Doctor Who has a flawless way of taking small moments and mysteries from history and weaving them into the mythos of the show in both clever and entertaining fashion.
Take this week’s instalment, The Eaters of Light, as an example. Up till last night, this reviewer had never even heard of Rome’s Ninth Legion or the legends that surround it – how 5000 of Rome’s finest soldiers disappeared in the mists of Caledonia, the mystery of their strange disappearance enduring throughout the centuries. It’s an integral part of Doctor Who‘s DNA to be educational as well as it is thrilling, stretching back to the show’s original mission statement upon it’s debut in 1963. The Eaters of Light certainly makes a strong case for educational value by shining a light on this piece of history, even if it does still take massive liberties by throwing in pan-dimensional light-eating monsters and talking Ravens.
Writer Rona Munro clearly has some love for the subject matter, and imbues her story with a quasi-mystical feel that plays out like a classic folk-tale, an aspect further highlighted by gorgeous cinematography and a lovely Celtic score from Murray Gold. Munro’s knowledge and affection for Scottish culture and history is on display throughout, helping give this episode a sumptuous visual identity and a classic Hammer Horror-esque style.
Like all the best horrors, the monsters themselves are terrifying by their absence, their presence onscreen fleeting until the final few minutes of the episode. The nature of their threat though is depicted in grim, grotesque detail, and some marvellous visual effects work hard to sell the horror of the situation we find our heroes trapped in.
Like with most of the best stories of this series, The Eaters of Light is highly dependant on fleshed out guest characters – Rebecca Benson is a delight as the tough but guilt-ridden celtic warrior Kar, lending a vulnerability to her character that ensures the audience’s empathy. Likewise, the roman legion characters are fleshed-out in excellent fashion, with Brian Vernel‘s Lucius providing the episode with plenty of warmth and heart as the inexperienced deserter-turned-leader.
The main cast all get a chance to shine as well, as we explore the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) selfish saviour complex and his irrational need to be the hero. It’s a character trait that comes full circle when the Doctor is confronted with the possibility that his old enemy, the Master (Michelle Gomez) may not be as bad as she used to be, in a beautiful scene that caps off the episode in intriguing fashion.
The Eaters of Light may not be historical accurate, what with it’s light-eating locusts and dimensional gateways, but it manages to take an interesting little moment from history and explore it through a tightly plotted, fantastical adventure. If it does the job and gets more people reading up on the actual historical facts it uses as a springboard, then all the better for it.
If anyone needs us, we’ll be in the library!
Doctor Who returns next week, as does our Series Blog.