The Eaters of Light: Themes and Messages

Now that I have had sufficient time to mull over the penultimate story of Series 10 of Doctor Who, The Eaters of Light, which aired on June 17, I thought I’d put finger to keyboard and offer my thoughts on the story’s themes and messages. Doctor Who writers have all, in some way, delivered a specific view of the world of their day—both the way we view ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. That’s what science fiction does. Rona Munro  is known for her classic series story, Survival, which explicitly tackled social and cultural issues at the time. If reminiscences are accurate, some of her weighted dialogue was edited out for being too explicitly political. Today’s world is a bit different, so when she was announced to return to pen the present story, we expected her to offer her point-of-view on certain issues, and she did. In The Eaters of Light, Munro is open about her views of war, peace, and sexuality.


Doctor Who has many times criticized the construction and maintenance of empire, and we are not surprised when the subject comes up in a story dealing with one of the most famous (or infamous) empires in history. Kar says to the Doctor, “Let me tell you about the Romans. They are the robbers of this 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.” The Doctor responds with a one-liner, “Yeah, but you’ve got to love the indoor toilets, yeah?” It’s a joke, but also a criticism, because there are indeed people who look back on Roman civilization fondly because of their technology and other achievements. Indeed, the Romans were impressive in the things that they built and developed. For this reason, many are willing to overlook the cruel elements of Roman civilization and give them a pass. The Doctor here, by his joke, urges us to put things into perspective. What’s more important?

The Ultimate Weapon

And yet the Doctor also criticizes Kar and the Picts for what they have done. Because they want the Romans dead and gone, they have unleashed a power that will not only kill the Romans, but everyone else. The secret weapon is more dangerous than the enemy on whom they use the weapon. Munro here may be commenting on the development of the atomic bomb–the ultimate weapon, which helped the U.S. to win the war against the Japanese in the 1940’s, but the creation of which later threatened the existence of everyone on the planet. “To protect a muddy little hillside, you doomed your whole world,” says the Doctor.

Immaturity of Warmongering

The telepathic field generated by the TARDIS allows not only the Doctor and company to understand the Romans and the Picts, but also the Romans and the Picts to understand each other, which provides a potential for them to make peace. Instead they get into an argument. “You sound like children,” says Lucius. “You sound like children too,” answers Kar. This may be the result of understanding each other’s languages for the first time, or it may be an insult, or both. But the Doctor’s response, “You both sound like children,” carries a different meaning. Their inability to come to terms and hurling of accusations towards one another sounds like schoolyard squabbling. The Doctor is not having it. “Okay, kids, pay attention. She slaughtered your legion. You slaughtered everything that she loves. Now, you all have a choice. You can carry on slaughtering each other till no one is left standing, or you grow the hell up!” This is Munro’s remark on the frequent inability of nations to come to terms with each other and their propensity to be lured into fights too easily. In doing so, she suggests, they behave not as adults, but as children. Munro is not saying this applies across the board to all nations and all wars–indeed the Doctor says they have a “new war” to fight against the creatures. So indeed some battles need to be fought, but there are many that have been waged in which human beings have been needlessly killed, simply because of the immature behavior of the leaders of the two sides.

Why Peace?

In that same scene (the most important scene in the episode), Bill yells at the two sides: “There is no time for fighting!” In defense of her side, Kar turns to Lucius and explains, “We never wanted to fight! We lived in peace, and then you came and laid waste to everything and everyone we loved. All you understand is war!” Bill interjects: “No, he understands. Now, he’s wondering, ‘Why?’”

Now, on the surface level, Bill just may be saying that Lucius is wondering how he is able to understand Kar’s language, which he has not been able to comprehend before. “You speak Latin?” Lucius asks. “I don’t,” Kar answers. “Neither do I, not a word,” Bill says. “And I don’t speak whatever they speak, either,” she continues, showing that she speaks from a neutral position.

But the wordplay works in another sense. Bill may be saying that Lucius does not understand why he is fighting. He has experienced pain, loss, fear, and isolation as Kar has, and he now is wondering what it was all for, or is wondering why it needs to continue. This openness to question war’s purpose or value encourages him to consider peace. And this makes us, the audience, ask ourselves, how can peace between two large enemies be made? What is the driving force behind it? Is it the empathy that Lucius is experiencing? Is it the need to fight a common enemy? The need to survive? Or is it the pointlessness of the war itself?

How Sexually Liberated is Bill?

One might think that a lesbian woman from the present day put into a conversation about sexuality with ancient Romans would have an opportunity to teach backward men to be more enlightened. In fact, it is the other way around. The Romans school Bill a bit. They consider her the backward one, because she limits her preference to merely one gender. This exchange is intended to demonstrate that, though we live in “modern” times, this does not mean we have the most progressive ideas in history on every subject. This conversation is reminiscent of the parallel one on race that Bill had with the blue alien in Oxygen. Bill’s horizons continue to expand.

This is not to say that Munro’s presentation of Roman sexuality is entirely accurate. In reality they were not as progressive as they sound in this story. Roman men were expected to marry women and have plenty of children. They often had same-sex relationships on the side. In other words, men were allowed to have affairs. But the same standard did not apply to women. They had to be completely devoted and loyal to their husbands and family. Lesbians generally were execrated. Munro is not necessarily denying this, but she papers it over a bit in order to make her point.

Series 10 Finale: Themes and Messages

The two-part finale of Series 10 of Doctor Who, which aired on June 24 and July 1, has now had a chance to settle in our minds a bit, so I thought it might be advantageous to look back on it to examine its themes and messages. It delivered a lot of flash and action, but much also in the way of a point-of-view. It’s always interesting to see how a television series responds to the current social, or cultural, or political climate. They all in some way deliver a specific view of the world of their day—both the way we view ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. It can’t be helped. But sometimes it presents a message on purpose.

Inner Strength

The two episodes, “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls,” are often seen as the great swansong for Peter Capaldi, but even though the Doctor is referred to in the title of the second episode, this is very much Bill’s story. She is the protagonist, as can be seen from the fact that she gets the most air-time, even in comparison with the Doctor.

We follow Bill through the story, from her assisting the Doctor in Missy’s reformation, to her getting shot by the blue man, to her being in the hospital, to her friendship (and later betrayal) by Razor, to her conversion into a Cyberman, to her rescuing the Doctor, to her helping to save the people of the 507th floor from the other Cybermen, and to her own deliverance by Heather. The story is very much in the horror genre, and even though Steven Moffat (the writer) uses many of the common tropes, Bill doesn’t just succumb to them as would a typical throwaway character in a horror flick. Through it all she shows an inner strength, a resilience, that the average person would never exhibit.

Our journey is always a series of ups and downs. Challenges come and become obstacles. If its one thing that we all are is inconsistent. Sometimes we have the ability to cope with the stressful situations that life throws at us and sometimes not so much. The one constant is you, and how you deal with all the change. If you are weak inside, you will be batted about like a rowboat in a hurricane. But those who cultivate inner strength are able to weather any storm and can travel great distances at speed when the seas are calm.

Bill knows who she is. Her personality is the foundation of her power. Before she became a Cyberman, she was comfortable in her own skin, so that even when her “skin” was changed, she did not lose herself.  As the Doctor tells her, “You are so strong. You’re amazing. Your mind has rebelled against the programming. It’s built a wall around itself. A castle made of you, and you are standing on the battlements, saying no. No, not me.”

Think of all the people who have been converted into Cybermen who were not able to resist (basically everybody else). This says something about the extraordinariness of Bill. The absolute worst is thrown at her (and it has to be, so that the degree of her resilience can be demonstrated), and she defies it all. This is why she tells the Doctor she is glad he remembers “how I’m usually all about women and, and kind of people my own age.” She wants to emphasize to him that she is still in there. Despite the soulless-looking Cyber exterior, inside she retains her loves and her interests, the things that are at odds with Cyber thinking. We see Bill as she sees herself, as human; this was a nice way to show the mind of Bill in the story. Long before this Bill centered herself in the universe and understand her role in something bigger and worthy. She is optimistic in the face of negativity, and she resists the messages that try to make her act or feel a different way. The fact is, the happier you are with yourself, the less the outside world can damage you. The Doctor theorizes, “All that time, living under the Monks, you learned to hang on to yourself.” Insecurity is an inner-strength killer.  Bill exhibits little of it.

So Bill, not the Doctor, is the hero of this particular story. Note how she retains her agency even as a Cyberman. Who is the one that grabs hold of the shuttle, as the Masters are trying to escape, in order to rescue the Doctor from death? Bill. Who do we see carrying the Doctor’s body from the smoldering wreckage of the shuttle? Bill. Who does not simply go along with the Doctor’s order to follow Nardole and instead remains to fight the other Cybermen? Bill. Who goes back to get the Doctor’s body on the battlefield at  the end in order ensure his survival? Bill does. She saves the Doctor not once, but twice in this story. He saves her zero times.

Think of how her resolution compares to the other main characters. None of their story threads end well for them. The two Masters kill each other. Nardole leaves to assist the remaining humans in fighting the Cybermen, but we are told this ultimately will only delay the inevitable: they all will be converted. The Doctor himself is killed by the Cybermen. No one has a happy ending–except for Bill. And that happy ending occurred through her own doing. Heather did not show up because the Doctor called her. She didn’t show up because she just so happened to be passing by. She showed up because of Bill’s proactive behavior in the earlier story, The Pilot. If you recall, Bill sought out Heather’s friendship, not the other way around. The Doctor is not to thank for this. Bill ‘cast her bread upon the waters’ and ‘found it after many days,’ as the saying goes.

Judging by the Outer Appearance

In the second episode we get to see how people react to Bill. Even after learning that Bill is not a threat, the gut reaction of Hazran, an otherwise nice woman, is to shoot her on sight. Bill has to stay in the barn–and if you think it is a coincidence that she is hiding in a barn as runaway slaves in America had to do prior to the Civil War, you’re fooling yourself. The imagery of Bill in the barn is supposed to evoke this memory. People who were deemed scary had to be kept away from sight, so as not to upset anyone. This is deliberate.

On the inside, Bill is Bill, as the audience can see clearly. But for the characters, it is different. They see a Cyberman. This teaches kids that we should never be afraid of someone just because of the way they look. We shouldn’t judge them as bad or as threatening, just because of their appearance. In fact, it was an excellent choice by Steven Moffat, the writer, to have a child, rather than an adult, appreciate Bill for who she really is, as this not only shows that children can often be more perceptive (and less judgmental) than adults, but also it is aspirational for the children who observe it.

The Right Motivations for Our Actions

This message is not difficult to miss, as the Doctor explicitly gives it in a speech to the two Masters. In probably the most quoted lines from the entire 10th Series, he says, “Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind.”

The point, of course, is that even though this show has its share of violence–it has action scenes, explosions, killings, and the like–when the Doctor engages in these sorts of actions, it is not for reasons that others might engage in them, even those we call heroes. For him, victory for its own sake is not a motivation. He doesn’t fight in order to get revenge, or even to punish an evildoer. His motivations are rooted in his empathy for others. At the risk of his own life, he will help, simply because it is the right thing, and the kind thing, to do.

Even the Worst Can Reform

In this story, we finally get to see the end of a thread that has run through all of Series 10. We wondered whether the Doctor did the right thing in saving Missy from execution and giving her the chance to change. It could very well have gone the other way: we wouldn’t have been surprised at all if she decided to side with her former self and continue along the road that she has long traveled. But that is not what happened. She sided with the Doctor.

When the Doctor gives the speech above, it was not for the benefit of the John Simm version of the Master. His hearts are too hard, and he quips: “This is the face that didn’t listen to a word you just said.” And initially, Missy tells the Doctor no, but we can see in her face that she is conflicted. Later, she tells her other self she is going to join the Doctor, “because he’s right. Because it’s time to stand with him. It’s where we’ve always been going, and it’s happening now, today. It’s time to stand with the Doctor.”

Keep in mind that the Master is probably the most evil character that has been portrayed in the show (with perhaps the exception of Satan). And here we see this person take the first step toward redemption. The message is clear: even the worst of the worst are capable of reform. There are echoes of Return of the Jedi here. If Darth Vader can change, anyone can, right? Well, same goes for the Master. Missy is even willing to go so far as to kill her past self to do this (a symbolic act that shows she is rejecting her previous ways).

One might conclude that once a person has been given a chance and rejected it, no further chances should be offered. But here we see that, even though the earlier Master explicitly and gleefully refuses to take the Doctor’s offer, his later self makes a different choice. It just goes to show that sometimes it’s all about the timing. At one point in a person’s life, they may not be ready to turn around. But at another point, they may be. And that is why we never stop trying. The Doctor is not one of those people who say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” He doesn’t mind being fooled over and over again, as long as there is hope.  In his mind, no one is past the point of no return.

Are Doctor Who characters representational or realistic?

When the first lesbian companion was written into Doctor Who for the 10th Series–and a person of color at that–many saw Bill Potts as a representative character. Whether you were complaining that it was a liberal conspiracy by the BBC to push their PC agenda, or hailing the casting as an appropriate (though belated) way to diversify the regular cast to help break down the barriers of prejudice, either way, you may have believed Bill Potts was there to represent.

As one lesbian woman put it, “It wasn’t until I saw Bill on screen that I realised how significant the move was, and with it, how important representation is as a whole. I’m not talking about the BBC hitting its diversity quotas here, but how important it is to see someone like me on screen, on the show I grew up with.”

Similarly, with the recent hiring of Jodie Whittaker to play the Doctor, many have seen another way for the show to represent: now women can more easily identify with the hero of the series.

This raises an interesting question: Are characters in Doctor Who meant to be representational? Writers don’t think much like viewers, commentators, or execs. They want to create great stories, and in their experience, great stories are populated by realistic characters–not in the sense that they are ordinary, but that their motivations, desires, and personality traits coincide with what we might find in the real world. Perhaps you think that realism and representationalism do not have to be mutually exclusive, but the fact is, the more representational a character is, the less realistic, and vice versa.

Realistic characters most resemble a real-life person. A realistic character is complex. They are depicted in a very detailed way, with a host of attributes, an “identity” that sets them apart from everyone else. There is therefore less room for interpretation or for the viewers to identify with the character by attributing their own identity to that character.

A representational character, on the other hand, is more generalized, so that a greater number of people can identify with the character. Moreover, a representational character also is idealistic: if the character is a hero, only the best and most exemplary qualities will be on display, and if the character is a villain, just the worst comes out of them. If the character is too nuanced or carries too many specific attributes, the idealism breaks down, and the representation narrows considerably.

Pearl Mackie, the actor portraying Bill Potts, has seen her character as very much three-dimensional in nature. “I’m here to play one person,” she said. “I’m not here to represent the entire lesbian and gay community, and I’m not here to represent the entire ethnic minority community. I think that kind of thing can be quite dangerous as well because essentially, lumping everyone together is something that we should stay away from anyway. I just play one individual who is a lesbian and if people identify with that positively then that’s great.”

Is it possible to meet the norms of representational correctness without sacrificing the realism of a character? Yes, to a certain extent. If you don’t have a character that your fans can identify with, empathize with, or care enough about to want to learn more about them, then they won’t want to watch the show. Sure, some characters can be unappealing jerks, but the regulars need to have at least some representational characteristics. The success of Bill Potts is that, even though she is a realistic, complex character, viewers have identified with her in many ways, even those who are not lesbian or people of color. This has occurred because she has qualities a large number of people can identify with.

Nevertheless, one can go to an extreme with representation. Realistic characters need to believable, and to be believable they need personality. Quirks. Idiosyncrasies. Anything that sets them apart from a general “type.” After all, no one on this planet fits a stereotype. We all deviate in some way. Even more importantly, to be realistic a character needs to be flawed. This is especially important for protagonists. Nobody’s perfect, not even heroes. In fact, heroes are often defined by their weaknesses. Nobody is completely selfless or completely malicious. Characters who do good or evil for the sake of good or evil are flat.

A flawed character can be representational, but we can’t then expect that the character will be wholly ideal. Some people expect this from representation. Have you ever had a friend you really cared about, and you make sure everything you tell others about her presents her in a positive light? A writer can’t do this even with heroic characters. It kills the realism.

When watching and critiquing characters in Doctor Who, and how they are depicted, a beneficial approach is to ask ourselves how realistic the characters are first. Representational interpretation is valuable, but if it is the first thing on our minds, we may miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.

What is representational interpretation? Basically, it analyzes the presentation of characters in an effort to determine whether those representations are objectionable because they depict that character stereotypically or prejudicially based on their race, sexual orientation, or other category. A typical claim would be that the writing for, or portrayal of, character X perpetuates prejudicial beliefs and is therefore objectionable.

Fortunately, grotesque caricatures of “the other” are no longer acceptable in media today and have mostly disappeared. Still, there are some stereotypes that have remained: the sassy black woman, the Asian kid who is a math genius, the black man who is great at basketball, the ultra-effeminate gay man, the Latina seductress, the submissive Asian woman, the Indian who works at the 7-11, etc. Not all the stereotypes are negative, but they are still stereotypes that have been far overdone in entertainment media.

To portray individual characters in these ways is not always bad–such people exist in real life–but when only a handful of these stereotypes are used to depict diverse kinds of people, when these are the only depictions available, and when actors are typecast in these roles, we are continuing to perpetuate misunderstandings about people and the barriers of prejudice.  Stereotyping is, in fact, unrealistic, because it squashes individualistic portrayals.

Of course, attempts at political correctness can also be misguided. Simply casting minority groups into leadership roles, for example, is a kind of overcorrection. It still on its own does not constitute a genuine attempt to develop realistic, three-dimensional characters.

Our desire for sympathetic portrayals of minorities might also cause us to be unduly sensitive to anything and everything that a script imposes upon that character, so much so that we may miss the larger picture.

Prejudices can be decreased through learning about a minority group through entertainment media, especially if a person has limited personal contact with that minority group.  But prejudice is not best combatted through idealistic and unrealistic portrayals of the minority group. The important thing is not whether the character possesses certain stereotypical characteristics, but whether there is sufficient mixture with other characteristics to complicate the viewer’s impression of that minority group. In order for prejudices to be broken down, the viewer must have sufficient contact with such characters, and the portrayals of those characters must be relatively positive (i.e., they have to be at least as positive as the portrayals of the majority group characters). They do not have to be 100% positive. If they are, we have lost our realism.

In analyzing a character, we should look at the whole range of their attributes. Otherwise we could overestimate the significance of a particular scene or line of dialogue.  When a person from a minority group is cast in a role, our first thought should not be to develop a list of all the things the writers can’t do with the character, and then when the character violates one of those rules, to get upset. Our biggest concern should not be whether we or our friends are made “uncomfortable” by something a character says or has happen to them, but whether the portrayal of the character overall is helping to whittle away the audience’s prejudices.