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‘Doctor Who’ Review: Bill’s Lesson in Ancient Roman Sexual Stereotyping Is a Highlight in an Uneven Episode

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[Editor’s Note: The following review of “Doctor Who” Season 10, Episode 10, “The Eaters of the Light” contains spoilers.]

The Rundown

“Doctor Who” gives us whiffs of “Outlander” with this jaunt back to 2nd century Aberdeen, Scotland, adjacent to cairns of standing stones that looks like it could transport a British lady back in time. Instead, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and friends are here instead to figure out what happened to the Spanish Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana), which disappeared from records around 43 AD. Naturally, an alien is to blame, but the Doctor sorts it all out in the end after whipping some whiny Roman soldiers and tribal Picts into shape. Although “The Eaters of the Light” was a wildly uneven episode, strong on messaging but weak on sense, it served to test its characters in revealing ways. Sadly, Auton replicant Rory (Arthur Darvill) did not make a cameo as the Last Centurion, although we suppose at this point he might be busy over at Stonehenge or guarding the Pandorica.

READ MORE: ‘Doctor Who’: The Next Doctor Rumored to Be ‘Chewing Gum’s’ Black Female Star — Report

Here Be Monsters

These are far more traditional aliens who look pretty cool with their striped light tentacles. The Eaters of the Light appear to have devastating powers that could have endangered the whole world, but of course they were handily defeated by a group of kids with moxie and teamwork.

The Companion Who Smiled

A few times now on the show we’ve seen how Bill’s (Pearl Mackie) sexuality has been brought up, sometimes to make a joke (her landlady was worried about her bringing home a boy), sometimes to show how cool others can be when they find out she’s gay (one guy felt relieved he wasn’t being rejected specifically). This time it almost feels like a retread of the latter, except with a crucial difference.

When Bill breaks it to the Roman soldier Lucius (Brian Vernel) that she’s only interested in women, he puts her sexuality into a different context since to him, being bisexual is the default and only preferring one gender is limiting. He’s also somewhat condescending about it. Watch how the scene plays out below:

 

This season, “Doctor Who” has been trying to explore the topic of sexuality through Bill. Here though, it’s also challenging our modern perceptions of what the dominant views of sexuality are in different cultures and times. Bill looks as if she’s entertained by this sort of turnabout, the implication being that she’s the one who’s a bit conservative. It’s an intriguing one-off scene that sends a message of tolerance that’s echoed later in a different context.

It should be noted though that while it’s true that ancient Romans saw men having sex with both men and women as normal, which men they were with was determined by class and rank. Also, in such a patriarchal society, women were not afforded that same open-minded status, and the idea of homosexuality or bisexuality among women wasn’t as acknowledged by the men who documented history. Therefore in this instance, a point is being made for acceptance all around, but it’s more likely that Bill coming out as gay would’ve been met with skepticism or judgment.

The Spin Doctor

Peter Capaldi, "Doctor Who"

Peter Capaldi, “Doctor Who”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

The Doctor comes off as more off a gruff Lou Grant-type here, somewhat paternal but mainly blunt and with little patience for the children of Earth’s hand-wringing. More than once he scolded the Picts and the Romans about needing to grow up (in our eyes they’re children, but back then, they would’ve had to assume responsibilities early in life) and the need for tolerance.

But it comes from a sense of his own responsibility for humanity, which he had taken on millennia ago and therefore explains his exasperation about the fighting between the Picts and Romans. Perhaps unintentionally, his words echo the images from the Monks episode: “I’ve been standing by the gates of your world, keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime.” He’s giving them all tough love, but that’s because he does in fact feel love for them as a species. That said, he doesn’t give them enough credit (much like parents may not trust their kids even if they are adults) to make their own decisions about their fate, until they force him to.

We’re not sure exactly what to make of the Doctor constantly ignoring the terms of his agreement to keep Missy (Michelle Gomez) in the vault and watch over her. Once again he jaunts off on adventure through time, and later, it’s revealed that he’s allowed her to leave the vault and take up residence in the TARDIS. It’s as if in this episode, he wants to prove in all ways that he is not subject to ordinary rules and guidelines.

Straight From the Two Hearts

As Missy’s jailor, the Doctor also takes on a lecturing tone with her even as she’s developing a conscience for all the death and destruction she had done previously. “That’s what I’m trying to teach you, Missy,” he says. “You understand the universe. You see it, you grasp it, but you never learn to hear the music.”

One of our biggest quibbles with this season, and there are quite a few, is that so little time has been spent on Missy that it’s difficult to take her evolution seriously. This is not the fault of Gomez, who acts the hell out of every minute she’s on screen. Instead, because of the time limitations, we’re being told how to feel about her.

In this episode, we see tears run down her face again, and yet again she’s bewildered by them. “I don’t even know why I’m crying,” she says. “Why do I keep doing that now?” She appears unsure and such a shadow of her vivid, scheming self, but are these pangs of conscience genuine or manufactured? We’re not sure, and the Doctor is similarly wary after she asks to be friends again.

“I don’t know,” he says. “That’s the trouble with hope; it’s hard to resist.” With only two more episodes to go in the season, we’ll see if any trust on his part has been well-founded or foolish.

Timey-Wimey-Ness

Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas, "Doctor Who"

Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas, “Doctor Who”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

What is with these cairns and how they bend time? In this case, a few seconds spent inside translates to days outside, which explains why only one Pict per generation had to sacrifice their life to fight off the Eaters of the Light. The ultimate sacrifice at the end of the band of Picts and Romans joining together to fight the creatures on their own turf breaks the portal. It’s not entirely clear why this happens, but hey, at a least those tentacles are gone for good (we assume).

Whoniversity Degree

There weren’t any obvious references this episode, but the writer Rona Munro has the distinction of being the only person who has written for the original classic “Doctor Who” and the current continuation. She had written the final episode, “Survival,” before it went off the air in 1989 before coming back for “The Eaters of the Light.”

Quotes

Rebecca Benson, "Doctor Who"

Rebecca Benson, “Doctor Who”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

The Doctor: “Speaking as a former vestal virgin second class — “

Nardole (Matt Lucas), upon hearing that a person died due to lack of sunlight: “Death by Scotland.”

Nardole: “I’m ingratiating myself. “
The Doctor: “It’s nauseating.”
Nardole: “It’s called charm.”
The Doctor: “I’m against it. I’m against charm.”

Kar (Rebecca Benson): “Let me tell you about the Romans. They are robbers of the world; When they’ve thieved 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.”

Nardole: “Sir, I must protest in the strongest, most upset tones possible. Don’t make me go squeaky-voiced.”

GRADE: C+

Watch a sneak peek of next week’s episode below:

 

“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on BBC America.

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‘The Crown’ Season 2 Review: Despite Focusing on Relationships, Netflix’s Drama Turns Too Dreary and Cold

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There are far worse ways to study history than watching “The Crown” — high school history class comes to mind, especially at schools with misplaced teachers like Mr. Kraz. But there are better ways, as well, even in television’s incomplete, sensationalized fashion. Pertinent period details frame series like “The Americans” and “Mad Men,” or there are meaningful tales told of specific historical figures like “John Adams,” the “Band of Brothers,” and “The Young Pope.” (Hey, the future will one day be historical, too, and Lenny will be pope.)

What separates these programs from Netflix’s new crown jewel is an opinion; a stance, one way or another, on what all this means; a personality of its own making rather than a suffocating allegiance to facts. And in a darker second season about the most personal problems of Queen Elizabeth’s life, this voiceless neutrality breeds an even colder, more distant, and altogether less engaging set of historical accounts.

Those who enjoyed Season 1 won’t likely be overly upset, as these shifts are subtle and easily overshadowed by an onslaught of prestige. Scripts are well-crafted. Images are opulent in texture and scenery. Acting remains a top attribute, especially Matt Smith and Claire Foy who are even more front-and-center this year than last. Favorite figures like Jared Harris and John Lithgow are missed, as are their heartfelt characters (Harris’ kingly father figure) and episodes (most notably, “Assassins”), and Peter Morgan’s second season fittingly opens on a bleak, rainy day in February, 1957.

Queen Elizabeth (Foy) and the newly crowned Prince Philip (Smith) are at a crossroads. Sitting in the shadows, reluctant to face each other, the married couple’s allegiance to one another is being questioned in the public, and the two must decide how to move forward. Before an answer is given, the series shifts back in time five months to examine how the royal pair ended up in such a state.

The Crown Season 2 Episode 2 Matt Smith Netflix

Mercifully, this isn’t a framing device for the entire season — Morgan catches up to this scene in the third episode — but it does draw attention to the predominant themes of marriage, equality, and progress. Episodes focus on Philip’s frustrations with his position, his tragic childhood, and his perceived dalliances with women other than Elizabeth. The series doesn’t go so far as to show Philip with another woman, but it strongly implies casual couplings during his time away from the city and depicts a budding vanity that often distracts from his duties.

Smith builds a character who’s easy to dislike without being totally alien: It’s both a challenging and enviable development to take on, and Smith progresses Philip quite well. The kind of presumptive sexism displayed will make him an even more hated figure given current cultural context, but he’s not a monster or a predator; he’s merely a powerful man doing what powerful men did at the time.

The latter point is more of the show’s stance than an absolute interpretation. Morgan makes some bold choices in what he’s willing to include, but bold choices do not equate to bold positions. “The Crown” only goes so far, after all, even with its principal subject. Though Elizabeth is often made into a pitiable object, she’s more reactive than declarative in Season 2.

The Crown Season 2 Claire Foy Matt Smith Netflix

Characters often bring up the queen’s obligation to the crown, and they almost always frame her allegiance to tradition in contrast to personal desires. Last season saw Elizabeth deny her sister the love of her life because their marriage would embarrass the family. Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) is still smarting from that decision — she’s quite the drunkard in Season 2 — but Elizabeth has moved on; she’s accepted her duty and is entirely possessed by it.

The show seems to have followed suit, and the fifth episode illustrates the underlying problem of hiding behind history. Based around Lord Altrincham, an unknown newspaperman and failed politician, “Marionettes” focuses on how the writer’s scathing opinion of a speech made by the queen gains traction. At first, her advisers tell Elizabeth not to worry about it. They think it will be dismissed outright because of the subjects’ undying loyalty to her office.

But when Altrincham appears on television to defend his articles, the tide turns. He’s not a crackpot or an attention-seeker. He genuinely loves the monarchy and wants to help it transition into the 20th century. He’s speaking for the people, and the people are behind him. The episode ends with a footnote, saying the royal family eventually adopts every one of Altrincham’s suggestions, and this final word successfully shifts the episode from its original position — the condemnation of a crackpot vs. the queen — to its ultimate message: that one man speaking truth to power can sway the course of history.

The Crown Season 2 Dogs, corgis, running Netflix

It’s a strong episode on its own, but “The Crown” lacks the same courage overall. Morgan’s drama only feels comfortable taking a stance when its got historical precedent behind it: The condemnation of the royal family’s stuffy policies is included because someone actually condemned it and they listened, whereas when the family’s outdated and inhumane beliefs are brought up — like their disgusted intolerance of homosexuality — “The Crown” seems to shrug and say, “Well, that’s how it was back then.”

Whereas “Mad Men” and “The Americans” provide context to indicate how the audience should react (think about the opposing marketing firm throwing piss balloons on black protesters, or Philip’s struggle to follow through on certain missions), “The Crown” is content to just depict what happened. When the queen is forced to think about homosexuality, she collapses and her hand is shown grasping the window, like Kate’s in “Titanic” — except Elizabeth isn’t in the midst of passionate backseat sex, she’s just passionately unhinged at the idea of a man kissing another man. Such a simple point could’ve been made without the grandiose bombasticity that lends the series a coldness that’s hard to come back from.

It doesn’t condemn these ideas just as it doesn’t condemn Philip’s actions. Of course, it doesn’t support them either. While very good at instructing the audience how Philip and Elizabeth are feeling, rarely does it evoke the same level of feeling from viewers. The series is so diligent to the history books — “There was a meeting and, as best we can tell, this was discussed, so they probably reacted like this…” — there are more frustrations than surprises and more acceptance than understanding.

Some viewers may look for exactly this in their television: a beautiful recreation of historical events, connected by safe assumptions about the people who lived through them. But television is capable of so much more, and whether you like “The Crown” or not, its medium evokes stronger, richer feelings elsewhere.

Grade: B-

“The Crown” Season 2 premieres December 8 exclusively on Netflix.


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