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‘Doctor Who’ Review: Bill’s Lesson in Ancient Roman Sexual Stereotyping Is a Highlight in an Uneven Episode

The season-long tease about Missy has yet to pay off with only two episodes to go.

Pearl Mackie, "Doctor Who"

Pearl Mackie, “Doctor Who”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

[Editor’s Note: The following review of “Doctor Who” Season 10, Episode 10, “The Eaters of the Light” contains spoilers.]

The Rundown

“Doctor Who” gives us whiffs of “Outlander” with this jaunt back to 2nd century Aberdeen, Scotland, adjacent to cairns of standing stones that looks like it could transport a British lady back in time. Instead, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and friends are here instead to figure out what happened to the Spanish Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana), which disappeared from records around 43 AD. Naturally, an alien is to blame, but the Doctor sorts it all out in the end after whipping some whiny Roman soldiers and tribal Picts into shape. Although “The Eaters of the Light” was a wildly uneven episode, strong on messaging but weak on sense, it served to test its characters in revealing ways. Sadly, Auton replicant Rory (Arthur Darvill) did not make a cameo as the Last Centurion, although we suppose at this point he might be busy over at Stonehenge or guarding the Pandorica.

READ MORE: ‘Doctor Who’: The Next Doctor Rumored to Be ‘Chewing Gum’s’ Black Female Star — Report

Here Be Monsters

These are far more traditional aliens who look pretty cool with their striped light tentacles. The Eaters of the Light appear to have devastating powers that could have endangered the whole world, but of course they were handily defeated by a group of kids with moxie and teamwork.

The Companion Who Smiled

A few times now on the show we’ve seen how Bill’s (Pearl Mackie) sexuality has been brought up, sometimes to make a joke (her landlady was worried about her bringing home a boy), sometimes to show how cool others can be when they find out she’s gay (one guy felt relieved he wasn’t being rejected specifically). This time it almost feels like a retread of the latter, except with a crucial difference.

When Bill breaks it to the Roman soldier Lucius (Brian Vernel) that she’s only interested in women, he puts her sexuality into a different context since to him, being bisexual is the default and only preferring one gender is limiting. He’s also somewhat condescending about it. Watch how the scene plays out below:

 

This season, “Doctor Who” has been trying to explore the topic of sexuality through Bill. Here though, it’s also challenging our modern perceptions of what the dominant views of sexuality are in different cultures and times. Bill looks as if she’s entertained by this sort of turnabout, the implication being that she’s the one who’s a bit conservative. It’s an intriguing one-off scene that sends a message of tolerance that’s echoed later in a different context.

It should be noted though that while it’s true that ancient Romans saw men having sex with both men and women as normal, which men they were with was determined by class and rank. Also, in such a patriarchal society, women were not afforded that same open-minded status, and the idea of homosexuality or bisexuality among women wasn’t as acknowledged by the men who documented history. Therefore in this instance, a point is being made for acceptance all around, but it’s more likely that Bill coming out as gay would’ve been met with skepticism or judgment.

The Spin Doctor

Peter Capaldi, "Doctor Who"

Peter Capaldi, “Doctor Who”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

The Doctor comes off as more off a gruff Lou Grant-type here, somewhat paternal but mainly blunt and with little patience for the children of Earth’s hand-wringing. More than once he scolded the Picts and the Romans about needing to grow up (in our eyes they’re children, but back then, they would’ve had to assume responsibilities early in life) and the need for tolerance.

But it comes from a sense of his own responsibility for humanity, which he had taken on millennia ago and therefore explains his exasperation about the fighting between the Picts and Romans. Perhaps unintentionally, his words echo the images from the Monks episode: “I’ve been standing by the gates of your world, keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime.” He’s giving them all tough love, but that’s because he does in fact feel love for them as a species. That said, he doesn’t give them enough credit (much like parents may not trust their kids even if they are adults) to make their own decisions about their fate, until they force him to.

We’re not sure exactly what to make of the Doctor constantly ignoring the terms of his agreement to keep Missy (Michelle Gomez) in the vault and watch over her. Once again he jaunts off on adventure through time, and later, it’s revealed that he’s allowed her to leave the vault and take up residence in the TARDIS. It’s as if in this episode, he wants to prove in all ways that he is not subject to ordinary rules and guidelines.

Straight From the Two Hearts

As Missy’s jailor, the Doctor also takes on a lecturing tone with her even as she’s developing a conscience for all the death and destruction she had done previously. “That’s what I’m trying to teach you, Missy,” he says. “You understand the universe. You see it, you grasp it, but you never learn to hear the music.”

One of our biggest quibbles with this season, and there are quite a few, is that so little time has been spent on Missy that it’s difficult to take her evolution seriously. This is not the fault of Gomez, who acts the hell out of every minute she’s on screen. Instead, because of the time limitations, we’re being told how to feel about her.

In this episode, we see tears run down her face again, and yet again she’s bewildered by them. “I don’t even know why I’m crying,” she says. “Why do I keep doing that now?” She appears unsure and such a shadow of her vivid, scheming self, but are these pangs of conscience genuine or manufactured? We’re not sure, and the Doctor is similarly wary after she asks to be friends again.

“I don’t know,” he says. “That’s the trouble with hope; it’s hard to resist.” With only two more episodes to go in the season, we’ll see if any trust on his part has been well-founded or foolish.

Timey-Wimey-Ness

Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas, "Doctor Who"

Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas, “Doctor Who”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

What is with these cairns and how they bend time? In this case, a few seconds spent inside translates to days outside, which explains why only one Pict per generation had to sacrifice their life to fight off the Eaters of the Light. The ultimate sacrifice at the end of the band of Picts and Romans joining together to fight the creatures on their own turf breaks the portal. It’s not entirely clear why this happens, but hey, at a least those tentacles are gone for good (we assume).

Whoniversity Degree

There weren’t any obvious references this episode, but the writer Rona Munro has the distinction of being the only person who has written for the original classic “Doctor Who” and the current continuation. She had written the final episode, “Survival,” before it went off the air in 1989 before coming back for “The Eaters of the Light.”

Quotes

Rebecca Benson, "Doctor Who"

Rebecca Benson, “Doctor Who”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

The Doctor: “Speaking as a former vestal virgin second class — “

Nardole (Matt Lucas), upon hearing that a person died due to lack of sunlight: “Death by Scotland.”

Nardole: “I’m ingratiating myself. “
The Doctor: “It’s nauseating.”
Nardole: “It’s called charm.”
The Doctor: “I’m against it. I’m against charm.”

Kar (Rebecca Benson): “Let me tell you about the Romans. They are robbers of the world; When they’ve thieved everything on land, they’ll rob the sea. If their enemies are rich, they’ll take all they have. If their enemies are poor, they’ll make slaves of them. Their work is robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do this work and they call it empire. They make deserts and they call it peace. They’re not conquerors; they’re cowards.”

Nardole: “Sir, I must protest in the strongest, most upset tones possible. Don’t make me go squeaky-voiced.”

GRADE: C+

Watch a sneak peek of next week’s episode below:

 

“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on BBC America.

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