The episode of Doctor Who opens with music mysteriously coming from an ancient looking rock. It has a carving of the TARDIS and a cawing crow on top of it. I appreciate a semi-spooky opening. Then we flash to Bill and the Doctor in second century Scotland. Bill and the Doctor are arguing about the fate of the missing Roman Ninth Legion. My only knowledge of this missing legion comes from the from the 2011 Channing Tatum film, The Eagle. Bill, on the other hand, has extensively researched the Ninth. The point of this trip is to find out who’s theory of their fate is true. With the other companions, I got the impression that they do their own thing until the Doctor pops up to take them on an adventure. With Bill, it seems like the relationship from the pilot continued. I can see them still hanging out in his office discussing scholarly topics, perhaps over tea. This episode gave us so much more quality Bill than last week’s episode.
They decide to split up, Bill going in search of a live soldier to prove her theory and the Doctor to find the bodies of the slain legion. Turns out they were both right. While there is a monster in this episode, ultimately it isn’t the most important thing in it. Instead, the focus is on the futility of war and the importance of communication. Early in the episode, Bill notes that she is able to communicate with a Roman soldier because of the TARDIS’ translation program. This allows her to learn about the soldiers as people instead of facts in a history book.
After hesitantly telling them she is a lesbian, she finds out that preferring one gender is considered out of the ordinary in Roman culture. The Black Romans were an unexpected, but pleasant surprise. That the soldiers were queer easily made this scene one of my favorite in the episode. If this were another show, I would have initially feared for Bill’s safety. Instead, the group of Romans readily accept her. Bill soon finds out that the soldiers are teenagers who ran from the battle in fear. They are kids trained to be canon fodder in a battle against farmers. Without the force of the mighty Roman army, they are lost and afraid.
“Scared is fine. Scared is human,” she tells them before warning: “It isn’t a plan.”
Meanwhile, the Doctor has found the battlefield. Bodies are strewn everywhere, dead by supernatural means. A group of Picts lead by a girl named Kar capture the Doctor and Nardole. For centuries, Kar’s clan has guarded a gate that kept the Eater of Light, a monster that can suck the light from you, trapped. When the battle turned in the Romans’ favor, she released the monster to destroy them. In an impassioned speech about the Romans, Kar says of them: “Their work is robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do this work and they call it ’empire.’ They make deserts and call it ‘peace.'” Listening to this made me think of the Victorian soldiers in last week’s episode. Having back to back episodes about the evils of imperialism is surprising. In Kar’s desperation to save her home, she doomed the world.
Bill and the Romans meet up with the Doctor and the Picts. Each group has their weapons drawn, ready to attack at the slightest provocation. Thanks to Bill and the TARDIS’ translation martix, they see that they are all scared kids carrying on a war that has brought nothing but pain. While the soldiers from last week’s episode ended up dead and their beliefs about imperialism unchanged, the soldiers in this episode hear the Doctor’s message. They have to work together to defeat the monster. “Time to grow up. Time to fight your fight,” the Doctor told Kar. To be an adult is to listen and to compromise. It doesn’t always work but the attempt is necessary. Through the efforts of all of them, the monster is driven back through the gate.
However, a gate needs a keeper to protect it. The Doctor, with his long lifespan, is determined to be that guard. But, it is Kar that steps forward to challenge him. She repeats his words that it is time for her to grow up and fight her fight. She accepts her destiny to guard the gate as her people have always done. The Doctor, of course, disagrees but this isn’t up to him. The Doctor has always protected humanity. “It’s who I am,” the Doctor tells Bill. “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.”
Growth is a big theme in this episode. The children have grown up. It is their decision to sacrifice themselves and the Doctor has to respect that. The Romans step forward to guard Kar on her mission to hold back the dark. I’ll admit I got misty eyed during this scene. “I’ll put the story in the stone. I’ll put your name in the air. They’ll see it for hundreds of years and they’ll know your name forever,” one of the Picts tells Kar. The rock, in the beginning, is her story. From then on, the crow’s call is her name – ‘Kar.’
This episode ends with another interaction with Missy. “She’s supposed to be in the vault,” Nardole yells. Nardole, you let her out the last episode! Stop being such a hypocrite. Turns out Missy is doing TARDIS maintenance at the Doctor’s request. In an episode about the importance of it, the problems with the communication between the Doctor and Missy are especially glaring. The Doctor’s suspicion is vying with Missy’s hope. She desires friendship and he physically recoils at the idea. Missy wants him to believe she is genuine, but how can a friendship be built on a foundation of betrayal and mistrust? There are a few episodes left so we’ll soon find out.
Doctor Who airs on BBC America at 9 pm EST. We’ll be live-tweeting as usual from @blackgirlgeeks.