Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light (Episode Review)

So, right after we got back on target, here we are with another delay. Why? It's a case of clashing deadlines. Between two audio drama reviews, a major new Black Library release and an entire new Edition of Warhammer 40,000 (Yes, the rules will follow soon) there have been a few stops and starts of late. Plus, it has to be said, much like Empress of Mars this is ultimately a very flawed story at its core. Not an exceptionally bad one and - if you're in the right mindset - one you can enjoy, but hardly a smash hit either.

This Eaters of Light sees the TARDIS crew showing up in Scotland's ancient past, back when the Romans were pressing forwards on all fronts. Curious to know the fate of the mysterious Ninth Legion, the group set out to try and uncover the answers for themselves. Unfortunately for all involved, the thing which killed the legion is still hunting about the land, and is still very, very hungry...

The Good

To start off with one of the bigger successes, this episode is definitely one of the biggest highlights balancing out the strengths and dynamic of the current TARDIS crew. While we will sadly not see them for much longer, the trio have done a great deal to work off of one another, remark upon situations and even drag one another into major problems. So, when the Doctor and Bill show up in ancient Scotland out of little more than a borderline bet to see who is right, dragging Nardole out of bed to get after them, it's hard not to crack a grin. It's the sort of overall dynamic we used to see a bit more of during the classic era, and it does lead to more than a few amusing situations.

The same sense of playfulness and understated zainy continues throughout the story, with the Doctor doing everything from using popcorn to escape his foes to Nardole going from a hostage to a native member of a clan within the space of a few days. It's the same sort of thing which made many elements of the previous Eleventh Doctor's tenure so fun when done well, but the fact it's not quite so forceful in its delivery or utterly overblown makes more than a few gags all the funnier. It also helps in this regard that it can easily shift from humour to severity at the drop of a hat, with little to no major issues, leading to some surprisingly well executed scenes.

A few of the older ideas we have seen done to death are repeated here, but play out in a different manner. In particular, Bill picking up on the TARDIS' translation circuit on her own was an entertaining diversion, while it hardly subtracted from the obvious threat of the story, it assisted in building towards the fact there are still a few things she has yet to get to grips with while displaying her intellect. It's a hard balance to strike and one which worked relatively well here, even if you could argue that it should have been picked up on quite some time ago. It gave a bit more for the two to play off of while completely separated in the story, and helped to further emphasize how Bill is someone who can perform acts of brilliance in her own right - Something we desperately needed after the Monk trilogy.

The actual monster itself proved to be an interesting twist on a few old dynamics, playing upon some of the alien dragon concepts which have been done before, but with a greater focus upon horror. The striking image of a Roman Legion decimated by this thing, and the description of how it consumes its victims gave it more substance than a few monsters, as did its use of glowing tendrils to attack others. This meant you rarely saw the whole creature, just enough of it to know there was something big and bad behind it, leaving your imagination to make up the rest.

Finally, and most pressingly, whatever else is said about The Eaters of Light, it does try to avoid many old cliches, especially in regards to splitting groups like this. The whole situation could have easily devolved into a very old and very tired scenario with the Doctor and Bill backing a separate group of survivors, natural enemies of one another, either making the situation worse or leading to group in-fighting. Instead, the story flows naturally and for the most part they end up being on the same wave-length even without meeting up or communicating. When they do clash, it is ultimately after the fact over a poor decision by the Doctor, and he eventually agrees that it was a mistake he never should have made.

Plus, there is a surprisingly funny gay joke in this. An obvious one perhaps given the Romans involved, but given the usual treatment of the subject when it comes to older societies, it was chuckle-worthy.

The Bad

Sadly, there's a lot of bad here as well, as the story just requires you to accept a massive amount of information and details even when they make no sense. The whole conflict with the monsters and how they are eventually contained seems poorly thought out, and many obvious alternatives or possible methods of stopping them seem to be ignored. Furthermore, the entire intro to the episode opens up more questions than it resolves. The "ghosts" are never fully answered, why ravens caw proves to be quite facepalming by the end given how sincere it was supposed to be, and a few moments arise only to be shown once and never again.

It's particularly irksome that the story keeps throwing in new elements rather than making better use of the ideas it set up in the first place, as it's trying to treat itself as something of a mystery. This is abandoned early on and turns into a monster stalking them, only for it to suddenly focus upon other old mysteries instead, with the monster showing little of itself until the final scene. This really killed off a lot of the tension within the story, and prevented a much more effective overall tale from arising. Simply sitting down and focusing upon one thing would have worked for the best here, but that's never discussed nor does it take place.

Things are further hurt by the fact that so few of the side characters leave any impact at all. This might sound harsh, but many of them were visibly cannon fodder on both sides, and even the survivors left little impact. A good story can still bump off people but leave them with enough lines, history or distinction to still allow them to remain in your mind; as proven with the likes of The Impossible Planet, Under the Lake and Time Heist to name a few. Normally this might not be so big a deal, were a few certain deaths not supposed to matter so much to the audience, and were they not given effectively one scene to make an impact and little else.

Finally though, even some of the basic resulting themes and ideas seem to have little overall impact. This is thanks to the Doctor suddenly just starting to sacrifice himself when, to be completely blunt, it would have been the single stupidest waste of his life in the history of the series. With dozens of alternatives on offer and possible counters, he seems almost eager to throw himself into hell by the end. Something I hope might be followed up on in the coming two-parter, but it seems very unlikely.

The Verdict

Again, The Eaters of Light is very flawed but not without its promising parts. However, it lacks the qualities which made me personally enjoy the Empress of Mars despite its obvious failings and only seemed to truly hold up in a few areas. While it's not something truly worth avoiding, it's really just watchable at the most, and you might find yourself seriously wincing at some very stupid moments here. Watch it if you're after another historical tale, but otherwise just wait until next time.


  1. I have to say that I'm really impressed with the choice to air the first draft of this episode on tv. I guess they'll adjust this for next week or maybe the dvd/blu-ray release and I'm very interested in how this episode looks like after they've edited out the obvious holes in the script, remove the serious bits that are unintentionally hilarious and finish the clearly unfinished edits/effects. I'd say this has promise.
    Oh wait, that was supposed to be the actual episode.

    This was bad. It wasn't quite as bad as The Empress of Mars since it wasn't trying to be relevant/send a message through very heavy handed characters and themes, however it was still bad and with incredibly large holes, and no lessons learned at the end.

    To immediately address the elephant in the room, they establish that they need to open the door to the rift every now and again to prevent it from overloading, and while it's open a light eater can come through. Now explain to me this: Why can't they rig their light reflectors up to shine at the door when the sun comes up? They don't even need a person there to hold it, just tie the thing up and inspect it before the sun comes up (maybe with somebody staying to watch just in case). Apparently the light poison hurts the creatures so bad that they can't even move, unless it's to go away from them, so it's a perfect solution. There's one way in, one way out, and the creatures can only try leaving one at a time. By the end of the episode they've got more than enough to shine at the rift to cover it from all angles, so it's not as if the creatures could try to move around the beams either.

    Getting to the second point, they need to keep opening the door to prevent it the rift from collapsing and Nardole hints that it could explode as a sort of time bomb. Well that's definitely terrible, so how do we deal with this? By having it become a little unstable and make the entrance to it collapse, sealing the doorway forever.
    Now the creatures are explained as a secondary thing to the rift. As far as the show tells us, it doesn't matter if you're fighting the creatures inside, that door needs to open every now and again. How exactly isn't the rift exploding, and if this was really all that was needed to seal it, why didn't they collapse the building on top of it to begin with? That way nobody would need to die and we wouldn't have the dumb bit with the crows.

    The creatures too are represented as beings with immense power, sort of. Apparently they can devour the stars themselves... maybe? I really don't know, since one of them is enough to wipe out an entire Roman Legion, yet somehow a single warrior can fight them for about 70 years (according to the doctor) before they age to death, despite it being established that time works differently for you once you're inside. They then go against this at the end of the episode, when the Romans enter to fight them too since now they're apparently fighting forever while playing music, how exactly? In the one plot point they should have aged to death and in the other the creatures should be powerful enough to devour them within minutes at most (even with the time warp that in no way translates to the massive amount of time between then and present day).
    They're also never shown to be all that powerful. Sure they can kill lone humans easily enough and they state the one in the show is weakened, but across the episode it had two days to eat all the light it could to grow stronger, yet in the finale they seem to be pretending as if letting it soak in the sunlight would make it too powerful to fight like how they're doing. They didn't even come up with a stupid explanation of it being underground for those two days, since the Romans were underground, but it most certainly was not since they were hiding inside a cave while it was outside.


  2. The gay joke with the Romans would have been funny for me, if it wasn't for Bill bragging about her apparent knowledge of the Romans right after they got there. Seriously one of the first things you can learn when studying their culture was that they didn't particularly care what your sexual orientation was, and this is one of those things that should have been caught midway through production (a small change to remove her bragging would have fixed this).

    The thing with the crows pisses me off because aside from it being really dumb, it creates a great opportunity they're going to do nothing with.
    Now that we know crows are smart enough to talk and have conversations with, think about how many stories or arcs you could bring them into to do something neat. Characters could even use them as small sentries, spies, little helpers or just alternative means of getting information when they get to an area.
    All of that is going to be ignored because it would mean the status quo gets changed slightly, and apparently changing the status quo is the worst thing in the world to Moffat's run, judging by how they've gone back and removed/ruined everything that tried to do move the setting forward.
    Maybe I'm just a little bitter because a little bit ago I was looking back at the older episodes (of the new Doctor Who, so 2005 forward) and I can still remember how excited Eccleston's Doctor was once aliens were revealed to the world since it was a major step and one in which he couldn't wait to see how the human race was going to adjust and move on, and now we don't have anything remotely like that.

    1. Well, honestly, the gay joke might have been funnier as I have seen it happen in real life. I have no idea why, but certain history professors and teachers in the UK seem to actively work around the subject of widespread bisexuality and homosexuality in Rome. As such, there's more than a few A-level students who seem astonished at the idea of it.

      That said, yeah, I can't argue in the slightest when it comes to your other points. This was incredibly rough around the edge and some of the major gaps in the story's logic seems to hurt what should have been a simple story to pull off. Once this is done, i'm probably going to have to stop and produce something on the strengths and failings of Moffat's whole run just to show how we went from an outstanding first few seasons into stuff like this.

    2. Maybe this is just a difference where we live then, as I've never heard of anyone around me being surprised that the Romans were fine with other sexualities.

      Then again I live in a city where the Catholic elementary school decided to have a (very comprehensive) sex-ed course in both Grade 7 and Grade 8 and that was where I first heard of this. Also despite being a Catholic school, this was also a school that loved evolution, didn't require its students to be Catholic and both it and my Catholic high school had very neat comparative religion classes (with the high school following the same beats as the elementary one) so maybe I just grew up in a weird area.

    3. Yeah, it's a truly weird thing to be sure, and the odd thing is that there's not this same aversion elsewhere. Alexander the Great's usual tendencies will be mentioned, along with those of certain Egyptian kingdoms, but with Rome there's almost this effort to stonewall any information.