The nearest precedents for a classic series writer returning to do a new series episode were probably the P.J. Hammond episodes of Torchwood. And indeed, those two episodes provide a handy map to the pros and cons. “Small Worlds” felt brave and refreshing, “From Out of the Rain” like a clumsy collection of random ideas that belonged to a different show. More to the point, they do this without actually being very different as scripts, which goes to show you that the comeback tour is on a knife’s edge in terms of whether it works or not. And while Hammond and Munro are very different writers, The Eaters of Light has similar problems to the Hammond scripts. Most notably, the characterizations are slightly off. Bill has unexpectedly caught Amy Pond’s already fairly idiosyncratic fascination with Roman Britain, only without the “invasion of the hot Italians” explanation. The Doctor, meanwhile, has rolled back two seasons and change of characterization, becoming more surly and uncharitable than he’s been in ages. (Note the two very Series 8 catchphrases - he’s “against” charm and back to calling human lifespans “hilarious.”) Both Hammond and Munro visibly come from a pre-”tone meeting” generation of writers - these aren’t scripts that bother with the idea that your climactic scene has to pay off some thematic thread so that the whole episode is “about” one specific thing. All the stuff I keep saying Toby Whithouse is very good at the formal structure of but never bothers to develop? This episode mostly doesn’t even bother with it.
But that doesn’t answer the question of whether this is any good or not. After all, a forty-five minute episode of Doctor Who is a container that can’t possibly hold all the things a story is supposed to do. Every story has to pass on some aspects to make room for others. So this one is a bit threadbare on the TARDIS crew’s characterization and doesn’t hammer home a theme. What does it do? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly for a returning classic series writer, it splits the TARDIS crew up from the word go, has each side meet a different faction, and then spends a lot of time teasing out the mystery of what’s going on.
Oddly, the result doesn’t feel as much like a classic series throwback as Empress of Mars did. Gatiss is still a new series guy, after all, and wrote an episode built for 45 minutes, with a modern structure, which let the very classic series thematic components shine. This, on the other hand, is so committed to doing its own thing that it doesn’t actually quite feel like anything. Some parts of it are very new series - the entire “this is a myth about why crows caw” aspect is something you’d never see in the 1980s. But this in a lot of regards this doesn’t feel like a classic series throwback because it’s so steeped in an older tradition that it just feels weird instead. It simply doesn’t bother with the modern “move through 2-3 set pieces” structure. Instead it moves through most of the beats of a classic series story, only faster. The giveaway is the couple minutes between the Doctor and Nardole escaping the Picts via popcorn and reuniting with them, a gap in which one would normally insert the better part of an episode. Instead Munro zips along to the cliffhanger (the rift/time jump sequence) then moves right on to the Doctor reuniting with Kar. Those are distinctly the beats of a classic series episode, but done at such pace and with such exquisite direction (I don’t think Doctor Who has ever used a forest so well) that it feels like something new.
There is a strand of fandom that has been largely unsatisfied with the entirety of the new series - think Lawrence Miles, though I’m using him as an example rather than a specific foil - for whom this offers to be something of a vindication. And in many ways it is - this is a surprisingly heavy episode. On first viewing, it felt longer than it was, but not in a way that felt slow-paced. It simply felt like an hour’s worth of television despite the main story being about thirty-five minutes long. Excising the connective tissue of an 80s story and powering through the actual plot beats works as a structure and feels fresh. This may not be what that particular strand of trad fandom wanted, and based on GalifreyBase nobody seems particularly appeased, but it at least proves that you can do this.
The problem comes when we ask what’s been used to fill the structure. From some perspectives it’s lovely and long on elegance - particularly in the moment when the “Bill figures out the TARDIS telepathic circuit” strand and the “the soldiers are all scared children” strand, both made clear but not over-emphasized, combine to suddenly give the episode thematic clarity. In other perspectives there’s the ending, which doesn’t quite make sense under its own rules (why is the Doctor wrong about human lifespans?) and doesn’t actually pay off anything from earlier in the episode.
The uncharitable view is that this means the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The fairer one is that this is a story that’s simply more interested in its parts. The real sparkle of Survival came in its details and strangeness, and this is no different. Munro’s dialogue casually leaps to the poetic in an absolutely delightful way. Characters with just a handful of lines feel rounded and significant. Palmer’s direction is focused on the individual shot in an unusual way, with lots of particularly beautiful framings and angles. No, it doesn’t catch fire in the way of ostentatious classics. Instead it aims to be an ordinary episode of Doctor Who, then accomplishes that in the most tried and true way: by being not quite like anything else.