A low-key historical ghost story turns into some lore-building terror for the Doctor.
Okay, so the Oscars, a busy social schedule, and the lingering effects of Sundance flu meant I managed to skip last week’s Doctor Who, “Can You Hear Me?”, but suffice to say it was a strong, but scattershot hour that soared best when it sat down with our crowded companion contingent and explored what makes them tick. We’ve even gotten a few inklings that Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are starting to feel the end of their time in the TARDIS. But before we ramp up to the presumably high-stakes two-part season finale, we’ve got one more one-off romp to engage in. To its credit, though, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” turns a low-key ghost story into an eerily effective return of one of the show’s classic villains, and some much-needed buildup for the adventure to come.
One of the most frequent hurdles a Doctor Who historical episode often has to tackle is this: did Drunk History do it better? “Villa Diodati,” as promised last week, is a “Frankenstein” story of sorts — in that it dramatizes the fateful 1816 meeting of literary notaries Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy), Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin (Lili Miller), aka Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Lewis Rainer) at Byron’s Swiss villa at Lake Geneva. There, Mary will come up with the story of the Modern Prometheus and change the face of modern horror. If you haven’t seen the Drunk History retelling of this story courtesy of Rich Fulcher, it’s hands-down one of the best episodes of that show; try as I might, I couldn’t get Fulcher’s inebriated butchering of “Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin” out of my head.
But Who‘s version of events throws in a more explicitly supernatural spin: by the time the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and fam arrive on the scene, decked out in Victorian gear and ready for a fun night “witness[ing] some of the most enlightened minds of a generation at the very zenith of their creativity,” they’re quickly beset with a number of hokey haunts. Vases move on their own and smash against walls, stairs seem to go on endlessly, and a bony skeleton hand moves on its own and tries to choke Ryan. What’s more, Percy Bysshe Shelley is nowhere to be found.
To its credit, Maxine Alderton‘s script manages to not just get the Doc and her companions right (Ryan finally gets to be genuinely funny for once!), she deftly weaves in some of the more obscure historical elements into the larger tapestry. For instance, 1816 was famously “the year without a summer,” which ends up getting explained away as part of the ghostly happenings on display. (Director Emma Sullivan also ekes out some effectively old-school Hammer Horror chills in every flash of lightning out the windows and the House of Leaves twistiness in the villa’s altered architecture.)
But halfway through the episode, “Villa Diodati” turns from disposable historical romp to a major part of season 12’s lore, as Captain Jack’s warning from episode 5 finally crosses the Doctor’s path. The lone Cyberman, known as Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) crops up from a splinter dimension, decaying and hunting for the missing Percy Shelley, who turns out to have been the spooky ghost this whole time, his powers coming from having absorbed a Cyberman super-computer. Ashad, naturally, wants it to rebuilt the Cyber-army, which the Doctor is understandably reticent to do.
But as the Cyberman, with its grotesquely effective half-exposed face and surprisingly malevolent personality (he lacks the Cyberman’s usual emotional inhibitor), continues to kill off people throughout the house and terrorizes a baby, the Doctor is cornered into making a decision between obeying Jack’s command and destroying this fixed point in history. “Words matter,” she declares. “One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.” The impact of losing one of literature’s great focal points (one facilitated by a female author) is not lost, especially on a female Doctor.
It’s one of the more genuinely engaging moments of Whittaker’s tenure on Doctor Who, really, being forced to make a difficult moral decision as opposed to fast-talking or sonic-ing her way out of everything. She’s frustrated, helpless, yet firmly aware of the responsibility that bears down on her (“Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat,” she says. “It’s mountainous, with me at the summit, left to choose!”). Eventually, she hands over the equipment, saving Byron’s life, though doing so by showing him a portent of his death.
What now? The companions ask. Well, she’s got to go fix her mistake, says the Doctor, and stop the Cyber-army before it can be rebuilt. And after saying goodbye to Byron and the Shelleys, we have our typical post-adventure “We’re here for you till the end, Doc,” moment in the console room before jetting off to the high-stakes season finale.
Season 12’s had its ups and downs, to be sure, but it’s managed to find a decent footing post-“Orphan 55”. Off the back of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” an hour that showed us the vulnerabilities we’ve longed to see in this version of the Doctor, we’ll just have to see if it reaches a satisfactory conclusion.
- Byron is confirmed as a total fuckboi (“Nobody snog Byron!” the Doctor warns, finger raised), and he even gets a nice little tell-off moment from stepsister Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes). Good to know that, like with Edison, Doctor Who isn’t looking at all its heroes with rose-colored glasses.
- Another round of applause for that chilling Cyberman design and O’Kane’s intense performance; it’s tough to do something truly new with such an old mainstay, and being forced to look at the desiccated flesh of a converted Cyberman with damaged armor is a real highlight of the show.
- We’ve all been Graham wandering a strange house desperately looking for the loo.
- I wonder how the closing two-parter will fare; will we see the Cyber-War? Will Doctor Ruth or Hot Master return? Will Captain Jack finally get to see a female Doctor? I guess we’ll see if they stick the landing.