Series 10: The Eaters of Light Review (Part 1)
Note: this review contains full spoilers for episode 10 of Series 10.
Compared to previous companions, Bill has certainly had one of the more unusual tenures. Rather than being whisked away to live on the TARDIS as part of an unending series of adventures, she first spends at least two academic semesters being tutored by the Doctor in subjects ranging from physics to ethics. After her initial trip to Gliese 581d and nineteenth century London, she has but one additional trip to the Chasm Forge, before she is separated from the Doctor for six months, as the Monks invade Earth. While there is a brief span of time between “The Lie of the Land” and “Empress of Mars” that allows for additional adventures with the Doctor, Series 10’s emphasis on its unbroken narrative, and on the vault subplot, leaves little time for Bill to have developed into the prototypical companion Doctor Who has always presented.
One of the most stunning aspects of scriptwriter Rona Munro’s “The Eaters of Light” is how its narrative is careful to remember where Bill is in her journey, both as a companion and as a character. This is particularly evident in the scene where Bill, the Doctor, and Nardole first arrive in second century Scotland. After a year-and-a-half together at St. Luke’s University, Bill and the Doctor have developed a close friendship that allows her to question the Doctor’s assertion that the Ninth Legion “were annihilated in battle.” However, her learning has been academic, even didactic, and she fails to grasp the difference between reading about the Ninth Legion, and experiencing Roman life, in person. As the Doctor has largely remained in Bristol, guarding the vault, Bill understands his philosophy, but not his hegemony – – a unique position for a companion so late in a series, and it’s remarkable that “The Eaters of Light” explores that fact.
Note that Bill has traveled so little with the Doctor that she is only now encountering the telepathic autotranslate functions gifted to her via the TARDIS. The scene where she figures out its mechanics is exceptional, and demonstrates that, given enough time, Bill will certainly develop into the expected, quick-thinking, archetypal companion. Further evidence of Bill’s gradual evolution can be seen in the episode’s second act, where she first chastises the Roman soldiers for “think[ing] it takes 5,000 highly-trained soldiers to slaughter a bunch of Scottish farmers.” Suddenly realizing that, at 26 years old, she is the oldest of the group and can therefore usurp “the command” from Lucius, she then spurs the soldiers into accountability. “If you come with me, I can’t promise that you won’t die,” she admits, “but, I can promise you this: you won’t all die in a hole in the ground.” As this speech lays the groundwork for the soldiers to later atone for their cowardice by following Kar into the temporal rift, Bill capably fills the standard “companion” role in a way that markedly contrasts her timidity, in “Oxygen.”
Munro not only progresses Bill in her role as a companion, but also thoughtfully examines how Bill self-identifies as a person. Series 10 has taken advantage of having a black lesbian as a leading character, in a nuanced manner. By never tying storylines directly to her skin color or sexual orientation, the series refrains from exploitation; rather, the series examines Bill’s character by placing her in novel situations that challenge her concept of identity. For example, Bill is very aware that she is a black woman, when she visits the 1800s, in “Thin Ice,” but is caught off-guard, when she meets the blue-skinned Dahh-Ren, in “Oxygen.” Similarly, in “The Eaters of Light,” Munro effectively mines the social climate of the episode’s second century setting, as Bill realizes that her ostensibly progressive, accepting view of human sexuality is quaint, compared to the Roman culture:
Bill: “There’s, um, something I should explain . . . . This is probably just a really difficult idea. I don’t like men that way.”
Lucius: “What, not ever?”
Bill: “No, not ever. Only women.”
Lucius: “Oh, alright, yeah, I got it. You’re like Vitus, then.”
Lucius: “He only likes men . . . . I don’t think it’s narrow-minded. I think it’s fine. You know what you like.”
Bill: “And you like . . . both?”
Lucius: “I’m just ordinary. I like men and women.”
Bill: “Well, isn’t this all very . . . modern.”
Lucius: “Hey, not everybody has to be modern. I think it’s sweet that you’re so restricted.”
Bill: “. . . Cheers.”
The scene places Bill in a setting that is more accepting of her sexual orientation than she is accustomed, revealing that she is not used to her sexuality not setting her apart as different. She rather enjoys being unique, and finds strength in how her orientation differentiates her, in adverse situations. Here, Bill is still an outcast, but for an entirely different reason: her views on sexual orientation and fluidity are more narrow than the Roman soldiers’. This scene could not happen on any show except for Doctor Who, demonstrating Munro’s deep understanding of the series and the unique opportunity it presents to examine sexual identity within society. This grasp of Who’s potential should come as no surprise; in her script for Survival, the final classic-era serial, Munro surveys the ennui of early adulthood, as Ace and her friends struggle to self-identify as adults.
Just as a year-long break in filming allowed showrunner Steven Moffat to construct a tightly-themed Series 10, Munro’s 28-year hiatus from Doctor Who has honed her comprehension of the series’ concepts. “The Eaters of Light” may end up as the most quotable episode ever, with several lines succinctly summarizing the show’s tropes:
- “[The Doctor has] met loads of people like you: the terrified, the desperate – – and he always helps. He always makes a difference.”
- “He usually ends up being boss of the locals . . . usually by knowing them.”
- “We’re looking for Bill, right?” “No, we’re looking for the maximum danger in the immediate area and walking right into it.”
If forced to pick one quote from the entirety of Doctor Who to summarize the character of the Doctor, a good case could be made for these lines from “The Eaters of Light”:
“Do you know what that sound was? That was the sound of my patience shattering into a billion little pieces. Now, there are only two things I need to know: where is my friend, and what destroyed the Roman army?”
The scene not only demonstrates how the Doctor’s alien nature, vast experience, and perception allow him to take command of a situation, but also how he cares deeply for his companions. Further, despite everything else, he is still concerned about the mission at hand – – discovering what killed the Roman army, so that he can protect the very people which have taken him hostage. The scene is revelatory, and a little humorous, demonstrating Monro’s thorough understanding of the Doctor’s character.
Yet, it should be noted that Munro hasn’t spent a quarter century mulling over how to write for the Doctor in Survival, the Seventh Doctor. While the Doctor in “The Eaters of Light” is certainly an extension of the cunning genius-cum-profoundly affectionate Seventh Doctor, Munro is careful to shade Twelve as less light-hearted than Seven. “Every moment you waste wallowing around in an unhappy thought, means more of the living are going to join [the dead],” the Doctor tells a sullen Kar. “If you want to win the war, then remember this: it’s not about you. Believe me, I know. Time to grow up. Time to fight your fight.” In subtly referencing the emotional effects of the Time War on the intermediate incarnations of the Doctor, Munro not only contrasts Twelve to Seven, but also reflects on the modern era’s more mature tone.
Munro further examines the Doctor’s character in the episode’s epilogue, seemingly added merely to explain Missy’s absence from the narrative, despite being freed from the vault by Nardole, in “Empress of Mars.” The scene is fittingly meta, with Missy chiding the episode’s convenient resolution in much the same way that Seven’s final lines reference the end of Doctor Who’s classic era, in Survival. “Those little people, trapped in a hill, fighting forever – – is that really up to your bleeding-heart standards?” she asks. The Doctor reprimands, “You understand the universe, you see it, you grasp it, but you never learn to hear the music.” It’s an important comparison: the Doctor and the Master are fundamentally the same, but the Doctor sees, maybe even seeks, the beautiful qualities – – the “music” – – inherent in the world around him.
While the metaphor is certainly tied to the strains of Pictish music repeated throughout “The Eaters of Light,” there is a deeper meaning. Music has long been important to the Doctor. From Two playing the recorder or Seven playing the spoons, to Three singing a Venusian lullaby or Six belting out opera, to Ten composing orchestral sheet music, literally every incarnation of the Doctor has expressed an interest in, or a talent involving, music. Referencing this, former showrunner Russell T Davies stated, “Music can go anywhere, reach anyone, and make better people of us all – – just like the Doctor.” It’s lovely that Munro, one of only three people to write televised adventures for both classic and modern-era Doctors, could proffer a more concrete reason as to why this affinity for music has pervaded each of the Doctor’s lives.