The Haunting of Villa Diodati sidesteps the obvious cliches for one of Doctor Who’s most effective journeys into terror ever
It was a dark and stormy night. In fact it was the dark and stormy night. The definitive article, you might say. As history records, in 1815 Indonesia was rocked by a gigantic volcanic eruption. It cast so much ash and dust into the air that effected the global climate for months afterwards. In Europe the evening skies turned blood red and the disturbed atmospheric patterns caused a fierce and terrible storm. Ignorant of what had happened half a world away, it must have felt apocalyptic to them. So it’s small wonder it inspired Lord Byron’s inner circle of beautiful young geniuses. That one night conceived works like prototype vampire story The Vamypre and the immortal novel Frankenstein. And it’s no surprise either that it’s the exact sort of night for a Doctor Who story. And so to The Haunting of Villa Diodati.
When the Doctor and company show up at Villa Diodati like drowned rats, it’s with a simple enough mission. Although their desire to simply soak up the atmosphere without effecting events – “Nobody mention Frankenstein. Nobody interfere. Nobody snog Byron” – seems a bit ambitious. After all, interrupt any writer’s train of thought at a given moment and it’s unlikely the next 500 words they write will be quite the same as the 500 words they would have written. But, of course, this is Doctor Who. So the four TARDIS travellers are the least of the occupants’ problems.
This candle-lit adventure makes for a uniquely dark Doctor Who, and that extends to the threat facing the villa’s guests
Doctor Who has certainly done scary episodes before. Indeed, the likes of Image of the Fendahl, Blink and The Empty Child are some of the most beloved in the show’s history. But it feels like The Haunting of Villa Diodati pushes us into new territory. It spares the viewer very little comfort in the way of wink-wink self-awareness. Instead it continuously ranks up the tension bit by bit over the whole duration. It’s aided in this hugely by the brave, even dangerous, decision to film most of the episode by natural candlelight. It creates a unique and immersive sense of the horrors waiting in the darkness the sets the pulses racing.
It’s a mark of the depth of atmosphere the team of writer Maxine Alderton and director Emma Sullivan have created that the episode plays with the tropes of both gothic horror and classic Doctor Who but elevates them both. The scenes of characters trapped in a loop, continually leaving rooms and staircases only to find themselves a the beginning again, is straight out of Castrovalva. Yet, that 1980s story doesn’t compare at all in communicating the disorientation, panic and fear such an experience must generate.
At every stage, Alderton’s script, Sullivan’s direction and Akinola’s score work in concert to craft the best possible version of this story
On top of that we get disembodied skeletal hands roaming the house like great, demonic spiders. Plus shadowy transparent figures haunting doorways, vases smashing themselves against the wall and all the rest. Alderton and Sullivan are aided in this by Segun Akinola’s score. This is the type of episode that Akinola’s weaving of ambient atmosphere was made for. His work on this episode isn’t so much heard, as imprinted directly on you, and places your nerves on high alert without detracting from what’s happening onscreen.
But, it also sticks the landing that the show often has trouble with. When the science fictional rationale for all these visitations is finally revealed, it not only holds together logically but it actually enhances rather than detracts from the horror. We also push the level of horror content to Doctor Who’s absolute limits – when else have had anything as unsettling as a woman and a screaming baby hiding in the dark in terror as the monster stalks ever closer?
The Haunting of Villa Diodati provides an alternate take on the origins of Frankenstein but earns its place alongside Mary’s Story
Pre-transmission, it would have been natural to suspect the episode to focus on Mary Shelley herself. After all she’s the author of Frankenstein, no matter who else was in the house at the time. And she’s an inspiring and singular woman in history, with a life even more colourful than we delve into here. In the final event, all of Byron’s rival ‘fam’, made up of only the most brilliant, exciting, and boundary pushing minds of the generation, get to share the limelight. But Alderton’s sidesteps the ‘print-the-legend’ pitfall that gave us an oddly cuddly Winston Churchill to portray them warts and all. They have rich and literate minds, and massive imaginations, perhaps. But they also behave like spoiled little children at times, so pleased with their own outrageousness that the eyes of Byron’s valet are rarely unrolled.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Doctor Who has grappled with this particular group. Big Finish actually wound up featuring Mary Shelley as a travelling companion to the Eighth Doctor for a while. And their audio play Mary’s Story even visited the very same night as The Haunting of Villa Diodati. While the television episode takes pains to try and dance around the idea of the Doctor inspiring Frankenstein, Mary’s Story goes for the complete opposite – with the Doctor introducing himself to her under the alias ‘Dr. Frankenstein’, and Mary’s future husband Percy attempting to use lightning to resurrect the dead. Needless to say, some will mourn the idea of these Eighth Doctor adventures being ‘de-canonized’ but as with Human Nature, and the Doctor’s various contradictory adventures with the likes of Shakespeare in different media, the originals are still there on your shelf whenever you want them.
Enter: The Lone Cyberman!
Strangely enough, what both versions of Mary have in common is an encounter with a lone, damaged, Cyberman. But the Cyberman seen here is extremely different from any we’ve seen before and shockingly effective. It seems to strike against the heart of the entire concept to present a raging, passionate Cyberman given to eloquent arguments, quoting poetry, and full of simmering contempt for the human race. Yet it makes this incarnation all the more powerful and visceral. It also makes him an ideal inspiration for Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, beyond the obvious ‘reanimated corpse’ business. It also suggest a whole new exploration of the Cybermen in the finale. We’ve seen the cybernetic terrors as drones, robbed of their individuality and self-awareness. But are we to see a whole race of people who want to be Cybermen? It’s a disturbing thought.
All this brings us crashing into the two-part finale and next week’s Ascension of the Cybermen. In retrospect, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is a lead in to the finale in much the same way as episodes like Utopia, Turn Left and Face the Raven blurred the lines. And it must be said that this series has mainly earned all the “You won’t believe what happens next!” and “Only X episodes left to the epic finale!” type promotion (well, Orphan 55 aside). It’s been a pleasing turnaround for a show now coming from the mind behind the intricate and twist-driven Broadchurch.
As with episodes like Utopia and Turn Left, this week gives us an effective lead-in to the season’s climax
While Doctor Who has always had a spotty relationships with story arcs – from the devastatingly well played Series Three arc and the story of Missy’s redemption, to simply scattering key phrases like ‘Bad Wolf’ and ‘Torchwood’ across the scripts. And, of course, the Eleventh Doctor’s era with The Time of the Doctor being given a virtual shopping list of arc plot points from across three seasons to try and check off. While, if we’re honest, Blogtor Who still doesn’t know what that ‘Hybrid’ business was all about.
But Series Eleven seemed to have an almost perverse determination to not be about anything at all. As good as many of the episodes where individually, there’s no denying there was little to no connective tissue between them. Series Twelve, couldn’t be further from that, and has probably given us the most cohesive arc plot ever. It’s been quite a journey from the Master revealing the Time Lords had been keeping the secret of the ‘Timeless Child’ from their own people. And it seems to have woven effortlessly in and out of the episodes since, with Captain Jack’s warning of the Lone Cyberman and the reveal of an incarnation of the Doctor we’ve never seen before all adding to the mystery. It’s all been leading to this.
The Doctor stands on the edge of her own dark side as rush headlong into the finale
This more organic through-line has been evident in the characterization as well. Ever since the Doctor’s fun and games were ended by that cliffhanger in Spyfall, she’s had a growing tendency to emotional isolation from her own companions. And it comes to head here with her extraordinary outburst that for all the others talk about having her back, ultimately the huge moral decisions are always hers to bear alone. It’s also an extraordinary sign of how far this incarnation of the Doctor has travelled when she erupts in anger and grief over Bill’s cyber-conversion. This Doctor has finally crossed that line from not just being our fun and goofy best friend. Not even being the one the monsters have nightmare about. But actually becoming someone who at times can even frighten us.
The dark and stormy night might have broken at the end of The Haunting of Villa Diodati. But the Oncoming Storm is back. And she’s coming for the Cybermen.
Doctor Who continues at 7.10pm next Sunday on with Ascension of the Cybermen
The aftermath of the Great CyberWar. The Doctor arrives in the far future, intent on protecting the last of the human race from the deadly Cybermen. But in the face of such a relentless enemy, has she put her best friends at risk? What terrors lie hiding in the depths of space, and what is Ko Sharmus?
Series 12 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Bradley Walsh (Graham), Mandip Gill (Yaz) and Tosin Cole (Ryan), with Chris Chibnall as Showrunner and Matt Strevens Executive Producing. Ascension of the Cybermen guest stars Julie Graham (Ravio), Patrick O’Kane (Ashad) and Steve Toussaint (Feekat). It’s written by Chris Chibnall, and directed by Jamie Magnus Stone (Spyfall Part One, Praxeus)