Less concerned with who’s first up against the wall than with how to decorate it

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Annie
    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.


    • Vadron
      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.)


      • Annie
        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.


        • Vadron
          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.


          • Przemek
            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.

          • Vadron
            June 25, 2019 @ 3:51 pm

            Fair enough.

    • kevin merchant
      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”


      • Vadron
        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.


        • Przemek
          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.


          • Vadron
            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.)

          • mx_mond
            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.

          • Vadron
            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”?

          • mx_mond
            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?”

          • mx_mond
            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.

          • Przemek
            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.

          • Vadron
            June 26, 2019 @ 10:09 am

            Not overly familiar, but yes, I’ve read a couple of LessWrong posts.

    • Rodolfo Piskorski
      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.


      • Sleepyscholar
        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.


      • mx_mond
        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.


      • David Cook
        March 2, 2024 @ 11:47 am

        It’s easy, the Angles and the Saxons were still on mainland Europe, while “Scotland” and “Wales” didn’t exist. The inhabitants of Britain were various different tribes, the creation of various waves of imigration. 😀


  2. Vadron
    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.


    • mx_mond
      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.


      • Vadron
        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.


  3. jbhvlvmù
    June 24, 2019 @ 6:57 pm

    Will you talk about Lego dimensions ? Because the 12th doctor has a big role in it .


    • Vadron
      June 24, 2019 @ 7:42 pm

      Oh yeah, I do hope she does.


    • prandeamus
      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.


      • Vadron
        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”.


  4. Aylwin
    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.


  5. Aylwin
    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.


  6. Przemek
    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.


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