Mary Shelley + The Doctor + Gothic Ghost Story = genius idea. I mean, what else could you want? It’s such a good idea that it’s genuinely surprising the show has never done something like this before. To be fair, Big Finish Productions have done some audio adventures featuring Mary Shelley teaming up with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, but never has the show itself taken us on a trip to this particular part of history. And what better night for a Doctor Who story to take place on than the night Mary Shelley purportedly came up with the idea for her classic, Frankenstein. So, this would all seem like a pretty good set up for a great episode of Doctor Who. And, to be fair, it is – but not for the reasons you’d think. At the end of the day, it’s kind of a Frankenstein of an episode – pun intended – in the best possible way. (Spoilers ahead!)
Season 12 Episode 8, The Haunting of Villa Diodati (written by Maxine Alderton, directed by Emma Sullivan)
‘Nobody mention Frankenstein. Nobody interfere. Nobody snog Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy).’ Should be easy, right?
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her gang (Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill) arrive at the Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva in 1816 on the night that inspired Mary Shelley’s (Lilli Miller) Frankenstein. The plan is to spend the evening soaking up the atmos in the presence of some literary greats, but the ghosts are all too real, and the Doctor is forced into a decision of earth-shattering proportions.
Like I said, this episode is a mishmash of two episodes crammed together. The first half is this really atmospheric Gothic ghost story featuring a group of people trapped in a house that seems to be haunted – and it’s a really great ghost story, too. It’s a cool setting – Villa Diodati on the night Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein. Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy), Mary Shelley (Lilli Miller), Claire Claremont (Nadia Parkes), Dr. John Polidori (Maxim Baldry), and Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer) are all trapped inside Villa Diodati as a terrible storm crashes about the house – only Percy hasn’t been seen all day and everyone assumes he’s simply predisposed and off writing. To pass the time, they decide to tell each other ghost stories until the Doctor and her companions arrive on the scene, eager to witness this momentous evening in literary history. Of course, it all goes terribly wrong as it seems none of them are actually telling ghost stories and the house itself seems to be haunted.
It’s a really great setup for an episode and the first half of the episode really lathers on the atmosphere. Writer, Maxine Alderton, and director, Emma Sullivan, take their time in establishing the setting and the mystery, allowing the audience to easily slip into the story and quickly get invested in what is going on in this weird house. Sullivan has an eye for horror, first demonstrated in some of the nightmare sequences in last week’s episode and demonstrated further tonight as she films the various horrors that occur around Villa Diodati – including a disembodied hand scaring everyone and some rather creepy ghosts. Everything in this first half is really fun and sets up a really intriguing ghost story for the Doctor to solve. Alderton also mixes in a healthy amount of humor – making Lord Byron blatantly flirt with the 13th Doctor is a lot of fun, Dr. Polidori trying to challenge Ryan to a duel out of nowhere is super funny, and Graham remains a total mood, as always. The humor mixes really well with the gothic nature of the atmosphere and the mystery itself and it creates a really enjoyable beginning to an episode.
My one problem with this first half is that, while I understand that all of these people (Percy, Mary, Byron, Dr. Polidori, and Claire) were all really at Villa Diodati on the night in question, there’s really no reason for all of them to be in this episode. While all of the actors and actresses do a great job with what they’re given. the episode never really finds a way to balance all of them – especially Claire and Mary, whom I frequently couldn’t tell the difference between during the first half of the episode. It’s hard to keep everyone straight and to give all of them something to do alongside the Doctor and her three friends; there’s just not enough time for all of these characters to truly stand out and it definitely shows in the way that Dr. Polidori and Claire aren’t given much to do besides exist. Add to that the way that everyone, except for the Shellys, completely fades into the background as the episode shifts into its second half: the half that revolves around “The Lone Cyberman.” From that moment on, the episode truly shifts its focus and largely forgets half of the guest cast – the half that feels entirely expendable to the story.
Yes, that’s right. The Haunting of Villa Diodati is the answer that finally continues the story of the Lone Cyberman (Patrick O’Kane), first introduced by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) in a cryptic message during Fugitive of the Judoon, the fifth episode of the season. And, let me tell you, the moment the Lone Cyberman enters the picture, it sucks all of the air out of the room and takes all the attention away from everything else. At around the halfway mark, it becomes clear that the horror haunting Villa Diodati is a singular, incredibly damaged Cyberman who has traveled back in time in search of something called the Cyberium – an AI that contains all the information about the Cybermen. As previously hinted at by Jack, the Alliance (those fighting against the Cybermen) sent the Cyberium back in time to keep the Cybermen from getting ahold of it. As revealed in this episode, it landed in Lake Geneva before being found by Percy Shelley and embedding itself into his body. We learn that the Cyberium is the cause of all the weird things happening at Villa Diodati; it’s made it so that nobody can see Percy and it keeps shifting the structure of the house around (created the unable-to-be-left rooms) in an effort to keep itself hidden. Until the Lone Cyberman arrives, of course.
The Haunting of Villa Diodati is one of those episodes that really gets the horror that’s inherent to the Cybermen. Inside those suits are people who have had their emotions (often forcibly) ripped from them in an effort to “evolve.” There’s something truly horrifying about that idea and Sullivan and Alderton play that up a lot here. Alderton writes the Cyberman as truly broken; its emotions seem to be bleeding through much more than usual, giving it an unhinged quality. Combined with O’Kane’s performance, Alderton portrays this Cyberman as wholly unpredictable yet deeply melancholic. This Cyberman, named Ashad prior to his conversion, seems to remember some of his past and feel some sort of longing for it, but he’s also laced with a sort of fanaticism that’s usually reserved for Daleks and other villains of that ilk. This Cyberman truly feels dangerous in a way that most Cybermen, who often feel like mindless, hulking threats, don’t. Then there’s its design, which definitely plays up the Cybermen’s inherent body horror. Here, we see a Cyberman that’s partially destroyed; some of its face is showing and we really get to see how it’s still technically a human being inside that armor, even if it’s been stitched together and barely resembles a normal human. It’s a truly nightmarish design fit for a nightmarish foe. All of these elements come together brilliantly to give the second half of the episode a lot of tension and danger. Alderton finds a suitably clever and satisfying way to end the episode while propelling us forward into next week’s finale. This is easily one of the best Cyberman stories we’ve had in a while.
My only real problem with the second half of the episode is that the Lone Cyberman doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the episode and it takes away all of the attention from Mary Shelley – who should probably be the focus of a celebrity historical about her. Now, to be fair, Mary and Percy are the only characters from the guest cast who really factor into the episode’s climax at all – and Mary has a nice speech where she tries to appeal to whatever remains of the Lone Cyberman’s humanity – but it’s hard to argue that the episode completely forgets that Mary is there. Percy’s only importance to the story is that he’s the person who found the Cyberium. But, given that, this is one of those stories that could have happened to anyone; it only involves the Shelleys because Chibnall and Alderton decided it should. It does give the 13th Doctor an interesting moral dilemma to face – does she go against Jack’s warning and give the Lone Cyberman what it wants, thus saving him and the future of humanity (as she spells out to Ryan, Yaz, and Graham after they object to her plan; if he dies, there’s a good chance they won’t live and she has to make a choice here). The scene does a lot to further the ongoing plot and character arcs for all of our characters and it’s always a joy to see Whittaker’s Doctor have to navigate a darker territory. But, again, it just feels like the kind of thing that could have involved anyone and been just as impactful instead of taking attention away from an interesting historical figure like Mary Shelley. Both Mary Shelley and the Lone Cyberman should have an episode devoted entirely to each of them, but instead, they’re needlessly crammed into the same episode and both get underserved to a degree. An episode that focused on solely the Lone Cyberman might have been the route to take given this episode’s placement and its, presumed, importance to the finale. But still, the Cyberman stuff was really good here.
So, this episode has me a bit conflicted. I like nearly all of the pieces of it. The first half is magnificently atmospheric, the second half is full of danger and tension and begins to answer some of the lingering questions introduced earlier this season. Sullivan’s direction is sharp, moody, and keeps the story moving along at the perfect pace. The performances from all of the actors are fantastic; this might be one of Whittaker’s best performances as the 13th Doctor to date. Everything about it is really good, but I can’t help but feel as though the two parts don’t quite fit together. It’s a really good Cyberman episode but a not-so-good Mary Shelley episode. Perhaps this story might also have been better executed as a two-parter, with the first part focusing on the ghost story feeling set up in the first half of the episode and giving us more time to get to know the guest characters before the Cyberman comes in as the episode’s cliffhanger, leading into a second episode that focuses solely on that plotline. As it is, the episode quickly becomes more of a Cyberman episode that just happens to have Mary Shelley in it than a Mary Shelley episode that features Cybermen. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does feel like a slight disservice to Shelley. There’s literally no reason for her to be in this story other than that’s what the writers wanted to do. At the end of the day, I would have preferred a story that mainly focused on either the Lone Cyberman or Mary Shelley, instead of one that tried to focus on, and subsequently shortchanged, both. But, still, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is a very good episode that has me very excited for next week’s half of the two-part finale.
4 out of 5 wands.