Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Doctor Who Season 10, Episode 10: The Eaters Of Light

This week on Doctor Who, we get a history lesson (in more ways than one) as the season barrels to an all-too soon close. Only two episodes left!

The final two episodes of the season will likely tell a two part story, which means The Eaters Of Light is the last ever standalone episode of Peter Capaldi's run on the show. How fitting that the whole thing takes place in Capaldi's native Scotland!

The Eaters Of Light of light was written by Rona Munro, who also wrote the 1989 episode Survival, starring the Seventh Doctor. Survival is notable as the FINAL episode of the Classic Series, as Doctor Who was canceled shortly after it aired. Gulp! 

Happily I don't think Munro will kill off the series this time. In fact she's probably elated that with this script, she no longer has the "Woman Who Ended Doctor Who" label hanging around her neck.

The Eaters Of Light feels like another old-school episode, which has become something of a theme this season. In fact I could easily see it starring the Seventh, or even the Fourth Doctor. Unfortunately it's also virtually identical to last week's Empress Of Mars. It's too bad the two episodes were scheduled so closely together, as their proximity to one another only emphasized the similarities. Why the hell would they air them one after the other like this?


The Plot:
In present day Aberdeen (that's in Scotland), a girl runs up a hill behind her neighborhood to a site filled with ancient stone cairns. He older brother follows, telling her she'd better come back home now. The girl refuses, saying she wants to hear "the music" (Plot Point!). The boy tries to scare her with tales of ghosts and monsters haunting the area, which, on this show, could be more than just an idle threat. As the two of them run off, we see a crow land on one of the cairns. It crows something that sounds suspiciously like "Doc-tor!" over and over. We see the cairns are carved with primitive figures and symbols, one of which looks suspiciously like a blue box...

Cut to Aberdeen in the 2nd Century. The TARDIS appears and the Doctor, Bill and Nardole exit. The Doctor and Bill are arguing over the fate of the famed Ninth Legion of Rome, which disappeared without a trace here sometime around 120 AD. Bill says she read "the book" on them (?), and that they disappeared without a trace. The Doctor disagrees, saying they were annihilated in battle. Bill says if that's true, then where's the giant pile of dead bodies?

Bill's sure she'll find the soldiers near the river, while the Doctor says there's got to be a battlefield nearby. He says they should split up and investigate their respective theories and meet back at the TARDIS later, which sounds like a perfectly safe and wonderful idea. And that's just what they do. Bill goes off BY HERSELF IN THE 2ND CENTURY, while the Doctor and Nardole head off in the opposite direction.

Bill wanders into a forest, where she stumbles upon a Pict warrior woman named Kar. When she sees Bill she immediately screams and runs toward her, intent on murder. Terrified, Bill runs through the woods and falls into a deep pit— just like she did last week in Empress of Mars.

Meanwhile, the Doctor finds his battlefield full of dead Roman soldiers. They're not just normal dead bodies though— all their bones have been completely disintegrated. The Doctor says the only thing that could cause that is "a complete and total absence of any kind of sunlight (?)." He says such a things should take decades, but it looks like it just happened.

Just then a crow lands on a nearby rock and says, "Dark" over and over, which surprises Nardole. The Doctor tells him it's a known fact that all crows can talk. Unfortunately humans stopped having intelligent conversations with them long ago, so they stopped talking.

The Doctor spots a cairn up on a hill (Gosh, I wonder if it's the same one from the prologue?), but just then he and Nardole are surrounded by Picts (not jpegs-- HAW!) who hold them at spear point. They tell the Doctor their leader Kar, Guardian Of The Gate, will arrive soon and deal with him.

Bill's surprised to find she's sharing her pit with a Roman soldier. She's even more surprised to find they can both understand one another, as he's apparently speaking modern English, and he hears her speaking ancient Latin. Bill correctly surmises that the TARDIS is "auto translating" for her.

Bill asks the soldier what happened to the Ninth Legion. He says they were all wiped out by a monster, and he and several others deserted and holed up in a cave. He went out foraging and fell in this Pictish trap. With the soldier's help, Bill climbs out of the pit, then helps him escape. Bill and the soldier then head for the cave hideout.

Suddenly a monster with glowing tentacles appears. They run, but the monster grabs Bil, wounding her. The soldier attacks it, and it grabs him instead and drags him off. Bill runs to the cave, where the other Romans see her and bring her inside. She passes out from her wound.

Back at the bottom of the hill, the Picts are still holding the Doctor and Nardole hostage. Kar finally arrives and the Doctor's surprised to see she's just a teen. She claims she single-handedly destroyed the Ninth Legion, which the Doctor doesn't believe for a second. He uses a bag of popcorn to create a diversion (don't ask) and he and Nardole escape.

They run to the top of the hill, and the Doctor enters the cairn while Nardole holds back. The Picts believe the cairns are gateways to other worlds, and the Doctor wonders if they might be right. As the sun rises, it shines into the cairn and on the back wall. The wall opens up, revealing a dark void. The Doctor takes a step into the void, and sees a swarm of flying creatures feeding on the light of a star. One notices him, and flies toward the doorway. The Doctor steps back and the portal closes, becoming a wall again.

Outside the cairn, Nardole and the Picts are surprised to see him. Despite the fact that he was only inside the void for a few seconds, two days passed for the rest of the world. Kar explains that once every generation, Picts picks a Pict warrior to enter the void and battle the Eaters Of Light (Houston, we have a title!). She's her generation's chosen warrior. Unfortunately, she accidentally let one of the creatures through.

Back in the cave, Bill comes to. A Roman soldier named Lucius feeds her and tells her to sit in a beam of sunlight, as it helps cure a Light Eater wound. He flirts with Bill, until she tells him she plays for a different team. Back at the Pict camp, the Doctor finds a victim of the Light Eater, and says it's getting stronger. Kar admits this is all her fault. She deliberately let the Light Eater out of the portal, hoping it would kill the Ninth Legion (which it did), but that they'd kill it before they all died (which they didn't). The Doctor tells her she doomed the entire world to save one little hillside.

Bill talks the Romans into leaving the cave and helping her find the Doctor. They exit their protected cavern and run through a series of underground tunnels until they come to a ladder. They climb the ladder and just happen to come up through a hatch in the floor of the Pict camp. The Light Eater tries to burst through, but they force it back into the tunnel and block the hatch.

Bill's happy to be reunited with the Doctor, and gloats as she says she found the Ninth Legion. Or some of them, anyway. Unfortunately when the Picts and Romans see one another, they try to kill one another.The Doctor tells them to knock it off, as there's no time for old arguments. He says the Light Eater's getting stronger, and if they can't get it back into the void, more of its kind will escape (?). The monsters then consume the sun, and eventually every star in the universe until the whole thing's dark. (Big deal! Wouldn't that take a trillion years?). The two sides reluctantly call a truce, and the Doctor explains his plan.

That night the Picts play loud music inside the cairn to attract the monster. It works, as the dinosaur-like creature hears and soon gallops up the hill. Inside the cairn, the Doctor and the others use special red crystals (don't ask) that magnify the torch light and weaken the beast. They manage to hold it in place until the sun rises, causing the back wall to open again. Working together, they jab and stab at it, forcing it back into the void.

The Doctor says the portal will stay open as long as the sun hits it, allowing the creature, and more like it, to escape again. He says someone needs to enter the void and stay inside, fighting off the creatures for eternity. He says humans are too short-lived to serve as effective guards, but with his extented Time Lord life span, he can guard the portal virtually forever.

Bill and the others refuse to let him sacrifice himself. One of the Picts hits him in the head with a rock (!) to keep him from entering the portal. Kar, Lucius and several others from both sides volunteer to guard the gate. They walk into the portal together, weapons drawn, as a couple play music for some reason. The cairn begins trembling, and everyone runs out just before it collapses.

Back at the TARDIS, the surviving Picts and Romans say goodbye to the Doctor & Co. One of the Ninth Legion soldiers tells a crow that Kar is defending the gate for all time. The crow flies off, shouting, "Kar, Kar!" This is supposed to indicate that crows didn't stop talking to us after all, but are honoring Kar with their call. I guess screw Lucius and the others who went in with her then?

Inside the TARDIS, Nardole insists the Doctor goes back home to guard Missy in the vault. He's shocked to see Missy sitting inside the TARDIS, apparently free. The Doctor explains that he's giving her a bit of freedom in exchange for some basic TARDIS maintenance.

Later the Doctor and Missy share a moment, as she somehow listens to the haunting music of the guardians inside the portal. A tear runs down her cheek. The Doctor says he still doesn't know if her redemption is part of a devious plan, or it's real and time for them to be friends again.

Back in the present, the little girl runs up to the cairn again, presses her head against a stone and and smiles as she hears the music still being played by the Guardians Of The Gate...

• There's actually a good bit of actual history in this episode, not counting the light-eating monsters.

As you've probably already guessed, the Ninth Legion of the Imperial Roman Army was a real thing. It existed from the 1st Century BC to around 120 AD. The Ninth Legion fought in various provinces and was stationed in Britain following the Roman invasion there in 43 AD. Sometime around 120 AD, the Legion disappeared. To this day, no one's quite sure what happened to the five thousand men.

One theory is that they were wiped out after marching into Caledonia (aka modern day Scotland) in 108 AD, a view which was popularized by the 1954 novel The Eagle (which was made into a movie in 2011). 

Other scholars have found evidence that the Legion, or a part of it, was active in the Netherlands in 120 AD. We'll probably never know where or why they disappeared.

The cairns seen in this episode were totally a thing too, especially in ancient Scotland.

The Eaters Of Light also features black Roman centurions, something I was sure was shoehorned into the episode in the name of forced diversity. But then I looked it up and black centurions were apparently a thing, so... good on the writer, I guess.

• Overall, The Eaters Of Light is a decent story, but as I said in the intro, it's too bad it's so incredibly similar to the previous episode.

In Empress Of Mars, Bill wanders off by herself and falls into a deep pit, which gets the plot started. In Eaters Of Light, Bill wanders off by herself and— you guessed it— falls into a deep pit, which gets the plot started.

Both episodes featured Bill becoming separated from the Doctor, characters who were cowards but later found their courage and two sides that started out as enemies, but learned to work together. The only real differences were the sets and the monsters.

• Overall this is a decent episode, with one major exception: The Doctor actually suggests that he and Bill split up to look for the Ninth Legion. Seriously? Sending a young woman from 2017 off by herself in 2nd Century Aberdeen? What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?
Look, I get it. They only have forty five minutes to play with, and they've got to get the plot moving quickly. But sending Bill off by herself just so she can get into trouble and be saved by the Doctor is the most blatant, ridiculous and hackneyed trope the writer could have possibly used.

At the very least the Doctor could have sent Nardole along with her for safety.

• Speaking of Nardole, what the hell is he wearing in this episode? I'm assuming this is supposed to be a "wacky" example of him not understanding human fashion, but it looks for all the world like actor Matt Lucas rolled out of bed about thirty seconds before shooting started and refused to change clothes. 

• While watching this episode, something suddenly became glaringly obvious to me: why doesn't the Doctor or his companions have any way of communicating with one another outside the TARDIS? 

It happens over and over in the series. The Doctor gets separated from his companion, then has to search for them while simultaneously trying to resolve the plot. Often he's not even sure if his friends are still alive.

Gosh, it's too bad this highly advanced humanoid alien, who owns a freakin' time machine and a magic wand, doesn't have some kind of COMMUNICATION DEVICE. Something like, oh, I dunno... a CELL PHONE, maybe? A set of cheap two-way radios, at the very least?

Of course if Team TARDIS could talk to one another, then most episodes would end up being about ten minutes long, so I get why the producers don't allow the characters to do so. And why they hope this issue never occurs to us.

• After completely forgetting about it in the previous episode, this week Nardole finally remembers the Doctor's supposed to be guarding the Vault, and asks him when he's gonna get back to it.

• This episode features a perfect example of what I like to call "Implied Visual Acuity." 

What the heck does that mean, you ask? It happens whenever a TV show or movie features a monster that's supposed to have vision that's superior to that of humans. But whenever we actually see a shot from the creature's point of view, it inevitably looks radically inferior to our vision. 

The monster's point of view is usually tinted a bizarre color, uses some weird, distorted fisheye lens, and is often blurred at the edges. And yet we're supposed to believe this sub-par way of seeing is somehow much better than our own.

• Bill stumbles onto a Roman soldier, and is amazed they can understand one another. She comes to the conclusion that the TARDIS is somehow psychically translating for her (even when she's not actually inside it). Bill's right of course, but... why the hell is she just NOW figuring this out? Did she really think the Blue People, Monks and Martians she's encountered all season were speaking the Queen's English?

As near as I can tell, the idea that the TARDIS translates for its passengers was first brought up in the revived series, when Rose Tyler noticed it.

Bill's statement that the TARDIS also lip-synchs its translations might be a dig at Star Trek's Universal Translator. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was revealed that the characters all had translators implanted in their ears so they could understand what the various alien crewmembers were saying. Not a bad workaround, but it didn't explain why the alien characters' lips always moved in perfect synch with their translated words!

• Did Lucius the Ninth Legion soldier look familiar to you? He should. He was in one of the biggest movies of all time a couple years ago.

Lucius, aka actor Brian Vernel, had a small role as Bala-Tik in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He was a member of the Guavian Death Gang, who boarded Han Solo's ship, demanding to be paid. Bala-Tik also inexplicably had a thick Space Scottish Brogue, saying, "That Beh-Beh yoonit. Tha Ferhst Dord-der is lookin' fer one jus' lake ut!"

This of course confirms my theory that there are only about twenty five or thirty actors in the UK, and they appear over and over in every TV show and movie filmed there.

• CGI creatures are expensive. So how do you film an episode with a monster when there's not enough money in the budget to properly show it?

Why, you give it big glowy tentacles on the front of its head, that's what you do. Then you only have to show the relatively cheap tentacles flailing around every now and then, and don't have to spring for rendering the entire monster.

We finally get one decent look at the monster near the end of the episode, as the characters herd it back into the portal. It's an extremely short, blink-and-you'll-miss-it look though, lasting just a few expensive frames.

Once that brief scene's over though, we're treated to numerous shots of the Eater Of Light's back, as it bucks in the foreground like a bronco. Pret-tie sneaky, sis!

• I don't understand the Doctor's reasoning that he's the perfect person to guard the portal and keep the Eaters Of Light from getting through. He says due to his Time Lord lifespan, he could protect the Earth from the monsters virtually forever.

This is no doubt true, but did he forget about the portal's time dilation effect? Early in the episode, he steps into the void, sees the monsters inside and pops back out. He was only inside the void for a few seconds, but fifty six hours passed back on Earth (Two days, eight hours and five minutes, according to Nardole).

The portal's timey-whimey effect would allow even a short-lived human like Kar to guard it for millennia. In fact if my math is right, if she guarded the gate for fifty years, that'd work out to about 168,000 years on Earth! The Doctor even confirms this, saying, "
One Pict in there, fighting it off for a few minutes, that adds up to 60 or 70 years out here."

So why does he think he's the only candidate for the Guardian job?

• This Week's Best Lines:
The Doctor: "There is so much that you don't understand about Roman Britain."
Bill: "I got an A star."
The Doctor: (dismissively) "Got an A star. I've lived in Roman Britain. Governed. Farmed. Juggled. And speaking as a former vestal virgin, second class, I can assure you—"
Bill: "I bet you there's a Roman legion down there."
Nardole: "Hang on. Second class?"

(I wonder if this little exchange is a reference to the fact that back in 2008, Peter Capaldi guest-starred as Caecilius in the episode The Fires Of Pompeii?)

The Doctor: "Eyes peeled. They must have left some kind of mark on the landscape. Burning huts, slaughtered locals, sweetie wrappers."

Crow: Dark! Dark!"
Nardole: "Doctor..."
Crow: "Dark!"
Nardole: "Doctor!"
The Doctor: "Look, a stone cairn Pictish civilisation."
Nardole: "The bird!"
The Doctor: "What about it?"
Nardole: "It said 'dark."
The Doctor: "Yes, well that's why we're hurrying, because there's not much light at this time of day."
Nardole: "But it talked!"
The Doctor: "Well, of course it did. It's a crow. All crows talk."
Nardole: "They don't talk in the future."
The Doctor: "Course they do. Human beings just stopped having intelligent conversations with them. And they all took a bit of a huff."
Nardole: "Crows in the future are all in a huff?"
The Doctor: "Course they are. Haven't you noticed that noise they make? It's like a mass sulk."

The Doctor: "What do you always find near churches?"
Nardole: "Women in hats?"
The Doctor: "Exactly."
(for an alien, Nardole seems to know an awful lot about Earth and its customs)

Bill: "A Roman soldier! I wish I'd studied Latin so you could understand me."

Soldier: "I understand you."
Bill: "Sorry, what?"
Soldier: "I understand you."
Bill: "But you're You're speaking English."
Soldier: "What's English?"
Bill: "Er, what you're speaking in."
Soldier: "You're speaking Latin."
Bill: "I'm not."
Soldier: "That's Latin. You just said that in Latin."
Bill: "Ah! It's the Doctor! Or the TARDIS, or both. Something, a telepathic link. Auto-translate. That's why everyone in space speaks English."
Soldier: "What on earth are you talking about?"
Bill: "Oh, my God, it even does lip-sync!"
(Due to the nature of the fantastic situation she's in, I'll give Bill a pass for her atrocious "Er, what you're speaking in" line)

The Doctor: (examining a dead Roman soldier) "It's as if his bones have disintegrated."

Nardole: "But what could do that?"
The Doctor: "A complete and total absence of any kind of sunlight."
Nardole: "Death by Scotland."

The Doctor: (to his Pictish captors) "Oh, for heaven's sake. How long are you going to keep us here? Couldn't we have seats? What about the wi-fi code, how about that?"
(I'm pretty sure this is at least the second time the Doctor's mentioned wi-fi this season)

Nardole: (to Picts) "Yeah, would you like some popcorn? Won't take me a jiffy to make."
(that had to be a Jiffy Pop joke, right?)

The Doctor: "What are you doing?"
Nardole: "I'm ingratiating myself."
The Doctor: "Stop it. It's nauseating."
Nardole: "It's called charm."
The Doctor: "I'm against it. I'm against charm."
Nardole: "Yeah, we all know that."

The Doctor: (discussing his time inside the portal) "I was in there for seconds."
Nardole: "Two days."
The Doctor: "It's an inter-dimensional temporal rift. A second in there equates to days of time on this side. I was in there for two days?"
Nardole: "And eight hours, five minutes, and..."
(From Nardole's Spock-like declaration, I'm assuming he must have some kind of internal chronometer? He is part robot, right?)

The Doctor: (to Kar) "You got a Roman legion slaughtered and you made the deadliest creature on this planet very, very cross indeed. To protect a muddy little hillside, you doomed your whole world."

The Doctor: "Are you sulking?"
Kar: "I'm remembering the dead."
The Doctor: "Oh, right. Well, save that for old age."
Kar: "They're dead because of me."
The Doctor: "You know, every moment you waste wallowing about in that happy thought means more of the living are going to join them. When you want to win a war, remember this it's not about you. Believe me. I know. Time to grow up, Kar. Time to fight your fight."

Bill: "So now that we all understand each other, how do we all sound?"
Lucius: "You sound like children."
Kar: "You sound like children, too."
The Doctor: "You all do."
Bill: "Is this what happens? When you understand what everyone in the universe is saying, everybody just sounds like children?"
The Doctor: "There are exceptions."
Nardole: "Thank you very much."
The Doctor: "Not you. OK, kids, pay attention."
(I love this conversation, as it's something I never thought about before. At this point the Doctor's thousands of years old. Everyone WOULD sound like children to him!)

The Doctor: "The gate has to be guarded, there's no other way. The trouble is, human life spans, they're tiny. They're hilarious. You get used up too quickly."
Bill: "So what's the answer?"
The Doctor: "Go on, figure it out. The answer is me. I go on for ages. I don't even really die, I regenerate. I can hold that gate till the sun goes out."
(This isn't the first time the Twelfth Doctor's described a human trait as "hilarious." Back in Season 8's Listen, he said, "Have you seen the size of human brains? They're hilarious!")

Nardole: "Sir, I must to protest in the strongest, most upset terms possible. Don't make me go squeaky voiced!"

Missy: "I don't even know why I'm crying. Why do I keep doing that now?"
The Doctor: "I don't know. Maybe you're trying to impress me."
Missy: "Yes, probably some devious plan. That sounds about right."
The Doctor: "The alternative would be much worse."
Missy: "Really?"
The Doctor: "The alternative is that this is for real. And it's time for us to become friends again."
Missy: "Do you think so?"
The Doctor: "I don't know. That's the trouble with hope. It's hard to resist."

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