~Spoilers ahead! ~
12.8 The Haunting of Villa Diodati – Maxine Alderton
Story & Review
After last week’s frustrations, I was ready for this episode to start off promising and to fail in its latter half, reflecting most of the Chibnall-era episodes. I was surprised to find that it was the opposite and I enjoyed it all of the way through. The pacing is excellent, the haunted house trope works well with the Gothic horror genre and the conclusion leaves us with an exciting hook for the next episode.
I love Frankenstein and I am so glad that this episode did the monster justice and its origins. The Doctor et. al, crash an evening at Villa Diodati on the unusually stormy summer night that a group of literary minds got together to spook each other with the scariest ghost stories and Frankenstein (along with the SF genre) was born. We get a wonderfully fun introduction to the characters; Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, his current beau Claire Clairmont and Doctor Polidori. The quadrille and the gossip that the 19th century characters spread to the newcomers is a great way to introduce the characters without feeling like exposition is being dumped on us immediately. It’s like something out of an Austen novel. The Doctor, however, immediately notices that something is wrong: Percy Bysshe Shelley is missing from the party.
Things take a turn for the spooky soon after, from vases being thrown across the room by invisible hands to Graham seeing ghosts that are never explained. The episode works well with the horror element I loved the characters attempting to exit a room or climb stairs only to find themselves back where they started. There is a real sense that the house is somehow haunted and when it starts folding in on itself, the feeling of being trapped is almost palpable. This is creepy on its own but the explanation is clever too and works well within the Doctor Who universe by being a perception filter. The Doctor figuring this out from the sleepwalking Polidori walking through walls because he doesn’t perceive them to be there is exactly the kind of cleverness I like from the Doctor.
This episode sets off the chekhov’s gun introduced in Fugitive of the Cyberman: Jack’s warning about the lone Cyberman. Everything about this Cyberman is fantastic, he evokes Frankenstein’s monster in a brilliant way from his movement to his costume design to his unnatural strength. He’s terrifying in a way that the Cybermen haven’t been in a long time, reminding us that these creatures are human underneath the metal. His distinct emotion and his lack of regard for human life made Ashad even more scarier. It was chilling to hear him admit that he became a Cyberman by choice and then willingly slit the throats of his children.
In contrast to the passive nature of the Doctor thus far, who wants to be a spectator and not interfere with history, here she breaks her own golden rule. To prevent the lone Cyberman gaining the stolen Cyberium that has made its way into Percy Shelley and created a prison of the villa, the Doctor gives him what he wants. Her speech here is brilliant, evoking her many years of existing, her status as a Time Lord above humans and more importantly it derives some much needed conflict between the characters. This episode culminates in the Doctor making some universe-altering choices and sets up the two-part finally really well.
- The gossiping during the quadrille was brilliant
- Ryan playing chopsticks on the piano and Mary Shelley humouring him was a great bit of humour
- Lord Byron flirting (or at least attempting to) with the Doctor was done really well (and people calling her ‘Mrs Doctor’)
The Doctor referencing losing Bill to the Cybermen was a great reference
So many questions around the Cyberium: hoping it’s more than a Mcguffin and it influences the plot. Who sent it back in time? Did it learn anything from being in the Doctor’s body?
DOCTOR: Cyber technology. The knowledge of the whole cyber race and AI from the future, containing the knowledge and future history of all Cybermen.
The Doctor using telepathy in this episode is a great use of her psychic powers and showing Shelley the moment of his death to release the Cyberium was a brilliant touch
Monster of the Week
The lone Cyberman this week takes its inspiration from the modern Prometheus itself and I absolutely loved the design. From the way he walked, to his raw emotion, he was monstrous and far more intimidating than the robotic Cybermen we’ve had recently. Most effective, I think, is that his face was partially revealed. I also really loved how he used the lightning to recharge himself. Excellent all round.
This is by far my favourite episode of 13’s run so far. Whilst Fugitive of the Judoon was exciting, it was based entirely on fan service-y moments and lore shaking. The intrigue is based on the questions, and whether they have satisfying conclusions or not is yet to be determined. In contrast, this episode works really well on its own from the dialogue to the characters to the haunting storyline that fits in well together without feeling rushed.
The Doctor’s flat team structure speech was a fantastic part of the episode and adds a much-needed layer of darkness to this Doctor. This is how you have an interesting group dynamic – through conflict!
Doctor: You want to sacrifice yourself for this? You want me to sacrifice you? You want to call it? Do it now. All of you. (silence) Yeah. Cos sometimes this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit in the stratosphere, alone, left to choose. Save the poet, save the universe. Watch people burn now or tomorrow. Sometimes, even I can’t win.
The literature geek in me and the fan of Frankenstein and its origins loved the setting of this episode too. Mary Shelley’s character was fantastic and Byron (mad, bad and dangerous) was a great character to meet too. I loved the ending quote from his poem ‘Darkness’ tying into the idea of the Doctor and that she’s a dark character. Overall, the script was just generally well-written too. I’m so impressed by Maxine Alderton, I’d love to see more from her!
My only real nitpick would be the Doctor defending her decision to save Shelley’s life as he is important and influential versus him being significant because he’s a human being. Time and again, this Doctor *almost* reaches the heights of Eleven (who never met anyone who wasn’t important) and Twelve (who was good, without witness, without reward). Having said that, I am fully on board with her insistence that words matter.
Overall, very little to fault with this episode and if this was the new standard I would be a much happier fan.