A Roman legion during imperial times consisted of around 5000 men. They didn’t just disappear, that much is certain. But the fate of one legion is unclear in the historical records. The Legio IX Hispania (Spanish 9th Legion) was stationed in Britain after the Roman invasion in 43AD, and remained there until at least 108AD. Soon after that, all records of them dry up and later in the century they were certainly non-existent. There is no historical record of their fate, which has led to a lot of conspiracy theories, mainly suggesting that they were wiped out in battle. However, there is no archaeology to support this theory. This is just my opinion (and I am no expert, beyond a Latin A Level and a keen interest in history), but the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and they were probably simply disbanded. Anything catastrophic would probably have found it into the historical records, and some kind of shock defeat by the relatively primitive local tribes would have likely resulted in a major retaliation from Rome, which would also have found its way into known history.
So this is the rather interesting slice of (relatively) obscure history that Rona Munro chooses to mine for a Doctor Who story. I like it when Doctor Who looks at aspects of history that are not necessarily common knowledge, because Doctor Who started out to educate and that aspect of its original brief has never quite gone away. That is a very good thing. In fact, I learnt a lot about history (and to a lesser extent science) from Doctor Who stories, and then going on to research the truth behind them. It is no longer preachy like the clumsy approach of some of the early Hartnell stories, but it still teaches us interesting things at times. This is just one aspect of Doctor Who that makes it a very important institution for family viewing (probably the most important being that it shows us a hero who tends to use his intelligence rather than his fists).
But here’s the thing – this episode is showing us a very small-scale, cut down version of history, with just a few of the legion remaining, and therefore lacks something of the impact it could have had. It is history on a budget, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t give the episode much to do beyond establish the mystery, reveal the truth, and create a resolution. And considering the modern-day running time of 45 minutes, it seems to do that very slowly, talkily and tediously. When we look at the three things the episode has to do, it also doesn’t help that:
(1) the mystery is straightforward
(2) the truth is an underwhelming and forgettable CGI monster of the week
(3) the resolution is ridiculous
… because, seemingly by sheer will-power, a small bunch of human beings are achieving what the Doctor says he cannot do even with his power to regenerate, and fighting off the monsters for over a thousand years. It’s beautifully poetic on first viewing, but once you engage the brain after you have finished the episode, you can’t help but think “wait a minute…”
Rona Munro makes good use of the available historical records, and even quotes virtually word-for-word from Tacitus with the tirade against Romans and their empire-building (a bit more than the quote inspired by Tacitus that Munro claimed in DWM – it’s basically extracted wholesale from the text). It’s a very black-and-white viewpoint, and I don’t like to see it thrown in as an “empire is bad” diatribe without the shades-of-grey balance and context. The use of Romans to show a society that had no problem with different kinds of sexuality is also not quite the full story, but is sufficiently close to the truth that it is a good way to show how society can function with an absence of issues with this. If you are going to show a way of life where everybody says “so what?”, then the Romans are better than any to show that working well.
When the news that Rona Munro was going to write Doctor Who again broke, it was a big deal for two reasons. Firstly it is the first time a writer of a classic era Doctor Who story has returned to write an episode of the new version of Doctor Who, and sadly it will probably be the only time it happens. Munro’s original story was Survival, the very last one of the original run. Without falling into the trap of reviewing Survival here, it was remarkably ahead of its time, and Munro could perhaps be partially credited with creating the modern approach to Who that survives to this day.
Secondly, Munro is now a big deal in the writing world, especially in theatre. She is not exactly a household name, but getting her to write for Doctor Who nowadays is a coup. However, all of this has added up to an episode that a lot of people clearly loved, but I have to say I found the weakest of the series. What seems so odd is that, more than any other episode this series, The Eaters of Light is the one that has not been sufficiently script-edited. Maybe nobody had the guts to tell Munro to have another pass at it. I don’t know. But it’s all a bit silly (especially the crows) and terribly slow. It doesn’t feel like a Season 26 writer returning – more like a writer from Doctor Who of the 60s or 70s. But then again, in 1989 Munro was a fresh talent, full of new ideas. And maybe what Doctor Who needs most is not a safe pair of hands… not a big name from the writing world… but exciting, young, fresh approaches to story-telling. That was exactly what Munro gave us with Survival, and didn’t give us with The Eaters of Light. RP
The view from across the pond:
When the trailers for Doctor Who season 10 began, I can’t say I had a lot of faith. Hope, certainly, but not faith. The new companion was being marketed as a joke with her comments about kitchens and toilets. Emojibots, while cool, didn’t wow me. So when the season began and it was as good as it was, and Pearl Mackie was genuinely outstanding, I was delighted. Even the weak episodes, of which there are always one or two, would still have items of merit. And that’s true of The Eaters of Light even although this is definitely the weakest point of the season. But why did The Eaters of Light fail especially coming from the pen, or more probably, word processor, of such a noted author?
For one, crows didn’t need to speak or have any part in the story. They didn’t impact anything. A dear friend has often said, if it doesn’t add to the story, it takes away from the story! The birds only served to cheapen the episode attempting to add silliness but only succeeding in adding stupidity. The conflict between the Roman legion and the Celts could have been impressive if the two groups were not limited to a handful of people. On top of that, the element of cooperation between warring parties had already been explored earlier in the season in The Pyramid at the End of the World and arguably to better effect. In both, we learn that speaking a common language can make us all allies, as can fighting a common foe. The big difference is that Pyramid had a worthy, frightening foe. Here, we have an animal with glowing bits.
The scenery is nice, though perhaps too desolate to make an impact. (Still beautiful but very barren). The supporting cast, including Star Wars veteran Brian Vernel as Lucius, doesn’t really enhance the episode either. They are not entirely wasted but the audience is definitely given more to identify with in the Romans. When Bill meets the first Roman, he’s in a pit and lost his spirit for fighting giving them some great dialog. By contrast, her first encounter with the Celts is with Rebecca Benson’s Kar, who immediately tries to kill her and later spends most of the episode on the brink of tears. Her whole character seemed to be devoted to giving the crows something to say later in the episode.
However, I did say this episode was not without merit. One of the stand-out moments shows Pearl Mackie speaking to the leader of the Roman legion and discussing her preferences in dating. Too frequently, television forces the images on us. This discussion was far superior in its casual nature and the realization that the Romans were less critical of people’s inclinations, was a nice touch. It’s not a pushy agenda-filled scene, but just her talking to people she’s trying to befriend. She then gives them a great speech about not dying in the dark; also very well done. Matt Lucas as Nardole finally gets a few moments of humor from blending with the natives to carrying popcorn around with him. And there’s some music that is hauntingly melodic.
As for the resolution, the timing does not work even with the distorted time inside the void unless the longer one stays in, the faster the real-time acceleration. In other words, for the 5 seconds the Doctor stays within, 2 days elapse. Perhaps if he stayed 10 seconds, 8 days would elapse, at which point, for all we know, the joint forces of the Celts and Romans would only have to hold out for a few days for years to pass. The problem is: would it be enough for 2000 years to elapse? And that’s making a crazy assumption that we have no facts to back up. This, coming from a respected writer, leaves much to be desired. Like Roger said, take a second to think about it and it falls apart!
I wouldn’t ever say to skip an episode, but if asked whether this episode is worthy of this otherwise excellent season, I’d ask my agitated avian friends to chime in. I’m sure they’d call it like they see it…
(make of that what you will…)
Read next in the Junkyard… World Enough and Time