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Recap / Doctor Who S36 E10 "The Eaters of Light"

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"Where is my friend, and what destroyed the Roman army?"
"Now you have a choice. You can all keep on slaughtering each other till there’s no one left standing, or you can GROW THE HELL UP!"
The Doctor
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The one where popcorn saves the day.

Written by Rona Munro, who previously wrote "Survival", the final serial of the original run of Doctor Who. With this episode, she became the first person to write for both the old and the new series.

The Doctor and Bill Potts, with a confused Nardole in tow, have arrived in ancient Scotland. The teacher and his pupil have a bet going regarding what became of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army, which vanished without a trace here. He believes they were slaughtered to a man; she believes they simply left their posts. They split up, Bill vowing to return with a live Roman soldier...

She finds one, but only after being pursued by Kar, a Pictish lass. And the soldier doesn't last long before falling to a monster whose most distinctive feature is its glowing tentacles. Soon she ends up in command of the soldier's fellow men, all of whom are deserters. They know of the monster too — for it ravaged the Ninth Legion. The Doctor and Nardole have just seen the site of that slaughter when they are captured by Kar and her people.

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Escaping and investigating a nearby cairn, the Doctor comes to realize that this creature feeds upon sunlight and anything that contains it — including humans. Within the cairn, it lies in another dimension behind a gate that opens for a few moments with every sunrise. Kar is actually the latest Keeper of the Gate, tasked to keep the creature from emerging by fighting it back — but she was so desperate to stop the Roman invaders that she sicced it upon them. Alas, having not fed for a long time, its hunger is ravenous. If it cannot be forced back to from whence it came, it and its kin will ravage this dimension until not a star is left in the universe. The Doctor has a plan, but it will require both the surviving Romans and Pictish to join forces... and something more besides, something he's not willing to tell Bill...

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  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Doctor comments that the Ninth Legion would have left some trace of themselves, like burning huts, slaughtered locals or sweetie wrappers.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The Romans soldiers depicted in the episode have some very bizarre equipment - their prop breastplates are made out of soft floppy leather, and are made to look like leather, but have a strange segmented pattern on them, which resembles the iconic Lorica Segmentata, which was always made of metal. They have wide blocky pauldrons, similar to the Lorica Segmentata, but have sleeves made of (butted) mail, like Lorica Hamata. Most of the soldiers also wear puttees and enclosed shoes - something not done until much later in Roman history. They also all wear crests on their helmets, something only done on parade. One soldier is even wearing a pair of archer's bracers, despite not having a bow.
    • The Pictish characters fare no better, dressed in raggedy clumps of fur and leather and equipped with spiky clubs and primitive looking daggers. Historical Picts, as far as we know, wore long, flowing robes with hooded mantles, and would've primarily fought with spears and small square bucklers.
    • One Roman soldier in particular is wearing what clearly used to be a pair of modern wellington boots which have been cut up to resemble Roman caligae.
    • A Roman soldier identifies being attracted to both men and women as being "normal", and is nonplussed about a comrade of his being exclusively attracted to men. Though not quite as dogmatic about it as other cultures in history, Romans were generally still a bit prudish when it came to male homosexuality. A man who professed an exclusive preference for other men would, among other things, be ineligble for political office and be considered an outlaw.
      • These same soldiers are readily accepting of Bill's lesbianism, and seem confused that she thought they would object. Romans generally found lesbianism (as they understood it) very objectionable, and stereotyped lesbians as hedonistic rapists.
  • Badass Boast: Kar claims she destroyed the Ninth Legion, without at first mentioning the Beast that did it for her. Given she's a diminutive teenage girl, the Doctor is less than convinced.
  • Bi the Way: The Romans see this as the default, and think it's slightly old-fashioned to be attracted to only one gender.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Eater of Light is driven back to its dimension, but to make sure it and its kin stay back the surviving Romans and several Picts must make a Heroic Sacrifice and dwell in that dimension forever.
  • Breather Episode: Aside from the closing scenes with Missy in the TARDIS, which set up the extremely dark Season Finale's plot, this story mainly serves to show how far Bill has come from "The Pilot", as she successfully handles much of the action on her own.
  • British Weather:
    • When the Doctor finds a Roman corpse and notes that the signs of death are consistent with total deprivation of sunlight, Nardole quips "Death by Scotland!"
    • Possible Actor Allusion re the withering look Twelve gives Nardole before replying with a terse, "No." Peter Capaldi is Scottish (Rona Munro is as well).
  • The Charmer: Nardole tries to charm the Picts after they have captured him and the Doctor. The Doctor doesn't approve of charm, but it works. After two days, Nardole is enthralling them with stories and even has spirals of woad painted on his face.
  • Child Soldier: The eldest of the Ninth Legion survivors is 18 (and is nicknamed 'Granddad' by his squadmates), and the Doctor comments on Kar's youth when questioning her about her responsibilities as gatekeeper.
  • Clever Crows: The crows here can speak, to Nardole's surprise — and they're calling the Doctor's name! The Doctor explains that crows have always been able to talk but got grouchy over millennia and that's why they don't sound like anything anymore... or so he thinks. It turns out that the crows learn and say Kar to remember her Heroic Sacrifice forever more. Had the Doctor gone through with his intended Heroic Sacrifice, they would still say his name. (This is paralleled by the Doctor's TARDIS appearing in the drawing on the standing stone at the beginning, but it being replaced by her and the Roman legionaries at the end.)
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Doctor's Creepy Crows encounters are this to the tragic events of "Face the Raven", which like this episode was the tenth of its season. The titular raven was the chosen form of the quantum shade that executed Clara Oswald.
    • A carving of the TARDIS on a Pict stone monument is shown at the beginning of the episode, recalling the Roman carving depicting the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble as "The Household Gods" at the end of "The Fires of Pompeii".
    • Ancient humans with a warrior culture fighting an alien menace beyond their comprehension recall the Vikings in "The Girl who Died", while the need for the old guys and the new guys to move past their (legitimate, real-world or real-world-parallelling) differences recalls "The Zygon Inversion."
    • Bill, like Amy and Rory, has a love and knowledge of the Romans. The Doctor himself saying that he should know more because he made Roman history is a reference to both his and his current face's previous adventures there.
  • Crocodile Tears: The Doctor wonders if Missy's Single Tear as she listens to the music is authentic. She agrees it's likely just a cunning plan to get him to let his guard down.
  • Dare to Be Badass: Bill tells the demoralized Ninth Legion deserters that if they follow her they might die, but it won't be while they are cowering in a hole in the ground.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: The Doctor insists they haven't lost Bill, they simply don't know where she is. Totally different. (Well, if the Doctor was thinking "lost" as in permanently, then it actually is.)
  • Driving Question: The story takes off from Bill wanting to find out how a Roman legion disappeared without a trace centuries ago.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: If this Monster of the Week can't be stopped, it and its fellows will wipe out much of the universe by consuming all light from the stars.
  • Enemy Mine: At the end of the episode, the remnants of the Ninth Legion and the Picts work together to drive the beast back to its home dimension.
  • Energy Absorption: The monster feeds on all forms of light. It can even suck the light from living things; since human bones require Vitamin D, made in the body using sunlight, its attacks leave bodies with no bones in them. (Hence there not being a "big pile of bones" left when it slaughters most of the Ninth Legion.)
  • Evil vs. Evil: The Romans want to conquer and kill or enslave the Picts; the creature will kill anyone in its path.
  • Eye Motifs: The Doctor, explaining the bittersweet nature of the Picts and Romans' Heroic Sacrifice to Missy, notes that she sees the universe, understands how it works and all, but never hears the music. That is to say she is a cold detached observer — and exploiter — of it, who knows the how but not the why.
  • Fainting: Bill passes out after the monster's attack leaves black slime on her neck.
  • Follow the Chaos: The Doctor decides to find the monster before finding Bill. By his reasoning, if she's near it, he's saving her, and if not, then he's protecting her. The former ends up happening.
  • Forever War: The ultimate fate of the Picts and Romans is to fight the beasts beyond the gate for as long as they live.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Kar saw the Roman invasion as this and deliberately allowed a monster to escape the portal in the hope that it would destroy them. What she failed to consider is that it would also survive, and she can no longer contain it.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Once the beast has been driven back to its home dimension, Kar and the Legionaries follow it through the gate to make sure it stays there. The Doctor had planned to go himself, but they wouldn't allow it.
  • Hope Is Scary: The Doctor has this attitude regarding the possibility of him and Missy being friends again. There are few things he would like more, and she feels the same way — but he knows he cannot blindly trust her.
  • Idiot Ball: The Doctor is usually protective of his companions, but he lets Bill wander off in search of a Roman army that should be raping and slaughtering its way across the country. Good thing she only encountered an interdimensional monster that sucks the Life Energy out of you.
  • Informed Ability: The titular creatures are never shown eating light, except for a throwaway comment about "eating the light from their bodies". Additionally, the Doctor has never seen the creatures before yet he deduces that they will eat the sun and all the stars if freed despite no evidence for this being presented in the episode. In fact, sunlight is stated to be a cure for the slime that got on Bill's neck. Perhaps he means the chemical reactions that take place in stars and biological organisms that produce "light".
  • It's All My Fault: Kar for letting the monster through the gate she was supposed to be guarding.
  • It's Probably Nothing: Lucius when one of his soldiers thinks he hears the monster. Justified as (while he turns out to be right) they have to advance anyway, so Lucius is bucking up his morale.
  • "Just So" Story: The Doctor claims that crows cawing is actually them sulking rather than talking with humans. The end of the episode reveals that they're actually saying "Kar!", remembering the story of the Gatekeeper across the ages.
  • Lampshade Hanging: As Bill notes, the TARDIS telepathic field not only translates languages so everyone is speaking English, "it does lip sync."
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Cornelius, a Roman soldier who charges ahead of the rest of his comrades while they're cautiously trying to avoid the beast, and is very quickly devoured.
  • Long Last Look: Lucius to Bill as he goes through the portal, considering that he fancied her.
  • Lost Roman Legion: The plot is based on the stock unsolved mystery of the fate of the Legio IX Hispana.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Time to grow up. Time to fight your/my fight."
  • Monster of the Week: The titular Eaters of Light are dragon-like creatures with glowing blue tentacles extending from their mouths; they are called such because the tentacles feed upon sunlight.
  • More Expendable Than You: The Romans and Picts decide to guard the gate over the Doctor's objections, as it's their responsibility. Bill tells him afterward that he already has his own vault to guard and can't take on every responsibility.
  • Motifs: For Series 10:
    • Exploitation: More discussion of colonialism, this time with the Romans as colonizers and the Picts as the natives.
    • Hidden threats: The Monster of the Week that was responsible for the disappearance and demise of the Roman legion.
    • Imprisonment/Release: The Monster of the Week dwells beyond a stone doorway leading to another dimension. Kar released it to defeat the Romans, not realizing that it would only keep feeding. Meanwhile, Missy is out of the Vault but confined to the TARDIS.
    • "Villains" that aren't actually evil: Bill and the Doctor both point out that both sides of this war are scared and just trying to survive, and they end up joining forces to defeat the greater threat. The Pictish Beasts themselves are merely hungry; it's just that their food source is something this dimension needs to exist, much less survive.
    • Promises: Bill tells the Romans that she can't promise they won't die if they help her seek out the Doctor, but she can promise that if they help, they "won't die in a hole in the ground."
    • Mothers: Kar is first seen performing a ceremony of remembrance for her dead relatives, including her mother.
  • Noodle Incident: The Doctor claims to have been a Roman governor, a farmer, and a Vestal Virgin 2nd class. It's a long story.
  • Oh, Crap!: Bill's face, when she finally figures out the omitted portion of the Doctor's plan: he intends to go into the gate himself and hold off the beast for eternity, due to his extended lifespan.
  • One-Man Army: The legionaries express skepticism that Bill's friend can help them.
    Lucius: There are painted barbarians up there. They outnumber us. There is a beast of darkness that laid waste to an entire legion in less than an hour. No one man can make a difference to that.
    Bill: Maybe that's what you don't learn when you think it takes five thousand highly trained soldiers to slaughter a bunch of Scottish farmers. Yes, one man can. And he's here.
  • Outside-Context Villain: The Pictish warriors of Scotland are battling invading Roman forces... and then the former side decides to unleash a Monster of the Week from another dimension.
  • Pajama-Clad Hero: Nardole appears to be coming out of the bathroom when he's brought into this adventure.
  • Percussive Prevention: Someone bonks the Doctor on the head when he tries to stop the others making a Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Politically Correct History: Roman attitudes to homosexuality and concepts of sexual orientation are somewhat simplified and made more palatable to the modern audience. (Essentially, Roman sexual orientations were "male top" and "woman or male bottom", with the latter considered inferior.)
  • Pre-emptive Declaration:
    The Doctor: For now, would you mind awfully all just jumping out of your skins and allowing Nardole and I to escape in the confusion?
    The Doctor: Let me explain. [bag of popcorn he'd tossed into the fire begins popping loudly, the Doctor and Nardole run while the Picts are starting at the noise]
  • Real Event, Fictional Cause:
    • The Doctor and Bill set out to discover the fate of the Ninth Legion... and find they were eaten by a monster from another dimension.
    • Nardole claims that the Mary Celeste was caused by an alien race who considered digestion a form of diplomacy; their ambassador devoured the entire crew before choking on a lifeboat. Those who've seen "The Chase" will know that he's wrong — the actual cause was the Daleks. (That's assuming he wasn't talking about a spaceship named that.)
  • Rescue Romance: Lucius is clearly hoping for this, but unfortunately Bill is gay. They agree to be Fire-Forged Friends instead.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: The exact time dilation caused by the portal is unclear, but it's unlikely that the soldiers would be able to hold the gate for long. It's estimated that it would take anywhere from three hours to a week to bring them up to the present day. Assuming they don't get instantly swarmed and can still face the monsters one at a time, that would still be a difficult task. They plan to hold the gate until the sun dies, which is simply impossible—even in the best case scenario, they would need to last over nine and a half thousand years in order to reach the year five billion (which is the estimated time the sun will burn out).
  • Screaming Warrior: On first seeing Bill, Kar screams and charges at her with a sword. Bill flees only to fall down a hole and find the Roman soldier she's been looking for.
  • Sealed Evil in a Duel: The eventual fate of Kar, all the surviving Romans, and some of the other Picts, heroically sacrificing themselves to fight off the monsters forever.
  • Sequel Hook: Missy has been let out of the Vault and is now confined to the TARDIS, helping fix its engines and whatnot. Her seeming Heel–Face Turn also continues apace as she cries upon hearing the music from the cairn. She is hopeful that she and the Doctor can be friends again after so, so long, and so is he — but he knows that this may be too much to hope for, and clearly intends to keep her on a leash for the time being.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Bill talks about how she learned about the mystery of the Ninth Legion from a book, most likely the famous historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.note 
    • Kar's speech about the Romans is excerpted from a famous speech Tacitus attributes to the chieftain Calgacus.
    • The design of the monsters is based on Pictish Beast carvings.
  • The So-Called Coward: The last survivors of the Ninth Legion are those who were too afraid to face the beast head on. At the end, they stand shoulder to shoulder with Kar to keep the beast at bay.
  • Sorry, I'm Gay: Said by Bill to one of the Roman soldiers who tries to make advances on her. He takes it far better than she expects, being bisexual himself (which he sees as the norm for Roman society) and serving alongside a gay man.
  • Standing Between the Enemies: Bill when the Picts encounter the Romans.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!:
    The Doctor: Now, you all have a choice. You can carry on slaughtering each other till no one is left standing, or you can GROW THE HELL UP!
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Kar allowed the Eater of Light out of its dimension in the hope it would drive off the Romans.
    Doctor: There were strangers at the door, and a guard dog in the attic.
  • Tastes Like Friendship: Nardole tries to invoke this with the Picts (with popcorn), and Lucius with Bill (with flatbread) despite Cornelius griping that they don't have much food to spare.
  • Teaser-Only Character: Subverted, the contemporary little girl who appears at the beginning doesn't get eaten by a monster as would usually occur, and is seen happily listening to the magic music at the end.
  • Translator Microbes: Bill figures out this is in effect when she asks Simon how he speaks English and he responds by accusing her of speaking Latin, finally realizing this is why she's been able to understand everyone on her space adventures. It also allows the Picts and Romans to understand one another when they meet in the Doctor's presence.
    • Bill is the first companion to comment on the fact that the translation field also makes people's lip movements appear to sync up with the translation of what they're saying.
  • The Triple: The Doctor governed, farmed and juggled in Roman Britain.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Bill complains of this to the Doctor, noting that he tends to leave the last bit of his plan out. In this case, however, it's subverted when the Romans and Picts foil the Heroic Sacrifice bit of his plan by volunteering themselves.
  • We Are as Mayflies: The Doctor used the fragility of humans as an argument in favour of himself taking over the responsibilities of gatekeeper from them.
  • We Need a Distraction: The Doctor tosses Nardole's bag of popcorn into the fire; they run as the Picts are "jumping out of their skins" at the noise.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Nardole and Bill are both shocked to learn that the Doctor allowed Missy out of the vault and into the TARDIS (even though he locked her out of the controls and prevented her from leaving). Missy asks the Doctor how a Heroic Sacrifice by multiple humans fits into his bleeding heart morality.
  • The X of Y: "The Eaters of Light".
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: A few seconds in the presence of the gate for the Doctor passes as two days for Nardole and the Picts.
  • You Are in Command Now: Lucius says that he is the commander of the Ninth Legion because he is the oldest of the survivors of said legion.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: The Picts would send a warrior into the gate to hold back the Eaters of Light, who could only come through one at a time. Due to the Year Outside, Hour Inside nature of the gate, even a warrior who was killed in minutes would be holding the Eaters back for decades on the outside.

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