Timestamp #280: The Eaters of Light

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Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light
(1 episode, s10e10, 2017)

Timestamp 280 Eaters of Light

Last stand in Scotland.

In the present day near Devil’s Cairn, Scotland, little Judy tells her brother that she wants to hear the ghosts. Her brother warns that there are ghosts, but Judy hears music and defies his request for her to leave. A crow lands nearby a carving of the TARDIS on the stones, calling “Doc-tor!” into the cloudy day.

In Aberdeen, Scotland, circa 2nd century AD, the TARDIS materializes with the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole as they ponder the disappearance of the lost Ninth Roman Legion. The Doctor touts his experience amongst the Romans, including his credentials as a Vestal Virgin Second Class. Eager to prove herself and her research, Bill splits off and encounters a Pictish girl. She falls into an underground pit and (at swordpoint) finds a Roman soldier.

The Doctor and Nardole find a crow that says “dark” repeatedly, which the Doctor explains away as that crows can speak in the future, but humans are too daft to understand it. The crow is warning them of danger as the sun goes down, a fact reinforced by the discovery of the dead Ninth Legion, slain by extraterrestrial means that looks like a complete lack of sunlight. The pair is soon taken hostage by a group of Picts.

Bill introduces herself to the soldier and is amazed that the TARDIS is able to translate her words into Latin. The soldier she found is from the missing legion, and together they escape the pit. They encounter a being that attacks the soldier, but he is able to tell her where the Roman survivors are hiding. She races to the cave and narrowly escapes the monster, though not before the creature attacks her. Bill passes out amongst a group of Ninth Legion Romans.

The Doctor and Nardole meet the Keeper of the Gate, a woman named Kar. Nardole attempts to charm the Picts with popcorn but the Doctor loses his patience with the group. He is soon introduced to Kar, the woman who attacked Bill and claims that she defeated the Roman legion. Kar considers the Romans imperial plunderers who will steal and slaughter across the land. The Doctor is skeptical that Kar could kill 5,000 soldiers and points to the gatekeeper’s gateway weaponry. Using the popcorn, the Doctor stages a diversion, and he and Nardole escape.

The Doctor and Nardole return to the cairn while looking for Bill. The Doctor watches as a gate opens and reveals several hostile creatures. As he recoils, the gate closes, and Nardole tells him that he was away for two days. The cairn is an interdimensional temporal rift. Nardole also reports that he was unable to find Bill.

In the cave, Bill is awakened by a soldier named Lucius. He moves her into a beam of sunlight to burn off the creature’s slime and has a bite to eat. Bill decides to leave and find the Doctor, but Lucius asks her to stay. They have a frank discussion about sexuality, to which Bill is surprised by Roman progressiveness.

The Doctor and Nardole find Kar and ask if she knows what’s inside the portal. She calls the creature the “eater of light” and says that each generation elects a warrior to hold it back. The battle takes decades in the real world. Unfortunately, it got out and killed the Ninth Legion, but Kar thinks that it will die soon. The Doctor argues with her, but they both turn as a scream cuts the air. They find a slain Pict girl and the Doctor explains that the monster won’t stop until it decimates the world.

Bill tells the Romans about the Doctor. She also explains that being scared is human, but it isn’t cowardice. They develop a plan to find the Doctor. They use a passage to sneak past the beast and find a ladder. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Kar devise a plan of their own based on the mirrors that the Picts carry. They consider how the portal periodically opens, likening it to an oil gush that relieves pressure periodically. The Doctor does what he can to rally Kar and her people to action.

The ladder from the cave system leads into the space where the Doctor, Nardole, and the Picts are hiding. After some tense moments, Bill and the Doctor are able to negotiate a truce based on the TARDIS’s translation circuits. The Doctor chides the lot, demanding that they “grow the hell up” and stop the beast before it consumes the entire universe.

The plan is to use the creature’s desires against it. They lure it with light and music, then use mirrors (which poison the light) to hold it at bay and push it back into the portal. The gate has to be guarded, and the Doctor volunteers to guard it with his relatively infinite lifespan. Bill and Kar disagree, telling him that he has gates of his own to guard. Kar and the Ninth Legion survivors stand before him as Nardole knocks him on the head. Kar and the soldiers advance into the gate and the cairn begins to fall apart due to the strain. When the cairn collapses, the portal is closed forever.

Nardole urges the Doctor to not hold a grudge as Kar’s brother tells the crows to spread the word about who saved the world. A crow flies off screaming “KAR” into the cloudy sky. The Doctor admits that he was wrong about the Ninth Legion, and Bill does as well. They weren’t missing or killed but instead were always here.

As the trio enters the TARDIS, Nardole is surprised to find Missy in the TARDIS. The Doctor let her out to do maintenance on the engines, but he’s locked her out of every major function on the time capsule. She can’t even leave the ship. Later, she cries as she hears bagpipe music, presumably from the warriors in the cairn, and suggests that it’s time to rebuild their relationship. The Doctor remains skeptical, stating that it’s not the right time during her rehabilitation.

The writer of this phenomenal tale was Rona Munro. She was also responsible for Survival, which she also novelized, and therefore took the record for the longest gap between two Doctor Who television stories by the same writer. That gap was approximately 27 and a half years.

It’s understandable why this episode has the lowest ratings (to date) of the revival era. It is a dark episode, both in content and overall lighting. So much of the story is portrayed by firelight or in dark woods, and even the daylight scenes end up shadowed by mostly cloudy skies. But, it also helps to drive the claustrophobic and defeated mood that permeates the plot, and I think it adds quite a bit overall.

Missy’s redemption(?) arc remains shrouded in mystery, but the ongoing thread of human sexuality continues with better, more respectful discussions about the topic through history. There’s a nod to a “long story” about the Doctor being a Vestal Virgin Second Class – ‘twould be an interesting story to see since the Vestal Virgins were priestesses who vowed to remain virginal between the ages of 10 and 40, which makes me wonder how the Doctor pulled this off in a world (spoilers) pre-Thirteenth and pre-Timeless Child – and I smiled about Lucius being called “granddad” since he was the oldest soldier in the legion. That’s quite the thumb at the confluence of youth and war.

It may not be a popular episode, but I really enjoyed it.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: World Enough and Time & Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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