The Breathers of Fresh Air

Review of The Eaters of Light
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

We're rapidly winding down the time we have left with what has become one of my favorite TARDIS teams of all time, so I really want to love every episode. We're also hurtling towards a Moffat series finale. You may be able to spot my dilemma...

Aside from the TARDIS-interior scene tacked onto the end of the episode, The Eaters of Light could reasonably have come at pretty much any point in Twelve and Bill's adventures after she's come to trust him; e.g., starting from about her fourth episode. (Yes, I know Nardole is part of this crew, but he takes up a Harry Sullivan-shaped slot in my mind. While I've come to like him fairly well, and he even has some sort of role to play in the adventure, he remains an afterthought for me ("oh, yeah—him!") when I envision who is in the TARDIS.) Perhaps that unanchored sense—and, again barring the final scene, the ability mostly to pretend we aren't charging inexorably toward this Regeneration's doom—is what helped me enjoy it more than I have the last several.

Right off the bat, we have the lovely sense of an ongoing friendly disagreement coming to a head. In fact, it felt very like a graduate student holding her own against her advisor in an academic argument about her thesis topic/area of expertise. I cannot say enough about how much I adore this dynamic between the Doctor and his Companion. (Come to think of it, as the other TARDIS team vying for first in my personal rankings is Seven and Ace, there may be a trend.) More, I love that there is a very particular reason that the TARDIS has come to this specific time and place.

Then we get the talking crow. I wasn't sure how to react to that at first. Despite my own personal fondness for corvids that can speak to humans, it felt cheesy and completely extraneous. By the end of course, there's a deliberate, sweet (some would say sickly so) reason for it, and I can't find it in me to begrudge the indulgence.

Once our heroes have been thrown into the crisis du jour, things proceed in a way that feels quintessentially Who. Somehow it is simultaneously predictable and surprising. Bill herself calls out the Doctor's behavior as just what he does; she knows him well enough to realize he'll be right in the thick of things. (See how carefully I skated just parallel to that joke?)

Speaking of  calling out the Doctor's behavior, I'm sad to say I find myself needing to do so again this week. The only thing that truly soured me on Eaters of Light was the way the Doctor treated Kar. While I know that Twelve is well known for being prickly, I've always seen that as the defensive exterior he uses to protect his tender underbelly. Here, it comes across differently.

First, the Doctor is usually insulting to people about specific personal traits: lack of intelligence, (or more likely reasoned thought), "wide face," "appalling hair," etc. Some of these are within the insultee's control (hairstyle), while others are not (size/shape of face). What none of them are is cultural.

Thus, when Twelve begins berating Kar for her intention to fight the Eater(s) of Light with "[her] lollipop and [her] kiddie face paint," it makes me go cold. I know the Doctor doesn't appreciate "primitive" beliefs, but I hate that he's using that as a basis from which to tear down a young woman who is already scared shitless and apprehensive about the decision she made to try to save her people. Especially when he piles it on and lays "you doomed your whole world" at her feet. Sure, he tears her down only to build her up stronger later (in a twisted sort of way), but any way you slice it, that's not a kindness.

Having pointed out the nasty bits, let's set them aside and turn to more pleasant thoughts. To begin, I quite enjoyed Bill's conversation with the remains of the Ninth. From the POV of someone who's neither lesbian nor bisexual, I found it amusing that the latter was perceived by Lucius and his troops as "normal," while Bill's orientation was "restricted." It served as a nice reminder that attitudes toward sexuality are a cultural construct, too.

As usual, pretty much everything awesome about the episode centered on Bill. The conversation just mentioned; her deduction about how the Doctor/the TARDIS automatically translates everything (and the way that leads to the collaboration between Romans and Picts); her insistence that it is the temporal locals' destiny, not the Doctor's, to hold back the Eaters of Light—all of these are fabulous moments that bring Bill into focus, and are wonderful almost entirely because she is the central figure therein.

I'm going to pretend the last couple of minutes inside the TARDIS didn't happen—in part because they are so divorced from the rest of the episode, and in part because I'm neither interested in that plot line nor keen on the arrival of the looming end of Twelve's tenure. But there are a couple of other details I'd like to mention before I steel myself for the two-part series finale that springs directly from those final moments.

First, I'm curious about why the Doctor was so set on going into the portal himself. "No one else can do this—not like I can," he declares. Three thoughts ran through my head at this point: (1) Savior complex much? (2) What worse fate do you anticipate that you're so dead set on avoiding? (3) Learn to delegate! And I thought I was bad at that—jeez...

The other thing I wanted to be sure to cover is the ways in which this episode (just like every other this series) points back to the rest of the televised canon. (These are, of course, only the ones that I saw; I'm sure others can point out more.) To wit, the Doctor's description of the monsters as "light-eating locusts" brought to mind The Planet of the Dead. His insistence on his fitness to hold the gate, as he could live a very long time and regenerate if necessary put me in mind of his single-mindedness in Heaven Sent. And his claim that he has "been standing by the gates of your world keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime" had me flashing back to the climactic moments of City of Death.

And, of course, the Doctor referred to the beast currently loosed on the world as a "big bad wolf of a monster." One can't just say that in Doctor Who after the Ninth Doctor without people immediately jumping to certain conclusions. I will go so far as to say I don't think it had anything to do with Rose, but it did make me raise an eyebrow, and wonder if it were a deliberate reference. Perhaps it was merely an attempt to reclaim what was previously a perfectly good phrase that Russell T Davies co-opted.

Whatever the case, this episode felt to me like a breath of fresh air, our last hurrah before the impending storm of the series finale. Despite some less-than-stellar moments along the way, this series has overall been fabulous, and I'm crushed at the prospect of losing this TARDIS team—in part or in whole. All I can hope for now is that the finale doesn't find a way to sour everything that came before. I'll hold onto this breath as long as I can.

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Comments

It's interesting to me - this season. It started off with some of my favorite episodes so far, and then completely lost my with the three parter (I didn't even watch Part 3). I also didn't bother with the Gatiss written one, I feel the disdain for him you feel for the current showrunner - I've ranted on here before that he is the author of my absolute least favorite episodes.Now, this episode fell flat for me - I don't know why - until the part you liked least. I find myself excited for what happens next....

By Travis (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

It's so fascinating to me to how different people view the same stories so differently. I agree that the three-parter was underwhelming, and I've not often been fond of an episode penned by Gatiss, so I also had the feeling of a great start that petered out.

I think it's cool that you're excited for the Big Arc. I just hope it doesn't totally set my teeth on edge. :\

By mrfranklin

See, they had a black soldier in this episode too. The difference is the Roman Empire included parts of Africa so a black soldier made perfect sense.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yes, there were two. No argument necessary about historical context this time. :)

By mrfranklin

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