Rona Monro’s script for Survival is often pointed to as the prototype for where Russell T Davies would take the show when he brought it back in 2005. With that in mind it seems crazy that it has taken over 10 years to ask her back.
This is everything that Empress of Mars wasn’t. Where that story felt awkward and clunky this flows well and is engaging. It is helped enormously by some beautiful location filming which greatly increases the scope of the episode. There are some lovely long shots that really give a sense of scale and the night shooting adds a sense of spooky atmosphere.
The story begins with the Doctor and Bill having a disagreement about the 9th Legion. A subject that Bill has studied a lot while the Doctor knows life in the Roman Empire from experience so they have travelled to Roman occupied Scotland in order to settle things. Nardole seems to have been reluctantly dragged along for the ride as Matt Lucas spends the first half of the story sporting the Arthur Dent look. Bill and the Doctor voluntarily split up and Nardole goes with the Doctor. It’s been a few episodes since we’ve seen the Doctor and his valet without Bill involved and Monro writes the pair really well. The sight of the duo arguing while surrounded by spear wielding Picts is fun and the Doctor weaponising Nardole’s popcorn is a moment of pure Doctorishness. I also loved the moment of Nardole being recaptured only to discover he’s gone native complete with face paint after the Doctor finally emerges from the temple of the Eaters of Light. Nardole’s ability to ingratiate himself with any given group of people is a nice character trait.
Bill’s plot is equally good mainly due it its simplicity. Finding herself trapped with a Roman soldier, escaping long enough to see the monster and then being trapped again with the last of the 9th Legion. Pearl Mackie is as brilliant as ever. Her delight at suddenly realising that the TARDIS must be translating Latin is infectious and I love the fact that she was allowed to work it out for herself. The understated discussion of her sexuality once again plays into this season’s theme of real history being more diverse than pop culture has portrayed it to be. It makes it feel like a more interesting and well rounded world. I have really enjoyed this season challenging the established mainstream historical narrative and I hope it is something that continues for the show in the future. As I have said before, part of the show’s original remit was to help teach history to children. Now it is doing so again by doing its part to correct historical erasure. It’s a small step but an important one.
Of the guest performances the real standout is Rebecca Benson as Kar. She has several impassioned speeches to deliver in this and she acquits herself very well as a young woman grown old beyond her years due to her responsibilities. Her anger at the Romans blinds her judgement causing her to unleash one of the eaters of light on the 9 Legion.
The climax sees the Doctor about to volunteer to be the eternal lone defender of earth against the eaters but Kar and the remnants of the 9th Legion take the decision out of his hands. This is something that has happened more than once this season. The 12th Doctor is falling over himself to give up everything and people keep foiling his efforts. I do wonder if this is something that is going to play into Capaldi’s final episodes.
The moments at the end of the episode between the Doctor and Missy have real emotional intensity. While I will freely admit that I haven’t always got on with MIssy as a character the her last few appearances have helped no end. There has been more character there beyond the “I’m mad I am!” OTT clowning that both Gomez and Simm have been given in the past. I am hoping that this bodes well for Simm’s return too. Certainly the pairing of Capaldi and Gomez now deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Pertwee and Delgardo or Davison and Ainley. They are that good together and that synonymous with each other.
I thought that The Eaters of Light was a fantastic piece of modern Doctor Who. Entertaining and atmospheric with good performances and really striking direction from Charles Palmer. It is episodes like this that show the importance of getting fresh writers into the mix. This felt like a breath of fresh air after a lackluster couple of episodes and I am now looking forward to what World Enough and TIme has to offer next week.