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

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Doctor Who Review: Can You Hear Me?

doctor who review can you hear me chris chibnall emma sullivan charlene james yaz mandip gill ryan tosin cole

I didn’t know who to say it to, so I thought I’d say it to you.

[Note: this review, like the episode itself, touches on themes of mental illness/depression.]

Let’s start with the most striking detail of this episode: Yaz, for a long time the most anonymous and vaguely drawn Doctor Who companion of the past decade, was here revealed to have a history of depression. Not just that, though: three years prior, she ran away from home, intending to commit suicide.

Can You Hear Me? stops slightly short of making this explicit, admittedly, but it’d be understating it to call this subtext. Yaz is running away, yes, but note the framing: Sonya is “worried you’ve left and you’re gonna do something stupid”, the policewoman is trying to convince her that “there’s so much ahead of you”, and coming home is “better than the other way”. Running away isn’t the issue; it’s what she might do next that’s cause for concern. The episode avoids saying the word “suicide”, yes, but you don’t have to read into the episode very far to see what they’re getting at – if nothing else, an anniversary meal to commemorate the day Yaz didn’t run away doesn’t quite fit the way the characters actually talk about this.

It’s worth asking, perhaps, how effective it is to frame it this way – and I mean that less in terms of whether the episode should’ve used the word “suicide” or not (Vincent and the Doctor uses it far fewer times than you’d expect and got the point across), but rather the metaphor of running away specifically. Granted, at this point it begins to get into questions of children’s TV, and what exactly is appropriate where; my sense, personally anyway, is that a line like “grades have gone a bit wonky, parents don’t get what’s up” is going to come across as patronising rather than striking a chord. (Actually, that’s a wider thing I’ve wondered about for years – does it do a disservice to young people to talk around the issue like this? Do, say, anti-cyberbullying campaigns, that frame the worst bullying as “you’re a loser” style taunts, give the wrong impression of how severe these things can be? Is that why so many people think it is as simple as just turning off the computer and walking away? Not a clue, but it’s been an ongoing idle thought over the years.) But, that said, you never know, and as is it’ll surely mean a lot to someone.

Even outside of that, though, there’s a bit of a sense that the episode was holding back a little. That’s come up before, a little, in The Witchfinders, the last time we noted that Yaz has a history of being bullied. Implicit-but-unsaid then, as now, is the idea that it was specifically Islamophobic bullying that Yaz was experiencing. There’s been an odd reticence, actually, to address Yaz’s faith across the series – Demons of the Punjab exists, yes, but I’d argue that episode was often more about Yaz’s family than Yaz herself. Interestingly enough, actually, we know that Juno Dawson, who wrote a Doctor Who novel about faith and religion, was told by the BBC not to dwell on Yaz-as-a-Muslim – for whatever reason, this era of the show, which has often engaged with religion in a way Doctor Who rarely has before, is strangely reluctant to admit to the faith of one of its leads. That’s not to say, for what it’s worth, that I’m suggesting Doctor Who’s first Muslim companion should’ve been driven to suicidal thoughts because of racist abuse – just that, in telling this story, they’re still perhaps a step or two away from anything resembling character specificity.

doctor who review can you hear me yaz yasmin khan mandip gill emma sullivan sonya charlene james zellin depression suicide

Which gets at one of the more obvious faults in this episode – it really, really should’ve aired last year. As it is, there’s a sense that someone in the production office realised that Mandip Gill was probably going to be leaving at the end of the year, in turn prompting a slightly-too-late attempt at giving Yaz some interiority. It’s not ideal: Can You Hear Me? would have benefitted a great deal from having something to build off of, or at least more than a throwaway reference to bullying in one episode. (After what Mandip Gill has been saying about a big plotline for Yaz this year, her secret finally revealed, it does make me wonder slightly if she felt it was always building up to this, or if that’s just PR-speak.) But, you know, equally, for the past few weeks now I’ve offered that caveat, suggesting these episodes are better when judged in isolation – perhaps after a few weeks of “this would be better if the episodes around it were better”, it’s time to concede that maybe things are starting to work?

Certainly, Ryan’s nightmare this week is, I think, the closest that a particular vision of the Chibnall era has ever come to working: it feels grounded and character-driven in the way that Doctor Who has clearly been intended to be but fallen short of in recent years. That Ryan’s worst fear is, essentially, a form of climate grief – cleverly tied back to Orphan 55, and the sense he’s missing his friends’ lives – is sublime. That’s a deft bit of character work, letting the science fiction resonate emotionally in a way it hasn’t in quite some time; between Orphan 55, Praxeus, and this, Series 12 is actually starting to feel not just incisive but almost vital in its engagement with that growing cultural sense of environmental anxiety. (It even goes some ways towards redeeming the clunky ending of Orphan 55, for me at least – it’s now consciously unresolved, that “you can still do something” speech having a degree more weight to it because it now seems like Ryan actually will.) Tosin Cole again is doing stellar work: of the four leads, it’s him who’s impressed me most across Series 12. Perhaps it’s a case of him getting better material than last year; maybe he’s just a better actor now. Either way, I’m now quite determined to watch 61st Street, the American drama he’ll be in next year.

And, again, Graham’s storyline basically works – with none of the same caveats I might offer about Yaz or Ryan’s. Given Chibnall’s Doctor Who has always been more interested in him than the other two companions, there’s more for Can You Hear Me? to work with – his cancer is long-established at this point, and Grace’s cameo has a weight and significance that Tibo’s appearance can’t sustain. (It’s sort of odd, isn’t it, that Grace has essentially entirely become Graham’s supporting character, and very rarely has any relevance to Ryan’s plotlines? Again, I can’t help but feel that it should’ve been Ryan reunited with Grace in It Takes You Away rather than Graham – here, at least, it’d make her appearance in Graham’s nightmare all the more poignant.) It’s not the standout moment of the episode, albeit with one exception I’ll get to in a moment, but it works: something that all involved are very good at, have done very well before, and are doing very well again here. I suspect few people would’ve expected Bradley Walsh’s performance to be the most consistently and reliably good bit of any given Doctor Who episode, but hey, it’s hard to complain too much.

doctor who review can you hear me jodie whittaker bradley walsh graham cancer chris chibnall charlene james emma sullivan

Unexpectedly, then, Jodie Whittaker was the weakest part of this episode. Much like last week, actually – if you’d said to me at the start of the series that two weeks running that Mandip Gill as Yaz would leave a greater impression than Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

Part of this is because she’s found herself stuck with a plotline that doesn’t quite work, running around and doing quirks at the latest iteration of a generic Doctor Who space god. Zellin and Rakaya – more consonant heavy names from Chibnall – don’t make much of an impression, Ian Gelder’s performance aside. That’s more of a dialogue issue than anything else: that sort of eternal being type character is hard to get right at the best of times, and Zellin’s dreary monologing was very much not “the best of times”. The detachable fingers is a nice image (though surely they should’ve gone into the ear the other way up?) and the animated sequence is a genuinely lovely experiment of the sort I wish Doctor Who would do more often, but really the best thing that can be said of Zellin and Rakaya is that their plotline is introduced and resolved in about twenty minutes. Even if they had been a little more interesting, though, the Doctor would still have been a little disservice by the nightmare plot – her worst fear is, uh, a teaser for an arc we still don’t quite understand? I get what it’s going for, but it’s plot over character, and it doesn’t particularly work. It’s not unlike how one of the duller parts of The Time of the Doctor was revealing what was in the Doctor’s room in The God Complex. You’d think, if it absolutely had to be an arc thing, that a flashback to Jo Martin’s Doctor might’ve been a bit more appropriate.

It gets at a wider problem, though, which is that I’m not actually sure anyone involved has a sense of this Doctor as a character. There’s a personality, yes, and a voice, a collection of quirks and tics and attributes… all of which, to my mind, still fall a little short of a character. This, admittedly, is often something that’s difficult to articulate – in part it’s a question of range and of flaws – but, handily, there’s actually quite a good example of this in the episode. A little surprisingly, the ending to Can You Hear Me? – the Doctor’s “I’m actually still quite socially awkward” response to Graham opening up about his cancer – has proven quite controversial, to the point that the BBC actually issued a statement about it. Some people love it; some don’t. What I found interesting about it though is that there’s certainly a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that is socially awkward, that would say something like that, and it could still read as touching. But at the same time, there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that’s more keenly, openly empathetic than her predecessors – there are two competing and contradictory versions of this character, the writing has never quite cohering. It’s no wonder Whittaker is starting to struggle with the part.

Ultimately, despite its flaws – which I spent longer on than I’d perhaps intended at first – I really, really liked Can You Hear Me? I’d quite confidently say it’s one of the best of both Series 12 and the Chibnall era as a whole – but it also points, quite clearly, to some improvements that will have to be made across Series 13.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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