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Warning: Potential spoilers ahead for the episode.
The current season of Doctor Who is coming to its inevitable end. Before the season arrives at its two-part finale story, viewers have been treated to a couple of single episode tales. Following on Mark Gatiss' Empress Of Mars, this past Saturday saw the TARDIS crew head to Roman Britain with an episode written by a writer whose presence marks something of a first for New Who. For the first time, the 21st century incarnation of the series was being written by someone who had written for its original run with the return of noted playwright Rona Munro (who penned the Sylvester McCoy era story Survival that closed out the original series back in 1989). So how was Munro's foray into New Who?
Unlike Survival, which was set in what was then contemporary times, The Eaters Of Light falls squarely into the series sub-genre known as the psuedo-historical. In this case, Munro uses the TARDIS crew to explore the fate of the Roman Ninth Legion, a real-life historical mystery with no really suitable answer. That makes it perfect territory for Doctor given the series has done similar things with the Mary Celeste and the 1926 disappearance of Agatha Christie which makes it all the more surprising that the series somehow hadn't touched on it before (especially with its various spin-offs). What Munro does is take that historical conundrum, mix with the science fiction nature of the series, and combines it together into an interesting forty odd minutes. In that regard, Munro's script falls squarely into line with many of the tropes that one would expect from the series.
Which is also something which doesn't do the episode any favors. In some ways, it seems like it would have been nice for this episode (or really many of the psuedo-historical episodes of New Who) to be a one-off experiment in doing something that the series did in its early days: the pure historical. The revelation of what decimated the Romans and is the creature behind the title feels almost cliché in many ways despite the effective final confrontation and the situation it puts the Doctor into (a moment where Peter Capaldi's Doctor once again shines). One wonders what the episode might have been like without the creature at the center of its plot with the TARDIS crew having to wander the lines between two very different but definitely human foes. Not that the choice to go down the more traditional psuedo-historical route makes the episode bad by any means as there is plenty to recommend the episode for regardless of that. Yet doing so leaves viewers, especially long-time fans of the series, feeling like someone who has had good leftovers rather than something more fresh and original.
Where Eaters Of Light shines to a large extent is in its execution. The TARDIS crew of the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole continues to shine brightly as they have for virtually all of this season. Capaldi plays the Doctor note perfect, always finding the right balance between the varying and often contradictory facets of the character. Pearl Mackie's Bill has some nice moments in her interactions with various Roman soldiers while Matt Lucas' Nardole is for once not being completely shoved off to the sidelines but instead gets some nice moments of his own. The supporting cast is solid given how young most of them are with Rebecca Benson's Pict leader Kar being the definite highlight among them. Charles Palmer's direction is similarly solid as well bringing a strong sense of atmosphere to proceedings in conjunction with cinematographer Mark Watersand composer Murray Gold. They help elevate the episode as a result.
The Eaters Of Light makes for interesting viewing. Despite its perhaps all too familiar plotting, Munro's script has plenty of interesting things into including some strong characterizations. It is those characterizations, combined with the efforts of cast and crew alike, which help make what might potentially have been a fairly by the numbers monster tale into something downright atmospheric at times. Is it a classic? No. Is it the weakest episode of the season thus far? Potentially. Given how strong this season has been though, that still makes it better than quite a few tales that have come out of this series over the years.
So watch it, enjoy it, and get ready for the next episode.