A week after we met the Victorians — albeit on Mars — we head back down to Earth and not-so-sunny Scotland where music can be heard coming from some rock formations. Thankfully, Judy, the young girl intent on listening to it, isn’t Outlander-ed through. Instead, we head over to the 2nd century A.D. where Bill and the Doctor are arguing over what happened to the Roman Ninth Legion. She says they’re alive, he insists they’re dead. Nardole is decked out in a bright orange bathrobe that is frankly, quite distracting.
Intent on proving their points, they split up (because that’s always a good idea). Bill goes down to the river to prove there are Romans there, and the Doctor goes looking for a field of dead bodies. Oddly enough, they’re both right.
The Doctor finds most of the already-dead Roman soldiers, but they’re missing all their bones. After a few digs at Scotland, and learning that crows used to speak to humans — it’s not like Stormageddon where only the Doctor could understand the baby, Nardole understands the crow just fine — the pair head over to a nearby cairn (a stone structure kind of like a hut). There they meet a bunch of Picts, or Early Celts (writer Rona Munro, making her return to the series and really making us learn our Scottish history here), who hold them at spear point. They’re waiting for Kar, their leader, and the Guardian of the Gate.
The Doctor manages to distract them with Nardole’s popcorn and beat a hasty getaway. But when he gets to the cairn, he steps into the “door between worlds” (or portal) there and sees what is a watery world, where a dragon-y sea creature (that vaguely resembles the one we saw on Class a few weeks ago) literally comes after him. So he quickly steps back and exits… and discovers that two days have gone by since. Nardole has fully ingratiated himself with the Picts and is now decked out in a blue robe, with those swirly designs on his face. He’s also looked for Bill and failed to find her.
Kar tries to stop them from leaving and the Doctor yells at her, calling her a child who doesn’t quite understand what they’re dealing with. She’s just “making speeches and waving a TV aerial [British for TV antenna] about.” For her part, the young Pict (who can’t be more than a teenager) tells him that in every generation, a slayer warrior is born who went into the gate and fought the Eater of Light (their name for those creatures) and kept it at bay. Only now a creature has gotten through. She’s confident they can defeat it. But the Doctor drops a hell of a reality check on her: there’s more on the other side. Her plan to release it to defeat the advancing Roman legion was a fail because while it destroyed all of them, it still threatens to eat all the sunlight and starlight. Hungry little buggers.
Now the Doctor’s plan is to draw the Beast into the cairn from whence it came and seal it. Something about the morning light opens the portal, so they’ll need to do it then. They’ll also need some of this orange glass-like material that “poisons” the light as the creatures try to feed on it.
Meanwhile, Bill’s first Roman soldier falls prey to the “Light Eating Locust” — but not before a memorable exchange where she realizes she’s speaking Latin and that the rest of the universe has been translated for her thanks to the TARDIS which even does lip sync! (Shout out to Idris!) Fortunately, our new companion manages to find the rest of the surviving soldiers who’d deserted, but not before getting some of the Beast’s tongue tentacle slime on her and passing out.
When she comes to, the soldiers are hiding in an underground cave, with just a little bit of light peeking through on her wound because it helps it. Here we get to meet Lucius (Force Awakens’s Brian Vernel), Cornelius, and Vitus, among other soldiers. Cornelius’ ribbing makes it clear Lucius may be a little sweet on Bill (I mean, how could you not be?) after he gives her the last of their food. And here we get one of the most enjoyable bits in recent Doctor Who history. Bill tells Lucius she’s a lesbian, and he reveals that not only is Vitus gay, but that Romans were pretty much bisexual, or sexually fluid. And that he’s proud of her for “knowing what she likes.” When Bill comments on the situation being “modern” he states that she’s actually quite restricted in her thinking. (Looks like we lost a lot more than indoor plumbing with the changing times.)
Their bonding is cut short by the arrival of night (and the Beast). But when Bill hears Lucius and his cohorts are just teenagers, she takes charge, telling “Grandpa” (Lucius’ nickname) and the lads that they should trust her since their options are dying out there on their way to the Doctor — who they really don’t believe in — or in a hole in the ground. With a rousing speech like that, they attempt to escape, but then the Eater of Light gets Cornelius, which let’s be real, isn’t really that surprising. Dude kind of had it coming.
Thankfully, the ladder they’re running to leads up into the cairn where the Doctor, Nardole, and the Picts are. Sure, it’s a convenient plot contrivance, but I’ll take it if only to see the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole reunited. The latter even manage a quick catch up while the Picts and the Romans have a bit of a standoff in the background. However, Bill quickly puts a stop to this. She points out that the Doctor’s “telepathic field” is enabling all of them to be able to understand each other. (The Doctor and I wear matching grins of pride when she notes this.) She also realizes everyone kind of sounds like children. She’s not wrong.
With dawn approaching, it’s time to enact the plan. The Picts and Romans join forces to make noise and attract the creature. At first, it doesn’t seem to work, but then a crow Nardole is talking to alerts them to the fact that it did. With the help of their special glass things and the fastest sunrise ever, they draw the creature into the cairn and the open portal. Task completed, the Doctor prepares to step into the portal.
But Kar disagrees. The teenage Pict is ready to fight him on this. This is her destiny as the Guardian of the Gate. The Doctor points out that their human time spans are nothing compared to his Time Lord one. Bill and Nardole disagree. Who will guard the other gates? Who will guard the Vault? The Doctor stands firm in his resolution — until Bill bonks him on the head. While he’s momentarily incapacitated, Kar, Lucius, and the rest of the legion walk into the portal together. Her brother promises he’ll carve her names on the rocks so people will remember her sacrifice. (This entire scene, from the Doctor’s attempted sacrifice to Kar’s own moment of truth and Lucius’ decision to stand up and lead had me in tears. When Doctor Who does brave sacrifices, it really does brave sacrifices. Also, anyone else get a Buffy season 5 finale vibe?)
With the cairn now unstable, everyone left exits, the portal now closed forever. Kar’s brother tells a crow to always remember his sister. The crow replies, “Kar Kar,” proving they’re not sulking about humans not providing them with fascinating conversation (a reason the Doctor had put forth earlier). Instead, they’re remembering the sacrifice of one valiant teenage girl (and a small group of Roman soldiers).
As they prepare to leave, Nardole warns the Doctor against holding a grudge against either companion. He knows 10 percent of the Doctor’s secrets and where the teacakes are — and he’s not afraid to use either. Bill and the Doctor then apologize to each other. He admits he was wrong. The soldiers never went missing. They were here all along. Bill then hears some of those bagpipes that were playing earlier to lure the Beast. But the Doctor simply says, “Always the music.”
Back in the TARDIS we’re greeted by Missy — in case you were wondering what happened post-Mars — who has been doing engine repairs. She’s bio-locked out of the controls. She also doesn’t get the significance of the music or what happened. The Doctor, much like last time, tells her that while she doesn’t quite grasp it. Later, she finds herself crying to that music, but not understanding why. (If you’re confused by that little episode jump, so am I.) The Doctor, who I guess is still trying to rehabilitate her, accuses her of trying to impress him and tells her that maybe it’s time for them to be friends again…
But that’s the trouble with hope. It’s impossible to resist. I can’t tell who’s hopes were more dashed, his that he can’t trust her, or hers that she can’t make him trust her. In any case, I’m all about this newfound friendship. Especially after seeing her face when he lets go of her hands. That’s 90 percent Michelle Gomez acting, and 10 percent the reaction one has when Peter Capaldi lets go of your hands and walks away, I reckon.
After last week’s Victorian romp, this week’s Roman Not-So-Holiday only highlights how out-of-place that episode was. Finally, Bill, Nardole, and even the Doctor feel in character again as they continued to drive both the story and the comedic bits. It’s what made the emotional moments in this episode really hit home, as the hour dabbled in a few major themes, including fear, sacrifice, and the effect of war itself — it’s similar to last week in a way, but handled slightly better and with better use of our main trio.
The key to all of these was the fact that everyone was speaking the same language. As Bill stresses in the cairn, compromise can only be reached when everyone comes to an understanding — and that is only possible when both parties are speaking the same tongue. It’s a small thing, but Bill is right to make a big deal of it. It’s one of the keys to the Doctor’s success over the years. Sure, he’s the man with two hearts and a screwdriver instead of a gun (i.e. the ultimate pacifist). But he’s also a centuries-old Time Lord with a ship that gives him the ability to understand (and in turn be understood by) the people it’s taking him to help.
Kudos to Munro for making us feel for both sides of the conflict (Roman and Pict). It would have been easy to portray the Picts as victims of the Roman Empire, or simply as savages threatening the more civilized Romans. Instead, we see the pain of these farmers forced to adjust to an incoming, invading army, and we realize that maybe life in the army isn’t that great either — especially if your oldest soldier (and commander) is only 18 years old. It’s no wonder both Kar and Lucius were both scared. They’re both kids! In fact, almost everyone this episode was quite young except for Bill, the Doctor, and Nardole who all took charge the way adults are wont to do. (With age comes experience and wisdom, etc.) In any case, fear is what led both Kar and Lucius into their respective messes, but it is the Doctor’s almost-sacrifice and their mutual understanding allows them to both put it aside in favor of courage so they can save the world together. (Fun fact: This is Rona Munro’s first Doctor Who episode since she penned the final episode of the older series 28 years ago, making her the first person to have written for both.)
In fact, the Doctor’s willingness to sacrifice himself and Bill’s stopping him, quite literally by knocking him out, is a significant moment in their relationship, which has grown quite close thanks to a whole slew of recent events. He’s ready to give himself up to face this one threat for all of humankind. After all, he’s been saving us for a while (“I’ve been standing by the gates of your world keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime. I’m not stopping now.”). But of course, Bill can’t let him. She knows there will be bigger threats and other gates he’ll need to guard. This can’t be his fight. And it’s significant that it’s not Nardole pointing that out, even though that’s the role he’s played recently. It means Bill can be objective when she needs to be. Just like when she was willing to sacrifice herself to take on the Monks. (This is where I have some minor issues, namely with the fact that I can’t square away that version of the Doctor, who tricked Bill into shooting him, with this episode’s Time Lord who can’t let teenagers sacrifice themselves.)
I also want to take a moment to highlight the scene where Bill comes out to Lucius and the soldiers. It’s a huge, huge deal that both times Bill has turned down a male suitor (tonight and “Knock Knock”) they’ve just casually brushed it off and moved on — something we’re not used to seeing in media, even if the woman is straight. It’s also significant that we see people from the LGBTQIA community existed in various periods of history and that in other time periods, and other cultures, other sexualities were considered normal, if not the norm.
Lastly, there’s the case of Missy. I suspect a lot of this has to do with Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi’s performances, but I’m actually rooting for their friendship, a thing I never would have considered in season 8. But times have changed, and I’d like to think Missy has. If only because Gomez is giving one hell of a performance, one that easily matches Capaldi’s own in this final season for them both. Though I do think it is interesting that we’ve had two episodes in a row so far that have seen enemies have to co-operate and join forces simply for the sake of coexistence or to be able to take on a bigger threat. No doubt it’s foreshadowing for the relationship between our Time Lord and Lady, but having been presented with two different reasons, I’m curious to see how it works out for them.
But just in case we have any doubts as to her intentions, Missy will be the one in the hot seat as she attempts to save the world, Doctor-style. Also, John Simm will be back as the Master. What a Time (Lady) to be alive!