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.
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.