Almost thirty years on, Rona Munro returns to the series for whom, in its original incarnation, she wrote the final story (1989’s Survival). This also marks the first return of a Classic Who writer to the series, which feels very fitting, given Moffat’s penchant to try and have Capaldi’s era emulate it rather closely in storytelling style, pacing and even subject matter.
Also fitting; Munro gives us another tale about survival, though this time set in Roman-era Scotland, as the Doctor and co. seek to unravel the mysterious disappearance of the fabled Ninth Legion. Naturally, it isn’t long before a monster enters into the equation, a creature that feeds on light itself. Can a bunch of young Romans and Picts hope to stop all from being swallowed by darkness?
With all that pedigree, all that potential, it’s saddening to report that The Eaters of Light ends up being a rather average story. Not terrible by any means, and in terms of raw components better than similar stories (it’s a better look at fear than the pretentious Listen), but it just feels so safe and well played in the annals of Who stories that you’re left wondering why they bothered greenlighting it. We have another ‘period monster’ romp here, much like Thin Ice from earlier, using the thematic conceit of fear: the unknown and entering adulthood for the young characters.
Munro assembles the requisite parts capably: the supporting cast are decently fleshed out, the setting is compelling and there’s enough tense setpieces to make it a watchable 45 mintues of television, but that’s just it: it’s only watchable and capable. With a concept like creatures that feed on light, the mystery of the Legion and a writer of Munro’s experience, it’s a little sad to see the episode play it so safe: you know who will die when and the narrative beats within minutes. What could’ve been much more audacious, experimental and even a little surreal opts for quick thrills that feels derivative of the aforementioned superior effort from earlier this very series.
Still, capable is the key word here, and the performances follow suit: our regulars are fun as always, with some rather nice moments for Capaldi to get a little paternal towards the young Picts (it even put me in mind of Troughton consoling Victoria from Tomb of the Cybermen). Indeed, the young supporting cast who make up the survivors of both sides are also quite good, coveying both youthful hotheadedness as well as childlike worry and fear at their predicatment.
The presentation is easily the strongest part of the episode: director Charles Palmer creates an eerie and unsetlling ambience out on the Scottish hills and forests, while wisely keeping the creature back and in darkness. When it does appear, while its design won’t be sweeping awards anytime soon, it’s still a decent piece of CGI with a slightly novel killing method.
The Eaters of Light leaves much to be desired, though I don’t wish this review to sound excessively negative. It’s not poor television by any means, and less demanding viewers or those riding hard on the Series 10 train will more than enjoy themselves here. However, after three decades, if this was the best Munro could conjure up, it does leave me wondering how much of this was a genuine belief in her abilities versus just having nostalgic name value.