‘Doctor Who’ recap: ‘The Eaters of Light’ is the best Scottish highlands time travel this side of ‘Outlander’

In this week’s episode of “Doctor Who,” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) are off of Mars and exploring real-life history for the first time since they went to a 19th century frost fair in “Thin Ice” earlier this season. This time they’re going much further back to ancient times in the highlands of Scotland — and no, they’re not trying to figure out what happens next to Claire and Jamie on “Outlander,” though wouldn’t that be a fitting crossover.

Written by Rona Munro and directed by Charles Palmer, “The Eaters of Light” premiered on June 17. Read our recap below for the top five takeaways from the new episode.

Ghosts in the Hill

“Everyone knows there are ghosts in the hill,” says a boy to his younger sister in the Devil’s Cairn in modern-day Scotland. “If you stay out here and listen to ghosts, they will come out of the hill and eat you!” The two children leave, but the camera lingers over a carved stone on that hill, and wouldn’t you know one of the ancient carvings is of a familiar-looking phone box. That’s a pretty clear calling card: “The Doctor was here.”

It turns out he was here a long time ago: he’s not interested in looking for ghosts in the 21st century, he’s tracing them all the way back to the 2nd century AD. He takes Bill and Nardole there to solve a mystery, which at first is less about adventure and heroism and more about academic curiosity. Bill is fascinated by the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire, of which there is no record after the year 120. So what happened to them? “They were annihilated in battle,” insists the Doctor. “Then where’s the big pile of bodies?” counters Bill, who believes they survived and escaped somehow. But of course she’s talking to a man who has first-hand experience of, well, pretty much any point in history he feels like experiencing.

“I’ve lived in Roman Britain: governed, farmed, juggled,” says the Doctor. “Speaking as a former Vestal Virgin second class,” he assures her that the simplest explanation is probably the right one. The Ninth Legion was simply wiped out. Well, yes and no.

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Romans or Scotsmen? Take your Pict

The Doctor and Bill split up — is that ever a good idea when investigating a mysterious disappearance in the “Doctor Who” universe? Predictably both find themselves in peril. Bill encounters a young Pict, who chases and tries to kill her until Bill falls through a hidden hole in the ground. Hiding there she finds — yes — one of the Ninth Legion. So Bill was right, they survived after all. But her self-congratulations are short-lived. There aren’t many of them left, and the ones that remain are in hiding from a creature that looks like a kind of lizard that snatches its prey with glowing blue tentacles.

Meanwhile the Doctor and Nardole find themselves caught on the opposite side of the conflict. They’re captured by the Picts, the Celtic people who lived in northern Scotland at the time. These tribes are trying to fight back the Roman army, and they also know more than anyone about the creature that has been unleashed. Kar (Rebecca Benson), the Pict who chased away Bill earlier, identifies herself as “the Gatekeeper.” But what gate was she keeping, the Doctor wonders, and what’s on the other side?

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Children of War

As Bill gets to know the trapped and frightened Romans and the Doctor spends time among the Picts, we see that the battles — and then the strange creature — have decimated both groups, leaving children to lead their communities. One of the surviving Romans is called “granddad” by his comrades because he’s the oldest one left — he’s 18. Bill’s scenes with the Roman soldiers are some of the episode’s most intriguing, not only in exploring their fear and their inexperience but also their culture. When one of the soldiers seems fond of Bill she’s careful to break the news to him that she prefers the company of women, but that goes over surprisingly well. Ancient Roman sexuality is more complicated than this one scene can establish, but suffice it to say they didn’t classify sexual identities along the same lines as contemporary Western cultures do.

The remaining Picts are similarly young and inexperienced. Kar, desperate as her kinsmen fought and died against the Romans, let the creature through the gate in the hopes that it would destroy the Ninth Legion. That it did, but now it threatens them all, and once the remaining Romans and Picts finally come together both sides realize how young and scared their opponents really are. The TARDIS creates a psychic field that allows everyone to understand each other’s language, so “Is this what happens?” asks Bill. “When you can understand what everyone in the universe is saying, everyone just sounds like children?”

Now it all boils down to empathy, as do many adventures on “Doctor Who.” This is an interesting companion piece to last week’s episode, “Empress of Mars,” which tackled much more recent colonialism in the British aisles. In this case the Ninth Legion have tried to expand the Roman Empire to northern Britain, and the impulse to dominate has ultimately threatened the lives of all. “She’s slaughtered your legion. You slaughtered everything that she loves,” the Doctor tells them. “Now, you all have a choice: you can carry on slaughtering each other until no one is left standing, or you grow the hell up because there’s a new war now.” The Doctor hates futile, petty war; the human race is much stronger when it recognizes each other’s common humanity.

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The Eater of Light

The “new war” that the Doctor alluded to is against the “Eater of Light,” as the creature is known to the Picts. Every generation one Gatekeeper fights back the creature, which the Doctor describes as a “light-eating locust.” It’s just one of millions of such creatures that exist between dimensions looking for light, and if they break through this dimension they will feast on every star and every atom, every morsel of light and life until there’s nothing left. But the Doctor has a plan.

It’s not a perfect plan. He leads the Picts and Romans in a brief battle against the creature and forces it back through its portal, but then he intends to follow it through the rift and fight it eternally. The Doctor is borderline immortal, so he can keep the creature at bay forever if he has to, but the young, frightened children of war decide that now is the time to grow up. Their collective strength can hold back the monster and defend the portal indefinitely. Time moves more slowly inside the portal, so despite their limited lifespans they can protect the Earth for centuries, millennia, or more. So they force their way past the self-sacrificing Doctor to enter the battle, and in the 21st century, if you listen closely enough, perhaps you can still hear them as ghosts in the hill.

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Ain’t Missy-Behavin’

The Doctor, Bill and Nardole are on their way back home, but there’s a surprise when they get back to the TARDIS: Missy (Michelle Gomez) is out of her vault again. Or as it turns out, the Doctor never put her back in it. He has her helping out around the house — er, around the time machine — much to the chagrin of Bill and Nardole. The Doctor has put safeguards in place to keep her from escaping or taking the TARDIS for herself, but can they really trust her? Bill and Nardole certainly don’t think so, but the Doctor can’t be objective about his fellow Time Lord, with whom he’s shared centuries as friends or enemies, depending on the decade.

So far Missy has been on her best behavior — she hasn’t annihilated a single species since she’s been out, not that we know of anyway. Now the Doctor is wondering if he and Missy can truly become friends again. “That’s the trouble with hope,” he tells her. “It’s hard to resist.”

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