Each week the Blogtor Who team give their first thoughts on the latest episode of Doctor Who. Here’s our thoughts on this week’s episode.
PLEASE NOTE THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD
The premise is simple. The Doctor and the Fam travel to the past and meet literary greatness – Shelley, Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft (later Shelley), Claire Clairemont and John William Polidori during the summer they spent at Bryon’s Villa Diodate near Lake Geneva. The adventure quickly turns into a haunted house tale with our cast trapped in rooms and chased by ghosts.
But this was just a precursor to the main story – the setup for the series finale as the Doctor is cannot escape Captain Jack’s warning on the ‘lone Cyberman.’ The damaged, enraged Cyberman that was more cyborg than Cyberman was compelling. These enemy of the the Doctor are always more fascinating and feared when their lost humanity is exposed.
This was Jodie Whittaker best performance as she struggled with the no-win situation. The Doctor’s gravitas and pain has been missing from Thirteen but tonight she nailed it. The pain of her centuries of lost were on display as the Doctor was left alone with the weight of her decision with no support from her Fam. The responsibility for the universe weight solely her shoulders – heavily.
Well written by Maxine Alderton with excellent direction from Emma Sullivan. An excellent episode.
There are good episodes of Doctor Who and so-so episodes. There are even, whisper it now, the odd clunker. But that was an exceptional episode. A near perfect union of scares, subtle wit, and huge, extraordinary ideas.
The decision to light the episode almost entirely by natural candlelight paid off in spades, with a unique look never before seen in Doctor Who and which adds massively to the unsettling atmosphere that dominates it.
Another massive risk that works beautifully is the way it dispenses almost completely with the standard format of a celebrity historical. Mary, Byron, Polidori and Claire seem like rounded people rather than simply legends to celebrated – complete with almost childish delight at their own naughtiness and long suffering, eye-rolling, valet. But more than that, the usually scheduled run through of what makes them fantastic is swiftly abandoned for a very human fight for survival.
And, in terms of Frankenstein, it’s very much a case of show-not-tell, with none of the usual winking ‘you can have that one,’ type lines. Instead, we get a deeply passionate, metaphysically argumentative Cyberman. His rage and his disdain, so unusual for a Cyberman, make him a perfect template for Frankenstein’s creature. And it’s shocking how well it works, the Cybermen have rarely seemed as threatening or intimidating. It’s provides a nerve shredding escalation of the episode’s early tension, and also posits a very different threat for the finale. We’ve seen the Cybermen as drones, robbed of their will and identity. And we’ve heard that it’s because of the pain and insanity self-awareness would cause them. But imagine what this new breed who know themselves. Who want to be Cybermen. It’s a whole new level of horror. And if matches the level of The Haunting of Villa Diodati, it’s going to be amazing.
This episode was one of the scariest we’ve gotten in a long time.
It did for the Cybermen what ‘Dalek’ did for the Daleks back in 2005 – made a single member of a species more threatening than we’ve ever seen before. The battered up appearance and the anger and personality in his portrayal made him a compelling character in his own right.
The first half of this episode plays into many classical horror troupes, and that is no bad thing. The episode is wonderfully directed and the tension and fear builds gradually as the states rise. Creepy apparitions, a house whose internals keep changing, and jump scares – all add to this mix. Its not all horror though, There is some lighter moments as well that act as nice pallet cleanser between the scares – Graham is always good for a witty line and Ryan being channelled to a duel was hilarious.
We also got a wonderfully powerful speech from the Doctor, expressing the weight she feels under having to make decisions of who lives and who dies. These are the moments we missed in series 11, but series 12 continues to deliver them. The guest cast was also strong here. Byron was compelling to watch and his futile attempts to flirt with The Doctor were certainly amusing. Mary Shelly herself added some heart to the proceedings. One of the strengths of Doctor Who is that it can dip its toe in many different genres.
This was a great example of dipping into the horror one.
Safe to say that we are officially into series finale territory. This episode featured Mary Shelley and a Cyberman. Such a good idea that Big Finish had already thought of it. But I digress. The first half of this episode began with tedious meandering, using the modern horror trope of jump scares by over-utilising flashing lightning. None of the characters were particularly engaging, with the exception of Byron who was simply irritating but I think that was point.
However, the episode finally caught fire, metaphorically of course, with the introduction of the lone Cyberman. The spooky environment and low lighting aided its appearance by not revealing every detail of this unique design straight away. As we saw more and more, it became easily the best television realisation of the cybernetic creatures. The damaged helmet revealing the human being underneath allowed for unquestionably the most effective performance by an actor playing a Cyberman since David Banks.
One point however. Stop the stomping sound effect immediately!
It was also refreshing to see the Doctor defeated. Following her egotistical rant in the basement spouting her own self-worth, I was actually keen for this particular incarnation of the Doctor to be knocked down a peg or two. Where the story goes from here is genuinely intriguing and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.
Unfortunately, this single episode was merely a conduit to reach that series finale. I had hoped for a decent standalone ghost story, perfect viewing as the remainder of Storm Dennis passes through outside. It had its moments but there was a real rollercoaster in terms of quality. The plot was muddied by some lack of clarity, which could be attributed to the direction, and the Cyberium, or whatever nonsense that was, proved to be generic filler. Similarly, the Doctor was at times amusing and quirky but in other moments arrogant and unlikeable.
Alternatively, the lone Cyberman snapped the neck in one of the darkest moments but spared the life of a baby. Oddly inconsistent and yet the lone Cyberman salvaged this episode, although some of the dialogue was unclear. Ultimately the excitement has been built successfully for next week’s instalment, achieving this episode’s purpose.
The Haunting of Villa Diodata is many things.
Haunting, haunted, terrifying, unnerving, and all beautifully shot. Surely Maxine Alderton will go down in the annals of Doctor Who history as the writer of one of the classic episodes for tonight’s show.
The night that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein is a perfect setting for a Doctor Who adventure. The cast of characters here is prefect and The Doctor and her fam are perfect alongside them. and for the first time this series – for me anyway – The Doctor shines among a superb cast.
You can’t help but feel the pain of The Doctor’s last incarnation on discovering Bill’s horrifying fate at the hands of the Mondasian Cybermen as she is determined not to have the same happen to anyone here. The Lone Cyberman of Jack’s prediction is sickeningly still human enough for us to feel equal parts of sadness and revulsion about his fate. There’s no going back for Ashad. As Mary Shelley sees a soul in this ‘composite of men’, a father once, a man who loved and was loved, Ashad reveals that he killed his own children for what he believed was their own good.
This is truly appalling and an excellent lead in to next week’s Cyberwar episode. And let’s not forget the many other lovely, comic, tragic moments in the episode – Byron hiding behind a girl, the reference to Ada, ‘Mrs Doctor’, Ryan playing chopsticks and remembering his nan (blub), and a late-appearing Shelley being just brilliant. This is one to watch and re-watch just to make sure you see everything.
And before I end, who were the maid and little girl ghosts?
Doctor Who Returns next Sunday 23rd February with Ascension of the Cybermenon BBC One and BBC America.