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...
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.
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.
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.