In 1989, Doctor Who disappeared from our TV screens, not to return as a fully-fledged TV series again until 2005. The final story of the Classic Series (as it has now become known) featured cheetah people, a visit to a rundown part of West London, and the final canonical appearance of Anthony Ainley as The Master. It was written by the then thirty year-old Scottish writer Rona Munro, who has since gone on to great acclaim as a playwright. This week, nearly 28 years on, Munro makes her writing return to Doctor Who with The Eaters of Light. This makes her the only writer from the Classic Series to have now also written for the modern series. The results are really quite something.
The Doctor, Bill and Nardole are off in Roman era Scotland, on the hunt for the lost Ninth Roman Legion, which he and Bill have a bet about. As they hunt they come across a clan of Pictish people, who are none too pleased that there are Romans about, and the last few survivors of the Ninth, all of whom are young soldiers no more than eighteen years old. As they investigate, they find out that a seemingly unstoppable creature has been terrorizing the surrounding countryside, killing off the Ninth, and now the Pictish people too. The only way that it can be stopped is if everyone works together, but with the Romans and the Picts being mortal enemies, this seems unlikely.
This episode is an excellent use of Doctor Who's central premise. In fact, it harkens back to the original reason for Doctor Who's commission in the 1960s as a vessel for tangential learning about history. Munro, a long time scholar of Scottish history, uses this story as an opportunity to shed light on the early peoples of Scotland, as well as the more glossed over aspects of Roman history. It's a fascinating insight into ancient culture, and is marvelously even-handed in its depictions of both sides of the conflict.
Eaters of Light is filled with little surprises. Bill and a Roman soldier have a fascinating conversation about sexuality, which also happens to be suitable for children to listen to. In response to him making polite advances on her, she says that she likes girls. Another Roman soldier then chips in that he only likes boys. The first Roman soldier then remarks on how charmingly quaint they both are, in that he likes both boys and girls. In less than five minutes we get a lesson in sexual politics, the history of same, and the relative immodernity of many steadfastly held modern sexual mores.
"...a gentler paced episode that trades on thoughtfulness and visuals, rather than plot adrenaline."
Folklore, history and politics put aside, we are left with a story that is also still a good 'monster-on-the-loose' episode. Simple enough in basic construction, with a creepy-looking monster and clear sci-fi mechanics surrounding it, the story plays out, largely as a vessel for all the subject matter mentioned above. This is refreshing in Doctor Who, allowing for a gentler paced episode that trades on thoughtfulness and visuals, rather than plot adrenaline. The writing for Missy (who turns up again briefly) is also wonderful. Rona Munro's return is most certainly a welcome one. With any luck, we won't have to wait another 28 years for her next outing.