Doctor Who Series 12, Episode 8
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati”
Posted by Sage
If the opportunity ever presents itself, I highly recommend watching an episode like this one for the first time surrounded by a couple thousand other fans. (The kind that actually like Doctor Who.) “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” premiered on the final day of Gallifrey One in Los Angeles, so we piled into a ballroom and took it in together. As a friend pointed out immediately after it was over, this episode has everything: a haunted skeleton hand that strangles Ryan, Lord Byron trying to seduce the Doctor, actual ghosts, the Lone Cyberman, a quadrille, Thasmin is real???, and it’s that thing where an A.I. containing the entire history of a cyborg race lodges itself in the brain and body of one of history’s greatest romantic poets…A lot happened, including the emergence of Dark!Thirteen, so let’s get down to it.
I’m not sure why the BBC seems so intent on spoiling its own show, but earlier in the day (or maybe the day before), the official socials dropped a reminder about Jack’s warning from “Fugitive of the Judoon.” Pair the notion of a “Lone Cyberman” with a historical set on the night that inspired Frankenstein and it’s pretty obvious where we were going. I wish I hadn’t had that in my head before the episode even began, but the how of it all salvaged the experience.
I wonder whether we’ll ever find out why the Doctor brought the fam to Villa Diodati that night (aside from the appeal of spying on some young minds at work). It seems as though something was drawing her there, but it wasn’t a distress signal or anything like that. The Doctor never hints that she can feel the Cyberium’s presence or that she knew before they set foot in that mansion that anything strange or potentially dangerous was in progress. Add to the coincidences that she’s already met Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, and it seems that it may have been fate rather than the TARDIS that draws her there. Time is swirling around her, and it made sure to drop her somewhere (and when) she would have no choice but to hand the A.I. over to the Cybermen. There was a vibe, if you will.
But the Doctor is also there to save the words. With Percy Bysshe Shelley suspiciously missing from the literary foursome, it seems as though the world’s first science fiction story won’t be written that night, nor its first modern vampire tale. (A pale and nocturnal Dr. Polidori was a nice touch.) True that Mary Shelley is politely requesting to be frightened out of her mind when the fam knocks, but still, the group seems more interested in being entertained by existing works than they are creating new ones.
From there, Doctor Who weaves probably its spookiest ghost story, wherein actual historical elements (the storm outside, the flirtations and feuds within the foursome of writers, the cavernous house filled with priceless war relics) are enhanced by sci-fi as we know it. In this show, we’re always looking for the alien explanation, which is why it’s such a delightful reversal when it’s revealed that Graham probably was served a sarnie by a couple of apparitions. At least he finally got a snack.
The writers, meanwhile, are a mess. Polidori is a shell of a person thanks to his various sleep disorders. Mary is trying very hard to distract herself from Shelley’s notable absence. Byron, already hiding away from one scandal, is toying with the emotions of Claire Clairmont, who’s so out of sorts that she tries to break into his office to find out if he’s written about her. (Congratulations to all the Thasmin shippers for Yaz identifying with Claire’s frustration at not being able to read the feelings of her “enigmatic person.”) In other words, Byron’s bones – “which have never caused so much mischief before” – aren’t interrupting much of anything when they start rattling around the house.
Maybe you’d already guessed perception filter when the psychic paper didn’t work on the villa’s doorstep. But I certainly didn’t see it coming that it was, in part, Cyberium!Shelley who was maintaining it. There’s usually something hiding in the cellar in these haunted house tales, and in this case, it’s the group’s missing friend. Of all the humans who could have encountered the A.I. sent back through time by what Jack refers to as “the alliance,” he’s somehow chosen. The Cyberium communicates to Shelley that he is now the Guardian and must protect it, hence all the getting stuck on staircases, not being able to leave rooms, and the Doctor’s fuzzy brain.
Even with the A.I. inside him, Shelley is just a man. He can only stave off the Lone Cyberman for so long, and the power of the Cyberium is clearly killing him from the inside. (“The world itself seems sick,” Byron says of the weather in the opening scene.) The Lone Cyberman, who used to be a man called Ashad, breaks through the illusion eventually, despite the Doctor doing her level best to distract him…and to keep the fam away.
Thankfully, we have the rest of this series and at least one more with Jodie. But this episode will no doubt hold up in terms of her strongest, most Doctor-ish moments. I’ve complained since Series 11 that the show hasn’t given her permission to wander into “lonely god” territory. Chris Chibnall seemed wary of letting her exhibit the worst qualities of the Doctor – those moods when he would be a real dick, sometimes with cause and often without. We’re finally seeing that here and, with it, Thirteen engaging with the history of the character in more than just vague sentiment and speeches. Thirteen remembers Bill and Danny and the Brig and yes, even Adric. But Bill’s loss is the freshest, and the most violently wrought. If Yaz knew the specifics of the pain in the Doctor’s voice, maybe she wouldn’t have encouraged the rest of the crew to disobey her order.
Or maybe she still would have. Yaz, Graham, and Ryan take their promise to Jack seriously, seeing as he was talking about the end of the world. And they know that they’re dealing with a loose canon Doctor right now – not the same hopeful traveler they first got to know. (She even breaks one of her own rules ten minutes after they arrive.) The ease with which Yaz is able to come up with a way around the Doctor’s instructions, however…well, let’s just say I’m well prepared for whatever twist is to come with her in the two-part finale.
Obviously, the Doctor has no cause to doubt the veracity of Jack’s message or his intention in delivering it. But in this moment of crisis, it’s in conflict with her “everybody lives” mandate. This won’t do anything to fix the discord within the fam. They assume, perhaps, that being as old and wise and well-traveled as she is, that the Doctor only thinks in big picture, and that this decision will be easy for her. But time has only made the Doctor hold more tightly to the significance and the sacredness of a single life. She wouldn’t sacrifice Shelley to the Cyberium any more than Nine would have sacrificed Rose to the time vortex. Ryan’s argument isn’t cruel in and of itself (I maybe wouldn’t have said it right in front of the guy, but still); to him, that’s logic. The Doctor uses that opportunity to remind her companions that none of them have held as many lives in their hands as she has, and she won’t be made to feel guilty for her choice. Jodie ate this scene. Put it in the reel.
But saving Shelley doesn’t come without doing damage to him, either. The Doctor uses a “Time Lord trick” – having him experience his future death as if it is presently happening – to confuse the Cyberium. She doesn’t know when she does it whether he’ll even survive the process. And though she does apologize, it’s flippant and brief. If the fam isn’t afraid of her yet, they should be now.
With the universe on the brink of destruction, however, what else can they do but trust her? The Lone Cyberman – the most frightening iteration of the race that’s ever been on the show, tbh – will clearly stop at nothing, and now they know that there’s a whole army that’s just had their knowledge restored to them. Mary, clearly inspired by the concept of a man who’s had his humanity stripped away, attempts to reason with Ashad – to show her gratitude for him sparing her child. What she doesn’t know is that he only did that in order to take William back to the future and upgrade him. (Is it wrong that I was a little excited to see a Cyberbaby?) But there’s not much of him left, and frankly, we don’t know if Ashad was that good of a guy in the first place. (“I did have children. I slit their throats when they joined the resistance.”)
That Ashad is there at all proves that the Cybermen are “inevitable,” as he growls. And that’s something that the Doctor understands better than the fam or Jack. It was always going to come down to a war. The question is: who’s on the other side?
Timey Wimey Observations:
- The MVP of this episode is Fletcher the valet. Stefan Bednarczyk’s comic timing and priceless faces killed in the room where we watched. Some subtle class commentary there as well!
- The memory wipe discourse continues! The Doctor didn’t wipe Mary’s even though the adventure gave her the idea for Frankenstein. Fair enough, however, because it didn’t get written on the night that it was supposed to and otherwise wouldn’t have existed.
- I don’t know which “death bride” Mary was referring to, but the one in the stop-motion Tim Burton movie is also named Hildegarde.
- I don’t care that he can’t remember who wrote it, Graham has read Pride and Prejudice.
- Yaz pointed at everyone in turn when she said, “Nobody snog Byron,” because the whole fam was at the same risk of doing it.
- “Mrs. Doctor” delighted me every time someone said it.
- “Such a jaunty air. Is it popular in the colonies?”
- “They’re a few years shy of a toilet.”
- Ryan is afraid of everything and doesn’t want to fight anyone ever and that’s why I love him.
- Another joke about the north! Christopher Eccleston’s legacy is strong.
- At one point in my notes, I just wrote: “Byron has a skeleton. He thinks they’re gonna bang.”
- A shutdown of the first order:
- “Not because it really suits me or anything.”
- If your crush would use you as a human shield, he’s just not that into you.
- “It is too late to choose another group?”
- SHE WAS THE UNIVERSE.
What’d you think of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”? Was it spoopy enough for you? Talk to us in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBC America