Doctor Who Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

doctor who review haunting villa diodati maxine alderton emma sullivan mary shelley lili miller lone cyberman ashad patrick o kane modern prometheus

What happened? They get bored halfway through or something?

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Cybermen.

They’re the classic monsters you bring back when you want to bring back a classic monster, but you can’t use the Daleks: always defined by, and stuck in, that second place slot. Certainly, they’re interesting at times, and there’s more than one great idea at the heart of the concept – even if, by and large, Doctor Who tends to avoid the best of those ideas because Star Trek did it better with the Borg – but, for the most part, the Cybermen themselves rarely improve a story on their own terms.

What’s interesting, though, is that the past few years have seen a quiet reinvention of the Cybermen, an attempt to reposition them, not the Daleks, as Doctor Who’s main enemy, for lack of a better term. Part of that I suspect is down to the individual writers’ idiosyncrasies – where Russell T Davies clearly loved the Daleks, I’m less sure Steven Moffat did, typically treating them as big, blockbuster threats for a series opening, rather than the main villains of a series finale. (Even then, look at the two Dalek episodes Moffat wrote – The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar are really more about Davros than the Daleks, and Asylum of the Daleks is arguably the greatest Cyberman story never told.) It doesn’t take a particularly close analysis of Moffat’s work to see that he found the Cybermen a more compelling foe than the Daleks; between Resolution and this closing trilogy of Series 12, it rather looks like Chibnall feels the same way.

As something of an established cyber-sceptic, I am… yet to be entirely convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Undeniably, there’s some genuinely fascinating stuff in there; if nothing else, this Lone Cyberman – Ashad, a named Cyberman for the first time in a long time – is different to what we’ve seen before. Sure, the partial conversion is just Doctor Who finally conceding and stealing from the Borg (maybe not a surprise; I’ve long got the vibe that Chibnall is a Voyager fan), but it works, as does such an emotional Cyberman. The Cyberman picking up the baby and whispering to it? That’s sublimely perverse.

Admittedly, I’m inclined towards caution still. “Beware the Lone Cyberman, don’t give it what it wants” was an already fairly dull warning – I mean, are there times you shouldn’t be wary of Cybermen? Without specific instruction, would you otherwise typically give Cybermen what they want? Still, though, this feels like a less-than-interesting follow up to an already less-than-interesting tease: Fugitive of the Judoonconjured an image of a beguiling, persuasive Cyberman, maybe even a sympathetic one, and the Doctor being tricked into some Faustian pact. Not quite, in the end; for all that The Haunting of Villa Diodati offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back.

doctor who review haunting villa diodati lone cyberman ashad patrick o kane frankenstein mary shelley modern prometheus maxine alderton emma sullivan

The Haunting of Villa Diodati also offers what is self-evidently the most obvious Doctor Who celebrity historical, even moreso than Dickens and alien ghosts, Shakespeare and alien witches, and Agatha Christie and, uh, an alien wasp: Mary Shelley and Cybermen. There’s something irresistible about it, obviousness aside – sure, there’s an argument to be made that setting the story later in Shelley’s life, after she’d written Frankenstein, might have been more interesting, but it’s hard for me to begrudge them this. Mary Shelley and the Cybermen, on the night that science fiction was invented? Sometimes your first idea really is your best idea.

The trouble is you can only really do this once – Big Finish notwithstanding – so it’s a shame, then, that The Haunting of Villa Diodati executes this premise so poorly. In part, that’s because it gets derailed by its obligations to set up the finale; even Fugitive of the Judoon functions better on its own terms than this. (Which raises, incidentally, an interesting question – how come Chibnall didn’t take a cowriting credit on this one?) Chiefly, though, it’s because The Haunting of Villa Diodati just isn’t particularly interested in Mary Shelley; there’s a case to be made, in fact, that it’s the Celebrity Historical least invested in and committed to its Historical Celebrity. (Well, that or Let’s Kill Hitler.)

Time after time, the episode fails to centre Mary in the narrative: she has little agency or impact, often sidelined in favour of Byron, Polidori or Percy, and there are times where it’s difficult to distinguish her from Clare on a scene by scene basis. (A related thought: does this episode pass the Bechdel test? I think it does, but I can’t say that with as much confidence as I feel like I should.) Even on a more basic level, there are flaws that betray a lack of understanding of or engagement with her body of work – perhaps the most glaring being when Mary calls the Cyberman “a Modern Prometheus”, which isn’t at all what that phrase meant in Frankenstein anyway. It’s a real, real shame. There’s an argument, perhaps, that I’m judging this episode by something it never set out to be – that it was never meant to be a Mary Shelley episode, but a broader, Romantic-era writers episode – but, well, if that’s the case, I’m not sure that “Byron meets a Cyberman and also Mary Shelley is there” is an episode worth making.

Even outside of that, though, I’m not convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati as a piece of spooky, gothic horror. To my mind, at least, the direction felt leaden and numb rather than atmospheric and evocative, muddling through familiar tropes with muted enthusiasm. Certainly, I hardly got the sense that there was something profoundly evil about the Villa, or even really that it had any bad vibes – a failure, I think, given how much of the first half of the episode hinges on that sense of wrongness. This, in fairness, might be a wider structural problem: that sense of wrongness won’t convey, no matter how good the direction is, if it hinges on the fact that Mary Shelley hasn’t written Frankenstein yet only seven minutes into the episode. The characters – who only wrote these stories as a fun competition anyway – just hanging around and dancing doesn’t really suggest time is wrong and out of balance. If Mary and Percy’s roles had been reversed, however, it might’ve gone a long way to fixing that problem (because we’d absolutely notice Mary Shelley being absent, and that would feel wrong), as well as giving Mary quite a bit more to actually do in the final confrontation.

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What The Haunting of Villa Diodati finally does, though, is something I’ve been calling for for a while now: it gave Jodie Whittaker something to do. At this point, that’s more of a victory than it should be – imagine “finally, David Tennant has something to do” after Gridlock, his seventeenth episode – but this is after two weeks in a row of Jodie Whittaker being the weakest part of an episode, so we’ll take what we can get.

Whittaker has long struggled with underwritten material, and an underdeveloped character; whether it’s been down to a lack of skill on Chibnall’s part, or a conscious decision about how to write for a female Doctor, this incarnation of the Time Lord has skewed positive in a way few of her predecessors have. At times, it’s felt like Chibnall has been writing a Tennant tribute act, shorn of the arrogance and darkness that counterbalanced that take – leaving Whittaker to play enthusiastic quirks and eccentricities, and not a lot else. It’s not that Whittaker is a bad actress by any means, and she’s often doing a lot to improve a script (where she can, anyway; she’s never been great at exposition, and that shows again this week) – rather, the writing rarely plays to her strengths, and rarely pushes the character to new places.

This week, at least, gave Whittaker something new to do – The Haunting of Villa Diodati is the first time in a long time we’ve seen her Doctor genuinely angry, admonishing and confronting her companions when faced with a difficult choice. It’s something we’ve seen hints of before (again, Fugitive of the Judoon springs to mind, but I’ve also always been fond of the way Whittaker described Tim Shaw as “obscene” all the way back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth) but The Haunting of Villa Diodati commits to it in a way previous episodes didn’t, in effect building the entire episode around this confrontation. Surprising no one, Jodie Whittaker is excellent at it; I wonder, perhaps, if writing this Doctor as such an upbeat enthusiast was perhaps a misreading of Whittaker’s career so far. Nonetheless, it’s great to actually deepen both the character and her dynamic with the companions this way – more likely than not, Yaz, Graham and Ryan will probably be leaving at the end of this year, but hopefully whoever comes next will benefit more from this sort of writing.

It’s just a shame, though, that this conflict is predicated on something so insubstantial. In the end, it’s just another trolley problem, rooted in nonsensical time travel mechanics rather than character – Tosin Cole does his best (and in fact has another excellent week here generally) but when have we ever seen Ryan be that coldly utilitarian before? There’s also an aggravating Great Man of History vibe to it all – isn’t it enough to just want to save a life, regardless of how important his work will be? (Although again, the episode is curiously disinterested in the actual content of these words – I’ve since learned that Percy Shelley wasn’t just a poet, but was also an early proponent of nonviolent resistance, whose work inspired Gandhi amongst others. There’s surely some resonance that could be drawn out between Percy and this almost faultlessly pacifist Doctor?) It’s hard, in any case, to feel particularly invested in this particular dilemma – the drama is entirely flat, and so too is the Doctor’s outburst.

You could reasonably accuse me, I suppose, of not having reviewed this episode as it exists, but rather comparing it to the episode I wish it was – and, in fairness, I don’t know what I’d say to that. Maybe I have! Certainly, for all that I did enjoy – Tosin Cole, the production design, the Valet, that excellent title – I’m struggling to muster the enthusiasm that others have. But, hey, that’s my loss in the end.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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