In the eighth episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who, THIS WAS ONE OF THE FINEST EPISODES EVER. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
I. LOVED. EVERYTHING. ABOUT. THIS. EPISODE. The acting. The story. The creepiness. The fact that the Cyberium’s power actually explains all the haunted house weirdness. (EXCEPT FOR THE THING IT DOESN’T.) The Doctor’s monologue about choice. MARY’S MONOLOGUE ABOUT FEELINGS. The way this felt like a traditional time-mystery-of-the-week BUT WAS ACTUALLY TIED TO THIS SERIES’S GREATER ARC.
It’s just???? Great in every way??? I keep finding new things to appreciate about it as I think about it more??? WHERE DO I EVEN START.
So, correct me if I’m wrong, but this actually is grounded in a whole lot of actual fact? There really was a night in 1816 in Villa Diodati that inspired Frankenstein, and the Year Without a Summer was also very real, and that made this script so much fucking FUN. It’s clear that Maxine Alderton actually wanted to create a story to fit within these confines but still allowed The Doctor and her companions to explore another possible explanation for the creation of Frankenstein. And there’s something so beautiful about the idea that Mary Shelley–who LITERALLY influenced the advent of science fiction with her work–was inspired by this entire experience. The way this teleplay just gorgeously finds a way for Mary to think about humanity and monsters, love and violence? IT’S SO FUCKING GOOD. I will forever remain impressed by this, y’all.
But I also have to praise the way that Alderton wrote these characters who are ALSO historical figures. I am never, ever going to forget how splendid it was to watch Lord Byron come to life as the eternally-horny asshole he is here. Wait, eternally-horny and OBLIVIOUS asshole. He comes off as almost himbo-adjacent in this episode? IT IS AS HE SHOULD BE, OKAY. And let’s talk about the portrayal of Mary, played wonderfully by Lili Miller. The passion! That rebellious nature of hers coming across onscreen! Her ability to empathize with the most monstrous of creations! Her desire to write when the inspiration strikes her! OBSESSED. I’m obsessed, y’all! This whole episode manages to capture some sense of who these people were while also giving us characters who fit this story as well. Both Claire Clairmont and Dr. John Polidori are fantastic here as well, and from a purely craft standpoint, all these characters play an important role in the plot, so much so that you can’t take any of them out and have the same story.
I love a good ghost story, and this episode manages to both be a haunted house tale and not be one. “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” utilizes so many haunted house tropes: spectral figures. Strange sounds. Crashing vases. Passages that twist and turn. (Did Graham ever manage to use the bathroom? I’m very concerned.) A glowing figure. Indisposed people who are mysteriously missing. So many of these pieces make some sort of an appearance in this story, and yet they are not there simply for atmosphere or mood. As much as I like ghost stories, and as much as I like things not being explained to the audience, hauntings like this often have deeply illogical elements to them. Why did a ghost do certain things? Why did specific things even happen?
Understandably, many of these things happen because the aim of a ghost story is often to spook and scare. It’s not about a linear timeline or an internal logic. I think of a film like The Conjuring, which I deeply love because it’s such a fucking EXPERIENCE. That movie stressed me out and frightened me so much the first time I saw it. I can respect that because it does exactly what it is trying to do.
At the same time, I also love another spooky film for doing the exact opposite: Hereditary. The following rot13 doesn’t spoil the story so much as the structure of the plot, but V ybirq gung gur svany zbzragf bs gung svyz tenagf hf na vagreany ybtvp gb rirelguvat jr’ir frra orsber. And that’s what I saw in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” and it’s one of the main reasons I found this so satisfying. The “haunting” bits are not random. Each of them are a deeply emotional manifestation of Percy’s attempt to delay the inevitable. He knows that something is coming for him, and he does his best not only to delay it, but to weirdly protect the people around him. I know that the Cyberium was responsible for this, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that there was some sort of psychic crossover here. The nature of these hauntings were… god, the only way to put it is that they FELT so very Percy Shelley??? It’s like the Cyberium used Percy’s own language–literal and metaphorical–to prevent its capture.
And for some good ol’ spooky fun, Graham appears to have seen ACTUAL FUCKING GHOSTS inside the Villa Diodati. And I was perfectly fine not having that bit explained.
Y’all know I love a good serialized story, and you ALSO know I love moral complications, and you also know I love Doctor Who‘s historical fiction stories, and by the way, I also adore stories about beings who are incredibly old and how their perception of time skews their perspective of the world and other beings. So: wow, this hit SO MANY buttons for me. “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” brings forth the warning that Captain Jack Harkness made about the “Lone Cyberman,” and here, we meet that character. Portrayed chillingly by Patrick O’Kane, this script fascinatingly presents us with a Cyberman from the future who is sort of a proto-Cyberman? Or perhaps “unfinished” is a better word. But that state between worlds–still part human, still possessing emotions, still with their memories of being Ashad–made the Lone Cyberman a billion times more interesting and frightening. he was a glimpse of the inevitable–a future in which the Cybermen exist. Which The Doctor has already seen!
It’s all a bit timey-wimey, of course, since someone sent the Cyberium back in time to hide the collective knowledge of the Cybermen, and someone ELSE had to the Lone Cyberman to track it down. But I don’t need those answers now. I assume these last two episodes will deal with that, as well as explain how Captain Harkness knew to warn the Doctor. Instead, this episode focuses on two things way more brilliant and terrifying. I already spoke of how much I loved that this inspired Mary to write Frankenstein, and honestly, the two stories are woven together in a way to highlight Mary’s own empathy with the way she eventually came to write Frankenstein’s monster as a sympathetic figure. That whole monologue she gives to Ashad is chilling, and Ashad’s response was one of the most disturbing things on this whole damn show. But that flip–where Ashad admits to sparing William, but not for the reason Mary assumes–demonstrates how Ashad’s thinking has been warped by this partial transformation.
But there’s one moment here that I am most excited to discuss. There is an exchange between Ryan and the Doctor that is uncomfortable. Frightening. That reminded me of the temperament of past Doctors. That worked as a way to show Thirteen’s companions that more than they probably realize, she has to make life-changing decisions in a short span of time, and that often these decision are immensely disturbing. But here, The Doctor focuses on one specific thing: the value of life. I don’t see Ryan as being a bad person for suggesting that Percy Shelley is but “one” life versus the many millions who might be destroyed due to the re-emergence of the Cybermen. Indeed, it’s very easy to devalue a life in that context, but that doesn’t mean that The Doctor lets a comment like that in her presence go unaddressed. I found that entire bit to be so deeply revealing of The Doctor and her personal morality, as well as her history! It wasn’t that long ago (relatively speaking) that Bill Potts lost her life to the Cyberman. In both of these cases, The Doctor wanted to find a solution that didn’t involve the loss of life. She didn’t want her companions to follow her; she didn’t want to pursue a solution that would require Percy’s death. In all of her actions, she refuses to sacrifice life. Not just human life, either! She doesn’t really want the lives of her antagonists to end, either!
Thus, her companions get a taste of what being in her head is like. And it’s scary. It’s overwhelming. So much of the time Thirteen has spent with these companions has been a way for her NOT to constantly revisit her past. We haven’t had a whole lot of classic antagonists, either, and I think it’s worked extremely well in Chibnall’s era. That means this also feels very exciting! And scary. IT’S VERY SCARY. Because until they see the Lone Cyberman in action, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham don’t really get why The Doctor is so upset about the presence of a Cyberman.
I mean… I feel like they’re about to find out even more, but STILL. I am guessing that by the end of this series, these three companions are going to have a deeper understanding not just of the world they live in–and how complicated things can–but of The Doctor as a person. Her chiding of Ryan felt like an uncomfortable means of letting him, not just a criticism of his logic. She was showing him (and by extension, both Graham and Yaz) what it means to be her all the time. Some days, The Doctor just has to make hard, hard choices.
And I’m guessing harder choices are in store for her and her friends in the near future.
The video for “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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