THE HAUNTING OF VILLA DIODATI
When we saw the title of this, we were all like meh. Another historical? How educational. How Earthbound. Whoopee.
But that was without reckoning with Maxine Alderton. She’s mostly known for her work on Emmerdale, and while some people might get sniffy about soaps, there’s no better proving ground for writing dialogue.
And dialogue - great dialogue - The Haunting Of Villa Diodati has in spades. That’s what makes it exponentially better than virtually all of this season. The script absolutely crackles with life, and best of all, it’s funny. We particularly love “Nobody snog Byron!” and our hands-down favourite, delightfully sending up one of the whiskeriest tropes on TV: “Is it too late to choose another group?” Oh, what a difference a decent writer makes. Wistful sigh.
With funny dialogue, they need to work no harder to win us over. Job done, as far as we’re concerned. But as an extra bonus, that’s far from the only good thing about this episode.
The 1816 gathering at Lord Byron’s Airbnb in Geneva would, you think, be absolute catnip to Doctor Who writers, and we’re surprised it hasn’t been done before in the TV series (Mary Shelley does appear in Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas). Mary Shelley all by herself is an absolute shoo-in. Not only did she write Frankenstein as a result of said gathering, she also knocked out another SF novel, The Last Man, about the last human alive after a plague sweeps the Earth. Good stuff, eh? And Byron’s proposition that they while away the evenings by writing ghost stories has Doctor Who stamped all over it.
Maxine Alderton has done her Shelley homework, and it shows. When Byron calls her “Mrs Shelley”, one of us objected “But they weren’t married then”. No, but Mary was calling herself Mrs Shelley at that point, so one up to Maxine. How we love a writer who cares enough to get stuff right. (Well, almost right: it’s a bit of a cheek showing Byron as a coward. He had many variegated faults, but at least that wasn’t one of them. And Mary calls Ashad a “modern Prometheus” when in the book that refers not to the monster but to Dr Frankenstein. This is similar enough to the infuriating tendency for people to think the monster is Frankenstein to make us grind our teeth.)
There’s also careful craft in the drawing of the characters. The real Lord Byron was, let’s face it, a massive twonk. Nevertheless, he was also dashing and romantical enough to leave women swooning for miles around. Not an easy combination to get over, but great writing plus an excellent performance from Jacob Collins-Levy beautifully conveys both Byron’s charm and his enormous irritation factor.
And Maxine Alderton does full justice to Shelley herself. What a fascinating woman she was: she was a radical thinker and stepped outside society’s rules (and paid the price), and her intelligence and the originality of her imagination come through clearly in her written work. And Alderton’s writing, ably assisted by a fantastic performance from Lili Miller, actually exceeds our expectations in bringing Mary Shelley to life. It’s a great portrait of the self-possessed, intelligent and principled woman she must have been.
And the story? There’s zero original about the ghost stuff, and some of the effects are slightly woeful. Well, we say effects. The Doctor exiting a room, turning around and coming back in again hardly qualifies. Nevertheless, at least on the first go-through the atmosphere of dread is effectively chilling. Having said that, it can’t be denied that the ghost elements of the story are a bit of a cheat. We think they’re there to try and disguise the approaching Cyberman bit: that’s a fail given that we’ve seen so many ghosty-type Cybermen in previous episodes, but it’s a valiant effort. What we don’t like is that they leave some of the supernatural elements dangling. While we may sneakily like the allusion to Mary Shelley’s dead daughter, overall, it’s just not cricket. This may feel like Sapphire and Steel-lite, but it isn’t:
“Science, Miss Hawthorne!”
Doctor Who, putting the science in science fiction since 1963. So stop trying to feed us woo-woo.
And the Cyberman story itself? Yep, it’s the lone Cyberman Jack warned us about come back to, um, haunt us. (Did he really need to do that, by the way? Since when would you not beware a lone Cyberman? Or, come to that, three Cybermen rolling cheeses or a pair of Cybermen doing the tango?) The sight of the unfinished face is agreeably shocking, especially when he scoops up the baby, a truly arresting image we’re surprised nobody’s thought of before. It’s lovely the way the Frankenstein element is deftly worked in by having a lightning strike power the Cyberbattery up. And it’s a really powerful moment when he starts quoting Shelley. There’s no doubt about it, though a combination of good writing and an excellent performance, Ashad is a very successful character. It’s a rare day indeed when we find a Cyberman interesting, but he manages it. Big ups to Patrick O’Kane who really classes up the joint.
Shelley, meanwhile, turns out to be quivering in the cellar stuffed full of Cyberium. And the Doctor realises that for once she can’t save the many and the few. It’s nice that Jodie gets some proper drama to do, but is it ungrateful of us to find it a tiny bit whiney? “Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit left to choose”. Who said it was flat in the first place, Doctor? Oh yes, that would be you. And given you were in charge the whole time you were fooling yourself (if not us).
Mary Shelley isn’t taking that lying down anyway, stepping in to appeal to Ashad’s better nature. We were really worried for a minute that this would work, but fortunately Cyberman logic wins over mush. And so the Doctor is forced to show Shelley his own death to get the Cyberium to squirt out. This is incredibly, incredibly nasty, and what’s more, it’s pointless. As soon as the Doctor has gulped down the Cyberium herself, Ashad is tearing a hole in the clouds for his army to squeeze through. So as fast as she’s swallowed the Cyberium, the Doctor is vomiting it up again and handing it over. She’s saved the present, but at the cost of the future. New plan: go the future with a very large broom.
Frankly, this is exasperating. Brain the size of a planet, and this is the best the Doctor can do? If the Cyberium and Ashad can both do the Teminator-style thing of going back in the timeline, what’s to stop the Doctor doing the same? Everything that’s happened is against the timeline anyway, so the clear path here as far as we’re concerned is for the Doctor to nip back a bit further with a fishing net and get at the Cyberium before Shelley finds it. He’s even shown her exactly where it is thanks to the mind meld. Not only would this keep the Cyberium out of Ashad’s tin hands, it would tidy up the Villa Diodati Frankenstein evening too. Win-win.
After endless episodes with the Doctor being perky, Chris Chibnall is clearly keen to take her in a darker direction. Like we said, it’s nice that Jodie gets something more dramatic to do. But can she do it? In general, yes, because we’ve seen her doing it very believably in other stuff. Can she do it as the Doctor, though? That’s less certain. Her diatribe here has a tendency to petulance rather than weight. And we’re still nowhere near getting any alienness.
So it’s not, you know, perfect. This season, we’re inclined to overlook that. An episode that’s well written, well acted and actually entertaining has become an endangered species. We’re massively grateful just to spot one in the wild.
“History is vulnerable tonight” – so why is the Doctor there? All her finger wagging about the effect it would have if Shelley died is a bit rich when she and her crew could easily have ended up disrupting history themselves instead of saving it.
Characterisation in this is sometimes almost too good – Fletcher the valet was so hilarious that we were sure he was going to turn out to have a pivotal role in something other than opening doors, but no, that was a red herring.
Claire is looking for letters Byron’s written about her. Why would they be there and not with their recipients?
NO SEX PLEASE, WE’RE GALLIFREYAN
Is there a hint here that Yaz is falling for the Doctor? You could read it either way, but given that phrase “my person”, we have a sinking feeling that this is where they’re headed. Dammit. Rose’s angst over the Tenth Doctor gave us a chronic allergy to companions mooning over the Doctor, and we were kind of enjoying the break.
WHO WEARS THE TROUSERS
We know they don’t have long, but it’s still annoying that nobody raises an eyebrow at the Doctor’s getup.
“She is from somewhere much, much stranger.” “The North.” Yep, another addition to the Doctor Who tradition of jokes about the North. People always remember “Lots of planets have a North…”, but we’re far more fond of the hilarious-although-you-had-to-be-there “We’re from the North!” in The Ribos Operation.