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.

doctor who review haunting villa diodati mary shelley lili miller byron jacob collins levy cyberman ashad patrick o kane

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

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Next Doctor

doctor who the next doctor review david tennant david morrissey jackson lake russell t davies cybermen series 4 2008 christmas special

Time Lord, Tardis, enemy of the Cybermen. The one and the only.

Divorced from its original context, The Next Doctor is something of an odd beast.

It’s meant to be read, of course, in terms of the Tennant era winding down and Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor on the horizon – not that we knew quite yet, when this aired, that Matt Smith would be the next Doctor, but the announcement wasn’t far off. The episode is playing on that speculation, brazenly invoking that paratextual resonance and running with it. Was the episode title teased at the end of Journey’s End? I forget, and I am too lazy to look it up, but I’m fairly sure it was – and at the height of the Davies’ era’s popularity, it must have been quite something.

I, admittedly, don’t actually entirely remember the experience of watching this one particularly well. The subsequent Matt Smith announcement, a week and a half or so later, I remember quite well – I decided, fairly impromptu at the start of the special as it discussed a few rumoured candidates, that I wanted Matt Smith to be the Doctor, basically on the basis that he’d been in the Sally Lockhart show previously. Not that I’d watched it, of course, but I’d read the books and that was… enough to decide he’d be a good choice for the role, at the time. I was pleased when Matt was announced, anyway. (It was a few weeks later when a friend of mine tried to get me to sign his petition calling for Matt Smith to be fired and David Tennant to stay on. I think the suggestion was that Smith was too emo. I didn’t sign it, is the main thing.)

But, as I was saying, I don’t remember a lot of the build-up. How invested was I in the idea of David Morrissey as the Doctor? Not a clue. (Though I do recall very pedantically correcting a lot of people in the months after the special, explaining that the next Doctor was Matt Smith and not David Morrissey. Of course now, a decade older and a decade more mature, I would still maintain that’s entirely justifiable pedantry.) I was, I think, probably very excited by the idea of the Cybermen – moreso than I was now, I’ve cooled on them considerably over the years.

Ten years on, anyway, it’s harder to appreciate the episode in its original context – we know that David Morrissey wasn’t the Eleventh Doctor, and we know how the Tennant era eventually concluded. So does it still stand up outside of that context?

doctor who the next doctor review david tennant david morrissey jackson lake eleventh doctor matt smith russell t davies cybermen

The answer, I think, is sort of.

It’s a good concept for an episode – or, at least, the central mystery of Jackson Lake is a good concept for an episode, wedded to a more than slightly by the numbers Cyberman plot. Certainly, there’s room to explore it from various angles, from broad comedy to a more psychological approach, and to its credit The Next Doctor manages to touch on each of these angles across its hour-long runtime.

What surprised me, though, is how largely disinterested The Next Doctor actually is in Jackson Lake’s identity, dispensing with the actual mystery about 25 minutes in. Part of this comes down to the fact that Russell T Davies wasn’t especially interested in writing it as a mystery – apparently there was a draft of the script that revealed Jackson Lake’s identity after 15 minutes, with the Doctor taking his pulse – reasoning that most of the audience wouldn’t be especially invested in a mystery they’d ‘know’ was false. I wonder, idly, how true that actually is; I suppose it’s the same reasoning behind describing children in the audience as wise rather than cynical for knowing Rose Tyler wasn’t dead in Army of Ghosts, understanding how television works. But I’m not sure this occupies the same place – arguably in late 2008, with David Tennant leaving, there perhaps was scope to convince a lot of the audience that David Morrissey was going to be the next Doctor.

It’s interesting to consider what this premise might have looked like under different circumstances – if Davies had written something along these lines in place of Midnight, one of those late-season experimental pieces, or perhaps as the Doctor-lite episode for a season. (Or, indeed, if Steven Moffat had written something along these lines as one of his Christmas specials – imagine The Next Doctor in place of The Return of Doctor Mysterio, with Capaldi and Sophie Rundle taking on those roles.) Certainly, there’s scope to push it further; it’s easy to imagine the story as a quieter piece, making a broader overarching point about what it means to be the Doctor. I’d have liked that, I think – something with a grace note more along the lines of Extremis’ “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor”, perhaps?

doctor who the next doctor review cybermen jackson lake david morrissey david tennant russell t davies christmas special

As it is, that’s not what The Next Doctor was – there’s no “You don’t have to be the Doctor to be the Doctor” type moment. Indeed, probably one of its more glaring flaws is the fact that Jackson Lake doesn’t get to save his own son at the end, reduced to a comparatively impotent figure next to the Doctor. It’s a bit of a shame, because it feels like the missing link in Jackson’s character arc – but it doesn’t matter too much, because David Morrissey is able to hold the whole thing together. (It’s a great performance from Morrissey, actually; he’s able to play the funny version and the quiet, struggling version of the character with ease, and knit them together into something coherent when the script can’t quite decide which one to stick with.)

Otherwise, it’s a fairly “this is an hour of Doctor Who” hour of Doctor Who. Cybermen in Victorian England, with a little bit of interesting capitalism/industrial revolution stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a driving idea in the episode. A female villain who, again, has some interesting stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a defining aspect of the piece. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwaway episode of Doctor Who, not quite here or there. I’d guess it’s probably one of the ones I’ve rewatched least, and I often found myself surprised by it – by its shape and its pace, the contours of the plot, the ideas that drove it and the eventual resolution it presented.

Given I’ve criticised the most recent series of Doctor Who in ways that could be likened to the above, it’s probably worth drawing that comparison – particularly given the fact there’s not been a Christmas special today, the first time the revived series hasn’t had one. If this is Doctor Who that’s slightly short on ideas, and doesn’t quite draw the ideas it does have together, then what sets it apart from the Doctor Who I’ve been complaining about lately? There isn’t an especially neat answer, admittedly; I think it’s just that, even as it is caught in an odd position, The Next Doctor manages to at least be consistently charming if nothing else. It’s an hour of Doctor Who made by a group of people coming off what’s arguably their most impressive achievement yet – coasting on charm has, at this point, been earned.

That, though, goes some way to explaining why The Next Doctor feels so odd. It’s not just that it’s coming as the Tenth Doctor era is coming to a close – it’s coming when the Tennant/Davies era has essentially already ended. This is just the slow start of a year-long victory lap.

8/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index