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The Eaters of Light

They were Romans. The Ninth Legion. The best fighters in the world. So how exactly did 5,000 men just vanish?

WARNING: Spoilers!

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream –” No. Strike that. Reverse it. “There are places in the universe like deserts of darkness, endless stretches of space with no living stars –”

That’s more like it!

“– nothing but black desolation. And no-one knew why,” the Doctor proclaims in The Eaters of Light, Rona Munro’s compelling, elegiac tale of Roman centurions, Pictish warriors, big, scary, light-eating locusts, plenty of shade (“I know you’re inclined to bear grudges, so just remember,” Nardole warns the Doctor, “I know about 10% of your secrets – the dark secrets – and I’m the only one in the TARDIS who knows where the teacakes are”), a biting wind, talkative crows (roll with it), and an inter-dimensional gateway – a portal – in second-century Caledonia, about 20 miles south of what will one day be Aberdeen. It’s AD 120, but not as you know it. With giant, flailing tentacles. And black slime. And unimaginable danger. And somewhere else Nardole’s teacakes are getting cold. Come on, Bill, we’ve got work to do.

“The last time Rona Munro wrote for Doctor Who,” showrunner Steven Moffat declared at the cast readthrough for The Eaters of Light, in London last October, “it went off the air for 16 years, so we’re taking a risk, guys!” The room laughed. Rona too – I think. “In the meantime,” he persisted, “she’s become one of the most distinguished playwrights in the world.” A beat. “But she did take Doctor Who off the air.”

To be clear, Rona Munro did not get Doctor Who cancelled. But she did write the very last serial of the show’s original, 26-year run: the seminal, three-part finale to Season Twenty-Six, Survival, which aired in November and December 1989. In his DWM 507 Production Notes, Steven labelled Survival ‘a clever and rather haunting story, at the end of one of the best seasons of Doctor Who ever made’. Interviewed in 2013 for BBC Cymru Wales’ An Evening with Steven Moffat, he pointed out that when you watch Survival back to back with the first episode of twenty-first-century Doctor Who, 2005’s Rose, “it’s the same show. I mean, it’s really the same show. Stylistically, tonally, everything. It came back exactly as it left.”

Basically, Survival was 16 years ahead of its time. Discuss.

“I think what that’s indicative of,” considers Rona, “is the fact that, if you’re a Doctor Who fan writing Doctor Who, there’s a certain iconic Doctor quality that you’ve internalised, because you’ve been watching since you were a few years old. The Doctor has an existence beyond any of us. But had I known at the time that Survival was going to be the last one for 16 years, I’d like to think I might have done a better job, especially with the last episode. I have so many regrets. When I was writing it, we still had this hope that it wouldn’t be the end. As it went into pre-production, it became pretty clear that it would be. In fact, the very last words that Sylvester McCoy speaks [“There are worlds out there,” etc] were actually written by Andrew Cartmel [script editor, 1987-89], who had the unenviable job of trying to write a kind of epilogue for the whole bloody thing – from William Hartnell to Sylvester McCoy! – and I’m kind of glad, in some ways, that I didn’t have that task. In other ways, I wish – I really, really wish – that I could have tied things up better for the fans…

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About Doctor Who Magazine

Contents include: • Exclusive previews of the next four episodes of the 2017 series of Doctor Who – The Lie of the Land, Empress of Mars, The Eaters of Light, and World Enough and Time. Plus, interviews writers Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Toby Whithouse and Rona Munro. • Showrunner Steven Moffat answers reader's questions. • A look into how one of the original Ice Warrior helmets from the1960s has survived to the present day. • An in-depth interview with Jamie Mathieson, who reveals the secrets behind the writing of episode 5, Oxygen. • Part Two of the new comic strip adventure featuring the Doctor and Bill: The Soul Garden, by Scott Gray, with art by Martin Geraghty. • Reviews of the latest episodes, Knock Knock, Oxygen, Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World. • The Fact of Fiction delves into the 1967 story The Macra Terror. • Previews, book and audio reviews, news, the Watcher's column, prize-winning competitions and much, much more!