2017 Series Episode 10 - tx 17/06/17. Written by Rona Munro. Directed by Charles Palmer. Episode reviewed by Sean Alexander.
“Time to grow up…Time to fight your fight.”
Irrespective of the wide range of screen, stage and TV credits that have subsequently been added to her name (most with great acclaim), for Doctor Who fans the name Rona Munro will always mean one thing: the last Doctor Who story for seven years, and the final episode of a Doctor Who series for sixteen. ‘Survival’ came at the end of what, for many, signalled a continuing rise in the show’s creativity and freshness first instigated by script editor Andrew Cartmel on his arrival in 1987. But for mainstream viewers – and more importantly, BBC executives Jonathan Powell and Peter Cregeen – the die was already cast. By the time Cartmel would pen a hurriedly written coda to Munro’s story, Doctor Who’s fate as an ongoing BBC production was sealed. And it would be a long time before any smoke-filled people or song-blessed cities would go out under its banner again.
Fast track almost thirty years and Rona Munro becomes the first writer to be credited on Who both old and new. Quite why it’s taken twelve years (and ten series) of the revived show to cherry-pick one if its authors from the past is perhaps a story yet to be told. But the chances of it being Munro who got the call must have been pretty strong from the moment she last put words in the mouths of the show’s icons. Since then Munro has built a career as diverse as it is revered, ranging from down’n’dirty Ken Loach social commentary to World War II period piece. Her name had clearly been on the minds of modern Doctor Who’s two showrunners, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, as readers of Doctor Who Magazine may recall a particularly gushing ‘Production Notes’ of a decade or so ago. Given modern Who’s penchant for social relevance and a more character-led storytelling dynamic, it’s only a surprise that this most selective and particular of modern dramatists didn’t received the summons back even earlier.
Which brings us to ‘The Eaters of Light’, and while it’s tempting to think this may have been Munro’s original follow-up to ‘Survival’ had the powers that Beeb not removed the show forthwith in the dying weeks of the 1980s, ‘The Eaters of Light’ is a very different beast. Principally it’s one of modern Who’s closest attempts to a traditional ‘historical’ last seen in the (appropriately also Scottish-set) ‘The Highlanders’ way back at the start of Patrick Troughton’s tenure. Yes, the so-called ‘celebrity historical’ has been an almost annual staple of the show since its rebirth in 2005, but here there’s a singular lack of any celebrity; instead cherishing the ordinary men and women (actually barely more than boys and girls) who fought, died and mysteriously disappeared on what was later to become Aberdeen in second-century AD.
The Lost Legion of the Ninth may well be a history lesson that many of us were spared in our comprehensive schooling, but it’s clearly one close to Munro’s heart and heritage. The pillaging and plundering of the neo-Celtic Pict tribes by the Roman Army predates the similarly empiric colonising of Scotland’s lands by the English some twelve centuries later. But Munro’s script injects an added degree of pathos by depicting its antagonists as barely old enough to shave or have babies (the surviving Roman soldier left alive after the Pict slaughter of his troupe is dubbed ‘Grandad’ by his remaining men, despite being only eighteen). Indeed ‘The Eaters of Light’ forces home the subtext that this was a time (and not for the last) when child leaders would be required to step up to the plate and take command. With barbarians of a very different sort now at the gate, the Doctor’s gentle ribbing of Pict leader Kar will of course result in her making the Big Decision of standing tall and proud when push comes to shove. It’s just a shame that, only a week after a group of Victorian soldiers had called truce with some Martian warriors, that again we have a resolving scenario where disparate and warring clans come together for the greater good. Still, Andrew Cartmel’s own stewardship of Doctor Who back in the 80s wasn’t shy of reusing plot devices and resolutions from a story or two hence, and with Munro once again on scripting duties it seems this is very much a case of plus ca change…
Where ‘The Eaters of Light’ suffers is twofold: first, are we really meant to accept that a relative handful of mere mortals can keep back these ‘light-eating locusts’ for all eternity, especially when the Doctor himself has pointed out how brief and transient each of their sacrifices will be? Oh well, I guess it’s the thought – not to mention the sentiment - that counts. Secondly, these events are all wrapped up just a little too quickly (and conveniently) for this viewer. Was something lost in the edit, especially given the post-coda scenes of Missy and team TARDIS essentially riffing on the now familiar theme of the former Master’s moral retribution? If so it’s something of a shame that one of this country’s finest playwrights – and notable Doctor Who fans – was left short-changed just to squeeze in Michelle Gomez’s now weekly cameo before the inevitable grandstanding to come in the two-part finale.
Still, with Rona Munro’s name now twice on the show’s credits, albeit some twenty-eight years apart, it’s to be hoped that this isn’t the last we’ve heard from her and her uniquely Celtic voice. Doctor Who is still sorely deprived of female writers; perhaps this season and seasons to come will go some way toward arresting that oversight.