Thursday, November 23, 2023

Doctor Who, 'The Eaters of Light'


A painted Pictish Warrior and Bill Potts pointing swords at the viewer and shouting.
Doctor Who, 'The Eaters of Light' (UK, dir. Charles Palmer, scr. Rona Munro, starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, and Matt Lucas, BBC, 2017)

Roman Britain is one of the historical periods that is fairly central to the British imagination, so one might have expected Doctor Who to have visited there quite a bit. But, as I argue in a piece in the latest Terrible Zodin, Doctor Who, at least in its early years, went out of its way to avoid the obvious historical periods. It is true Malcolm Hulke, co-writer of the successful Target Luna/Pathfinders sf serials for ITV, submitted an outline for a serial set in Roman Britain (referred to as 'Britain 408 AD', a purely descriptive title), which at one point was planned to be the sixth serial in the first season. But even that avoided the standard periods for Roman Britain on screen (which I discuss here), instead setting itself in 408 CE (or 400 according to a summary David Whitaker wrote in September 1963), at the end of Roman Britain. When the final years of Roman Britain do appear on screen, they are generally connected to the reign of King Arthur (who will then be treated as a historical figure), but David Whitaker's summary of Hulke's story makes no mention of Arthur. In any case, Whitaker changed his mind about this serial, feeling it was overcomplicated, with an ending too like that of 'An Unearthly Child' (the full story), and instead commissioned Hulke to write up another submission, 'Hidden Planet', about a duplicate Earth the other side of the Sun. This was in turn abandoned in 1964. Hulke resubmitted 'Britain 408 AD' in 1965, for the second season, but it was rejected by new script editor Dennis Spooner, because by this point the programme had already made 'The Romans', and Spooner didn't want to repeat himself. (Hulke would have to wait until the Patrick Troughton era and 'The Faceless Ones' for an onscreen credit.)

Over much of the show's existence, Roman Britain was something only vaguely alluded to. The Doctor and his companions are thought to be from Britannia in 'The Romans' (1964), because Vicki and Barbara are overheard talking about London/Londinium. Similarly, in 'The Fires of Pompeii' (2008) Donna is thought to be Celtic/Welsh when she tries to speak Latin. You could argue that the Romans who menace the Doctor at the end of Episode Two and beginning of Episode Three of 'The War Games' (1969) are in Britain - it's not stated, and the zones in 'The War Games' are from conflicts from all over the planet, but the sequence was filmed in Sussex (the Doctor says the Roman time zone was 2,000 years ago, which would rule out Britain, but it's not clear whether he is being precise, and whether he means that in relation to 1917, the time zone from where they crossed over). In 'The Stones of Blood' (1978) the Doctor makes reference to having read Caesar and Tacitus on the Druids when discussing Druidism with sect leader De Vries. And in Battlefield (1989), the Doctor gets mixed up with post-Roman Arthurian legends, though suggesting that they had their origins in the eighth, rather than fifth or sixth centurires.

But the first actual definite television visit of the Doctor to Roman Britain is in 'The Pandorica Opens' (2010), where the Doctor meets River Song at Stonehenge in 102 CE. Even this doesn't engage closely with the typical periods of Roman Britain on screen, and has to be treated as one of the outliers, along with things like Chelmsford 123. The typical periods have been engaged with by non-television Who; so audio adventure 'Wrath of the Iceni' takes place at the time of the Boudican revolt (and is a fully-fledged 'pure' historical, with no aliens interfering with history), and another audio, 'Living History', takes place during Julius Caesar's invasion (a rare non-comedic treatment of Caesar's landing, perhaps due to the presence of a Dalek).

All of which is an excessively-long preamble to talking about 'The Eaters of Light', the point at which Doctor Who most closely engages with the tropes of Roman Britain. It engages with the supposed 'disappearance' of the Ninth Legion. As you may know, there are essentially two theories about what happened to the Ninth. Theodor Mommsen suggested that it was destroyed in some battle in the north of Britain. The discovery in the twentieth century of evidence suggesting that part of the Ninth was present in Nijmegen until c. 120 CE called Mommsen's theory into question (and it's hard to believe that, had he known of the Nijmegen material, he would have ever come up with the idea in the first place), so while the disappearance of the Ninth in Britain continued to fuel popular culture in the form of Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, or the 2010 movie Centurion, the scholarly consensus rejected the notion. However, in recent years, scholars such as Miles Russell, Neil Faulkner, Nick Hodgson and Simon Elliott have come out in favour of the Mommsen idea.

Interestingly, Rona Monro has the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) take different sides of the argument - Bill, who did a school project on the Ninth, believes that they left, whilst the Doctor says they were wiped out. The Doctor is, of course, proved right, though, being a modern Doctor Who story, they were destroyed by an alien menace.

Ninth Legion stories are often connected with Hadrian's Wall, but not here. The location of the action is moved to somewhere near Aberdeen (far further north than most people think the Ninth might have penetrated). But that location, as Juliette Harrisson has observed, allows the episode to be a love letter to Scotland, from where star, showrunner and writer all hail (though Monro is the native of the Granite City, Capaldi and Steven Moffat coming from Glasgow and Paisley respectively). A series of standard Scottish jokes about the weather are trotted out ('It's Scotland. It's supposed to be damp.'); but these also fit a standard trope of Roman Britain, where it rains all the time. Another standard trope of Roman Britain is its remoteness from the rest of the empire; here this can be linked to the perceived remoteness of Scotland from the rest of Britain. 

Other standard trope are to be seen. The Picts around Aberdeen (Picts are actually anachronistic for the second century) all have their faces painted. There is a Boudica equivalent in teenager Kar. The use of child protagonists is also something I have realised is to be seen a lot in Roman Britain tales.

And then there's folk horror (here, I am in considerably sympathy with Louis Bayman and K.J. Donnelly, who argue in the introduction to their edited collection on Folk Horror On Film that the defining characteristic of folk horror is that the horror arises from the people, customs and practices of the folk themselves, rather than anything outside that). Who has, of course, engaged with folk horror on many occasions, starting with 'The Dæmons' in 1971, continuing through 'The Stones of Blood' and 'The Awakening' (1984), through to more recent fare such as 'Human Nature'/'Family of Blood' (2007, directed by the same man who does the job here). So, much of 'Eaters of Light' takes place in dark woods, and though the threat is external, it is bound up in the Picitish traditions. Nobody mentions Druids, but there is a stone circle and a cairn, the Devil's Cairn, in fact (a name with echoes of Devil's End from 'The Dæmons').   

There is also a great deal to enjoy and appreciate. The Roman survivors are ethnically mixed, as they might well have been. They have names like 'Cornelius' and 'Lucius'. Which are the sort of names screenwriters give randomly to Romans, but they are actually the sorts of names, citizens' names, that members of a legion would have. That Bill is considered a bit weird not for being a lesbian, but for not being bisexual is a nice moment, though I'm not sure how rooted it is in Roman social mores. But I did enjoy the callback to the speech of Calgacus from Tacitus' Agricola: 'They make deserts and they call it peace.'

The Doctor claims to have lived in Roman Britain, to have 'governed, farmed, juggled', all presumably in adventures not seen on screen (but perhaps even now being written for Big Finish). He also claims to have been a Vestal Virgin, second class. Given that this is before it had been established that the Doctor had been a woman in the past, one wonders precisely what is meant by that. 

In general, there is a lot of food for thought in this episode. The main issue with it is that, like much of modern Who, the story doesn't really have time to breathe properly. It could have done with a second episode.

Writing about Doctor Who

There's a new issue of The Terrible Zodin out. I have a piece in it on history in the first season of the show, and contribute to sixty great things about Doctor Who (with a series of answers that are very '70s-centric).

And while we're on the subject of Doctor Who, I also have a piece in the upcoming volume 6 of Vworp Vworp!, which you can pre-order here. (My piece, which didn't make the highlights list, is on the history behind the Stone Age episodes of 'An Unearthly Child'.)

Friday, November 03, 2023

So this is a thing I've been working on for the last couple of weeks, the show guide for the upcoming NMRS show.

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

#AcWriMo and Screening Britannia

It's November. For many people, that means #NaNoWriMo, writing the first draft of a novel in thirty days. I sometimes think of that, but whenever I get started, I always end up after a few days declaring everything I have attempted to be utter shit. However, there's an equivalent for academic writing, #AcWriMo. I did a bit of that last year, and made some progress on a book project that I probably still can't reveal. This year, I'm going all out, but aiming at completing much of the first draft of my book on Roman Britain on screen. I hope to write about 1,000 words a day.

However, I have built up a backlog of Screening Britannia blogposts recently, as a result of teaching my online Screening Britannia course (which you can still book onto and receive all the past recordings of the class up to this point). I'm really enjoying teaching this material, and it's opening up new perspectives that I might not otherwise have fallen upon. In particular, I am starting to realise the importance of the English folk horror tradition to the portrayal of Druids, and to why Roman Britain narratives so often use the Druids. Fortunately, there's a new Routledge Companion to Folk Horror just come out, which is even affordable as an ebook. Anyway, since those posts and my planned book are intimately interrelated, I am going to write them, and count them against my daily word count target. This is the first. 

A couple of months ago I finally put up the 2015 version of a paper entitled 'A Wild West hero: Motifs of the Hollywood Western in four movies about Hadrian’s Wall', which considers four movies, King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007), Centurion (2010), and The Eagle (2011). The paper is incomplete, especially in the references, which will be fixed when I rework the material for the book. But for now, at least it's out there.

As part of preparation for my course, I rewatched Boadicea (1927), which I wrote about in 2020. At the time I thought it was the earliest screen version of Roman Britain, though I have since discovered that there is an earlier version of Cymbeline, from 1913. But I also discovered something about Boadicea. The version I watched on YouTube is not in fact the full movie. This version is less than half an hour, but it is obvious from this description on the BFI website that the full movie was about ninety minutes. All sorts of extra details are lost. Two people seen at the beginning starting a fight with the Romans about paying taxes actually have names in the full version. There's also a love subplot between one of Boadicea's daughters, here named Emmelyn, and a good Roman by the name of Marcus. (One of the ways Boudica narratives reconcile an audience that wants to be heirs to the Iceni queen's British heroism and at the same time the 'virtues' and values of Roman civilization is by including good Romans, who essentially want to live in happy co-operation with the Britons, and bad Romans, who provoke the revolt.) This love plot idea is later picked up in fake-Boudica movie The Viking Queen (1967), and I wonder if John Temple Smith, who devised the story for the latter movie, was familiar with Sinclair Hill's silent epic.

Unfortunately, while the BFI does possess the archive materials for this movie, so it is not, technically, 'lost', they do not have a viewing copy, so it has so far proved impossible for me to see the full-length Boadicea.

I was able to watch Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991). This is, of course, a pretty silly movie; one can quite see why Mel Brooks thought it ripe for parody in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). My reason for mentioning it here is the notorious scene in which, it is commonly stated, Robin (Kevin Costner) goes from Dover to Nottingham via Hadrian's Wall. And actually, this isn't a fair criticism. By all means, have a go at the movie for suggesting that one can get from Dover to Nottingham in a day on horseback. But, whilst scenes with Costner and Morgan Freeman playing Robin's Moorish ally Azeem were filmed up at Sycamore Gap, by the famous tree (sadly recently chopped down, for reasons that are currently obscure), at no point does anyone say they are at Hadrian's Wall. Indeed, diegetically, the movie is quite clear that the scene is taking place on Robin's own lands, not far from Nottingham. The Wall happens to be a convenient location to suggest a degree of antiquity. We should no more read it literally as Hadrian's Wall than we are meant to believe that the medieval city of Nottingham is actually at Carcassonne, or that Nottingham Castle is actually at Bodiam. Both of these were locations used in the movie, but these pass without comment.

I was delighted when the four missing episodes of The Complete and Utter History of Britain (1969) turned up unexpectedly. Unfortunately, this has little effect on my work, as the only Roman Britain sketch was in the first episode (and then cut for broadcast), which has long been available on DVD. Still, at least we can now watch Michael Palin playing Elizabeth I as a bawdy music-hall drag act, which justifies the whole series on its own.

Finally, there are a couple of books coming out that are going to be relevant to my work. Jen Williams new fantasy, Talonsister, is set in a fantasy version of immediately pre-Roman Britain; sadly, there's not going to be time for me to read it before Novacon next week, where she's the guest of honour. And in December, my friend and former Open University colleague Katy Soar has edited a collection called Circles of Stone, an anthology of weird tales of Britain's pagan past. I feel sure there will be Druids.