The following review contains spoilers for this week’s episode of Doctor Who.
It’s always tough for a Doctor Who episode to occupy the pre-finale slot. Over the years, strange stories like ‘Boom Town’, ‘Turn Left’ and ‘In the Forest of the Night’ have been positioned immediately before a multiple-part series finale. This year, there’s an unusual wrinkle to that slot in that ‘The Eaters of Light’ is an episode that makes history for the show via writer Rona Munro. Munro wrote the final episode of classic Doctor Who and therefore has now become the only person to write for both the classic and revived incarnations of the show. Unfortunately, that’s just about the only thing that will make this a memorable episode in the midst of such a strong series.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) arrive in Roman-era Scotland in the middle of a historical debate. Each has a theory about the missing Ninth Legion of the Roman Army and they want to prove they are right, bringing a reluctant Nardole (Matt Lucas) along for the ride. The trio split up and Bill soon finds the remains of the Legion in hiding from a beast that seems to feast on light, while the Doctor and Nardole butt heads with an army of Picts who seem to be in some way responsible for allowing the monster to run wild in the human world.
‘The Eaters of Light’ is a fun episode of Doctor Who, but it feels rather slight. It’s one of the regularly occurring modern Who episodes that builds a story patiently before quickly wrapping it up in the space of a few, breakneck minutes. There’s an almost immediate leap between the moment the Doctor, Bill and Nardole find each other and the scene in which they, with a nod to Ghostbusters, trap the quite shonky CGI beastie in amongst beams of light and force it back into a temporal rift. A few moments of human self-sacrifice later and we’re back in the TARDIS for an extended epilogue. But more on that later…
This is another episode in which Pearl Mackie manages to out-Doctor the Doctor himself. She is able to work out the details of the TARDIS translation facility without the Doctor having to explain it to her and does the Doctor’s job of forcing herself between human beings in order to discuss the futility of conflict. Her discussion with the Doctor about people in war sounding like children is very sharply observed and seems to provoke a real moment of revelation for her. On the other hand, it’s equally nice to see her progressive credentials pricked slightly by the revelation that the Romans see bisexuality as the norm. It really will be a tragedy if Mackie departs the show with Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat at the end of this series.
Mackie’s work, though, is not strong enough to provide much in the way of meat for this episode, which seems destined to be one of the least memorable stories in what has been a very solid tenth series for the show. It shares a lot of DNA with last week’s episode and, as a result, it doesn’t really feel like it’s doing anything new beyond simply bringing in a different selection of historical people. Given the historic nature of the writer at the helm of ‘The Eaters of Light’, this would’ve likely benefited from being placed earlier in the run.
The final moments of the episode focused heavily on Michelle Gomez as Missy. It seems she simply went back into the vault after the final events of last week’s episode, which seems an odd choice, and has now been let out again by the Doctor, who is choosing to hope that she has changed her ways. There will be no prizes for guessing that it’s almost certainly going to blow up enormously in his face, but the last scene of ‘The Eaters of Light’ is perhaps the most interesting Missy has been throughout this series. If Moffat insists on forcing her into every episode, this is the way to do it.
Next week: Missy gets the chance to play Doctor for a while, the much-heralded return of the Mondasian Cybermen takes place and well… the final shot of that ‘Next Time’ trailer is enough to get any Doctor Who fan’s pulse racing.
Doctor Who is airing on Saturday nights on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
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