This series of Doctor Who is making a habit out of its memorable historical characters, and whilst that’s not a bad thing it’s difficult to praise when the show’s central quartet continue to be light on, well… character. ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ is the final episode before the big two-part finale, and begins with a now-expected slice of history. In this case it’s the titular villa in 1816 the fabled ‘year without a summer’ where Mary Wollstonecraft (Lilli Miller – later Mary Shelley) was inspired to write her seminal novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The sky is black and thunder and lightning boom through the windows to create a suitably gothic setting – the ideal scenery for a haunting.
And that’s just what we get for half the episode, albeit with a bit of sci-fi jiggery-pokery. Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy), Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes) and Dr. John Polidori (Maxim Baldry) are all talk when they stumble upon The Doctor and her gang, suitably dressed up for the occasion. The weather outside inspires intrigue, and when Bradley Walsh’s Graham notices some strange, deathly female figures along the corridor we know we’re in for one of the show’s signature horror-centric outings.
This week’s script by Maxine Alderton makes the dialogue-heavy first half flow easily and seem effortless whilst even managing to let Jodie Whittaker shine in possibly her best performance yet. Byron is suitably sleazy with a camp glow that bounces off the Georgian atmosphere, whilst Maxim Baldry is slightly-underutilised as a hot-headed doctor itching to spar off with Tosin Cole’s Ryan in a duel over the slightest indifference. It feels like each member of the TARDIS fam now has a role too. Ryan’s everyman demeanor allows him to easily socialise with anyone, Mandip Gill’s Yaz acts as a secondhand Doctor in attempting to take charge. This just leaves Graham, not for the first time this series, with the least to do – he’s charged with babysitting the snoozing Dr. Polidori.
The Doctor meanwhile is busy taking in the hauntings. Not only is Mary’s fiance Percy Bysshe Shelley (Lewis Rainer) missing, but a ghostly white figure keeps appearing standing on the water of the lake outside the house. That, and the house keeps shifting shape and sending characters in circles. Director Emma Sullivan proves herself adept at genre form and presentation by cranking up the mystery as groups walk down the same winding corridor again and again. She also manages to get quite a few moments of intrigue out of the common staples – including candles flickering on and off and lightning hitting at just the right moments. When the skeleton Byron’s keeps in his quarters begins to come alive piece by piece, it seems as though the Whoniverse has offered up the perfect inspiration for Shelley’s monstrous creation (and a little bit of The Addams Family to boot) but it’s only the beginning.
Throughout this first half there’s no real element of danger felt from the story. Even when a skeletal hand attempts to strangle Ryan, it’s played more for laughs than anything. But once The Doctor discovers that the house is shapeshifting due to a perception filter (classic) and interference from an incoming time traveler, things take a sudden turn. Suddenly the ghostly figure on the lake makes sense and very quickly a lone, half-finished Cyberman bursts into the villa, Terminator-style. This is the prophesied Cyberman from Captain Jack Harkness’ warning back in ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’, and more than likely leads into the final two-parter of the series.
The Cyberman, revealed to be named ‘Ashad’ (Patrick O’Kane) is chilling. From his worn out and busted design to his erratic and rage-filled movement. There’s no emotional inhibitor in sight. Drained of power from his time-jump, Director Emma Sullivan shows off her true horror chops as Ashad haunts for ‘the guardian’ through the halls of the villa in the dark, illuminated by the brief blinking lights of his suit. Segun Akinola’s subdued soundtrack in these moments ramp up the actual horror, and for the first time in an absolute age this is a Cyberman that feels haunting. It’s a remarkable feat that’s only strengthened with a delightfully dark encounter with Mary’s infant son and her carer that ends with an offscreen snap of the neck. This is how you make a villain threatening.
Of course, this horror isn’t sustainable and very quickly The Doctor and co. find Percy in the basement hiding for his life from a lightning-absorbing Cyberman (yes, really). It turns out Percy has been infected by Cyberium, a suitably silly bit of plot used to blandly cover elements of the episode that otherwise don’t quite make sense. It’s pretty much silver goo that was absorbed by Percy and contains the genetic past and future of the Cyberman, meaning Ashad is trying to use it to bring the army of steel back and take over the universe – fairly standard Doctor Who stuff really.
From here on out it becomes an enhanced game of cat and mouse, much like Robert Shearman’s ‘Dalek’ from 2005 – and it works better because of it. O’Kane’s Ashad is slightly less intimidating when he’s simply stomping around like a frustrated child and gearning for the camera, but there’s still a disgusting elegance to the character’s design and power that makes him a threat at all times. This very quickly leads to him cornering the gang, as Mary herself joins the TARDIS group for a final standoff.
In order to separate the Cyberium from Percy, The Doctor has to trick his body into thinking it’s dead (didn’t know she could do that) and thus, both Time Lord and Cyberman fight over the power. It accepts The Doctor as a new host, but Ashad calls in an armada Cyber-fleet to storm through Earth and destroy every human – changing history forever. Ryan questions The Doctor’s decision which leads to a standout moment for her incarnation of the character as she argues her wealth of experience and knowledge against theirs. It’s selfish and angry and completely necessary, and Jodie Whittaker is electrifying in every side-eye glance and piercing stare. Series 12 has given us more time with this angry version of her Doctor, and I must say I like it a lot.
To prevent a mass genocide The Doctor surrenders the Cyberium and vows to chase Ashad through time and try to prevent an oncoming war. She tries to drop the fam off back in Sheffield beforehand, but they were never going to go easily… if it sounds like I’ve forgotten about the whole Mary Shelley aspect of the episode, that’s because the episode kind of does. Whenever the overall arc is introduced here it seems as though nothing else matters, and all-too-quickly we bid farewell to the soon-to-be author and are on our way to the two-part finale. At 50 minutes it’s difficult to wonder why the BBC doesn’t just round up each episode to a full hour length, it would allow each story to breathe a little more without the haste of exposition in order to wrap things up.
‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ is another positive turn in the series. Its literary references are light and quick throughout Shelley’s work and the Gothic genre, whilst incorporating a genuinely threatening villain and feeding into an overall plot that’s by far the most interesting thing this series has going for it. It’s up to showrunner Chris Chibnall to stick the landing however, and I’m still not too sure how I feel about that…