'The Eaters of Light' isn't perfect, but Mackie and Capaldi are still on fine form.
When Series 10 began, most fans would have agreed that Doctor Who was in dire need of a regeneration. Not the literal kind, necessarily – though Peter Capaldi’s impending exit is a relief for many – but a change of tone, of writing, and of direction. But as we reach the final “adventure of the week” story of Moffat’s era, ‘The Eaters of Light’ will almost surely have you eating your harsh words, and sad that such a promising set-up must come to a premature end.
The ever delightful relationship between Capaldi’s Doctor and Pearl Mackie’s Bill is out in full force in this trademark Who tale, which comes after a troubled set of episodes. Both the meandering Monks trilogy and the rather bland Ice Warrior adventure saw Series 10 lose some of the charm that earned its early episodes riotous praise, with the core characters wrapped up in one too many plot twists to strut their stuff. ‘The Eaters of Light’ goes back to basics as the time travellers endeavour to solve the mystery of the missing Ninth Roman Legion in 2nd century Scotland. The quest is driven by Bill’s schoolgirl curiosity, so the episode naturally puts her at the core of the action – it’s a move that would have dragged with a blander companion (*cough* Clara), but Mackie is captivating as ever when Bill is stranded with a survivor group of surprisingly liberal Romans.
‘The Eaters of Light’ marks a big moment in revived Who history, as Rona Munro becomes the first writer from before its 1989 cancellation to return and pen a new tale. On the whole, she does an excellent job. The first half of the episode moves quite slowly, with the complex historical nature of the story alongside the alien threat needing a lot of explanation. Separated early on, the Doctor and Bill rattle from one sticky situation to another, but the monster is simply not threatening enough to pose any real danger factor. The conflict between the Romans and the Picts is far more three-dimensional, and again raises the debate for scrapping the alien threat in some of Who‘s historical adventures. The two-day time jump halfway through unnecessarily confuses the flow of the episode, particularly as no time seems to have passed for Bill while the Doctor is off investigating.
Despite these teething problems, Munro weaves together an enchanting story with foundations in Scottish myth, and the episode really comes into its own in the last twenty minutes. It’s great to see her avoiding the sickly sweet “solve it with love” solution we’re all so tired of; there’s a real grittiness to the actual resolution, propelled by genuine emotion thanks to fantastic performances from both the main and guest cast. Rebecca Benson is particularly enigmatic as the Picts leader Kar, creating what’s surely the most remarkable secondary character of the series so far (not that she’s had much competition). Nardole’s comic lines are a little hit and miss, but ‘The Eaters of Light’ is the first episode to properly utilise Matt Lucas since ‘Extremis’.
Like last week, the epilogue feels somewhat tacked on the end, but builds the intrigue heading into next week’s finale. Has Missy (Michelle Gomez) really turned good? Or will the return of John Simm’s Master prove too tempting an opportunity for evil? We’re certainly with the Doctor as he questions whether it could be time to call his worst enemy his old friend once more…
Doctor Who continues with the first part of the finale, ‘World Enough and Time’, next Saturday night. Check out a trailer below: