Sometimes as a reviewer you get wrong-footed. Knowing I was to review the eighth episode of Doctor Who Series 12, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, I’d done some preparation. I’d reminded myself of the story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein; Or, A Modern Prometheus; I’d thought about a clever introduction and a nod to Deep Purple. I’d even found a new way to complain about pacing, about the companions being underused, about the Doctor being erratic. I’d worried about how it might contradict the Big Finish story about the same events (Mary’s Story by Jonathan Morris, part of the Eighth Doctor release, Company of Friends, 2009).
Instead Chris Chibnall, writer Maxine Alderton, and director Emma Sullivan gave us what just might be the most polished Doctor Who story for some time.
There were no clues. Emma Sullivan directed last week’s Can You Hear Me? and that was very much an episode I thought was constrained by the time available and the need to give everyone something to do. Maxine Alderton is far better known for Emmerdale, a soap opera set in a tight-knit Yorkshire village. Nothing prepared me for The Haunting of Villa Diodati.
What went right?
Taking stock, this episode had the four person TARDIS crew, five new main characters (the Romantic poets: the Shelleys, Byron, Polidori, and Claire Clairmont; two servants and a new look Cyberman. It kept everyone involved, moved from location to location, built tension, spooked and had a twist (I for one didn’t expect the Lone Cyberman this week). Several of the new characters developed across the story and all performed well. This requires a combination of casting, writing, directing, and post-production. It doesn’t just happen (and often doesn’t happen at all).
The measure of how this story worked is how well it flowed. Events seemed natural; servants reacted to events, characters split up to do different things, the companions went with them without seeming contrived. We learned things as we needed, got distracted with apparitions and creepy hand-spiders, and worried about baby Shelley.
We even had some historical exposition about Mary not yet being married and the volcano bringing the year with no summer. Why can’t it be this natural every week?
The haunting as a whole was also done well. Instead of running around endless identical corridors, we had several loops around the building as staircases and rooms re-linked in increasingly frustrating ways. It took a bit of airtime, yet never got boring.
I’d like to focus on the various journeys (apologies for using the J word) the new characters went on, and how they each had a presence in the story. I’ll talk about just how much better developed Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is after this adventure. I’ll even mention Big Finish again. First I’ll actually talk about the companions. I’ll also remember to talk about the Lone Cyberman.
First a reminder – all three had things to do and key interactions with various of the Romantics. Ryan could dance – I did wonder if they’d mention his dyspraxia, but it never came up. He did end up giving Mary advice and very much following the Doctor’s rules better than she did.
Graham had some lighter moments in search of a lavatory, his own ghosts (I don’t think they’ll ever get explained, even though one staple of Doctor Who is there are no such thing), and acted as a good viewpoint character when Polidori demonstrated the nature of the illusions.
Yaz had a chance to worry as the house’s internal geography seemed broken, but there’s also a scene which plays very much to a popular forum theory about her feelings for the Doctor. It wasn’t over done but it was there. With last week’s revelations about her past, Yaz is very much more of full character than we ever saw in Series 11.
Polidori had less to do than others, though his sleepwalking was a key moment. He didn’t sleep properly and had a volatile temperament. Let’s just take a moment to remember in real life he is credited with inventing the vampire story, the same night Mary should have been writing Frankenstein.
Claire had a chance to see Byron’s true nature during the story and is all the better for it. Shelley was the reason history was broken. Locked in the cellar, he was desperately holding back the night, and himself was somewhat promethean, racked by torment and only able to be saved through death. Big stuff.
Mary Shelley (or Godwin as she was at this time) almost stole the show. Actor Lili Miller already has an impressive CV for one so early in their career and her scene with the Lone Cyberman told us everything we needed about the woman who wrote Frankenstein.
Finally Byron. Brilliant, arrogant, and, by modern standards, deeply sexist. By this stage, he’d left England to avoid spending time with his wife and new-born daughter, Ada Lovelace (another Series 12 connection). Actor Jacob Collins-Levy is already known for starring with Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) in The White Princess and portrayed Byron as history tells us he was.
Most intriguing was his reaction to the Doctor as an attractive woman. So far this aspect of the Thirteenth Doctor has not been examined. We’ve had a few comments about the gender change, Captain Jack is keen to meet, but the sexual nature of the Doctor has been avoided. Possibly to keep the change of gender as trivial as possible, it all helped portray the Doctor as someone different from how she appears. Let’s now forget how many recent Doctors have had a clearly sexual side to their characters: Tennant, Tennant, Tennnant to name but one. Even Capaldi spent a (very long) night in a hotel with River Song.
At the start I was not sure this episode would deliver. The reveal of the TARDIS team in the rain was too Scooby Doo for me, as was the fangirling over Byron and Mary Shelley, plus the wholesale mention of aliens and history, despite her rules about keeping a low profile. Regarding the episode as a whole, these are but freckles on the face of a loved one. Faint imperfections but so what?
This Doctor has a clear moral drive. Help those in immediate peril and deal with the consequences. It’s never wrong to help the weak. Save Shelley rather than history. Give the Lone Cyberman what it wants rather than have Earth destroyed. Very clear and even high concept.
Then there’s the speech. A step up from the put-down of Ryan we had before, this was more Sixth Doctor hiding behind the mask of the normally amiable Fifth Doctor style persona. There is no flat team structure. The Doctor is vastly superior (arrogant, or perhaps even Master-like?). She can make decisions they don’t even understand. There is no debate. This is no democracy. This is the Doctor.
The Lone Cyberman
If that wasn’t enough, we also had the first Cyberman of the Chibnall era. Like the broken Dalek in Resolution, this was as convincing creature driven by a mission, and constructed out of whatever was around. Its cyborg appearance included the remnants of humanity, allowed Mary to believe she could appeal to the human inside the machine and actually made the evil of the Cybermen more vile. It killed at will, it ignored a baby as being irrelevant, remembered slaughtering its own children. Magnificent in deed, word, appearance – I think Pedler and Davis would be very proud.
This is a foe worthy of a Time Lord.
I started mentioning Big Finish. In 2009, Paul McGann’s Doctor was at the Villa, nudged Mary towards her novel, and even took her in the TARDIS. Big Finish never gave us more than one short story and three main range adventures, but (and there is no canon) it did happen. History has now been rewritten at least in part, so there is no continuity back to this story.
Fans may be disappointed or even twisting the details to make it all work, but it is what it is.
And what it is may well be one of the strongest episodes of Doctor Who since 2005. The whole is more than the sum of its many (and interesting) components. All parts of the production gelled (as they did with Blink). It may not be as game changing as Fugitive of the Judoon but if we get more like this whenever Series 13 lands on our screens, the show is in rude health.