Ever since the return of Rona Munro to the world of the writing of television's titular Time Lord was announced in advance of the tenth full season of the 2005-onwards post-Time War run, i had been waiting in anticipation. Whilst the eyes and minds of many fans will be focused upon the concluding two-part story of the season and the upcoming Christmas special to see out Peter Capaldi's tenure in the role of the heroic Gallifreyan and find out the identity of his mysterious successor, the concept of Munro (she of Ladybird, Ladybird [Ken Loach, 1994], Aimee and Jaguar [Max Farberbock, 1999] and the James Plays cycle for the stage) returning to Doctor Who for the first time since 1989's 'Survival' - the first writer for the 1963 to 1989 original run of the show to return - captured my imagination that had been transfixed as a freshly Loomed ten year old back Ye Olden Days by her wondrously woven tale that had riveted me with its unique feminine mystique and symbolism and its undercurrents of bourgeoning animalistic lust and forbidden queering passions boiling beneath the surface of a science fiction story. The idea of her triumphant return, and writing a story steeped in the history of her Scottish homeland which i imagined would be threaded through with Celtic mysticism that would be directed by alumnus of Who (having helmed acclaimed episodes such as 2006's 'The Girl in the Fireplace' and 2007's 'Human Nature' / 'The Family of Blood') Charles Palmer had me on tenterhooks awaiting the episode.
Having just watched it... Well, nothing's ever the same after a year of mental build-up, is it? I do tend to set my expectations unrealistically high and therefore set myself up for disappointment i guess. Having anticipated a kind of lyricism of the Dark Ages akin to John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) - all emerald-flecked forests of Faerie groves, barrows of Baobhan sith and gushing river wellsprings that could well be the nocturnal nooks of Naiads - what i experienced was sadly more of an Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur (2004), replete with not that well characterised Roman soldiers.
Responding to Bill's (Pearl Mackie) suggestion of investigating the fabled fate of the Roman Lost Legion - the Legio IX Hispania, whose vanishing in c. 120 AD has been documented in such motion pictures as Neil Marshall's 2010 Centurion and Kevin Macdonald's somehow even worse 2011 effort The Eagle - the Doctor (Capaldi) takes her and Nardole (Matt Lucas) to second century Caledonia. The idea that Bill would for some reason be entranced by Rosemary Sutcliffe's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth is perhaps slightly credulity-stretching, but then again i loved Sutcliffe's Sword at Sunset as a kid so perhaps i shouldn't question the literary choices of fictional characters. Arriving upon the admittedly well-photographed by Palmer windswept plains of northern Scotland, the TARDIS team soon, as per usual, discover that all is not right with the world.
The Ninth Legion have been decimated - and not in traditional Roman style - by something very not of this earth dwelling within the hollow hills, as speaking crows and ravens (both the Celtic embodiments of kingship, the word 'Bran' signifying both 'raven' and 'king', and the soul-carrying psychopomps of myth and James O' Barr's graphic novel The Crow) fly above stone cairns and standing stones covered in scrawled symbology and Ogham incantations. For all that i have no doubt that the usual suspects on sites like Gallifrey Base who have long fallen into the snark-chasm will be making comments like "Feeble of the Ninth, more like", i did find the setting a little evocative even if it wasn't quite as lore-steeped and magical as i'd hoped. As Bill finds herself with the surviving Roman legionaries, hiding in shame in caverns beneath the ground like the worms of the Earth for their cowardice having fled a frightening foe, the Doctor and Nardole find themselves in a Pictish village wherein the Gate Keeper (who doesn't, unlike Sigourney Weaver's Dana Barrett, seem to require the coming of a Key Master) Kar - played by Rebecca Benson of Philippa Gregory's historical The White Princess (2017) - proves quite truculent and obstreperous toward her alien saviours. Never trust a Celtic girl from Fortriu. Or Fintry. One of those.
The episode does have its moments, such as Bill's awkward attempt to explain her sexuality to a second century Roman leading to her realisation that the pre-Victorian repression past was a lot more cosmopolitan with regards to people's choice of sexual partners than might be commonly thought (what she'd have made of the sacred army of Thebes goes sadly unrecorded), and the Doctor's rallying talk to both Romans and Picts to unite wherein he describes the non-future that lies ahead if they don't unite against the eponymous Eaters of Light who are coming through the dimensional portal within the Sidhe cairn to consume the sun and all of the stars of the skies. The revelation that the crows and ravens haven't lost the power of speech through the ages, but are simply remembering Kar's sacrifice in their repeated invocation of her name, manages to transcend any potential hokiness to actually work quite well.
All in all, an episode that i may have expected too much of, and going some way toward cementing the belief that the currently common format of one story being a single 45 minute episode simply doesn't leave room for the breathing spaces for character and backstory building that i'd prefer. It's in the inbetween spaces that the magic is made.
Or maybe, like the Doctor himself, i'm just getting old and in need of a regeneration.