“The Haunting of Villa Diodati”
Doctor Who: Series 12 – Episode 8
Written by: Maxine Alderton
Directed by: Emma Sullivan
Synopsis: The Doctor and her gang arrive at the Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva in 1816 on the night that inspired Mary Shelley’s 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.
Continuing Chris Chibnall’s proclivity for alternating between modern and historical stories, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” saw the Doctor and her companions arriving at the Swiss mansion on the night when Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein. I was initially unfamiliar with this moment in history, but after some post-episode research, I was quite enchanted by the concept of the finest writers and poets of the era hanging out and telling ghost stories to each other, which would lead to the creation of Frankenstein and The Vampyre. It seems like this is the Romantic-era equivalent of travelling back in time to watch The Beatles play at The Cavern Club, or attending Woodstock, so I can see why the Doctor would be keen to take her friends there to soak up the atmosphere.
Talking of atmosphere, the episode manages to evoke the classic ‘haunted house’ trope extremely well and I loved how the ghosts of the maid and her daughter were subtly placed in the background shots. It is an eerie cinematic technique that is far more effective in creating tension and unease than the over-used jump scare, and it was great to see it used masterfully here. This was definitely an episode of two halves, and I enjoyed how writer Maxine Alderton misdirected the audience with spooky skeletal hands and shifting rooms before revealing the true menace in the second half. As I was watching, I remember thinking it was a shame that Mary Shelley wouldn’t meet the Cybermen as they share many similarities with Frankenstein’s Monster, and then we got that awesome reveal of the Lone Cyberman.
With his cracked helmet revealing the face of the decaying corpse underneath, the Lone Cyberman was another triumph for the costume department this series and a brilliant way to reinvigorate a classic monster, much like how the Dalek underwent a more low-tech redesign in “Resolution”. I found my eyes constantly drawn to the face beneath the mask and I was amazed at how Patrick O’ Kane was able to convey such menace and hatred. The scene where Mary attempted to appeal to his better nature was absolutely chilling, demonstrating how a Cyberman with emotions is way more terrifying than the monotone silver army the Doctor usually faces. This might be the scariest interpretation of the Cybermen since the iconic “Tomb of the Cybermen” and I applaud Alderton and Chibnall for recapturing the horror of the creatures, and really leaning into the comparison to Frankenstein’s Monster.
As seems to be routine for this season, I found myself really enjoying the supporting characters for this episode and Alderton’s script gave them all moments to shine. I particularly enjoyed Lord Byron’s attempts to woo “Mrs Doctor” and Polidori’s quick temper as he challenged Ryan to a duel, but both of the women were given some emotional moments too, as Claire Clairmont discussed unrequited love and Mary Shelley fought for her soon-to-be husband. While this episode offered considerably less character development for the core companions than the previous episode (“Can You Hear Me?”), it still allowed them to showcase their personalities through some cute one-liners and it was interesting to see Ryan advocate the argument to sacrifice Percy Shelley for the fate of the universe. It certainly feels like the series is building up to a big moment between the Doctor and her companions as it seems like they have been more questioning of her methods across the season and their relationship has been much more tense as a result.
Misdirection has been a key theme in this series’ run of episodes and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is the latest example of an episode that seemed to focus on recognisable tropes such as ‘spies’ in “Spyfall” and the Judoon in “Fugitive of the Judoon” as a way to play upon audience expectations, only to switch perspective midway through and reveal a secondary antagonist from nowhere (The Master, The new Doctor and The Cyberman). I strongly suspect we may get a similar shock reveal in the next two episodes and that the Cybermen might only be one half of the equation – I sincerely hope that we see the return of Sacha Dhawan’s Master and Jo Martin’s new Doctor to address some of the lingering plot threads from earlier in the season – and might it be too much to ask for another Captain Jack guest-appearance too?
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” felt as stitched together as the legendary horror monster that Mary Shelley would later be inspired to create. The two different plots would both have been enough material for a single episode, but bringing them together resulted in a crowded and tonally awkward adventure. The Cyberium McGuffin felt overpowered and an easy way to explain the supernatural elements of the episode – and even then, the final moments with Graham implied that there were actual ghosts in play at the same time. I loved everything about the Lone Cyberman, and would have preferred a simpler, more straight-forward romp in 19th Century Geneva with the Doctor attempting to stop this rusty, degraded remnant from liberating the Cyberium from the Shelley’s. I know it was unlikely, but it would also have been great if it could have incorporated the continuity from the Big Finish stories featuring Mary Shelley and the Eighth Doctor, but instead it has overwritten it with a new version of the characters meeting.
Regardless of how I felt about the pacing of the episode, I have to say that Alderton and Chibnall did a spectacular job at making the Cybermen scary again, and I cannot wait to see the second round between the Doctor and the Lone Cyberman.
Score – ★★★ ½
Next Episode: “Ascension of the Cybermen”
The aftermath of the Great CyberWar. The Doctor arrives in the far future, intent on protecting the last of the human race from the deadly Cybermen. But in the face of such a relentless enemy, has she put her best friends at risk? What terrors lie hiding in the depths of space, and what is Ko Sharmus?