SERIES 12, EPISODE 8 | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC iPLAYER
[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]
The Doctor and friends ended last week’s Can You Hear Me? with the promise of “doing Frankenstein”. That’s where The Haunting of Villa Diodati kicks off, with them turning up on the doorstep of the eponymous Swiss mansion where Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, during a stay with Lord Byron, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and friends, was inspired to write her groundbreaking novel. But something’s off – Shelley’s missing, and none of the writers are in the mood for penning future classics.
Maxine Alderton, another writer new to Who, wisely allows the first chunk of the episode to be a slow build, as our time travellers hang around with Mary, Byron, Dr Polidori, and Claire Clairmont. It’s a fun way to kick off, and frankly, we could watch an entire episode of Graham looking for a loo, Ryan and Polidori getting on each other’s nerves, the Doctor rejecting Byron’s advances, and the valet making sarcastic grunts at it all (Stefan Bednarczyk delivers the most low-key but somehow the standout performance of the episode).
As the title suggests, though, the group soon encounter unusual phenomena, including the house becoming a recursive labyrinth, the literal skeleton in Byron’s closet coming to life, and appearances from ghostly figures. Doctor Who has done haunted houses before – most recently in 2013’s Hide and 2017’s Knock Knock – but here the creatively creepy elements and the 19th-century setting show an original take on the trope, a gothic horror atmosphere elevated by Emma Sullivan’s careful direction and dramatic use of candlelight.
And then, in a move reminiscent of Fugitive of the Judoon, the episode throws in a curveball that ties into the series arc, with the reveal that the monstrous force the house is trying to keep out is none other than the Lone Cyberman warned about by Jack Harkness. Putting such a technologically advanced villain into this setting could easily jar, but here, script, direction, costume design, and Patrick O’Kane’s performance all lean into the horrific aspects of the Cybermen. This broken figure, its armour rusted and crumbling, its emotional inhibitor failing to suppress its rage, reciting the poetry of Shelley in its grating voice, is seriously monstrous; it doesn’t take long for the metal hulk stomping around the villa to become an integral part of the episode. It's simultaneously one of the most inventive and the most fitting uses of the Cybermen in some time.
Of course, this is leading up to an encounter between the Cyberman and Mary soon-to-be-Shelley. Though her character isn’t explored as deeply as Nikola Tesla was earlier in the series – and in fact the most engaging storyline using the guest characters is Clairmont’s affection for, and subsequent rejection of, Byron – Mary’s presence is more than justified by the inevitable comparison between the post-human cyborg and the manmade monster of her famous novel. Here, the script skirts close to the annoying Who trope of aliens giving famous writers all their best ideas, and while it’s not the worst offender in this regard, it does grate that the episode never fully resolves how the disruption to the timeline actually affects the writing of Frankenstein. On the other hand, Alderton is to be commended for the subversion of a more annoying trope – an appeal to the Cyberman’s remaining humanity saving the day. Mary tries to reason with the father inside the metal suit... but it turns out that this guy was a brute who killed his children before becoming converted. Now that’s chilling stuff the originators of gothic horror would approve of.
The other aspect of this tense final confrontation is the Doctor’s decision to – against Captain Jack’s advice – let the Cyberman have the data it wants in order to save Shelley’s life. What makes this spark is the disagreement from Ryan, who thinks Shelley’s sacrifice would be better for the universe, and the Doctor’s angry overruling. Conflict between the leads allows Doctor Who (and indeed any drama) to properly explore its characters, yet the Jodie Whittaker era so far has only seen them be nice and chummy with each other, so it’s refreshing to throw some spanners into the mix as we go into the finale, and it’s with material like this that Jodie Whittaker proves she can bring a sometimes absent gravitas to the role of the Doctor.
If there’s anything wrong, it’s that the haunted house elements don’t completely gel with their subsequent explanation. Sure, the ghosts Graham sees can be dismissed with a joke, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that neither the labyrinthine house nor the animated skeleton bits feel particularly ‘Cyber’, and the episode has to work hard to bodge two separate stories together when explaining them as caused by the Cyberium. Similarly, the reason why there’s a need for Shelley to die in order to stop the Cyberman feels lost among hurried exposition, and the conflict between the Doctor and companions would have more punch had its underlying reasoning been lain out a little clearer.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot about The Haunting of Villa Diodati that works really well; enough to forgive these stumbles. It’s a creepy gothic horror, it’s one of the best Cybermen stories we’ve seen in a long while, and it not only has a good handle on the Doctor and her companions but moves their relationship forward. It’s a seriously impressive Who debut for Maxine Alderton, and more than that, it leads us into a two-part finale we’re now very excited for. Cyber-war, here we come; please don’t drop the ball, Chibnall.