Doctor Who review, The Haunting of Villa Diodati: A muddled episode that underserves Jodie Whittaker

The Doctor and her crew take a trip back to 1816, as Lord Byron and the Shelleys plan a night telling ghost stories

Ed Power
Sunday 16 February 2020 19:26 GMT
Doctor Who: Series 12 Trailer

What a lumbering, stitched-together beast of an episode this is. The Doctor and the gang have gatecrashed the Lake Geneva retreat of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (as she is named here) on one of the most celebrated dark and stormy nights in 19th-century letters. Yes, the very get-together that would inspire Mary (Lili Miller) to pen her proto-science fiction caper, Frankenstein.

The Doctor and her crew are not the only visitors. A sellotaped-together Cyberman has travelled the time-streams in pursuit of a glob of self-aware molten metal called cyberium.

You can see where this is leading. A light bulb goes off in Mary’s head as she is pursued around the lakeside villa by everyone’s second favourite Doctor Who baddie. The Cyberman is the original Frankenstein’s Monster! It’s a wonderful idea but also a missed opportunity. Imagine how much better Frankenstein would have been had its author been menaced by Daleks instead.

That’s a very loose synopsis of what’s going on. Unfortunately, and not for the first time under show-runner Chris Chibnall, Whittaker-era Who is hobnailed by a woozy plot.

Why have the Doctor and her sidekicks touched down in Switzerland in 1816? If this is the “lone Cyberman” that John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness warned of several instalments back, how did he know to give the Doctor a heads-up? And why are the actors playing Byron, Doctor Polidori and the possessed Percy Shelley so difficult to tell apart? (Shelley is the easiest to keep track of in that he’s a dead ringer for former Top Gear tiny person Richard Hammond.)

As the title indicates, The Haunting of Villa Diodati also wants to be a spooky mansion story, though the supernatural spell is broken when the Cyberman (Nicholas Briggs) stomps in half way through. The ghostly goings-on are courtesy of Shelley, hiding in the basement having had his brain hijacked by the cyberium. It wants to stay hidden from the Cyberman, for complicated reasons that I’m not sure I entirely grasp. The upshot is that it using Shelley (Lewis Rainer) to hijack reality and creep everyone out.

With Chibnall having generally steered shy of classic Who villains, it is a treat to witness the return of the iconic Cyberman. Even here, though, there are tweaks. This is a Cyberman 1.0, with mask half-removed so that he looks like a semi-human Borg from Star Trek. Oh and he has a cuddly streak, as we discover when he declines to kill a baby. Bless his little cyber-socks.

Amid the confusion and excitement are indications where the season may be headed. Yaz (Mandip Gill) hints at a possible romantic feelings for the Doctor (picking up from a plot thread from the previous series). And the Time Lord herself freaks-out when it becomes clear the rest of the team are open to letting Shelley die in order to foil the Cyberman.

The Doctor explains that this is a democracy of which she is absolute ruler and that allowing a poet to perish could have reverberations in the centuries to come. She at another point quotes the famous line “She walks in beauty, like the night,” which either means she is au fait with Byron’s back catalogue or is a fan of Suede’s Dog Man Star (hopefully the latter)

As if that wasn’t enough Chibnall bungs on a cliffhanger at the end. The Doctor exorcises the malevolent cyberium from Shelley’s mind and it and the Cyberman are beamed into the far future. The Doctor sets off in hot-pursuit. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, meanwhile, is poised to put her adventures down on paper as Frankenstein. So the resolution is tidy, as well as open-ended. It’s just a shame the lead-up is such a muddle.

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