This review contains spoilers after the squirrel.
12.8 The Haunting Of Villa Diodati
It’s the spooky one! Most years since Doctor Who returned in 2005 have seen an episode that delves gleefully into something supernatural, even if it does usually turn out to be aliens in the end. We’ve had gaseous ‘ghosts’ in The Unquiet Dead and an otherworldly creature rampaging through a mansion in Hide, and now it’s the Thirteenth Doctor’s turn to strap on a proton pack (or at least wave the sonic around) and go bust some ghosts in The Haunting of Villa Diodati.
The haunted house in question is the titular villa where, famously, Lord Byron and a number of his friends whiled away ‘The Year Without a Summer’ writing – and thus, Mary Shelley was inspired to create Frankenstein. Happily, this week’s script is easily deft enough to support such a famously witty cast of guest characters. The dialogue shines a lot of the time, Byron’s sleazy but without being too unlikeable, and there are a couple of laugh-out-loud jokes – Fletcher the valet is a particular delight. (Also, Graham in a top hat.)
It’s also a script that serves Jodie Whittaker well, allowing her Doctor to be curious, commanding, exasperated and eccentric throughout. This is Maxine Alderton’s first Doctor Who script, but she seems to have a better handle on the Thirteenth Doctor than most. Better yet, each of the companions gets something to do this week as they split up to investigate the creepy goings-on, although several of Byron’s guests might as well be mobile scenery given how little we learn about them and how much they actually affect the plot in any way.
The core story itself has little time for them because it’s too busy bombarding us with pretty much kind of scary moment you can think of, from figures appearing in flashes of lightning to vases hurtling across the room, and there’s a missing person mystery on top of it all. It’s quite a lot of plot to pack into an episode that also needs to slow down at points so that it can effectively deliver the measured, creeping dread that a ghost story demands. When things take a (mostly) unexpected turn in the third act, several narrative threads get hand-waved away to make room for new developments and the overall story can’t help but feel a little disjointed as a result. With that in mind, let’s talk spoilers….
Episode spoilers from this point on
As mentioned, the first third of The Haunting of Villa Diodati revels in throwing every ghostly trope imaginable up on screen, although some of these work better than others. The most effective moments tend to be the slow, lingering realisations that there’s something in the room. Scenes like the skeletal hand scampering around like Thing from The Addams Family and choking Ryan, by contrast, aren’t really played to be scary. Likewise, we see so much of characters leaving through a door only to loop back around to the same room that these scenes soon lose their impact – particularly one shot in the drawing room that’s plainly just Whittaker running in and out of frame without so much as a camera cut.
Before long we’re juggling Byron’s collection of mobile limbs, twisting corridors, a man who cannot sleep, the missing Percy Shelley, the Doctor’s declaration that something about the house is unfathomably evil – and out beyond it all, a ghostly figure out over the lake whose presence ties the whole story together, more or less. The idea that glowing, spectral figures might actually be Cybermen forcing their way into our reality is familiar, but then it should be – we’ve seen it before, way back in Series Two’s Army of Ghosts.
The imagery of that episode was so iconic that when the Kasavin took on a similar appearance in this year’s Spyfall, a number of fans wondered if they might actually be Cybermen. Chris Chibnall (and Captain Jack) had already assured us that the Doctor’s age-old foe would be returning this year, so while Ashad initially manifesting as a luminous, vaguely humanoid figure is a nice call-back, how he looks means it’s hard not to be suspicious that the ghost is really a Cyberman the first time we lay eyes on it.
Then again, if there was ever going to be an episode where Chibnall and co. could make a Cyberman thematically appropriate, it would be Cyberwom—er, this story: the night that gives birth to Frankenstein. Given the macabre collection of body parts at Byron’s disposal, there could have been any number of ways to do a more literal riff on the classic novel – cyber-remains in the secret laboratory, and so on. And yet, along with Big Finish’s The Silver Turk, this is actually the second time that Doctor Who has introduced Mary Shelley to the Cybermen but avoided the obvious path of strapping one to a bench during a thunderstorm.
Instead, the episode handles its literary allusions with a light touch. Ashad may harness the power of lightning to revitalise his failing systems, but when Mary steps forward to treat the Cyberman with the kindness and compassion that Victor Frankenstein’s creation desired, Ashad pays her back with nothing but contempt. He’s a soldier, a fanatic, and a very different take on a normally stoic species. We learn very little about how he came to be in his half-formed state, but Ashad presents us with an intimidating villain nonetheless, combining the intimidating physical bulk of a stompy cyborg with the stubborn single-mindedness of a desperate survivor.
Since its revival, Doctor Who has had a difficult relationship with the Cybermen. Specifically, the consensus amongst its writers has always seemed to be that, iconic as they once were, the level of threat the Cybermen pose has diminished over the years and needs to be restored by changing them up in some way. Modern Cybermen, judging from the stories we’ve had over the last few years, must strive to be simultaneously as powerful as the Daleks and as terrifying as the Weeping Angels. The problem is, no-one’s really figured out how.
As a result, we’ve had a 500ft tall Cyberking mech stomping around in Victorian London. We’ve seen the Cybermen evolve from utilising crude operating tables to nanotechnology that can convert people almost instantly and learn to adapt to new forms of attack via continual self-upgrades like Star Trek’s Borg. We’ve even watched them hijack the dead. Ashad is likewise supremely powerful, but the fact that he can teleport and threaten to rip the Earth apart doesn’t make him half as scary as the single-minded zeal and very human spite his displays. When he picks up the crying baby, it’s not a question of whether he’s going to kill it (this is family viewing, after all) but what on earth’s going to stop him.
Be that as it may, Ashad is still pretty overpowered by Cyberman standards – strong enough to reach the Cyberium, which is the utterly bonkers plot device responsible for all of tonight’s supernatural happenings (well, apart from Graham’s sandwich) as it sought to protect itself. Nebulously described both as a nanomachine cloud, a database, a power source and an AI, the Cyberium is supposedly the difference between the Cybermen being triumphant universal conquerors or driven to extinction.
The Cyberium’s very existence, and the fact that it’s ultimately surrendered to save the Earth, suggests the Lone Cyberman’s time is over and that next week we’ll be back to the world-ending threat of umpteen billion cyborgs who can fly, teleport and eat three Shredded Wheat. When the Doctor took the Cyberium into herself, it looked for a moment as if we might be setting up for a chase across time and space, which would have been a great way to see more of Ashad. As with Rob Shearman’s episode Dalek, his role in tonight’s story proves that one soldier can be more dramatically effective than an entire army.
If there’s one part of the story that doesn’t quite ring true, it’s the Doctor’s handwringing insistence that the no-win scenario she’s faced with somehow her own creation and, therefore, her responsibility. Yes, heading to the future and stopping the Cybermen from waging war on the rest of the universe is probably a good idea, but if Team TARDIS had never arrived Ashad would have killed Shelley and recovered the Cyberium regardless – it’s not like the Doctor was responsible for leading him to it. Did Captain Jack, who was present for a similar dilemma in The Parting of the Ways, really expect her to sacrifice the Earth to wipe the Cybermen out for good?
As the dust settles and Team TARDIS reaffirm their commitment to standing with the Doctor as she battles the Cybermen, what we’re left with is a very unusual hybrid episode. It’s not a brilliant ghost story – there are too many ideas in the mix and too many shifts in tone – and it’s not a revolutionary Cyberman story, at least not yet. Thanks to some snappy dialogue delivered by a solid guest cast, a good villain and a highly atmospheric soundtrack from composer Segun Akinola, however, The Haunting of Villa Diodati comes together as more than the sum of its ill-fitting parts.