We’ve just a couple more weeks left of my commentary, and then we’re going to have a few months without. Oh well, it’s been a pretty great season!
Doctor Who was pretty good this week. It wasn’t, like, stellar or anything, but it was good. I think it was the part where the warrior peoples are fighting against darkness forever that really tugged at my heartstrings, but that comes at the end, so…
10.10 “The Eaters of Light”
Am I just forgetting, or have they really never done a story on Doctor Who that touched on the human fear of the dark?
This is at least the second story involving the Romans, and considering how influential they were on English history, it’s no great surprise we’d see them again on the show.
The story, like last episode, begins in the modern day and features something mysterious to investigate. This time, however, it’s not the Doctor who notices it and then goes looking. It’s just a normal little girl who frequents a hillside near her home, called, foreboding enough, the Devil’s Cairn. She wants to hear the music, a mysterious song that plays in the ground. She pays no attention to her brother’s insistence that they need to get back home, or to the crow cawing “Doc-tor” atop a stone with the Tardis engraved on it.
It occurred to me, as the brother told his sister about ghosts playing music to steal them away, that a number of our stories feature things like that: something strange, showing us something beautiful and mysterious, only to steal away our children and eat them. I suddenly saw a similarity between this and the modern-day stranger who shows kids a cute puppy and kidnaps them, like drawing fish with a lure. Perhaps that sort of thing, and a parent’s desire to warn their children away from danger, is where those stories first came from.
Either way, I digress.
So, back in the past, Nardole, Bill, and the Doctor arrive at the site looking for the remains of the mysterious Ninth Legion, a legion whose legend is in its disappearance. The Doctor insists that the legion was annihilated, that they were beaten. Bill disagrees. So they split up, the Doctor and Nardole to find the battlefield, and Bill to find the Legion she is certain is still alive.
Bill finds a Roman legionnaire all right, after being chased by a young warrior woman who was grieving her dead family and falling into a hole in the ground. That would be where she met her first Roman, a young man who kept his sword ready until he could be certain she wasn’t there to kill him. He tells her about a monster, the monster that destroyed the Ninth. Only a handful survived, because they deserted.
Bill and her new friend help each other out of the hole and make their way back to the rest of the survivors, only for this alien creature to attack. For calling himself a coward, the man does not hesitate to put himself between the monster and Bill, directing her to safety with his friends, and giving his life to give her a few precious seconds to run for it. She makes it, and the Romans shelter her with them. Which is especially fortunate as the creature manages to wound Bill, leaving its debilitating black goo on her. She’s out for two days under their protection.
Meanwhile, Nardole and the Doctor have their own part of the adventure.
A crow flaps down and says, “Dark,” to Nardole. Ominous, but the Doctor is not surprised, saying crows have always been able to talk, but humans stopped having conversations with them, so they’ve been in a huff ever since, only uttering that guttural cawing sound they make.
Then they find the body of a Roman legionnaire. The cause of death seems to be a profound lack of light, as if he was lacking it for decades, but it happened all at once. Then they find the entire Ninth Legion, every man the same as the first they found. They quickly realize something alien and dangerous is at work, so their first priority is to find Bill. Small detail: a number of the locals take them prisoner.
These are the Picts, the ancient tribe of the land. There aren’t any of them older than twenty, the elders all having been killed by the Romans or by the creature. When their leader, Kar, the woman who chased Bill earlier, gets back, she gives a speech about how terrible the Romans are, and lets slip a number of things about her status as the Gatekeeper of the Devil’s Cairn. The Doctor seems to be having some difficulty getting the locals on his side at the moment, so he throws Nardole’s popcorn in the fire and they make their escape in the panicked confusion which soon follows.
At the hill, the Picts catch up to Nardole, but the Doctor continues on. Inside, he finds a chamber, one with an entrance aligned with the rising sun (that would not work every single day the entire year round, but we’re overlooking that), and has a wall which opens when the sunlight hits it. Behind it, a blue light, and within that light, what looks like small fish swimming around something glowing bright, until one comes close, and it’s much bigger than a small fish!
The Picts call them the Eaters of Light, an accurate name. Exactly what they are, they are alien creatures from another dimension. There’s a crack in reality, and it’s kept shut, but it couldn’t be permanently sealed at the time, so the sunlight opens it for a few seconds and keeps the lock stable. Then, however, they have the issue of Eaters coming through, so the Gatekeeper stands in their path, fighting them back. And, as time moves more slowly withing the portal, a single Gatekeeper’s fight could safeguard the world for decades.
This time, however, the Gatekeeper had Romans outside and a monster she could unleash on them. She thought the Eater could destroy or decimate the Ninth, and the same in reverse. Only the Eater became very strong in the light, and feeding on its victims. It’s wounded, yes, but still formidable, and now it’s angry. So, it’s picking off the Romans and the Picts both, one by one. If it succeeds, there won’t be anyone left to guard the gate, and the Eaters will swarm through to devour all the stars of the universe, beginning with the sun.
If any of them are to survive, they must work together.
That is a similar statement to what Bill tells the Ninth, including their leader, Cornelius, the oldest one left at eighteen years old. Once they get past the discussion of sexual orientation – fact: the Romans knew very well about homosexuality – they talk about surviving. Bill has to tell the Ninth that they aren’t cowards, just afraid, justifiably so, but she has a friend who sort of specializes in saving worlds from imminent threats. And really, she can’t promise anyone’s survival, but she can promise that they won’t all die in a hole in the ground.
So they go, and though the Eater finds them, more of them make it up the ladder and into the Picts’ hut than don’t.
A tense, revelatory conversation later – Bill finally realizes that she can talk to anyone without any language barriers – and all three sides, the Romans, the Picts, and the Doctor, agree to work together. The Doctor has a plan.
First, they lure the Eater back to the gate by playing music. Very loudly. It uses sound to track them, so they tell it where they are. (I love when Nardole is talking to the crow, and it warns him, “Monster!”) They have stones which “poison” the light that the Eater feeds on. Using these, they’re able to contain the Eater until sunrise, driving it back through the gate.
Second, the tricky part: since the Doctor can’t close it completely, there needs to remain a guardian to fight the Eaters and safeguard the world. He realized this, and was prepared to volunteer himself. He may never really die, and with the dilation of time, he may well last until the very end, when the world eventually dies of old age.
Unfortunately for the Doctor’s plan, no one will let him do it. He has another gate to guard, as Bill and Nardole know, and he can’t take everything on himself all the time forever. Kar is the Gatekeeper, and this mess has been her fault. It’s time she fulfill her true destiny. And she won’t be alone, as Cornelius steps forward beside her, and the last remnant of the Ninth joins them. More Picts, including the ones who play their battle music, step forward. All while the Doctor is edged further and further away from the gate at spear-point.
And a boy tells Kar that he will etch her name into the stone and spread it across the sky, so she can live forever in the world’s memory.
So, side by side, people who were at war go forward to save the world. Romans and Picts, deserters and failures, barely out of childhood and growing up, they all step through the gate, boldly and bravely, off to battle, with a song to carry them along their way. They even smile.
And then something about too many people stepping through makes the ground unstable, so they all flee the structure’s collapse. The gate is buried in the depths of the Devil’s Cairn.
The boy makes good on his word, etching the tale into stone, but also teaching the crows Kar’s name, which they have been speaking ever since. They haven’t been in a huff, they’ve been remembering her.
The trio return to the Tardis to find Missy there. It seems, after saving them on Mars, Missy is allowed out of the Vault. She’s not allowed out of the Tardis, and she can’t operate the controls, but she still has a great deal more at her disposal now. Nardole and Bill are both furious, but the Doctor has made his decision.
And then there’s Missy asking him if the result of things, “all those little people trapped in a hill fighting forever,” is really all right with him and his bleeding heart. To which he says, “Well, they’re not ‘trapped,’ and they’re more than just ‘fighting,’ and there’s music.” The Doctor has a point when he tells her that, for all she knows and understands about the universe, she’s never heard the music. She’s never learned to hear it. She’s never seen the beauty, and the value, of these “little people.”
And speaking of the music, we are back at the start, with a little girl listening to a phantom song. A beautiful song. The song of warriors in battle. The song of an eternal fight against the darkness, to save the world. The little girl smiles.
And, as the Doctor has Missy listening to it, Missy finds herself crying.
Either her reformation really is progressing, and the two surviving Time Lord can be friends again, or she’s playing such a long, insane, deceitful game that it defies belief.
The Doctor will be needing to find that out someday soon.
(and I want the soundtrack that has this song on it)