Doctor Who #1014: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

"Save the poet, save the universe."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Feb.16 2020.

IN THIS ONE... The Fam drops by on the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori on the night Frankenstein was supposed to be born.

REVIEW: I think that many people are going to be raving about this one because it's possibly the moodiest Doctor Who ever (director Emma Sullivan has crafted two visual feasts in a row now), but I don't think it actually works. Like Fugitive of the Judoon, it's a fake-out. It starts as one thing, then reveals it's part of a larger arc. Surprise! The Lone Cyberman is here! Well, yeah, it makes sense that in a story featuring Mary Shelley and thus Frankenstein, Cybermen might make an appearance. You almost feel silly for not thinking of it, and it IS more thematically appropriate than, say, Captain Jack showing up randomly, or a silly Judoon adventure turning into a Time Lord Big Reveal thing. But it still means you're sort of abandoning what you were doing in favor of catering to the seasonal arc. And you can sort of see the joins. I mean, what's the point of having the villa ACTUALLY haunted (by Graham's ghosts) in addition to the cyberium manipulations that ostensibly explain the haunt? Ghost stories do sometimes have a "It wasn't real... or WAS IT!!!" ending, but in this case, it doesn't mesh well with the other Gothic trappings (Frankenstein is not a ghost story per se) and is just a distracting red herring.

As an old English major, I of course know about the summer these writers decided to write ghost stories, with Mary Shelley coming up with the only classic to everyone's surprise. I admit, I had trouble telling the characters apart on first viewing. Young lords and ladies who were of the same type. Did Byron not yet have a club foot at this point? The confusion stayed with me pretty much throughout, right into the moment where Byron does a reading that seems to relate to the Cyber wars (which made me think he was Shelley imparting knowledge of what he'd seen in the cyberium through poetry). Nice purposing of "she was the universe" (the poem is "Darkness" if you're interested, and yes it was written the "year without a summer"), but I feel like that should have been Shelley's moment. Byron as a letch is a bit one-note, but does have the Doctor curtly refusing him (she's no Tennant). Note that the Doctor didn't wipe any of their minds like she did Byron's daughter in Spyfall. Yeah, let's try to just ignore that from now on. The Doctor still pulls a weird telepathic trick however, speeding Shelley's mind to his death to make the cyberium think he was dying... Uhm... Now you're just playing fast and loose with Time Lord abilities and I don't think I like it. I also have to mention, for Big Finish fans, that this may or may not contradict Mary Shelley's time as the 8th Doctor's companion, during which she ALSO meets a Lone Cyberman and is inspired to write Frankenstein. Uhm. You know, I might have felt a little better about putting a writer in danger if it had been Mary rather than Percy. Obviously, none of them can die without screwing up the timeline, but the Doctor overstates Percy's influence, I think, while Mary's is more widespread and undeniable. Regardless, that suddenly the companions could pop/fade out of existence like Marty McFly if history is changed goes against everything the show has done to date.

Before THIS Lone Cyberman shows up, we get a haunted house story with disembodied skeleton hands, a shifting architecture, and ghosts appearing in flashes of lightning. At least some of those are caused by Shelley using the cyberium, a magic "quicksilver" that contains the whole of Cyber-history and also the power to create illusions and animate bones, I guess. It is the thing the Lone Cyberman wants, the thing Jack warned the Doctor not to give it. I don't know that I buy the Doctor happily taking it inside herself, but at that point, she's in "fix it later" mode, attempting one impossible thing at a time. The dilemma leads to the best speech Jodi Whitaker's been given, about how her team doesn't have a flat structure after all, and that sometimes, it's a mountain of which she is the very summit, having to make decisions no one else can. A blazing piece of writing from first-timer Maxine Alderton there. And of course, it leads us into the next episode because the Doctor needs to fix the problem she just created by heading the Cyberman off at the pass.

While I still can't explain the presence of Graham's ghosts (orphans from a previous iteration of the script?), there are a couple ghosts that deserve a mention. One is the Cyberman himself. Though ostensibly a patchwork man that could inspire Shelley's Modern Prometheus, his first appearance is as a ghostly figure in the lake, shades of Army of Ghosts where the the Cybs were squeezing themselves into our universe. At this point, it also reminds us of the Kasaavin from Spyfall, and there could be a connection there still. The other ghost is Bill's, and I really appreciate that the Doctor's dread is informed by that loss. She isn't mentioned by name, but she's there in the room nonetheless.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Beautiful to look at, with some great pieces of dialog, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is also very relevant to the season's greater story. However, I feel like its story is REPURPOSED to serve the latter, which hampers my enjoyment of the episode.


daft said...

I quite enjoyed Maxine Alderton crisp dialogue and the cute re-purposing of the historical details of the participants was enjoyable, but as someone well acquainted with historical significance of the gathering at Villa Diodati, even without the advance publicity for the remaining two episodes, the lone cyberman was always going to be inevitable reveal. What wasn't quite as convincing was the mystery reveal of the cyberium extraordinary grab bag of powers, a technobabble cheat if ever there was one. As much as I enjoyed Polidori sleepwalking defeating the perception filter, it was later undone by the staircase scene where Yaz made a point of walking down seemingly six flights of stairs, the villa in question is only three storeys high, at some point she would have literally banged into the wall at the foot of those stairs. It's those gaps in sci-fi logic that really should be picked up by the script editor.

LiamKav said...

The general writing and characterisation was a massive step up from prior episodes. For instance, rather than Ryan talk about his Dyspraxia, we see him trying to play chopsticks on the piano and have a natural conversation with someone. Much better.

I do have a couple of sticking points.
"We have to save Shelley because he's important and you'll all die" is pretty selfish motivation. Why can't they do it because it's the right thing to do? After all, the Tenth Doctor gave up his life for old, "not remotely important" Wilf. As a message it's so much worse than "In 900 years of space and time I've never met anyone who wasn't important." It carries the implication that if it had been a staff member carrying the mcguffin then it would have been perfectly fine to sacrifice them.

Also, I'm not keen on how Mary Shelley is pushed to the background so that her husband can be the Important One. It's not great optics.


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