The Place is Different, but the Hunt Goes On (The Eaters of Light)
|Finally, he lives up to the name Doctor Disco.|
It’s June 17th, 2017. Despacito continues its endless dominion over the charts, while Charlie Puth, Ariana Grande, Liam Payne, and David Guetta also chart, the latter featuring Justin Bieber, which means that he has three songs in the top ten without being the primary artist on any of them. Ed Sheeran has zero. In news, Otto Warmbier is returned home after over a year in a North Korean prison, with North Korea releasing him largely so he wouldn’t actually die in their custody. Tim Farron resigns as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Republican Congressman Steve Scalise is wounded by gunfire during practice for a Congressional baseball game. And, most significantly, the Grenfell Tower block erupts in flames when a malfunctioning refrigerator started an electrical fire that ignited the exterior aluminum cladding selected for its low cost. Seventy-two people are killed. Numerous buildings across the UK are still using similar cladding, and in many of the buildings that have had their cladding replaced the costs have been passed on to the residents, who often cannot afford them.
Meanwhile, on television, Doctor Who offers one of its most remarkable episodes in The Eaters of Light. The story provides us an extraordinary and singular opportunity to compare a single writer’s work on the classic series and the contemporary one. And yet most of what it turns out to do is frustrate the idea that this is an easy comparison to make. Off the bat, problems arise. Rona Munro, with only her second story, immediately takes the record for longest gap between first and last episodes (previously Terry Nation at fifteen years, nine months) with a twenty-seven year and seven month gap. She also takes the record for longest gap between two episodes (previously Gerry Davis, at seven years, seven months) with basically the same gap. And so what we have here is the difference between a thirty year old playwright who’d gotten into a BBC training course for writers and gotten poached by Andrew Cartmel, who routinely found new and interesting writers there, and a fifty-seven year old highly acclaimed veteran whose plays have gotten international stagings and numerous awards, and who has written screenplays for people like Ken Loach. This difference is, I would argue, on the whole larger than the difference between Terry Nation and Gerry Davis.
And that’s before you get to structural differences. Even if we downplay the thematic shifts around things like the role of the companion—easier to do with Munro than almost any other classic series writer given the particular story she wrote—Doctor Who in 2017 is a very different thing than Doctor Who in 1989, a gap that is after all literally longer than the gap between An Unearthly Child and Survival. With a five-minute and surely Moffat-penned Missy scene tacked onto the end, this is a thirty-eight minute episode, or just over half the length of Survival. The fact that it doesn’t have to take breaks for cliffhangers mitigates that a little bit, but the fact is still that this is a much smaller piece of televisual real estate than Munro had previously written Doctor Who upon, a fact that fundamentally changes what you can do with it.
So we have a writer with more than a quarter century of growth working on a fundamentally different structure than she’d done previously. Figuring out what comparisons to make between her two stories is hard enough; figuring out what to attribute the differences to even moreso. Let’s start, then, with comparisons. The Eaters of Light, like Empress of Mars, has a distinctly classic series structure. The Doctor and Bill start by traveling in opposite directions, meet two opposing factions, and mutually figure out bits of the plot before reuniting to finally resolve it all. Its morality is quaint—an endorsement of ending cycles of violence and working together that sadly does not involve Peter Capaldi shouting “IF WE FIGHT LIKE ANIMALS, WE DIE LIKE ANIMALS” at Michelle Gomez. And it shares (and indeed intensifies) Survival’s sense of working in a mythic and mystical register.
What gets lost in compressing this into half the runtime of Munro’s previous effort (and something more like a third of the classic series standard four-parter) is the bulk of the connective tissue. Survival is a story in which the meat and matter of things is the Doctor investigating, learning things, and discovering. Part of this is imposed by its cliffhanger structure, which dictates that the first third of it must be spent building to the knowledge that the Master is involved, but even after that the central dramatic engine is the act of figuring things out. That’s aggressively short-changed here, in favor of a plot that does not quite make sense and a resolution that is in key ways unearned. (The Doctor’s determination to sacrifice himself is, in particular, somewhat out of nowhere, although it ends up setting up the functionally suicidal Doctor we get in Capaldi’s twin finales.) But much like Survival’s season-mate Ghost Light, the lack of joined up plot is a minor problem by dint of the fact that everything that’s here feels like it should go together and drawing in the missing links simply isn’t that hard. The gaps left are significant, but they’re bridgeable.
The wisdom of this approach is that it leaves Munro time to make sure that her themes are coming through. This was a strength of Survival, which was meticulously themed. That juxtaposed imagery of feminine empowerment with a critique of social Darwinism and what we’d now call toxic masculinity, weaving them together into a consistent thematic tapestry that made the story feel rich with ideas. And The Eaters of Light maintains this tendency, ending up as one of the most idea-rich Doctor Who stories of the modern era.
The core of these themes was summarized succinctly by Andrew Ellard: “This episode is *about* a series of things, each leading to the next: COMMUNICATION and CONSUMPTION and TIME and LIGHT.” And he cites a persuasive number of data points: the capacity for the Picts and Romans to communicate and ally, Nardole telling a story about a species that communicates through eating, Nardole’s gift of gab, time healing Bill, the eating of light rapidly aging people, and the crows’ voices carrying stories across time.
Much as Survival’s themes end up at their least interesting if you collapse them into a message (roughly “feminine communion good, social Darwinism bad”), the best thing to do with this realization is in no way to try to come up with a summary of what Munro has to say about communication, consumption, time, and light (roughly “through communication we can preserve the light of life against time’s endless consumption”). What’s interesting is something that we largely took for granted in the classic series because of how frequently it appeared, but that has been largely absent as the new series has simply focused on other things: the sense of texture that this gives. Ellard notices the way in which, despite a number of holes and gaps in the story, he found himself focused and engaged with it because of this conceptual depth.
Simply put, The Eaters of Light feels more like the TARDIS has landed in a world than almost anything else in the new series. Even Thin Ice, which we singled out for its engagement with ideas, is ultimately oriented more around the act of investigation and figuring out, a process we’ve already noted is short-changed here. The Eaters of Light is simply structured around a world with tangible depth, with a sense of history and of reasons why things are the way they are. This hasn’t quite been entirely absent from the new series—The Doctor’s Daughter, bizarrely, springs to mind, as does The Rings of Akhaten—but even there, the tendency is to have everything collapse into a climactic set piece revelation. There’s no twist that suddenly binds The Eaters of Light together. It’s simply a world that is built up from a texture of ideas, with care taken to define elements of the world in relation to the key themes.
In this regard it’s perhaps for the best that The Eaters of Light is a deeply flawed story because it finally nails the case that this is something Doctor Who can actually be going forward. It is not, after all, the high points that define an era of Doctor Who; the Davison era isn’t defined by The Caves of Androzani, nor the Pertwee era by Carnival of Monsters, nor, for that matter, the Tennant by Blink. It is ultimately ordinary episodes—ones that are engaging but imperfect—that define what Doctor Who is. And so to really definitively show that it’s possible to do this sort of thing in the modern era it’s necessary to do it not brilliantly and definitively, but rather adequately. And it’s fitting that this should be the last non-Moffat story of the era—a role Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead played for the Davies era—in that it, like that story, it provides a road map forward.
Of course, there are problems here, of which “this is in no way the direction the show actually goes in from here” is only one. From a practical perspective, it has to be admitted that this direction may or may not actually point towards any popular success. With 4.7 million viewers, The Eaters of Light is in fact Rona Munro’s least viewed episode of Doctor Who, although it’s notable that 4.7 million is good for 26th place in 2017, whereas 4.8m for Survival episode 2 got you 96th place in 1989. (The last time in the classic series Doctor Who got 26th place was Time-Flight, which took ten million viewers to get it, and even in 2008 Silence in the Library pulled 6.3 million in the course of getting 27th, although none of these numbers are factoring time of year and in practice there’s quite a lot of variation in the correspondence between viewer numbers and chart placing.) Nevertheless, 4.7 million marks a numerical low for the revived series, coming in the course of Capaldi’s second consecutive season of ratings that are merely good as opposed to “massive hit” territory. These ratings were never bad per se, but they were at least starting to scrape around the point where it’s appropriate to ask how much lower they could go before it was a problem. And so a direction like the one suggested here—one that seems to double down on Doctor Who’s sense of oddness—had transparently less appeal than Chibnall’s breezy populism.
A second and arguably more substantial problem comes around the reasons this episode falters, namely how much it has to jettison to make this cocktail of ideas work. It’s certainly possible to make a story work with loose plot logic, and as we’ve noted some of the best stories in Doctor Who do just that, but it’s difficult to imagine sustaining this sort of “handwave your way through” storytelling over an entire season. Of course, we’ve already seen other ways of dealing with big idea stories that don’t do this, most obviously Thin Ice, but the underlying point remains that forty-five minutes is not the ideal container for exploring worlds built out of ideas, a fact born out by a perusal of two-parters in the classic series.
The obvious solution is to refocus on two-parters, and it’s significant that Moffat’s best season did exactly that, even if none of them really operated in the idea-focused register. Indeed, the hallmark of the Moffat two-parter, the aggressive shift in concept in the second half, really works against the extended exploration of ideas. And, of course, that was the season that really bled the bulk of its viewers. But it remains the format by which Doctor Who could become a show about ideas again, a direction that 2017 repeatedly showed was promising.
But as I said, of course, the big problem is that this isn’t where the show went. We’ll get around to looking at where it went instead in a few years time, but for now what we have is an odd phantom of a direction—a set of marks and scratchings that, had things gone differently, would be recognizable as the show anticipating its own future, but are instead something more like the birthing of a ghost. And so we’re left with an utterly strange sense of what Rona Munro’s stories are like: they foreshadow the things Doctor Who isn’t going to get to become.
June 24, 2019 @ 4:53 pm
So once again, we have another Doctor Who story where the oppressed are criticised for fighting back against their oppressors.
The Romans are invading Scotland and yet the first thing the doctor does when he sees The Picts is to criticise them for daring to defend themselves, the fact that releasing the creature would have such a negative effect on the rest of the world was unknown to them.
I also don’t like the callous disregard the 12th doctor has for the suffering of various groups, and equating the oppressed and the opressor doesn’t sit well with me.
June 24, 2019 @ 5:16 pm
Whether they knew it would threaten the rest of the universe, it does look like the Picts knew what the Eater would do to the Romans, though. Defending yourself one thing, it’s quite another to do so with a sci-fi equivalent of a nuclear weapon (think about it: it gruesomely slaughters the enemy to the last in an instant, with no chance of just taking prisoners, and there’s no guarantee that you can stop its effects from “spreading”).
It’s the (to my mind fairly indisputable) ideas of the “Zygon” speech, exemplified more accurately than they were by that two-parter: “no matter how right you feel, when you press the button, you have no idea who’s going to die”. You should always try to negotiate before you start a war, because a war, even one started for righteous reasons, is an impossible thing to control, and it inevitably ends with the deaths of innocents. Negotiation won’t always be enough, but if you have a shot at peace through negotiation, you should always try, out of mercy for all the people who will surely die if you don’t. (“Friends, enemies… I’m not sure any of that matters so long as there’s mercy.” Another relevant quote.)
Also, unrelatedly, and I think very importantly: those particular Picts personally decided to release the Eater. The Romans who got killed didn’t personally decide to conquer Scotland, and one imagines that a number of them would really rather have deserted and/or stayed home given the chance, but you don’t exactly have a choice in an imperial army. (The Doctor could, and in the abstract should, of course, take his concerns up with the Emperor who ordered the conquest in the first place. The only reason he can’t is because fixed-point-not-one-line-blah-blah-blah.)
June 24, 2019 @ 7:20 pm
Yeah, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the zygon story.
I’m not sure if you’ve read it, but this piece by Jack Graham really illustrates and highlights all the various issues I had with it, though he is much more articulate than me.
I think the problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that the Picts haven’t tried negotiating with the Romans before The invasion.
June 24, 2019 @ 7:53 pm
As I said I think the Zygon two-parter actually did a pretty bad job of showcasing the moral stance embodied by the Doctor’s speech. And I don’t even stand by all of the speech — the “revolting is pointless because you’ll become the establishment and others will revolt” thing is more than a bit dodgy. But I wholeheartedly agree with “do everything in your power to get people to just sit down and talk sincerely, if there’s any chance of them doing that, because it’s always better than a war”.
Hadn’t spotted the Jack Graham article (I think the man could stand to create an index of his posts like Sandifer has of TARDIS Eruditorum, for easier browsing), will definitely give it a read. From previous experience I don’t expect to agree with all of it, but it’ll certainly be interesting.
It’s true that this is assuming the Picts haven’t tried talking to the Romans, but I’m fairly sure that the episode itself takes this as a given, or the TARDIS translation circuits forcing them to suddenly do so wouldn’t be that big a deal.
At any rate, what do you make of my final argument? Namely, that the Roman soldiers don’t really have a choice to be conquering Scotland or not, because they’ll get executed as traitors if they don’t march where the Empire tells them to march. And therefore, that even if the Picts are entitled to protecting their own lives, they shouldn’t be considered to have a moral high ground over the Roman soldiers.
June 25, 2019 @ 1:14 pm
There’s (almost) always a choice. Armies have risen against emperors and tyrants many times, this one just decided not to. I don’t blame them, it was a very hard choice. But it was a choice nonetheless.
And anyway, the Picts were defending their homes from an invading force. Coming from a country that’s been invaded many, many times, I don’t think it’s fair to judge the desperate defenders for their choice of weapons when the alternative is either total subjugation or death. They couldn’t sit down and talk to prevent war because the war already came to them and they were in no position to negotiate good (or even acceptable) terms.
June 25, 2019 @ 3:51 pm
June 24, 2019 @ 6:21 pm
Especially as the Roman idea of conquering was total war: Attack with overwhelming force and only negotiate, if then, when the area had been “pacified”
June 24, 2019 @ 7:43 pm
I mean, this isn’t wrong, but I think the utter annihilation that results from letting the Eater loose still totals as more deaths than would have ensued if the Romans had attacked as normal with no involvement from paranormal tentacle-tigers.
June 25, 2019 @ 1:19 pm
The Picts basically had a choice between “some of them dead, most of us dead, the rest of us subjugated and/or enslaved” and “many of us and them dead, the rest of us free” (keep in mind that they thought they could control the monster). I don’t think one can easily decide which option is better just by counting the dead. There are other factors to consider.
June 25, 2019 @ 3:50 pm
That’s a matter of moral systems, I suppose. I don’t deny that there are people who would view it otherwise — but for my part, I place such a high negative-value on the death of a sapient being that anything else short of eternal torture pales in comparison.
(Of course, Testimony therefore muddles any and all moral calculations in “Doctor Who” for me, but since none of the interested parties know about it yet at the moment, I think it’s fair ignore it.)
June 26, 2019 @ 7:33 am
To me it seems like one of those situations where all moral systems seem quaint and distant and one really shouldn’t judge unless (if then) one has been faced with conquest, subjugation, oppression.
June 26, 2019 @ 10:11 am
It’s not that I don’t see what you mean, but what even is the point of having moral systems if whenever you come across a hard moral dilemma you just throw up your hands in the air and go “you had to be there”?
June 26, 2019 @ 10:38 am
As someone who has large sympathy for situational ethics, I’d shorten the question to “what even is the point of having moral systems?”
June 26, 2019 @ 10:44 am
But generally speaking, I do not think it’s okay to judge attacked people for using disproportionate means of self-defence if they’re not the ones who started the fight.
June 26, 2019 @ 7:37 am
I understand. To each their own.
Out of curiosity, are you familiar with the writing of Eliezer Yudkowsky and other folks at LessWrong? You sometimes use phrases that remind me of them.
June 26, 2019 @ 10:09 am
Not overly familiar, but yes, I’ve read a couple of LessWrong posts.
June 24, 2019 @ 9:37 pm
I found both your point and the episode’s point too muddled because of the heavy politics attached to Ancient Britain, especially in the context of Brexit. Who gets to count as “British” in these ancient stories is always shifting, especially when you get to a Celtic vs Anglo-Saxon dilemma. The Roman invasion is also complicated by the fact that, in many places, like Wales, the Roman culture seemed to fuse with Celtic, to the point that the Celtic languages did not disappear (as they did in Anglo-Saxon England later). We must not forget the role played by Christianity in all this, of course. English identity usually sides with the Anglo-Saxons against both Celts and Normans, and with the Celts against the Romans (as we see in the episode), but it is inconvenient that when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, they were pagans who the Christian Celts tried to resist. Ironically, present-day England probably owes much of its culture and identity to the Normans, even though they’re usually the bad guys.
In all, I thought this episode was making muddled points about Britishness by means of casting and accents.
June 25, 2019 @ 1:09 am
‘High’ culture is indeed Norman (those who eat boeuf, let’s say).
But the culture of the majority of the country is more Anglo-Saxon, I’d say (keepers of the cow). The patina of Norman culture over the top is like here in Japan, where a majority of the population, despite being descended from the bonge, are effectively brought up to think of themselves as inheritors of the samurai.
I think the portrayal of the Normans as ‘baddies’ is a part of this majority culture pushback (and you can see how the establishment tried to resist it with stuff such as the ‘Earl of Huntingdon’ interpretation of Robin Hood).
Possibly this is connected to people being prepared to vote for the likes of Johnson.
June 25, 2019 @ 6:37 am
I feel like there’s some interesting reading to be made in that context of the fact that the Romans in TEoL become part of Britishness, almost literally merging with the landscape.
June 24, 2019 @ 4:56 pm
Excellent commentary as always; the articulation of the themes is clever indeed, and now that you mention it it is true that “Eaters” does communicate a very strong sense of its world. Though not, sadly, of the nature of the monster in it, which I think mars the exercise a bit. (It’s not just the design, which, though it is rather poor, cannot be blamed on the writer; but while I’m sure there’s a clever sci-f explanation why that should be the case, it fails to make any intuitive sense at all that stealing light from people turns them into goo.)
Oh, and I had an interesting thought while pondering this episode’s number-one plot-hole, namely that the Doctor initially says that even with the time-distortion effect he has to be the one to go in and fight the beast because human lifespans are too short, yet a number of regular old humans eventually seem to do the trick just fine. Well… the trick’s in “time-distortion effect”. This appears to be Munro trying to inject a Moffat-style “temporal jiggery-pokery” plot device, and not quite getting it right. Whether she did so on Moffat’s orders (it does after all prime the audience for “World Falls Upon A Time”‘s use of temporal dilation, so it could be intentional foreshadowing), or of her own accord in an effort to conform to the new narrative conventions of “Doctor Who”, I do not know. But it seems very interesting either way as one of the things separating this NuWho story from the story it would have been if it had been made from the same toolbox as “Survival”.
Weak monster and frustrating temporal business aside, I do love the episode quite a bit, but I have a couple more nitpicks.
First, the crow business is nice and poetic and all, but I do wish writers wouldn’t just throw out “X animal species is sapient” like it was nothing into an Earth-like setting. Doesn’t the Doctor now have the same moral duty to try and get mankind to realize the error of their ways in treating crows as nonsentient pests that he did to get humanity to give the Silurians their dues? And why don’t the crows make any efforts to signal their sapience to human beings, anyway?
Second, the ancient-history-buff in me can’t help but quibble with the presentation of the Romans’ views on sexuality. They were accepting of bisexuality to the point of considering it the default, and the scene makes a great gag out of showing that off… but that only went for male bisexuality (the sexist gits). A woman who refused to humor a man, now that would have been quite another thing. As I said, it’s just a quibble; one can certainly assume that those particular Romans are somewhat more open-minded. But a quibble it is.
June 25, 2019 @ 6:47 am
“Oh, and I had an interesting thought while pondering this episode’s number-one plot-hole, namely that the Doctor initially says that even with the time-distortion effect he has to be the one to go in and fight the beast because human lifespans are too short, yet a number of regular old humans eventually seem to do the trick just fine. Well… the trick’s in “time-distortion effect”. This appears to be Munro trying to inject a Moffat-style “temporal jiggery-pokery” plot device, and not quite getting it right.”
I don’t know, I feel she got it exactly right: one human Keeper can hold the eaters at bay for a generation. The Doctor can do that for longer, either because he’s a formidable Warrior (a characterisation that admittedly has been phased out in the Capaldi era), or just because he plans to feed the eaters on his light, which will last longer (due to how long he’s lived, the power of the light of regeneration or whatever). But in the end the place of a solitary Keeper is taken by a group of human warriors fighting together, which means they last longer than a few seconds, which results in ages of peace in our world.
June 25, 2019 @ 9:17 am
Your idea would make sense, but I’m not sure the idea is that an individual Keeper gets killed within seconds. The Doctor’s objection is “human lifespans are hilarious”, implying the difference isn’t that he’d fight better, but rather that he’d just plain stay alive longer. If that’s the case, several people going in at once wouldn’t really solve anything, unless the problem is being solved by some of them eating each other.
June 24, 2019 @ 6:57 pm
Will you talk about Lego dimensions ? Because the 12th doctor has a big role in it .
June 24, 2019 @ 7:42 pm
Oh yeah, I do hope she does.
June 25, 2019 @ 2:08 pm
I had no idea the 12th had a big role in that. Looking over my kids playing (I am not a gamer….) I got the impression he was mainly a NPC who make stereotypical S8 grump comments. I would be interested to know if that’s not the case.
June 25, 2019 @ 3:47 pm
It isn’t at all. Not only is he a major supporting character in the main “Batman, Wyldstyle & Gandalf” storyline, but there’s a bonus level, unrelated to the main “worlds colliding” story arc, where he’s the player character. It’s cutely entitled “The Dalek Extermination of Earth”.
June 24, 2019 @ 10:01 pm
There is a more hopeful take on the Survival analogy, in the degree to which season 26 ended up shaping the new series. It had a future, it just had to wait a while. And another theme of the episode is that old Moffat stand-by, memory. Specifically, a memory that quietly endures when something seems to have been forgotten. And if a thing can be remembered, sometimes it can come back.
June 24, 2019 @ 10:05 pm
The trouble with mentioning Ghost Light is that it just launches me into Ghost Light thoughts and leaves me wanting to talk about Ghost Light instead, because Ghost Light.
June 27, 2019 @ 9:46 am
This was a fascinating analysis. Thank you. Now I really wish this story was actually used as a model for the next era of DW. Instead we got Chris fucking Chibnall…
I really like this episode and yet it always felt undercooked for me. The plot holes and the rushed ending are very noticeable and although EoL has many interesting themes, they don’t actually have that much in common with one another. I can’t easily draw connections between “COMMUNICATION and CONSUMPTION and TIME and LIGHT”. In a longer work that would be fine – there would be enough time to develop each theme and make them work together. But in such a rushed story this thematic depth feels rather like a lack of focus.
Still, I loved so many things about this episode (Bill, the queer Romans, the Pict girl, Nardole getting accepted by the Picts, the Doctor’s behaviour). It’s certainly one of the most memorable stories in S10 and in the whole Capaldi era.