A Metaphor That Will Devour Your World, Doctor Who: Eaters of Light, Reviews, 19/06/2017

“Eaters of Light” is a very old-fashioned Doctor Who story, but it’s also perfectly in tune with the rebellious tone and message Doctor Who is expressing in 2017. Several stories this season have staked out what Doctor Who can be in the Britain of Brexit nationalism and cultural delusion. “Eaters of Light” is another one.

The Doctor’s Harsh Words for Brexit Nation

The British nationalism of Brexit is an ideology that’s trying to resurrect the spirit of the British Empire, a time when Britain as a country needed no partners, no friends. Brexit ideology is the image of Britain as the dominant power in the world.

Quite simply, the Doctor does not have time for any of your shit.
That’s why the ideology rejects the European Union – for all that its execution remains flawed, the core promise of the EU is that it’s a confederation of partners who are stronger together than they ever could be separately or at war.

Brexit nationalism remembers an alternative arrangement – when Britain was independent of all such confederations, and wanted war because Britain would conquer.

Nigel Farage’s vision has two elements: domination and racism. Reject the European Union because Britain’s true greatness lies not in becoming one partner among ostensible equals, but in dominating all rivals. Reject a multicultural society because those who aren’t ethnically and culturally traditional British are no equals, but slaves.

The victory of Brexit was a reactionary eruption of this demented vision – a demand to return to the patriotism of the empire, of conquerors.

We’ve seen several reactions Doctor Who has had to this vision of Britain – all variations on “NO!”

Doctor Who could never have embraced this kind of ideology without falling apart. It would be a bigger ethical crisis for the show than the collapse of the Doctor’s character in the metafictional suicide of 1985.

One flaw of the retro nature of Rona Munro's script was that the
supporting cast didn't get much development in their dialogue that
wasn't directly related to the theme of the story. Which was fine,
since the theme was brilliant. But I found Rebecca Benson's Kar
had the best performance in relatively thin material.
Doctor Who was designed as a take on the Victorian character trope of the travelling scientist-adventurer in a post-empire world. The Doctor explores the ethic of the imperial scientist-adventurer who rejects empire. So of course Doctor Who could only ever stand against Brexit ideology.

Thieves and Killers, Eaters of Light

Several stories this season have attacked different expressions of Brexit ideology. “Thin Ice” depicted the Victorian-era version of Nigel Farage for exactly the kind of petty, pathetic, small-minded, racist twit he is.

“Oxygen” shows how the world is perverted into a horror-show of exploitation, where people are treated as disposable machinery in the name of profit. A society whose core values are those of remorseless, pitiless, rapacious libertarian capitalism where everything can be for sale, even the air we breathe. This society is the monster whose death the Doctor sets in motion.

The flawed yet terribly ambitious Monks Trilogy carries among its many dense philosophical themes a running resistance to apparently invincible empire. Each episode features an act of resistance and hope that eventually forces that empire to crumble.

“Empress of Mars” is probably the biggest middle finger to the Faragean romanticizing of brutality and theft. It’s not a subtle story. The Victorian English soldiers that Brexit ideology considers the height of British nobility are petty thieves and chauvinist murderers.

Romans are romanticized as the ultimate warriors, ever since the
original histories of their empire. Livy was as much a propagandist
for his country as its chronicler. But when the chips are seriously
down and your enemy is a hungry killing machine from another
dimension whose very material nature is a destructive cancer on
your own universe, they're a bit in over their heads.
The only one among the major soldier characters with any honour or ethics is the deserter. I mean, naturally. This is Doctor Who – anyone who deserts from a brutal conquering army bent on looting the world is a hero.

Which brings us to “Eaters of Light,” which is simultaneously straightforward in its rejection of Brexit nationalist ideology and a little more complex.

Impotent Empires

This week’s story is straightforward, though a warning of


is needed. Phil Sandifer’s review already described how the structure of the story was so straightforward, it was straight out of the classic series. Rona Munro, who wrote the last story of the classic series “Survival,” turned in a very simple Doctor Who story. Its narrative wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1970s.

The TARDIS team gets split up and meets the two sides of a terrible conflict. Bill meets the last teenage soldiers of the Roman legion while the Doctor and Nardole meet the child and teenage survivors of the area’s Pictish people. When they reunite, they bring the two sides together to fight a greater evil. The monster receives no greater detail than its monstrousness, its concept as a light-eater.

The episode's ending, with Pict and Roman warriors and shamans
locked together in a time-out-of-joint pocket battling eternally for
the safety of our reality, reminded me a lot of the end of the classic
Star Trek episode "The Alternative Factor," but much more hopeful.
The Romans of 2000 years ago are, along with the British of 150 years ago, the most legendary empires of Europe. Their armies and conquests are remembered fondly in the current age. Mussolini’s nationalism regarded imperial Rome in much the same way Farage’s remembers Victorian Britain.

But Kar herself, the young Pict shaman, describes what they were in their own times. Armies of mass murderers, thieves, looters, not warriors but despoilers. The reason the few teenagers are left in the Roman legion is because the Light Eater monster killed them all. As for the adult Picts, the Romans killed all of them.

The episode itself demonstrates the pathetic nature of this kind of imperialist killing. You wouldn’t think that we’d have to demonstrate how horrible imperialist killing is, but that’s Brexit ideology for you, and it’s a serious danger.

Peace Conquers All

Simply demonstrating the inherent wrongness of invading a country, massacring its people, and looting its wealth isn’t enough, however. The problem is one of intuitions, the kind of ethical thinking to which you’re accustomed.

I can very easily say that invading a country, massacring its people, and looting their wealth is a terrible thing, because that is what I believe. And I can argue for its rightness using appeals to historical evidence and philosophical principle. History provides my cases to analyze, and philosophy provides my principles and the means to justify them.

The last scene (whether written by Munro herself or Steven Moffat,
credit to them both anyway) is a vast improvement on Toby
Whithouse's brick-headed attempt to show the Master's ethical
transformation. "Eaters of Light" is bold and sophisticated
enough to show us the deeply erotic aspects of this season's arc
of the Master's relationship with the Doctor as the means to her
ethical change. It's territory that Doctor Who has never really
explored (officially, anyway). Like I said last time, I'm
disappointed that it turned out to be a straight pairing, as is
everyone else who wrote a little Davison Doctor / Ainley
Master slash-fic in our day. But that's especially so for this
episode, which made such a touching moment of queer
conversation when Bill got to know her Roman friends.
The problem is that a rabid imperialist nationalist can do the same. They believe that the glory of a people is in dominating, conquering, brutalizing, and looting them. They use cases from history and philosophical analysis to determine and justify their principles too. What can break the deadlock?

“Eaters of Light” provides an answer, one similar in a fashion to that of “Empress of Mars” last week. They prove that domination through violence is ultimately a fool’s game, because you can never win those contests forever. You might believe that you can, as Catchlove did last week and the most deranged Farageans do most every day.

But if the British Empire had lasted long enough (or made it to Mars), they’d have eventually discovered some alien civilization with far superior technology who would have made short work of their glory. The same goes for Rome – the all-consuming army is destroyed by a locust from another dimension.

What can actually ensure the continuity of your civilization and culture through such a challenge is peace. Last week, we saw a human who’d rejected empire making peace with Martians. This weekend, we saw the remnants of conquerors joining with the remnants of the conquered to defeat a force that threatened their whole world.

That's the message of Doctor Who for those who worship empire. Not only are our values of peace and friendship better ethically, they’re better for our very survival.
• • •
My reviews on this season of Doctor Who so far. Unranked, at least for now.
The Pilot / The Girl with The Star in Her Eye
Thin Ice
Knock Knock
The Pyramid at the End of the World (1)
The Pyramid at the End of the World (2)
The Lie of the Land
The Monks Trilogy
Empress of Mars

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