I love when DOCTOR WHO goes historical, don’t you?
I’ve loved this myth since I first read The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff back in fourth grade – the legend of the Roman legion that went into battle in Scotland against the Celts and then disappeared, never to be heard from again. What happened to them? Where did they disappear to? This week’s episode has a fascinating take on it, and I have to tip my hat to writer Rona Munro, who is, fittingly, Scottish, as well as our second female writer for Season 10 (the first being Sarah Dollard with “Thin Ice,” another fantastic historical take).
Rona Munro is also the writer of “Survival,” the last episode of Classic Who before the Americans took over, killed off the Seventh Doctor, and made Paul McGann the Eighth Doctor in a terrible TV movie. Don’t get me wrong, Paul did a fantastic job as the Doctor, but the rest of the movie is crap – this is why Americans shouldn’t take over British things. Luckily, Britain took it back from our incapable hands and rebooted the show in 2005, and now we have our first writer for New Who who also wrote for Classic Who. And it shows, because Munro definitely knows what she’s doing!
I’ve missed episodes like this. The Doctor and his companion just plop down in the middle of history, see something odd, say “Oh, that looks interesting. Let’s go check it out,” and off they go, often with the fate of the whole human race in their hands. But that’s never stopped a good adventure!
Bill heads off to find the legion, and falls into a trap set for the Romans by the neighboring Celts. In the trap already is a Roman soldier – one of the surviving members of the missing ninth legion.
Before Bill can claim victory, and ask what happened to the rest of the legion as she helps him out of the trap, we have our answer: a monster with long colored tentacles on its tongue charges them, its tentacles wrapping around Bill’s neck and sucking away her life force. Bill and the soldier manage to escape, holing up alongside the rest of the legion in a dark cave. So we’ve found our monster – where the heck is the Doctor?
Well, he and Nardole have gotten a bit tied up – the Celts have kidnapped them, and they’re waiting for their leader to return to tell them what to do with them. She arrives – and she’s not what the Doctor expected.
I love this surprise. And it’s not because she’s a woman that the Doctor is impatient with Kar – it’s because she’s an “embryo,” as the Doctor says. The Doctor has some great lines in this scene, including being “against charm”; he’s probably also the only person ever who’s escaped via distraction by popcorn.
I love that Kar is given a back story – she’s the protector of her people, the Gatekeeper, and she let the monster loose to protect her tribe from the Roman legion. It’s tragic, it’s inevitable, and it’s so human – but now the monster is free, and it gains strength from sunlight. It will eat away the sun, it will eat away at every light in the universe, until everything is dark. It will live in the darkness, until another Gatekeeper lets it through to devour another world.
What scope; what a chilling, thrilling concept for a monster. How awesome is this vision, and how epic is this scale. And we haven’t even gotten to the final battle yet – the eternal battle for the universe.
The scene before the battle feels mythic in quality. The Roman legion and the Celtic tribe finally confront each other, and at first they try to fight like they always do – but then they realize they can understand each other (courtesy of the TARDIS auto-translate). And the battle stops.
Oh! if only everything worked like this! If only we could reach across all barriers like this, and understand each other before a single drop of blood is spilled. I love the boundaries of languages falling away, letting us see ourselves in the other side. Can you imagine what would happen if every battle worked this way? We’d never have a war.
I’m reminded of Wonder Woman and the scene where Diana reveals she speaks hundreds of languages – and when they go to Europe, she understands the pleas and stories of every refugee and can see the other side for what it is – us. When we can see the pain we inflict and understand its damage, we can stop fighting. And this is what the Doctor tries to explain, in every war episode, encapsulated in his speech in Season 9’s “The Zygon Inversion” and beautifully reiterated here – in the grand scheme of things, we are children; our battles are tiny. And if we could see how shallow they are, we would never fight them. We would never see the senseless need. Instead, we would fight to understand – and they do. Just in time to band together and fight back the monster – the Eater of Light – once and for all.
And now, the part of the episode where the Doctor tries to needlessly sacrifice himself. What’s going on? Why does he feel the need to keep doing this? The Doctor will do everything he can to save the people he’s protecting, but it seems lately he’s been going to self-sacrifice as his first option instead of his last. What’s wrong? Why does he feel the need to do it? Is he dying already? Is that why Missy asked him “Are you sure you’re all right, Doctor?” last episode? Is he dying right now, and no one knows except him and Missy? Oh, god, please, no.
Luckily, Bill’s there to hold him back. The Romans and the Celts bravely head into the portal, their music going with them – music that rings out through the hills thousands of years later.
I love how Doctor Who has focused on music lately as a crucial part of its episodes. Music says so much with so little, and I’m not sure if it started because Peter Capaldi’s Doctor plays guitar, but it lends such a subtle, yet powerful touch to the narrative proceedings. I know hearing Clara’s theme earlier on in the season made me tear up a bit, and hearing the Celtic music in this episode was a lovely way to express the beauty and the courage of the sacrifice the Romans and Celts make together to save Earth and the universe. I also loved the added bit at the end of the crows saying “Kar” – it’s always fun to have things in real life that relate back to Doctor Who, and now a crow’s cry will always make me think of this episode. In a way, now Kar really is part of history, at least in the Whoniverse.
So now, with the battle ended, we can address our lingering dilemma: the rehabilitation of Missy. I find the relationship between the Doctor and Missy fascinating, and I think Capaldi and Michelle Gomez play it off very well, with both its emotional complications and its danger. It’s good to see he’s not stupid enough to fall for her tears, but we know the Doctor makes stupid decisions when he gets emotional. Letting Missy change the basic mechanics of the TARDIS? Not so smart.
We know from the Season 8 finale that Missy’s deepest desire is to have the Doctor be her friend again. Now that he’s trying to change her, though, I wonder if she thinks it’s a lost cause, and is now just set on getting the best revenge she can. Knowing John Simm shows up at some point as the Master from the Tenth Doctor’s era, my prediction is Missy hijacks the TARDIS and brings back past versions of herself to…do what? Take over the world? Didn’t she already do that in Season 4? I guess we’ll see. All I know is I’m not ready for Twelve to regenerate.
Get ready for the heartbreak! Steven Moffat will be writing the last two episodes of the season, starting with next week’s “World Enough and Time”!
Season 10, Episode 10 (S10E10)
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9PM on BBC America
Cailin is a screenwriter and an aspiring TV writer. When not writing, she’s busy convincing random passersby that Firefly was the best show ever, converting her co-workers into Whovians, and waiting for the next season of Sherlock.
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Cailin Coane | Contributor