‘Doctor Who’ Regeneration Review: ‘The Eaters Of Light’ Replays An Old Story

The Doctor Who Regeneration Review is a weekly column cataloging all the times Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor nearly regenerates, or dies, in the latest episode of BBC America’s popular science fiction show. Since this is the Scottish “cross” character’s final season — a fact the showrunners have enjoyed teasing in the promos — we decided to tease back. Most items are serious, some silly, and all measured with the Doctor’s ?.

Last week’s “The Empress of Mars” offered Doctor Who fans one of the current season’s best episodes to date thanks to the return of the Ice Warriors, a Martian race of reptilian fighters who first appeared in 1967 during Patrick Troughton’s tenure as the Second Doctor. However, much of its acclaim undoubtedly belongs to writer Mark Gatiss, who revived the recurring enemy for 2013’s “Cold War.” The Sherlock co-creator has since become one of Doctor Who‘s senior writers alongside showrunner Steven Moffat, which is probably why “Empress” bears so little of the latter’s mark.

“The Eaters of Light” writer Rona Munro, on the other hand, manages to create a wonderful one-off story that nonetheless finds itself buried under Moffat’s weight. The ancient Scottish setting (Munro hails from Scotland), inter-dimensional monsters that consume light, and the mysterious disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion together present a rather creative adventure-of-the-week story. Unfortunately, it flails under the showrunner’s series-long arc involving Missy (Michelle Gomez) and her vault. One of the Doctor’s most troubling character traits — his penchant for convincing others to sacrifice themselves — pops up as well.

Many Doctor Who episodes since the reboot lead to the same climax: something terrible is about to happen, the Doctor declares his sacrifice alone will prevent it, and one of the supporting characters steps in at the last minute to save the Doctor and everyone else. There is nothing inherently wrong with this narrative, but it has happened quite often since Moffat became showrunner in 2010. He even called himself out for it in the season eight finale “Death in Heaven,” in which Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman) boyfriend, Danny (Samuel Anderson) admonished the Doctor before sacrificing himself to save the world.

“Not always fun to be right” (?)

Following “Empress” and the three-part story concluded by “The Lie of the Land,” viewers wouldn’t be wrong to assume the Doctor, Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) would be trying to get back home to protect Missy’s vault. Yet “Eaters” begins with an outspoken Bill whose fascination with the infamous disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion ultimately convinces the Doctor to take her and an irritable Nardole to ancient Scotland. Random, companion-driven trips like these are the bread and butter of Doctor Who, even when they result in the discovery of the missing legion’s massive open grave.

“Did anybody hear that?” (??)

Finding a field rife with dead Roman legionaries is troubling enough, but the odd condition Nardole and the Doctor find them in leaves more questions than answers. Something “alien” is obviously responsible, but a tribe of mostly younger natives captures the two before they can investigate the matter any further. Turns out the parents of new leader Kar (Rebecca Benson) and her brother Ban (Daniel Kerr) died in battle with the Romans, so the former unleashed an alien creature to defeat the invaders. The Doctor, surrounded by angry children and their sharp spears, eventually learns this after shouting them down.

“Your friend won’t be coming back” (????)

After brandishing his cross, Scottish demeanor against the tribe’s weapons, the Doctor ultimately find the gateway through which the beast entered our earthly realm. Since Kar’s parents, who were the gate’s guardians, are now dead, she is charged with regularly defending it against the alien light eaters whenever it opens. The Time Lord ventures to the gate and, when the sunlight shines on it, through the inter-dimensional doorway to see things for himself. He finds himself face to face with a horde of the creatures for only a few seconds, but finds out he was gone for days upon stepping back through.

“We don’t have time for this” (?????)

If it’s not a direct encounter with the so-called eaters of light, the Doctor’s closest brushes with regeneration usually occur in the middle of someone else’s war. He and Nardole previously faced such an instance when they were first confronted by Kar’s tribe, but when Bill brings the surviving Romans into the middle of their encampment, all hell breaks loose. “There is no time for fighting!” Bill exclaims. Kar, to her credit, responds, “We never wanted to fight.” The story here suggests a lack of communications was largely responsible for their conflict, which the T.A.R.D.I.S. translation matrix now makes up for.

“Out of my way” (??????)

Once the alien is forced back through the gate, a quandary remains: how best to prevent it and others from re-entering? Kar’s tribe traditionally deployed gate keepers to defend it against incursion, but with their numbers severely dwindled and inexperienced, the Doctor determines he shall sacrifice himself in their stead.”I go on for ages. I don’t even really die. I regenerate,” he explains to Bill, the native Scots and the surviving Romans. His companion pleads with him not to, but the Doctor stands his ground… until Kar, a few of her tribesman and some of the Romans forcibly take his place.

New episodes of Doctor Who air Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.