Before getting down to the business of the season finale, Peter Capaldi got to return to his native Scotland this week for a standalone episode. Completing the homeland vibe is the presence of Scottish writer Rona Munro, whose last wrote for DOCTOR WHO with the 1989 serial “Survival,” the final story of the classic series. [Avast ye! Minor spoilers ahead].
The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole arrive in ancient Aberdeenshire to uncover the truth behind the missing ninth legion of the Roman army. What they find instead is two warring armies, an monster terrorising the locals, and a doorway to the end of the world. Or as Nardole succinctly puts it, “Death by Scotland.”
Clearly aimed at being a fond tip of the hat to Capaldi’s heritage prior to his pending departure, ‘The Eaters of Light’ is a solid if not outstanding historical adventure. Spinning its wheels slightly, it’s reminiscent of the show’s original ethos of being an educational outing for kids. Indeed, if the special effects and outfits hadn’t been updated, a episode that primarily hangs around in a handful of locations with Roman soldiers in stock BBC costumes would fit right in with the original series.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some great moments in ‘The Eaters of Light,’ most of them with Bill and Nardole. A casual conversation between Bill and some Roman soldiers about sexuality and fluidity is another pointed reminder that modern conventions are far more restrictive than ancient ones in many ways. The teachable moments between Nardole and the locals are excellent, showcasing just how far the character has progressed in a short span of time. It’s just disappointing that these are all individual moments, rather than ever feeling like a cohesive episode.
‘The Eaters of Light’ is the very textbook definition of a filler episode, where the most interesting things happen in the setup for the following weeks. Indeed, there’s probably something prophetic in Bill’s line about The Doctor not being able to stand in the sacrificial role every time. Despite being a mostly excellent season, this trend has been an undercurrent of the whole year. (Some might even argue that it’s plagued the entire Stephen Moffat era). Concluding with the now standard coda featuring Missy, we are left with a little bit of hope for a spectacular ending, something Moffat tends to be very good at. As The Doctor reminds us this week, “That’s the trouble with hope. It’s hard to resist.”