Doctor Who: Season 12, Episode 8 – The Haunting of Villa Diodati

“How about writing the most gruesome, spine-chilling ghost story of all time?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

It was a dark and stormy night…

How many classic ghost stories begin with that one line? Just maybe, it has its origins in the famous night visited by the Doctor and his companions in this week’s suitably spooky episode – the fevered, intense gathering by Lake Geneva of the early 19th century’s most notorious literary talents. In June 1816, in Villa Diodati, on the shores of the lake, George Gordon (better known as Lord Byron), his current lover Clair Clairmont, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his common law wife Mary Godwin (better known as Mary Shelley) gathered together with their friend Dr John Polidori for a party that would be remembered in the annals of literature for centuries to come. From that party came one of the best known tales of terror in history – Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

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That night has been dramatized countless times on film and TV, not least as the prologue to 1935’s classic sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (in which the legendary Elsa Lanchester played both Mary Shelley and the titular Bride). For me, the best of those depictions was Ken Russell’s fevered, full throttle 1986 movie Gothic, which captured all the deranged, hallucinatory (and opium-addled) madness of that legendary evening in a way that only the notoriously unrestrained director could.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati seemed very much to draw from that same well. Maxine Alderton’s script was beautifully literate, liberally quoting Byron and Shelley throughout – I never thought I’d hear a Cyberman reciting lines from Shelley’s Queen Mab. But it was director Emma Sullivan, behind the camera again after last week’s similarly spooky episode, who was equally vital for this genuinely creepy, atmospheric piece of TV drama.

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Because first and foremost, this was a ghost story. And the look and feel of the ep captured this perfectly; the creepy old mansion, the candlelit semi-darkness, the constant punctuation by flashes of lightning, the animated bones creeping the dark halls. This was all the stuff of primal nightmares, beautifully conveyed.

However, ghost stories frequently end with a number of unresolved questions, and that was certainly true here. That may turn out to be justified, as I was surprised to find that this wasn’t a standalone episode but the first instalment in what will presumably be the endgame for this season’s arc. Perhaps I should have guessed; what could be more fitting as an inspiration for Frankenstein than a Cyberman, a dead human being reanimated by science?

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But this was of course the “lone Cyberman” referred to in Jack Harkness’ dire warning of a few eps ago. And as such, it presented the Doctor with a dilemma, about resolving the situation while still preserving history and preventing the Cyberman from attaining its goal as warned against by Jack. It was an impossible dilemma, and Jodie Whittaker finally got the speech I felt the character deserved as she outlined her moral position regarding letting the Cyberman or the mysterious Cyberian kill Percy Shelley, one of the most important figures in shaping literary history.

That was a terrific piece of writing, delivered by an actor who now seems very much at home with the character. Lacking the authorial viewpoint unsubtlety of previous speeches in earlier eps (I’m looking at you, Orphan 55), it was a powerful statement of the character’s moral standpoint balanced against her responsibility for history – it truly grasped the point of the show. And Whittaker delivered it perfectly.

DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 12: EPISODE 08

In a season that has frequently foregrounded historical figures, it was fitting too that it should be the questioning, compassionate outlook of Mary Shelley herself that held the key to the enigma of the Lone Cyberman. It was another strength of Maxine Alderton’s script that these historical figures were so well-realised (even if the depictions were not especially original).

This was a good-looking bunch of Romantics, in keeping with their reputations. Perhaps a little too good-looking – Jacob Collins-Levy’s Byron was more handsome than the vain, club-footed hellraiser probably deserved, but was well-written enough for me to forgive that. It was perfectly in keeping with what we know of the narcissistic Byron to spend the ep revelling in attempted debauchery (not least with “Mrs Doctor”), while placing his own self-preservation front and centre. However, while the script showed us his lover Claire Clairmont rejecting him after he attempted to protect himself by using her as a “human shield”, we shouldn’t feel too uplifted by that moment of empowerment. Their legendarily tempestuous affair continued after this brief break, culminating in the birth of their daughter Allegra.

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And of course the Doctor has already met Byron’s other daughter, Ada Lovelace, in the story right at the beginning of this season, which the script suitably referenced. This ep was full of callbacks to earlier ones from the season, understandable in one preparing the ground for its finale. Perhaps the most intriguing was the reference to the possibility of alternate timelines in the event of Shelley’s death, or the Lone Cyberman getting what it wanted.

I’ve been thinking for a while that alternate timelines were the only possible explanation for much of what we’ve seen this year – the devastation of Gallifrey, the doomed future Earth of Orphan 55, the presence of a Doctor previously unknown… I could be wrong of course, but it feels like Chris Chibnall is following Steven Moffat’s lead in making “timey-wimey” the key to his labyrinthine plot. It remains to be seen how well he can pull it off, of course…

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Of the other guest characters, Percy Shelley was perhaps least well-served, not seen until quite late on in the episode and possessed by the Cyberian for much of the time. Lewis Rainer, another looker, did the best with what he got though, and it was a nice touch that the Doctor’s unpleasant “cure” was to show him the moment of his own death. In reality, Shelley was reputedly haunted for many years by visions of his death, which shaped much of his work; so this was a nice example of the time travellers’ interference shaping the very history they were trying to protect.

In keeping with the show’s habit of foregrounding particular historical figures, though, the main guest character was Mary Shelley herself, well played as a fiercely intelligent woman by Lili Miller. But while the ep was nominally focused on her, all the historical figures concerned got a good crack of the whip, story wise. Byron’s physician, John Polidori, got far more prominence here than in most versions of this tale; and was more of a looker himself too. I love Timothy Spall as the character in Gothic, but let’s face it, Years and Years’ Maxim Baldry was a far better looking incarnation of the man who quietly came out of this night to write one of the very first vampire stories, The Vampyre.

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Given the constraints of a 50 minute piece of TV drama with a lot of characters, the depth given to the guests could easily have been at the expense of the regulars. Not so here, a measure of the quality of Maxine Alderton’s script. Granted, there was no actual development for any of them, but the show’s done plenty of that recently. However, all got a fair share of the action, neatly facilitated by splitting all the characters up into various groups investigating the mystery of the villa.

Equally important though was the ep’s version of Frankenstein’s Monster, that Lone Cyberman haunting the halls of the villa in its still-unexplained quest. This was a Cyberman unlike any we’d seen before, half-converted and still in full possession of its human emotions. Patrick O’Kane gave an excellent performance, and the half of his face that was visible helped immensely; he was as tortured a figure as the legendary Monster, a fact highlighted by Mary’s assertion that he still had a soul. The conflict between his memories of his former life, even including his half-remembered name of Ashad, and his new life as a Cyberman perfectly mirrored the Monster’s scathing, self-knowledge in Shelley’s real tale.

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There was a lot packed into this ep, and as a result it was very demanding of the viewer’s attention – I found I had to watch it twice to fully take it in, and even then I’m not sure there aren’t things I’ve missed. So all the weird happenings earlier in the ep were down to the Cyberian, and its powerful tech; including the apparitions that turned out to be the shielded form of Shelley. That’s fine, though the ever-shifting geography of the house was so reminiscent of the ‘Recursive Occlusion’ in 1982’s Castrovalva that I was surprised not to hear even a glancing reference to it.

But I’m not sure of that final ambivalence about the existence of ghosts (“There’s no such thing as ghosts!” “Unless there are.”). The show’s ‘done’ ghosts many times before, but always explained them in scientific terms – usually relating to time anomalies. I do like the Doctor’s tacit acknowledgment that maybe she doesn’t know everything, but I also hope that the unexplained apparitions seen by Graham might get a fuller explanation in the conclusion.

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Even if not though, I think I can forgive that one misstep in an ep that had so much to pack in. Exploring the notorious Villa Diodati party of 1816, while also telling a Doctor Who story, while also laying the groundwork for the climax to this season’s arc, was a very tall order, and could so easily have gone very wrong. The fact that this ep managed to pull it off, and tell a story with rounded characters, thoughtful themes, and plenty of depth was a testament to how good this script was. Like Fugitive of the Judoon, it may have been part of a larger story whose conclusion may be less satisfactory; but as an episode in its own right, it was marvellous.