After a couple of episodes that kicked the audience in the teeth with THE MESSAGE, Doctor Who serves up one of the season’s best episodes. It begins like a thrill ride, creepy and fun. The second half turns darker and more overtly thematic, but it feels like Doctor Who.
Title: “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati”
Directed by Emma Sullivan
Written by Maxine Alderton
Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor
Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair
Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan
Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien
Lili Miller as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Jacob Collins-Levy as Lord Byron
Nadia Parkes as Claire Clairmont1
Maxim Baldry as Dr. John Polidori
Lewis Rainer as Percy Bysshe Shelley
Stefan Bednarczyk as Fletcher
Sarah Perles as Elise
Patrick O’Kane as The Lone Cyberman
The Doctor and her companions crash the celebrated 1816 gathering on Lake Geneva, only to discover creepy and kooky anomalies not recorded by history.
I don’t have a single high point, so much as I have a love of the entire premise here: a Gothic story set against an actual piece of history, with a creepy and very much in-universe solution to the mystery. In short, we have a classic Doctor Who episode.
I also like the early moments that remind us that, for all their precocious talent, those gathered that “wet, ungenial summer”2 at Villa Diodati were, with the exception of Byron, in their teens and early twenties—essentially just kids.
The final confrontations relies heavily on poorly-explained science-as-magic.
Originality: 2/6 It’s obvious they intentionally crammed in every Gothic cliché they could (including some allusions to the Gothic-cliché inspired Addams Family), but it’s hardly original. They get a point for blending the origin of Frankenstein with the Cybermen. Of course, the Sixth Doctor was also shown as the inspiration for H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, in reality an inspiration for this series.3
Story: 5/6 The story’s thematic elements feel a little forced, especially given that the story hangs them expressly on Percy Shelley. He’s an important and influential English writer, to be certain, but Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s influence has been greater and broader.
Acting: 6/6 The episode features strong character acting from the supporting cast. Stefan Bednarczyk is excellent and frequently hilarious as Fletcher.
Emotional Response: 5/6 The Cybermen are old news by now, but it works to pit the cast against a lone, unfinished Cyberman—something they did with a Dalek awhile back–, in a Gothic setting. And, in all fairness, the revived Doctor has had some success with making the Cybermen menacing and disturbing. Consider, in this ep, the twist on the scene where someone reaches the humanity left in the monster.
Production: 6/6 This episode looks more expensive than I suspect it actually is, and it features excellent atmosphere.
Effects: 5/6 This episode features striking visuals. The cyberium is low-budget CGI.
In total, “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati” receives 34/42
1. I’m not certain what to make of Claire breaking with Byron, but it’s an interesting touch. She was already pregnant with his child at that point, and his refusal to acknowledge them later would have unpleasant consequences.
2. Quoted from Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, often reproduced in later editions of the novel.
3. Wells apparently encountered other versions of the Doctor in various other media.