It turns out lightning can strike twice with Doctor Who, which makes an electric return to form with “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” Last week saw Season 12’s hot streak of episodes come to an end, but Doctor Who resuscitated its high-quality run with a perfect old-fashioned ghost story that pitted Frankenstein’s author against a modern Prometheus of Doctor Who‘s own making.
Doctor Who has long delighted in doing on-the-nose tributes to famous literary figures, which range from the good (Charles Dickens meeting ghosts in “The Unquiet Dead,” Shakespeare battling witches in “The Shakespeare Code”) to the amusingly bad (Agatha Christie solves a whodunit in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”). “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” falls in the good category — dare I say, one of the greats — thanks to its healthy dose of mood and atmosphere and its sinister reimagining of one of Doctor Who‘s oldest villains. You either love or hate The Cybermen, but you can’t deny that they’ve been overused nearly as much as the Daleks in the past 15 years. Though their last outing was decently horrific, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” does for Cybermen what the season 1 episode “Dalek” did for Daleks: make them feel like a real, terrifying threat.
When Lightning Strikes
Villa Diodati, 1816: It is a dark and stormy summer night in a Swiss mansion, and several of the most notable literary icons of the 19th century are huddled inside, bored out of their minds. They decide to tell each other ghost stories to pass the time — “Something to curdle the blood,” Mary Shelley (Lili Miller), soon to be known as the creator of the science-fiction genre, gleefully demands to Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy), a notable author and even more notorious philanderer. Yes, this is the night that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, one of the great Gothic literary classics that is considered the first true science-fiction story. But things soon go horribly wrong, as the party is interrupted by the arrival of a group of strangers — Team TARDIS — and horrific spectral visions that appear throughout the house.
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is Doctor Who‘s most successful ghost story to date, with director Emma Sullivan creating a creepy, unsettling atmosphere that never sacrifices its looming feeling of dread for the goofier sci-fi elements of Doctor Who. It feels very much like Sullivan and writer Maxine Alderton took a page out of Shelley’s book, layering in familiar Gothic horror elements and giving them clever, subtle sci-fi twists, but never shying away from the real horror of the unknown. A vase flies and breaks against a wall: not a ghost, but a person in the thrall of a perception-altering technology. The guests find themselves trapped inside the house, which has transformed into a twisting labyrinth that won’t let them leave: an illusion induced by a perception filter. But a few creepy elements — a skeletal hand that crawls out a painting and chokes Ryan, a ghostly woman and young girl who appear throughout the house — are left a mystery, adding to the episode’s eerie atmosphere.
Upon arrival, the Doctor and Team TARDIS immediately notice that this historic congregation is missing one valuable person: Percy Shelley, Mary’s future husband and a notable author who also participated in the horror story contest proposed by Lord Byron. They jump to solve the mystery, the Doctor sensing something “evil” about the house, foregoing her usual scientific terminology in favor of a poeticism that befits the setting and the episode’s overall mood. When Ryan is attacked by the skeletal hand, the group realize something sinister has taken over the house, and split up into groups to look for Percy Shelley.
The House That Shelley Haunted
Gathering in Byron’s locked chamber, the lord shows off his collection of spooky “artifacts of war,” including a skeleton of a soldier that is mysteriously missing its hands. The group reveal to the Doctor that when the weather turned, Percy Shelley began having visions of a spectral figure, and secluded himself to the nearby chalet. But when they set off to find him, they find the house has transformed into a shifting labyrinth which has trapped them inside. With the help of a sleepwalking John Polidori (Maxim Baldry), the Doctor soon realizes that they’re under the sway of a perception filter that is protecting them from an extraterrestrial figure trying to break into the house.
But as soon as the Doctor figures this all out, the figure makes its way inside, revealing itself to be…the lone Cyberman. One of the Doctor’s oldest monsters, an army of which were responsible for her last reincarnation’s death, this new Cyberman has a fantastically creepy redesign that is not unlike that of how pop culture has imagined Frankenstein’s monster — body parts missing, a scarred face peeking out from behind a ravaged helmet, dents and nicks covering the dirty armor. The Cyberman are usually shown in groups, with their vast numbers and emotionless exteriors presenting an overwhelming terror. But on its own, this Cyberman gets an intellectual upgrade as well, speaking in poetic riddles and sneering at the “primitives” of the “dark age” it has found itself in (again, not unlike the erudite monster of the Frankenstein novel). The Cyberman is searching for a mysterious “Guardian,” demanding the group of the Guardian’s whereabouts and murdering the help. One of the most terrifying moments of the episode again mirrors Frankenstein, but this time the 1931 movie: the Cyberman picks up Mary’s helpless baby after killing the maid, and gently places it down, stating ominously, “You will be like us.”
But the strengths of this episode is more than just its nods to Frankenstein — “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” also makes reference to the Doctor’s past traumatic encounters with the Cybermen, allowing Jodie Whittaker to show off her dramatic chops with a glimpse at the Doctor’s dark side, her raw anger and panic breaking through her usually whimsical exterior. “I will not lose anyone else to that,” the Doctor vehemently declares upon ordering her companions to stay behind as she faces off with the Cyberman.
A Modern Prometheus
Season 12 has been a godsend for Whittaker’s 13th Doctor, who in the past eight episodes has displayed more personality than in her entire first season. But more so than in her encounters with the Cyberman — where Whittaker effectively communicates a palpable bitterness and hatred — the Doctor’s shifting relationship with Team TARDIS gets the most interesting development here. Companions are at their best when they’re challenging the Doctor, and vice versa. The dynamic between the Doctor and her current Team TARDIS have been almost too agreeable, with no conflict or disagreements outside of surface-level ones. But that has changed in the past few episodes, with the companions realizing that the Doctor is hiding secrets from them. “His answers only increase the enigma,” Claire Claremont (Nadia Parkes) says of her lover Lord Byron, to which Yaz affirms that the Doctor is the same way. But where she would have immediately cheerfully answered before that the enigma was worth the trouble, Yaz hesitates.
This newfound uncertainty in the dynamic between the Doctor and Team TARDIS is never more clear than when the group discovers that Percy Shelley is the Guardian that the Cyberman is looking for. The poet had found a strange extraterrestrial item that had absorbed into his body and given him access to the Cyberium, a Cyber supercomputer that threatens the destruction of the universe. The group find Percy in hiding, dying from the tech lodged inside him, which had been sent to the past by a mysterious figure in an attempt to thwart an oncoming Cybermen war. Ryan, shaken from Captain Jack’s earlier warning to “beware the lone Cyberman,” suggests that they let Percy sacrifice himself to prevent the Cyberium from falling into the Cyberman’s hands, but the Doctor angrily shuts him down. “The ripples are far too powerful,” she yells, shaming him for his suggestion and despairing at the impossible situation they’ve found themselves in: the poet or the universe.
One of the recurring problems of the Chibnall era is how conflict-free each episode leaves the Doctor, but the “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” upends that with the 13th Doctor’s first real failure. She loses, saving Percy from death but giving up the Cyberium to the Cyberman when he threatens to destroy the Earth — despite the valiant efforts of Mary Shelley to appear to the humanity within him, declaring him a “modern Prometheus.” In one of the darkest moments of Doctor Who, the Cyberman nearly lives up to her compassionate words before attacking her and declaring that he killed his children and “slit their throats when I joined the resistance.” It’s a ruthless, cruel, intelligent depiction of the Cybermen we’ve never had before, and the first Chibnall-era monster truly deserving of going toe-to-toe with the Doctor.
The episode leaves us with hints at the cracks in Team TARDIS and in the darkness within the Doctor — an intriguing new development as we head to the final two episodes of season 12. “Darkness had no need/Of aid from them – she was the Universe,” Lord Byron reads to the group after Team TARDIS leaves, as the camera pans to the Doctor’s tormented face, alluding to the Doctor’s ultimately lonely fate.
Tidbits in Time and Space
- The Doctor just deflecting Byron’s advances to talk about his daughter Ada Lovelace is a great tie-in to the previous episode “Spyfall.”
- Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and co. frequently calling the Doctor “Mrs. Doctor” was a hilarious recurring bit.
- The Doctor’s ongoing love affair with hats continues with the medieval helmet she refuses to put down. “Not because it really suits me or anything,” she jokes.
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