This was a bit of a return to form for the show, after the patchy three parter, and last week’s smug-fest, just in time for the two part finale, which I’m super excited about. Rona Munro is at the helm for the first time in New Who, this time taking on the legend of the disappearing Ninth Legion, a real bit of history that has inspired debate, conspiracy theory, and a big screen adaptation. Bill and the Doctor take on two different sides of the argument, each confident that they can disprove the other. As it turns out, neither version was correct, and yet both Bill and the Doctor were (sort of) right. Fortunately, this wasn’t a devastating time-paradox, just the regular kind. And of course, in the world of Doctor Who, what happened to the Ninth Legion was a monster.
As I’ve said before, I like it when the show takes something real from history and plays around with it, explaining odd events with some sci-fi magic, so this was right up my street. It was definitely on the silly side, but it played into a lot of legends and mythology as well as history, and partnered that with some epic face paint, a creepy monster, some zingy dialogue and some huge revelations that are airily thrown away as if they are nothing. Crows can talk! The Doctor was once a Vestal Virgin! Nardole makes a mean spag bol! It was fun and daft, yes. But it was enjoyably daft.
The show has had a lot to say about the nature of war and conquest in the past, and this episode builds on this to tell its own story. It’s a story about resisting conquest, about the pointlessness of war, about the desperate measures that people are driven to. The Doctor takes on his time-honoured role of mediator and peace-keeper, ably assisted by Bill and the ingratiating charm of Nardole, who in seconds (according to the Doctor) or days (according to Nardole) goes from being a hostage to holding court and telling stories. No-one can resist Nardole’s charm, or culinary talents.
Part of his appeal to the Picts was their youth; this episode was also about the vulnerability of the young, with the surviving members of both sides looking and sounding like children. For all its themes of war, this was also an episode about growing up. Nardole guides the Picts, and Bill guides the Romans, both possessing more effective people skills than the Doctor, who prefers a more direct and confronting attitude, which is perhaps ironic for the mediator and the peace-keeper. There was more than a little touch of Lord of the Flies about the two camps, who needed an older hand to steer them away from pointless, destructive violence, back to logic and rationality.
The Doctor scolds Kar for her decision to let the monster out of the inter-dimensional temporal rift, which had been concealed and controlled by the stone cairn, and protected for generations by her people. She won the battle against the Romans, but risked losing a much greater war. “To protect a muddy little hillside, you doomed your whole world.” Uh, replace the phrase “muddy little hillside” with “friend” and isn’t that what Bill did with the Monks? She was let off for that. Perhaps the Doctor is being a little harsh with Kar here. I rather preferred Bill’s approach to the deserters: “You’re not cowards. You’re scared. Scared is fine. Scared is human. Tell you what it isn’t: it isn’t a plan.” Less scolding, more pep. “I can’t promise that you won’t all die. But I can promise that you won’t all die in a hole in the ground.” In the end, it is this notion of honour and glory that saves the day, rather than guilt. When the alliance of Picts and Romans head into the rift to fight off the light-eaters, they do so in a glorious moment of honourable sacrifice, not as part of a redemption arc. It was encouragement they needed, not a scolding. Their decision wasn’t what the Doctor wanted: “Stop being brave. I can’t bear brave people.” But no-one in that cairn was going to let him sacrifice himself. He had done his part, and so he becomes part of the legend of the cairn, with the TARDIS carved into the stone. The music lingers in the hill. And the crows remember.
Encouragement versus scolding is a lesson that the Doctor seems to have learned in time for his dealings with Missy. Much to the dismay of Team TARDIS, Missy’s been drafted into service, specifically TARDIS repair services after last week’s malfunction on Mars. Did anyone else think that Missy phrased this very carefully: “I’m as much a prisoner here as I am in the vault.” I read this as ‘not at all, then.’ Only if she chooses to be, right? But isn’t that the most important thing of all? If you are in a cage, it’s the cage that prevents you from doing what you want. For Missy’s goodness to be established, it must be a path she chooses for herself. The Doctor’s aim is rehabilitation rather than punishment; it is more important that she sees for herself the trouble that she has caused, and opts to do good instead. Is it working? There are tears from Missy, which she dismisses as a “devious plan.” But for the Doctor? “If it’s real, then there’s time for us to become friends again. That’s the trouble with hope. It’s hard to resist.”
Some highlights this week:
For the second week in a row, Bill falls down a hole and makes friends with some soldiers. Is this her signature move now?
‘Death by Scotland’ is how the Doctor quips about dying from lack of sunlight. (I thought ‘Death by Scotland’ would be from swarms of midges rather than the weather, but then I only lived there for a few months and I’m naturally pasty so the relative lack of sunshine didn’t have much of an impact.)
How do we feel about the Romans? Kar is pretty clear about the Picts’ perspective: “Let me tell you about the Romans. They are the robbers of this world. When they’ve thieves 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. They’re not conquerors, they’re cowards.” The Doctor appreciates their plumbing: “You’ve got to love the indoor toilets.” And Bill is amused by their attitudes to sexuality. I thought that the way they saw her as ‘less modern’ than them for ruling out a gender was a nice touch!
Trying to describe the monster, the best thing I can come up with is that it’s like a cross between a triceratops, a big cat, a jellyfish and an octopus, with glowing, sliming tentacle things. It looked like something out of Avatar, to be honest. But it was capable of destroying nearly 5000 Roman soldiers in a matter of moments, not to mention the sun and the stars. Bad kitty.
Nardole knows 10% of the doctor’s secrets and he’s the only one who knows where the teacakes are. He doesn’t like jazz. And he needs a new dressing gown.
Next week: It’s time to take Missy out for a test run as one of the good guys. The trailer for this looks really good, folks. Plus, John Simm!