The Eaters of Light

TARDISIn which I coin a new, very lumpy synonym for ‘quite good’.

Last one from DWM #514.

It’s happened. A writer from the show’s original run has crossed over that bridge to the present day. The tempting thing now is to look for threads connecting The Eaters of Light to Survival. However, is this the sane option? Rona Munro’s Doctor Who debut did eventually prove to be “just the start, Midge, just the start” in terms of her contributions to the series, but only after a 28-year interregnum. Her new story has no designed reference to the old, but we can still look, can’t we? We can wonder what preoccupations might continue to inform her work all this time on.

Our lead character aside, both adventures are driven by disaffected youngsters, and both depict animals as sentinels. Yet, there’s not a lot of weight in those findings, because it’s a game, really, teasing out such comparisons. You can also do it if you match ‘Eaters to is immediate predecessor, Empress of Mars. What have we got? Army deserters, commentary on colonialism and poor old Bill falling down a hole. Their reoccurrences are, in truth, coincidences, and don’t inform us of intent.

However… I do feel there is at least a unifying approach in Munro’s scripts, both of which act as fables, closely aligning characters to message. The 1980s story is about social Darwinism, and introduces us to a hunt saboteur, a predator species and a Territorial Army officer who’s running a survival course. At some point, all of them specifically address the central theme. This one – this brand-new Rona Munro Doctor Who! –  looks at the dangers of tribalism, as practised by the Picts and the Romans, warring factions who then come together to chew over that issue. In each case, the end result is we meet people who could only live within those constructions. It doesn’t seem likely there’d be any further mileage in any of them, yet they are working in consort with the tale they populate, adding reverb to the myth – literally so in ‘Eaters, when little Judy hears their music thousands of years later.

The youngster is our conduit into and out of a production which is very much Doctor Who as a children’s story – the tale of how the crow got its caw. The featured monster is simply that; a force of darkness, variously described. “Light-eating locust,” is the nearest we get to pinning it down. Characters are stirred into doing the right thing, and those who do not (such as impetuous Cornelius) become fatal homilies. The interdimensional temporal rift, despite the fancy name, is a magic door, and the spectacle of the united forces of second-century Aberdeen marching off into the gloaming within looks like a colour plate from a Folio Society classic.

All of the above is nourishing, but it doesn’t necessarily exert the viewer. Easy to like, impossible to hate – these 45 minutes are boxed up within those parameters.

Except, some elements do protrude. A consistent this year has been the superb interaction between Bill and the Doctor, and that continues to have its own velocity. They’ve journeyed to ancient Scotland simply to settle a friendly argument about the Romans. That’s what the TARDIS should be for, for fun. I want to see the Time Lord and his pals barrelling around, having a laugh. Ten weeks into her journey on the show, Bill, like all those before her, is now mythologizing the Doctor (“He’s met loads of people like you, the terrified, the desperate – and he always helps”), well aware of his methodology (“He always ends up being boss of the locals”) but still enough of a newbie to trip over bits of the format (“You’re speaking English?”). On that last point, it’s a great pleasure to have Doctor Who’s conceit about language explained in such a succinct fashion. “Auto-translate,” says Bill, and that pretty much covers it, except for… “Oh my God, it even does lip sync!” Ah ha! How neat to then take this bit of admin, and use it to dissolve the cultural divide between the antagonists.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is in saucy form, with his gag about being a former vestal virgin “second class”. It’s pleasing that when he is being held at spear-point by the Picts, he is the first to acknowledge that, by his standards, this is very low-level menacing, and rolls into Doctor 101, even pre-announcing his escape plan. In a similar vein, I appreciated how Nardole’s ability to build a rapport with their captors is taken as read and something that happens between scenes. Although Matt Lucas’ “Nice ‘ere, innit?” cracks can still seem like a comedy actor doing the comedy bits he knows he can do, I continue to enjoy his portrayal, particularly when his character is grafting.

I must be getting old. I’m placing increasing value on work ethic. It’s something I also appreciate in the story as a whole.  There is a calm thoughtfulness in the way it attends to its business, whether that’s in its discussion of Bill’s sexuality, or how every element of its plot and thematic concerns are resolved by the time the Doctor returns to the TARDIS. While I wouldn’t raise a stone to The Eaters of Light being Doctor Who at its most luminescent, it is a monument to craft. I therefore hope this adventure isn’t going to mark another instance where Rona Munro walks off into the middle distance. To purloin a line she didn’t actually write, “Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, somewhere else the tea’s getting cold,” and when it comes to all of that, I reckon the Doctor will always welcome her contribution to the good fight.

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