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Doctor Who: “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”


Boy did I love this episode! Not just for the obvious reasons — a haunted house, Mary Shelley, and the birth of Frankenstein is so tailor-made for me I’m surprised I don’t already subscribe to its newsletter — but also because its production values, especially the design, make it one of the most convincingly atmospheric episodes in years. There’s tons of great character work on display, from Lord Byron attempting to seduce the Doctor, to Claire Claremont’s reaction to those attempts, to Fletcher, the butler who steals every scene with his endless sighing and eye-rolling at Byron and his friends’ antics. Lili Miller as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, worried she’ll never be as good a writer as her parents, carries a lot of the episode on her shoulders and does a fine job of it. (Kudos to screenwriter Maxine Alderton for really nailing how insecure writers are about the one thing they know how to do.)  And of course I love, love, love a good haunted house setup, even if I know that stories like this in Doctor Who always end with the haunting being alien rather than supernatural. (Although maybe there was a real haunting, too? Never answer that question, Doctor Who!)

The excellent character work extends to the Doctor as well, particularly in the climactic scene where she’s faced with the impossible choice of either letting Percy Shelley die prematurely, thereby altering history, or saving Shelley’s life and unleashing an army of Cybermen in the future. Ryan posits that it might be worth letting Shelley die if it saves thousands of lives in the future, and the Doctor lets loose on him in a way we haven’t seen before. Shades of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor break through as she rages at him — at everyone, really — about the choices that only she can make, that she’s forced to make, and that no one else can make for her. “Sometimes even I can’t win,” she says, and in that moment everything shows in her face, from her trauma about Gallifrey being destroyed again to the same frustration Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor felt in the 1989 serial “Ghost Light” when he realizes even he can’t handle all the small, secret manipulations he’s put in motion. This is the scene that solidifies the current TARDIS crew as never before, finally seeing the Doctor for who she really is, the angry and angst-ridden Time Lord under the friendly mask, and I suspect it is also the scene that gets the ball rolling on at least one companion leaving at season’s end.

Graham remains a joy. His search of the villa for a lavatory, only to realize they’re a few years too early for indoor toilets, is hilarious, but even more hilarious is his line at the beginning, when he’s standing in the rain at the door, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” (To which the Doctor whispers, “Wrong writer.”) Of the companions, it better not be Graham who leaves first!

Because any story taking place at the Villa Diodati during that fateful summer is going to offer an explanation for why Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (my favorite iteration of this idea is Ken Russell’s completely insane 1987 film Gothic), I was fully expecting the Lone Cyberman to inspire Mary’s story, and indeed it does, as she refers to him at one point as a man made from many parts. However, her line about the Cyberman’s connection to future tech making him a “modern Prometheus” is just eye-rollingly bad. It tries way too hard to shoehorn Frankenstein‘s subtitle into the dialogue, and as a result it’s cringeworthy. (I also cringed when the Doctor says something like “we’re all in the same boat” to Mary Shelley. Knowing what’s coming in her and Percy’s life, it seems a little cruel to talk to her about boats!)

Speaking of the Lone Cyberman, I like his inclusion as a way to link the forthcoming finale with Captain Jack Harkness’s warning from a few episodes back, but I also felt that the episode became a little sloppy once he arrives. In trying to juggle the needs of the Mary Shelley plot with the needs of the Lone Cyberman plot, the episode trips over its own feet a little. Not terribly, mind you, but part of the problem is that after such a compelling setup, a Cyberman is so immediately recognizable that to make it a part of the “haunting” feels almost anti-climactic. For a moment, though, I thought the Cyberman was going to be revealed as the missing Percy Shelley, somehow dragged to the future, transformed, and sent back. That would have been an interesting twist!

One thing didn’t make sense to me. I get how the Cyberium could make Shelley briefly invisible and use a perception filter to turn the house into a maze all in order to protect itself, but what was the point of reanimating the skeleton hand? What was it trying to do? Certainly it wasn’t trying to scare everybody out of the house, considering it wouldn’t let them leave. It just seemed to exist for added creepiness.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! The Doctor mentions to Byron that she knows his daughter, Ada. This is a reference to the earlier episode this season, “Spyfall, Part Two,” in which she meets computer pioneer Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) in 1834. Later, the Doctor explains to her companions that the reason they can’t follow her into danger is because she refuses to lose anyone else to Cyber-conversion. This struck me as a direct reference to what happened to Bill in the 2017 Twelfth Doctor two-parter “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls.” However, the Doctor has seen other people get turned into Cybermen as well over the years, including Danny Pink in the 2014 Twelfth Doctor episode “Death in Heaven.” (Ostensibly, the Brigadier was also turned into a Cyberman in that same episode!) Lastly, the future Cyber-War the Doctor mentions might be the same one referenced in the 1974-5 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn the planet Voga helped defeat the Cybermen by identifying gold dust as their weakness and developing gold dust particle-shooting weapons with the unfortunate name of….glitterguns.

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