History is full of unknowns. We can never fully understand people’s motivations and experiences. We can never fully appreciate what drove people in the past, why they behaved in certain ways. This is even more true the further we go back, before the debut of the written record. We’ll never know what Neolithic man thought or what the day to day life in a iron age village was really like. Sure, archaeology has provided us with some information that we can extrapolate from, but these ideas remain at best educated guesses. Fiction can help. Through fiction, we can bring ancient times to life. Explore the feelings and motivations of these people and maybe through this exploration understand a little bit more about ourselves.
Historical drama, albeit with a fantasy twist, has been a staple of Doctor Who since it began in 1963. Indeed, the historical was an important part of those early years – fulfilling the Rethian ideal that the BBC should educate and inform as well as entertain. As the fantasy elements in the show started to dominate, the so-called pseudo-historical was born.
It’s interesting to wonder where The Eaters of Light, episode 10 of the 2017 series of Doctor Who (written by Rona Munro, the first Classic series writer to work on the current 2005- present show), fits. To all intents and purposes this is a straightforward period piece. Doctor Who, together with his companions Bill and Nardole, land in 2nd Century Caledonia, to find out what really happened to the Ninth Roman Legion that mysteriously disappeared. The episode immerses itself in the time period. We meet survivors of a tribe of Picts, teenagers struggling to come to terms with the loss of their family – and yet determined to continue their tribal customs and avenge their loss; on edge, fearful, and fragile from the recent invasion. As they put it, “[the Romans] work is robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do this work and they call it empire.” Indoor toilets, the promises of modernity is a moot point to those that have lost their whole way of life. But they are determined to carry on. The cairns they built in the area, the piles of stones that they believe are gateways between worlds, will continue to be guarded, choosing one of their tribe, Kar (Rebecca Benson), to be the gatekeeper.
And what of the invaders? The Roman legion that burnt and pillaged their way through the ancient village. Well, most of them have been lost too. All that is left are a few young soldiers. The rest killed – maybe in the battle or maybe by something else. And it is here that the episode starts to probe history in a way that only the fictional world of Doctor Who can. Historians do not know what happened to the Ninth Legion. Maybe they were wiped out in the battle, or maybe there is a connection to the piles of stones in the area. In fiction, we can ask the questions that historians dare not. What if the beliefs of the Pict tribe are true? What if the cairns are gateways to other worlds, other dimensions and what if whatever was on the other side got out?
By looking at this historical event through the lens of Doctor Who, so much about humanity is revealed. Kar’s plan was to save her people from the invaders by releasing the Eater of Light, which is to all intents and purposes what we would now term a weapon of mass destruction. She doesn’t realise what she has unleashed until it is too late and finds herself forced to deal with the consequences for the rest of her life. And it takes the fantasy element of the TARDIS translation circuits to bring the two sides together. For them to realise that they actually have a common threat to deal with. One can only wonder how many wars would have been prevented historically had the two sides been able to understand one another.
And so they work together, two enemies, to stop the light in the world being eaten. Enemies coming together, understanding one another, enlightened, banishing the darkness that threatens.
Can this episode be looked at as a historical in the tradition of The Aztecs or Marco Polo or is it more in the vein of The Visitation or The Time Warrior? Well, maybe it’s neither. Modern science points to the existence of dimensions beyond our own and who knows what may live there. We may one day discover locusts that feed on light lurking in the depths of the Large Hadron Collider. Then the only fantastical element is the Doctor and his magic blue box. Just as stories set in the present day can be thought of as contemporary science fiction, perhaps this story is historical science fiction.