It’s present-day in Aberdeen, Scotland, and all wee Judy wants to do is lie down on top of a hill and listen for the music stirring underground. A young boy, presumably her older brother, who has listened to many a supernatural tale upon an elder’s knee; is anything but keen: “You’re going to get me in trouble. Everyone knows there are ghosts in the hill.”
Judy is not deterred, nor phased much by her companion’s affinity for self-preservation. Cue the sought-after ancestral melody, and lo, a black crow calling “Doc! Tor!”
The TARDIS materializes in 2 A.D. The Doctor has forsaken his post at the entry to Missy’s vault because Bill has issued a challenge of sorts by claiming to know more about the Romans than he does. She read a book and got an A star. He lived in Roman Britain – farmed, juggled, was a vestal virgin (second class). Neither, it seems, can back down from this, so Bill takes off on foot in search of a Roman soldier, and The Doctor and Nardole likewise to locate the ninth Roman legion’s last battlefield.
What could possibly go wrong?
Bill attracts the wrath of a young Pict warrior bearing two large knives, and winds up falling through a hole in the ground, one of many traps in the woods set by barbarians. It’s a wonder Bill has never broken a single bone yet this series, when all it took for me to shatter my right humerus and wind up with a permanent radial nerve injury was a slip and fall in a downtown hotel parking garage at Christmastime. But I digress. Bill finds herself at eye level with the tip of a sword belonging to a Roman soldier.
Discovering evidence of 5,000 Romans – “burning huts, slaughtered locals, sweetie wrappers” – isn’t easily accomplished. Instead, The Doctor and Nardole come upon “a stone cairn! Pictish civilization” and seem almost disappointed. Underground, but close to the sky. Doors between worlds. Iron-age churches. He and Nardole find the battlefield, and come upon a tribe of angry Picts.
Bill helps the Roman soldier climb out of the trap, and hears a growl accompany a tell-tale rustle in the bushes. “A thing, a monster,” says the soldier. He tells her that his group were all that remained of the original 5,000: “We were the ones who couldn’t face it.”
“It” is a dragon-like creature with neon-blue flecks on its long, wispy tentacles. I’d have run too, for what that’s worth, clutching my bum arm all the while. Bill reaches the safe place inhabited by the group of fearful Romans, with the monster hot on her heels.
And that’s just the first ten minutes and thirty-five seconds of this episode.
With the two-part finale of Series 10 literally just around the corner in TV terms, “The Eaters Of Light” is a very good stand-alone episode with enough fear factor to keep its audience – adults and children alike – engaged. It’s absolutely worth noting that the screenwriter, Scottish playwright Rona Munro, is the first person to have written episodes in both the classic and current Who eras. The classic era episode is “Survival,” which was the final (three-part) episode of Doctor Who to air in 1989 before the BBC pulled the plug on the series as a whole, and in which the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) encounter The Master (Anthony Ainley).
“The Eaters Of Light” concludes with Missy on board the TARDIS, ostensibly performing long overdue mechanical repairs. Their final exchanges border on a “will they, won’t they” after 54 years of being frenemies. The music that The Doctor plays for her brings her to tears. (It’s okay, Missy. Celtic music does that to me, too, Scots and Irish blood and all.) History piques with its unanswered questions.
Rating: 9/10 inter-dimensional vaults
Next week: Mondasian Cybermen and John Simm, and one more step on the road towards Twelve’s end.