Doctor Who Review: The Eaters of Light

I’m really not sure about The Eaters of Light.

On the one hand: what a fantastic name – a name to go along with a fantastic symbolic set-up.

On the other hand: I think it has to muddle its moral world somewhat to get to that set-up.

It’s the second century AD. The Doctor and Bill have rocked up in Scotland to settle an argument about what really happened to the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire (which, to save you a trip to Wikipedia the Font of All Knowledge, disappears from surviving Roman records round about 120 AD). The Doctor thinks they were destroyed by the Pictish army. Bill believes they escaped. They separate, and tramp off in search of clues for their respective hypotheses. This is, as we know, always a good idea in a mysterious historical time period.

After a deal of mild peril and a foray into local folklore, it transpires that the Ninth were destroyed by the titular Eaters of Light: interdimensional locusts, as the Doctor dubs them, clustering Lovecraftianly at cracks in space-time, ready to come into our world and eat the sun. For three generations a local tribe of Picts have held the interdimensional gate against the Eaters, using a temporal trick of the gate to extend their lifespans – a couple of seconds within the mound that houses the gate amounts to a couple of days outside it. But the current gatekeeper, a young woman named Kar, has let one of them through, to destroy the army colonising her country. This, obviously, is A Bad Thing, and the Doctor comes up with a cunning plan to lure the creature back to its dimension.

There is one excellent scene which I would like to commend to your attention before I start complaining. Temporarily trapped with some deserters who are all that remain of the Ninth Legion, Bill comes out to Cornelius, the Roman soldier who’s obviously interested in her In That Way. “This is probably just a really difficult idea,” she says. “I don’t like men…Just women.” “Ah! You’re like Vitus, then!” Cornelius chirps, unperturbed. “He only likes men!” Cornelius himself is (what we would think of as) bisexual: “I’m just ordinary. You know, I like men and women.”

I just want you to think about that for a minute.

This is a prime time, popular science fiction show.

This is a show that spent last season punishing its strong women and blithely ignoring its vaguely racist undertones.

This is a show whose first episode this season made the lesbian love interest a literal possessive alien.

Not only is it now giving secondary characters non-heteronormative sexualities for non-plot reasons, it’s also doing the conceptual work to recognise that our sexual norms are culturally specific; further, that our assumptions about historic sexual norms basically erase non-normative people from history. (I don’t know enough to say whether Romans really thought bisexuality the norm, but it doesn’t seem hugely unlikely.)

And it’s doing all this in a two-minute throwaway scene that has nothing to do with the plot.

This is brilliant.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t extend that conceptual work to the bits that actually are plot-relevant. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the episode knows where it wants to get to: the Ninth Legion and the Keeper of the Gate, Romans and Picts, fighting the Eaters of Light, together, forever. Music under the hill, for those to hear as will listen. The crows, remembering down the centuries: “Kar! Kar!” Very Celtic. Very pretty. Very mythic. It’s just that, to get there, it has to do some painful-looking moral contortions.

The Eaters of Light picks up the theme of desertion from last week’s episode, Empress of Mars. Here, at least, Bill says to the Roman soldiers what we instinctively felt she should also have said to Captain Godsacre last week:

You’re not cowards. You’re scared. Scared is fine. Scared is human.

But, you know, I think that sentiment would probably have meant more if the soldiers of the Ninth hadn’t redeemed their desertion, narratively speaking, by sacrificing their lives in an eternal fight against monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions; just as Captain Godsacre redeemed his past desertion by laying down his life in the service of a warrior race. So The Eaters of Light has the same problem as Empress of Mars: it co-opts the ideological structures of colonialism, invisibly, to make martial endeavour and sacrifice the “right” atonement for deserting the colonial project.

And, speaking of colonialism: the Doctor’s treatment of Kar, the Keeper of the Gate, struck me as deeply patronising and unsympathetic. Here is a woman – hardly more than a child, actually, but still – who has lost many of her people and much of her land to the Romans. Sure, she did release an interdimensional locust on the unsuspecting Earth – but then the Romans sent an army of five thousand to kill some Scottish farmers, as Bill puts it. The point being: none of the Ninth Legion ever get the kind of condescension and scorn the Doctor unleashes on Kar, who is, after all, de facto leader of her people. And the Ninth Legion are colonisers. Ultimately, the best answer the Doctor has for colonialism is “you’re all behaving like children, get over it,” which would seem to apportion blame equally to colonisers and colonised. This is, self-evidently, stupid.

The most egregious contortion the episode makes, though, is when the assembled cast start to discuss who’s going to guard the gate from now on. The Doctor points out that he is functionally immortal, compared to puny human lifespans; he can literally guard the gate forever.

Now, the moment he points this out the episode has written itself into a corner. Because, according to the logic of the story, this is actually the most sensible and the most moral course to take. The universe will be protected from the Eaters of Light for eternity, and the Picts won’t have to sacrifice themselves, generation after generation, any more, which is really what the Doctor is about. But the Doctor obviously can’t go and stand in a Scottish cairn for the rest of his eternity, because for one thing the BBC still has lots of perfectly good money to make from him.

The episode can only get itself out of this corner by making one of its characters do something, well, out of character. And because the Doctor is the Doctor and therefore an untouchable moral authority, it’s Bill who’s made to do the same thing she did at the end of The Pyramid at the End of the World: to whit, sacrifice a world – a universe, in this case – for love of the Doctor.

To put it another way: this smart, empathetic, deeply morally engaged character thinks the Doctor, after ten episodes, is literally worth more than the universe.

“This isn’t your fight,” she says to him, weakly, ignoring the fact that the whole point of Doctor Who is him getting involved in fights that aren’t his. And when she says “this isn’t your fight”, what she’s actually saying is: it’s these people’s destiny to sacrifice themselves. Let them die in a strange universe – despite the fact that you could defend the universe better than they could.

I’m sure this wasn’t the intended effect. I think this was hasty writing designed to bring about a specific ending, an undoubtedly resonant combination of symbols. That doesn’t change the fact that the episode fundamentally weakens Bill’s moral authority as the Doctor’s companion, as well as our perception of the Doctor’s moral judgement. It doesn’t work. And that’s a shame.

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