set of guest stars this year. Kar and her Pict soldiers are damaged and grieving, but still embrace Nardole and his bizarre tales. Bill befriends several Roman soldiers, and they have a long and nuanced conversation about sexuality and acceptance. In short: people can contain multitudes, and we’d all do better to listen to one another a bit more.
"Nardole: You were wrong. The crows aren’t sulking. The crows are remembering."
Finding the extraordinary in the everyday
In the end, “The Eaters of Light” is a story about courage and sacrifice and the futility of war. It is a love letter to compromise, to seeing and hearing each other for who we are, and valuing other perspectives beyond our own. In the end, the Ninth Legion survivors join forces with Kar to enter the Gate and keep it. They sacrifice themselves for the good of others, to protect the world from the monster lurking just outside it. They become something more than they were, and that’s what gives their entrance into portal together real weight.
Modern day Doctor Who is good at many things. But it’s truly great in its ability to discover the extraordinary in the everyday. It’s part of the reason we love Companions like Rose and Martha and Donna so much. It’s why one-off characters like Kar and Sally Sparrow and Astrid Perth and Jackson Lake resonate so strongly with us. They don’t have secret histories or special powers. They are regular people, who find it within themselves to do amazing, occasionally world-saving things.
The episode closes with another appearance by Michelle Gomez. Remember when we thought we’d only get Missy for something like three episodes this season? It’s been so lovely to be wrong on that score. She and Peter Capaldi continue to crackle in their scenes together, as Twelve attempts to navigate the emotional land mine that is the possibility that Missy might change for real. This entire sequence, which sees Missy jump at the idea that the two Time Lords might become friends again, as Twelve recoils from it, is fantastic. And it’s almost impossible not to read their epilogue together as some kind of a repeat of the episode’s central lesson, involving previously warring parties coming together in a new understanding of one another.
Can the Doctor trust Missy? Could her attempt to change for the better actually be legit? And what does it mean – for both the series and this long-standing and complicated relationship – if the answer to both those questions is yes? The interactions between Twelve and Missy remain the absolute highlight of the season, and are so good that it’s almost fine that the whole “guard the vault or else” plot from the first half of the season’s disintegrated. Sometimes, as this episode proves, you have to embrace the story that’s happening around the particulars of a given plot, in order to find the greater meaning,
Next week, it’s time to get ready to say goodbye to season 10. The season finale is almost upon us, and pretty much anything could happen.