Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

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I see how you got there, but it lacks vision. Right, what if we, um, workshop this? You know, kick it around a bit? I have notes.

It’s the 1st March 2020. Chris Chibnall is fifty years old. The Timeless Children, his second series finale as Doctor Who showrunner, has aired. Watching it, you get the sense that this is what it’s always been leading up to, where it’s always been going – not for Doctor Who, of course, but for Chibnall.

What the BBC was after was risk and boldness. I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it.

— Chris Chibnall, 2017

After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall could have done anything. The ITV crime drama was, put simply, a huge hit, a piece of television that sparked a genuine cultural moment. It was the sort of success that would have guaranteed Chibnall any commission he wanted. Certainly, it’s no surprise that the BBC wanted Chibnall to take over Doctor Who, nor that they went to such lengths to accommodate him; for all the critical success of the Peter Capaldi era, Doctor Who’s ratings had dwindled, long removed from the dizzying heights of its unimpeachable imperial phase. After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall was exactly the sort of populist writer needed to reinvent Doctor Who once again, to move it away from a vision oft-criticised as being too convoluted, too insular, catering solely to dedicated fans rather than general audiences. It was clear, in the dying days of the Moffat era, that Doctor Who needed Chris Chibnall.

It’s the 22nd January 2016. A little under two months shy of his forty-sixth birthday, Chris Chibnall is announced as Steven Moffat’s successor, taking on the dual role of Head Writer and Executive Producer on Doctor Who.

“I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was four years old, and I’m relishing the thought of creating new characters, creatures and worlds for the Doctor to explore.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2016

Crucially, though, Chris Chibnall did not need Doctor Who. Why would he? In terms of his own career, he’d never been more successful – the expectation, surely, was that he’d follow Broadchurch with another original drama of his own. It’s not that Doctor Who was a step backwards for him, per se, but certainly it represented a degree of commitment and an intensity of work markedly different from his own professed preference for doing different things and frequently moving from project to project.

“Doctor Who makes you feel like no other show does. It makes every viewer feel that childlike wonder and like you’re eight years old.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2020

It’s the 17th January 1976. The first part of The Brain of Morbius airs. Chris Chibnall is six years old.

Not quite yet eight, but close enough.

doctor who brain morbius doctors timeless child chibnall hinchcliffe holmes harper jo martin hartnell first tectuen boundary

It’s the 1st March 2020. I am twenty-something years old. The Timeless Children, Chris Chibnall’s second Doctor Who series finale, has aired. Watching it, it isn’t the sort of episode I ever thought Chibnall would write – but I do get the sense that perhaps I should’ve seen it coming, representing as it does the culmination of all of Chibnall’s worst instincts.

“I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.”

— Me, reviewing Spyfall (Part One), 2020

Fundamentally, I’m of the belief – and have been for some time – that references to the past are best used sparingly in Doctor Who. There’s a certain weight to its mythology, bound up as it is in over fifty years of history; something like Gallifrey and the Time Lords exert a narrative gravity that can easily distort and distract from new, original ideas. Sure, it can be intoxicating, and I understand how; I’m deeply, deeply invested in all this myself. Still, though, it’s hard not to look at The Timeless Children and be genuinely baffled by the lack of restraint on display, an episode that’s about as far from a popular reinvention of Doctor Who aimed at the general public as is possible. Often, it’s like something out of a bad piece of fanfiction, or an easily forgotten bit of expanded universe fluff – a novel or a comic or something, the sort of story you could read, review, and then forget about entirely until some years later, at which point you realise you’ve written about so much Doctor Who there is some Doctor Who you’ve forgotten writing about. In any case, it’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d ever expect Bradley Walsh to star in on prime-time BBC One.

 “Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.”

— Me, reviewing Supremacy of the Cybermen, 2017

It’s the 9th December 2018. I am still twenty-something years old, albeit a little less so. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos airs on television. It was – and still is – awful. But it’s remarkable, looking back, for its lack of classic Doctor Who villains. That’s the first finale you could say that of since 2012 – since then, the show has relied on Daleks, Time Lords, the Cybermen, and the Master, often all at once, sometimes a few times in a row. There’s something to celebrate about its willingness to take a step away from recognisable Doctor Who iconography: in a sense, despite quite how small scale it was, it’s actually a more ambitious piece of television than The Timeless Children.

“It’s just… boring. It’s boring and flat and somehow manages to boast not only a paucity of ambition but a lack of skill to match even the little ambition it did display.”

— Me, reviewing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, 2018

It’s the 29th February 2020. I am, unsurprisingly, twenty-something years old. I rewatch The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

It’s aged better than I thought it would. Better, in fact, than I’d realise.

doctor who timeless children cybermen cyber master gallifrey time lord supremacy rassilon comic panopticon

It’s the 5th December 2015. Hell Bent airs. It’s my favourite episode of Doctor Who. (At the moment, anyway. My favourite episode of Doctor Who had previously aired on the 17th June 2006, the 23rd November 2013, the 1st July 2017, and, I’d like to think, at some point after that too.)

“Gallifrey isn’t the part of the story that matters – it’s the Doctor and his companion, the relationship at the heart of the show, just as it should be.”

Me, on why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who episode, 2017

With hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect on quite how much The Timeless Children is the Hell Bent’s opposite – if Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has so far been a cracked mirror reflection of the Russell T Davies era, then this is apparently Chibnall’s take on his immediate successor’s finest hour. Where Hell Bent was an exercise in narrative substitution, promising a spaghetti Western by way of Gallifreyan epic but delivering instead an intimate character drama, The Timeless Children has a rather different set of priorities. The point of Hell Bent is the Doctor and Clara’s conversation in the cloisters, their almost-goodbye in the TARDIS, or when the Doctor play’s Clara’s theme in the diner. The point of The Timeless Children is Sacha Dhawan saying “Panopticon”, a Cyberman in front of the Seal of Rassilon, or airing a clip of The Brain of Morbius on BBC One after Countryfile and before Call the Midwife. One is concerned with character, with emotions, with relationships; the other is a leisurely scroll through a newly updated Wikipedia page, largely devoid of any particular flourish or intimacy. There’s something oddly funny about Steven Moffat emphasising that the Hybrid doesn’t matter, and Chris Chibnall writing an episode where a Hybrid of two warrior races stands in the ruins of Gallifrey, having broken a billion billion hearts to heal its own.

“It’s tricky going back and watching old episodes now, because I think emotionally there’s very little there.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2007

This, perhaps, is the issue – or one of them – with The Timeless Children. It’s Doctor Who that demands we care about it simply because it is Doctor Who; not because it offers new creatures, new characters, new worlds, but because it never dares look away from the old ones. No, not even that; it doesn’t see a value. It’s Doctor Who for people who catch the references to the Leekley bible, who could tell you that Douglas Camfield, Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Banks Stewart were three of several Morbius Doctors, who know about the Other and Penelope and Ulysses and Soul and Zezanne. Hell Bent is for those people too, yes – but not exclusively so. Not like this.

“Probably gonna end up watching Doctor Who on a half-hour delay or so. Kinda weird to think you’re all gonna know that Bradley Walsh is the Other, Yaz is Rassilon, and Ryan is Señor 105 thirty minutes before I do.”

— Me, tweeting about Doctor Who, 2020

It’s the 1st March 2020. In hindsight, Time Hunter might’ve been a better punchline.

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It’s the 6th March 2020. The BBC complaints department, for the second time this year, have had to put out a statement about Doctor Who – addressing, on this occasion, The Timeless Children’s attempt at a new Doctor Who origin story.

“I don’t necessarily want all the gaps to be plugged. Kids out there are making up their own stories about how Missy escaped that place and regenerated into Sacha. They’re doing their own version of it. And that’s much more exciting.”

— Steven Moffat, 2020

Perhaps it’s a little uncharitable to say that The Timeless Children added nothing new to Doctor Who; after all, that’s what everyone was up in arms about the other day. No longer just a mad woman in a box, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, the Original Time Lord – not important because of what she does, but what she is, with all the uncomfortable implications that holds. It doesn’t, obviously, change what’s gone before in any meaningful sense – Peter Capaldi was no more playing a Timeless Child than William Hartnell was playing the First Doctor – but it does feel like, going forward, it’s all a little bit… less.

“You mean you’ve changed time? Was it the reason you left your home?”

— Barbara to the Doctor, in a fanfiction I wrote in 2012

Part of the fun, surely, of something like the Morbius Doctors, or how old the Doctor is, or what her true name is, is the debate, the argument, the theorising. The not knowing. Why did the Doctor leave Gallifrey? Because they were bored. Because they were scared of the Hybrid. Because they changed time. Because of Omega. Because Irving Braxiatel warned them of a plot against their life. No, actually. None of that. In fact, the Doctor was once a secret agent on an ill-defined mission for the Time Lords, somewhere between James Bond and Jason Bourne; despite having their memory wiped and being turned back into a child, the Doctor was always destined to be the Doctor again, to run away from her own people in a rackety old TARDIS, disguised as a police box.

Oh.

Not knowing, surely, invites greater creativity and affords more storytelling opportunities than The Timeless Children. It doesn’t open up new avenues; it imposes a shape onto ones that were already there. It’s not an infinite set of possibilities: it’s a forty pound Big Finish boxset called Timeless, starring Jo Martin in an adventure with Krillitanes, Daleks, and an amnesiac Paul McGann, written by the same four people as usual, each of whom will inevitably struggle against the Jason Bourne of it all and opt to tell fairly typical Doctor Who stories instead.

It’s certainly not the progressive victory some have chosen to read it as, by the way. Diegetically, yes, we know the ‘first’ Doctor was a young Black girl, and had a series of different female and non-white incarnations before they ever looked like William Hartnell. But look at what’s actually on screen: each of these female, non-white incarnations were tortured to death (because all female characters, the Doctor now included, get a backstory of abuse) before another eight white guys were newly canonised, and this information leads to a white woman telling a South Asian man she’s genetically more than him. It used to be that you didn’t need to be real to be the Doctor; now, however, you need an inherited birthright.

The Timeless Children is not an especially forward-looking piece of television (even if, of course, it is guaranteed that Tecteun, the Doctor’s Wicked Stepmother, will return by the 60th anniversary). It’s a series of set-pieces building up to a montage of archive footage and very little else. Frankly, it’s no wonder the episode is so heartbreakingly disinterested in Jodie Whittaker, in the here and now. The Timeless Children is an hour of Doctor Who that has no greater aim, nor believes it needs no greater justification, than to gesture at the trappings of Doctor Who; indeed, it might as well quote directly from stories past, so derivative and self-referential is its writing. (Ahem.) Chibnall’s vision, his promised risk and boldness, his ideas are so insular, so inward looking in both ambition and approach, that it ultimately renders Doctor Who smaller on the inside.

“It doesn’t seem to have much to it. It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.”

— Chris Chibnall, 1986

It’s the 8th March 2020. Thinking about it, actually, Chris Chibnall might have a point there.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

doctor who review ascension cybermen chibnall magnus stone whittaker ashad timeless children dhawan master

If it gets worse, I’ll call the doctor.

Not a lot actually happens in World Enough and Time, on a purely technical level. The plot, if you distill it right down, is fairly easy to describe in a sentence or two; it’s not exactly the most involved or convoluted episode Doctor Who has ever done. Rather, it’s much more of a mood piece, a fifty-minute statement of intent: here’s why the Cybermen are scary, this is what’s engaging and compelling about them, this is why they’re going to matter next week. It works – The Doctor Falls benefits a lot from following World Enough and Time, with all the momentum and mounting dread it offers.

Ascension of the Cybermen, then, is Chibnall’s attempt at the same. A lot of this is just part of the DNA of the new series (when do we stop calling it the ‘new’ series, by the way?) two-parters: they’re all chessboard episodes, moving the pieces into position, an hour of set-up ready for next week. Almost invariably, then, they’re difficult to discuss and engage with on their own terms – it’s difficult to talk about Act One without knowing how it’s going to resolve in Act Two. A lot depends on The Timeless Children. Often, I’m inclined to be kinder to the first episode of a two-parter, because of the difficulty in judging them in isolation – but Ascension of the Cybermen shows the limits of that inclination. All this episode does is move pieces into position for next week, an hour of Chibnall spinning wheels. There’s action but not drama, plot but not story; you could pare most of this back to a cold open without really losing anything. (I think the only thing I’d miss is that lovely transition to the title sequence from within the Cyberman’s eye, which is one of my favourite shots of the year.) Often, it feels like the televised equivalent of procrastinating – the extended sequence of the Doctor and the companions setting up and explaining anti Cyberman weapons, only for the Cybermen to shoot at these weapons before the Doctor turned them on, felt particularly egregious.

But then, that illustrates the other, far greater, flaw afflicting Ascension of the Cybermen. When Chris Chibnall sat down to write that scene, he surely wasn’t actually just trying to fill five minutes of screentime, even if it felt that way; the point of that scene was to show off the Cybermen. All your defences are useless: there is nothing you can do to stop them. Much like World Enough and Time, Ascension of the Cybermen is a fifty-minute statement of intent. This is why the Cybermen are scary. But where its predecessor – and, actually, by the way, I’ve criticised Chibnall a few times this year for lifting directly from Russell T Davies’ work, but I cannot imagine what prompted him to want to do a finale with the Cybermen and the Master so soon after Steven Moffat wrote two Cybermen/Master finales that are each among Doctor Who’s best. But, anyway, where World Enough and Time was invested in an almost post-austerity sort of body horror, Ascension of the Cybermen thinks the Cybermen are scary because they’re brutish, sci-fi robots from in a grimy space war. Nothing in Ascension of the Cybermen holds a candle to the nurse turning down the volume dial as a partially converted patient screams in pain – which rather undercuts this grand statement of intent.

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To be clear, I enjoyed Ascension of the Cybermen, more than I enjoyed a lot of episodes this year (and across Series 11 too). It’s a cut above a lot of Chibnall-era episodes in terms of sheer competence alone: Yaz gets a nice, decent role; there are a few moments where Jodie Whittaker gets to be angry and frustrated; it’s capably directed, avoiding a lot of the mistakes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos made even as it indulges in a similar aesthetic. (Plus, there’s a handful of bits where, surely by accident, Chibnall seems to be setting up the idea that Yaz has a crush on Graham, which is just really, really funny.) More to the point, though, it has a certain momentum to it – Chibnall is spinning a lot of plates here, and there’s an intrigue to it borne of not knowing what’s coming next.

But it faltered on rewatch. I can’t imagine Ascension of the Cybermen is going to age especially well; familiarity blunts that momentum, all those big explosions and expensive Cyberman action feeling like little more than a cheap thrill in the end. Up to a point, I suppose that’s just my own lack of patience for Cybermen that are trying so hard they actually have spikes – it doesn’t emphasise any of the concepts I find interesting about them, a reinvention that leaves them feeling generic rather than distinct. Clearly, it worked for some people, but I’d be lying if I said I understood exactly why: few of the action set-pieces made much impression, relying on spectacle that Jamie Magnus Stone proved unable to provide. It’s functional rather than memorable.

What’s frustrating is that when the episode does offer something compelling, it largely languishes in the margins, never given the chance to graduate beyond the peripheral. I noted last week 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”; Ascension of the Cybermen, in much the same way, is littered with interesting ideas that never quite cohere. (Incidentally, Ascension of the Cybermen does a relatively poor job of following The Haunting of Villa Diodati on its own terms – why do we need an episode establishing the Cybermen as a significant threat if that was the point of last week? Certainly, it exacerbates the sense that this episode is just procrastinating the finale.)

An almost religious Cyberman is a genuinely interesting idea – not least because of how it might bring them back in line with Kit Pedler’s original idea of the Cybermen as Star Monks. Similarly, Ashad’s voluntary conversion is a neat way to complicate our idea of the Cybermen; his talk of resurrecting a dead empire, alongside his angry outbursts, have an obvious potency. Even the flying Cyberman heads have a germ of an interesting idea to them, actually. After all, if the Cybermen were solely about preserving life, they’d be digital: you’d upload people to the cloud, or something similar. For the Cybermen to exist, on some level there’s got to be a fetishisation of image, of shape – which ties neatly to that idea of reaching for an abandoned imperial past, and my own preferred take on the Cybermen as a sort of forced heteronormative, patriarchal conformity. Of course the Cybermen would use drones with that particular shape! (That said, though, imagine how neat it would’ve been if the Cyberheads didn’t just shoot lasers, but – like in The Pandorica Opens – tried to latch onto and convert the remaining humans.)

Little of that made an impact, though – because, in the end, that’s just not what this story was about.

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If, then, there’s not a whole lot to say about this episode – and if I’m still determined to write these reviews in three sections, which I am – then let’s devote some time to speculation. I never really do this, but hey: Ascension of the Cybermen is written essentially as a fifty-minute trailer for next week. I think speculating is exactly what we’re meant to do at this point.

Which brings us to Brendan, the nominally Irish police officer, and the most interesting part of Ascension of the Cybermen. I say “nominally-Irish” because I’m convinced that these scenes aren’t actually taking place in Ireland – rather, they’re on Gallifrey (or at least some sort of visual metaphor for it), the punchline to that old joke about how “Gallifrey is a place in Ireland”. Brendan, I assume, is the Doctor somehow – a policeman, not unlike how the Doctor travels in a police box, “sorting out fair play across the universe”. Brendan being found as a baby is, presumably, how Chibnall intends to reinvent the Doctor’s origins – not a Time Lord, just raised by Time Lords, instead an adopted (Timeless?) child from another world. “Everything you think you know is a lie, Doctor” – you’re not a Time Lord at all. (Is the Master? Dunno – but I do like the idea of him being so invested in the Doctor that he’s treated this as a much bigger, more personal, revelation than it actually is.)

The question that poses in turn – “If not a Time Lord, what is the Doctor?”, or more simply, “Doctor Who?” – is a neat way to turn the series on its head. You can see, suddenly, the dramatic engine of Chibnall’s five-year plan, a sweeping change that offers stories both intimate and epic. It’s the sort of thing Doctor Who should embrace, I think; there’s little benefit to being beholden to decades-old canon if it prevents you from telling new, compelling stories today. Plus, there’s something very neat about Chibnall scrawling over Doctor Who’s mythology with his own ideas in an episode that borrows a key scene from Broadchurch.

Admittedly, the danger is that what’s compelling about these stories is walking up to the line, flirting with the idea of crossing it, indulging in the blasphemy of it – but its rare that these questions might have a satisfactory answer. The Doctor isn’t a Time Lord. She’s a human.  She’s a Cyberman. She’s a Timeless Child. She’s half-human on her mother’s side. She’s a Slitheen. She’s something we’ve never heard of before, from a race that… looks human and can regenerate. Hmm. Best case scenario, The Timeless Children is 2020’s answer to The War Games – more likely, it’s going to be akin to The TV Movie, and we’ll all just sort of ignore whatever happens next week the same way we all sort of ignore the half-human thing. (That said, there’s a get out; if Time Lord is a rank, the Doctor can still be a Time Lord but not a Gallifreyan, and a happy ending reclaiming an imperial birthright is… well, we’ll see.) In any case, Doctor Who might be about to quite radically reinvent itself: I’d be lying if I said I thought Chibnall could pull it off.

Equally, I could be entirely wrong – it’s surely not a coincidence that both Ashad and Ko Sharmus are played by Irish actors, after all. Suppose we’ll see!

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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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.

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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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