Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Eaters of Light

Chapter The 73rd, several species of time travellers gathered together in a cave grooving with some Picts.

The Doctor, Bill and Nardole go to 2nd century Aberdeen to investigate the mystery of what happened to the famously disappeared Ninth Roman Legion, only to find out they were all killed by aliens (surprise surprise). The local Picts guard a cairn that conceals a gateway to another dimension in which a swarm of light-eating beasties live. One of them was allowed through to deal with the Romans, but has stuck around to terrorise everyone, including the local tribe and the legion's few survivors. The Doctor and Bill persuade members of both these groups to team up and fight the monsters on the threshold of the portal, and the ensuing battle - due to time dilation effects - lasts for centuries, and keeps the creatures trapped.

A little hiatus was caused in the blog-stream by the combined factors of my PC dying, and my setting myself the challenge of watching 24 Christmas specials and films during advent, which took up a lot of viewing time. On top of that, the Blu-ray box set of series 10 containing Capaldi's 2017 episodes (bar one final important one, of course) had arrived, and also demanded attention. As I did when the series aired, I randomly picked one episode from the box set to blog, which happened to be this Celtic swirl. I grabbed a morning early during the pre-Christmas period to watch the story, and typed it all up double-quick as - at the time of writing - I still have everything to wrap, and After Eights and whatnot to buy.

First-time round: 
This went by in a flash first time round earlier in the year. I've mentioned before that the structure of the series somehow warped things a little for me, the trilogy of Monk stories in the middle dominate to the detriment of the much more fun unconnected single-episode tales either side. Coming as it does sandwiched between that big (and slightly bloated?) centrepiece and the two-part Cyber-finale, The Eaters of Light - like the similarly fun but story-arc lite Empress of Mars that came before it - feels a little tossed away, which is a shame. Watched in isolation, it made much more of an impression, and made me pine for more episodes with this Doctor and this team. At least Capaldi and Mackie have one more outing, but watching this I'm missing Gomez and Lucas too.

For long-term fans, the writing of this episode was significant, as it saw the first time an author of a twentieth-century episode returned to the modern show. This was Rona Munro, who penned the story Survival (the final story of the original run, aired in 1989) and who since then has built up a great body of work in film and theatre. Objectively, though, I don't think anyone who wasn't aware of this would see any join, it just seemed like any of the other stories not any kind of throwback, nor a piece with a distinctive authorial voice shouting out. It's tempting to think therefore "Why bother?" but it's always good to vary the writing duties. I don't know whether it was the Scottish Munro or her Scottish showrunner who suggested the subject matter, but it's a nice fit for her, and gives the story a distinctive locale (although it presumably was filmed no further North than the Brecon Beacons).

The guest cast, by dint of the story structure, don't stand out too much - they are supposed to be the young, unheroic remains of the two decimated groups - but there's still some great material involving them. Most memorable of all is the scene where Bill's assumptions about her new found allies' morals and broad-mindedness are called out. Bill has a great episode all told - challenging the Doctor, working out about the telepathic TARDIS field that translates everyone's words with added lip-sync, and giving a great speech to rally the troops: "I can't promise that you won't all die, but I can promise you this: you won't all die in a hole in the ground." Nardole's material, though superfluous, is fun (was this perhaps one of the scripts written before they agreed with Matt Lucas that he'd be in every episode - he could be lifted straight out without impacting the plot one iota). And Capaldi is on good if slightly grumpy form too.

I'm not 100% sold on the talking crows, and the slight corny (or should that be 'caw-ny', it should, shouldn't it... or shouldn't it?) twist that they have been venerating Kar's name all this time. I'm also not sure that we need the bookend sequences with the children visiting the stones and hearing the music. The end bit with Missy, though, is a lot more successful. It goes on too long, but seeing a tear run down Missy's cheek at hearing the music trapped in the stones is a touching and characterful way to integrate the ongoing series arc.

Both written by those rare Doctor Who authors who have become renowned for a non-Who body work in their own right. And a third story in a row where a character is decked in incongruous nighttime attire (Nardole's in a dressing gown throughout - another Arthur Dent homage?)

Deeper Thoughts:
Another Doctor over, and a new one just begun. And So this is Christmas. In total disregard for random ordering, I have decided to blog Twice Upon a Time sometime before the end of the year; but, I have a feeling that any deeper thoughts it inspires will involve looking forward rather than back, so I'll look back now. No matter how good Peter Capaldi's swansong is, and how well David Bradley and the production invoke the role and the era of the first Doctor, it is all inevitably going to be overshadowed by the first few moments of Jodie Whittaker's thirteenth Doctor at the end. Doctor Who handovers are cruel that way - 58 minutes of action inevitably becomes so much prologue. It feels this time, though, that the effect is even greater than usual. The most comparable past point would be The End of Time, the last time a story marked a Doctor and senior crew bowing out and handing over the reins to a totally new actor and team. But watching that previous story did feel like the end of an era, more than the start of a new one. This is because David Tennant felt like he'd owned the part over a decent run. Despite the duration and number of episodes done by Capaldi being broadly similar, I don't get that feeling with him.

Why might this be? I've decided upon a one word answer: Clara. Watching the box set of series 10, I am amazed all over again at how Steven Moffat after so many years in charge has produced a set of episodes that feel so fresh. This feels like Capaldi's year one, and leaves me wanting him to do at least two more. I'm not alone in thinking that Jenna Coleman not leaving in Last Christmas was a mistake. Her second year with Capaldi is damaging to the show as it was in desperate need of the shake-up a new regular would have given it. But I'm coming round to the idea that she shouldn't have done the year before that either. Much as I like series 8's domestic grounding in Coal Hill, it's too much about Clara, who'd already dominated the previous year with all that impossible girl guff. Capaldi should have started out with a blank slate, and a new companion. He only got this in 2017, and so it feels like he's leaving when he's only just started.

Series 10 was generally successful in it's story arc as well as it's character dynamics. A bit less monk would have been welcome, but all in all it's probably my favourite year of Moffat's reign. One plotting thing that bothers me, mind, is when and how exactly Nardole was resurrected, and when exactly the Doctor Mysterio story happens relative to the events we later learn about the vault. It's said in that Christmas show that the Doctor rebuilt Nardole as he was lonely, and it's hinted very strongly that this is because River's gone. But if so, how could River send Nardole off to stop the Doctor executing Missy in Extremis, if she'd already gone to meet her fate. (Incidentally, it's best not to think about how River leaves the Doctor then spends an unidentified length of time hiring a new archaeological crew and having adventures with them before finally reaching the library, as it completely destroys the bittersweet parting stuff.) And if Nardole only teamed back up with the Doctor in Extremis, then why is he so happy to be with the Doctor adventuring in New York with superheroes when they should be guarding the vault? Answers on a postcard, or in a Big Finish play in four years time.

Blog Stats? I've watched a personal best of 33 stories for the blog this year, which will be 34 assuming I manage to file copy on this year's Christmas special before December 31st. This would form a healthy 20 / 14 split, old series to new - a nice mix. I've watched only five black-and-white episodes, and three of those five had episodes missing (one of them being wholly missing). I usually tend to have a story from most of the Doctors bar one - this year it was a Christopher Eccleston story I neglected to land upon. The most popular new series Doctor in terms of stories blogged was the incumbent, Peter Capaldi, and the most popular old series Doctor was the longest running, Tom Baker, so that all seems right and proper. Next year, Chris Chibnall is reducing the number of stories he produces a year, so if I can keep up my current pace, I might just catch up before I claim my pension. And on that optimistic note, it only remains for me to add the traditional "Happy Christmas to all of you at home". Cheers!

In Summary:
Good and solid, like a slab of granite.

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