*****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD*****
This week, the Doctor and her TARDIS-traveling companions arrive at Lake Geneva, Switzerland on a stormy night in June of 1816; the very night that saw the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” story…and their time travel tour, as usual, hits a few snags. Written by Maxine Alderton and directed by Emma Sullivan, “The Haunting of Villa Diotati” ladles on the candlelit, smoke-filled atmosphere, creating a twisted haunted house story which hits a few snags of its own…
“The Haunting of Villa Diotati.”
The story begins with a comic beat, as we see Byron’s Swiss chateau drawing room with a Hugh Grantish-Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy) holding court with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (not yet-Shelley), played by Lili Miller. Rounding out the group are Dr. Polidori (Maxim Baldry) and a lovelorn Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parks), who quietly pines for the randy, amoral Lord Byron. Curiously absent is Mary’s paramour Percy Shelley. During that freakishly stormy night near Lake Geneva in June of 1816 (a night familiar to all classic horror literature fans), there is a loud knocking on the door. Screwing up the courage to answer, the group are momentarily startled out of their wits at the sight of a drenched Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Cooper), all dressed (more or less) in appropriate period attire…
The Doctor had the idea of taking her companions on an historical ‘tour’, but something is amiss. As she and her companions observe these greats of literature on this special night (the night which saw the birth of future Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus”), none of them are doing what they should be doing; scaring each other with horror stories. Instead, the group is playing silly games and dancing, with no knowledge of this particular stormy night’s literary significance.
Despite the Doctor’s own instructions to her friends not to interfere in history, she herself tries subtly, and not so subtly, to prod these literary greats into getting down to business, but they seem to be uninspired. Furthermore, the house itself is giving off a “vibe” which is interfering with the Doctor’s ability to think straight. The four hosts allow the Doctor and her companions to partake in dancing and other frivolous activities.
Graham sneaks off to use the loo, but becomes lost by the house’s twisting, changing geometry; it soon becomes like being inside of a three-dimensional Escher painting, with stairs leading to the same rooms, doors leading to where one came from, etc. Graham also sees what appears to be a lightning-lit apparition of a young, pale-faced chambermaid and a little girl (“Doc…I’m seein’ dead people!”).
French maid Elise (Sarah Perles) also feels the ‘bad vibe’ in the air, and is in a near-panic. Her concerns are centered on protecting Mary’s baby, William. There is also an issue with the irritable Dr. Polidori, who doesn’t sleep. His irritability leads to a confrontation with Ryan, whom he also challenges to a pistol duel. Graham steps in and diffuses the tension between the two, and an apparently exhausted Polidori later falls into a deep sleep, with Graham carefully watching over him. Things escalate from creepy to full-on horror when a reanimated disembodied skeletal hand springs from the floor and tries to choke Ryan before it is smashed to dust. Taking a taste (yech!) of the powdered hand, the Doctor surmises it’s just ordinary (albeit old) human bone…nothing alien or exceptional. The hand belonged to a 15th century soldier’s skeleton in a macabre collection of war trophies kept by Lord Byron. They later discover that the skeleton is missing its other hand…
Lady Claire is caught by Yaz breaking into Lord Byron’s chambers (ever the policewoman, that Yaz...). Claire confesses to Yaz that she was hoping to find if she were mentioned in any of Lord Byron’s letters, to see if her feelings for him are reciprocated. She and Yaz have a girl-to-girl talk in which Yaz also admits to knowing someone who is maddeningly enigmatic (is this a confession of Yaz’s feelings for the Doctor? Maybe…). It’s a nice moment, even if it doesn’t yield any real answers and slows the pace of the haunted house shenanigans a bit.
Mary is alarmed to discover her baby is missing. They begin a room to room search for the baby, as the house’s continually resetting interiors leads to fright and confusion. Meanwhile, Dr. Polidori mysteriously arises, walking in a zombified stupor, and right past Graham and through the walls (!). Graham shouts to the Doctor, who communicates with Graham through a chimney, that Polidori has gotten away… to which the Doctor yells back, “You had ONE job!”
As the combined guest & host search parties attempt to scour the house for clues, Yaz, Mary and Lord Byron find a room with mysterious symbols drawn all over the walls (Yaz, ever the copper, immediately takes notes). They also find the crib with Byron’s collectible 15th century skeleton in place of baby William (a genuinely unsettling image).
The Doctor soon surmises that the house’s shifting interiors are acting as a ‘security system’ to keep them away from something. Mary notices a vision outside on the lake during a lighting flash… a ghostly apparition which the Doctor recognizes as a being an out-of-phase time traveler (I saw it and immediately recognized it as an out-of-phase Cyberman, of the type last seen in “Army Of Ghosts”, but maybe 13 just forgot about that little adventure…?).
Closing their eyes to block out the house’s perception filter security system, the group soon finds a hidden chamber where Mary’s lover, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Lewis Rainer) is using his will to try to ‘guard’ something within himself from the mysterious silver ‘ghost’ of the lake. The ghost is (no great surprise) revealed to be “a lone Cyberman”, a human formerly named ‘Ashad’ (Patrick O’Kane); the same lone Cyberman Captain Jack Harkness warned the Doctor’s companions about a few weeks ago in “Fugitive of the Judoon.”
Mary appeals to the Cyberman Ashad’s lingering humanity, since it spared her baby’s life (killing Elise instead), but her appeal to Ashad’s former humanity is short-lived as the cyborg reveals that he murdered his own children when they resisted him. The Cyberman only spared her baby because it was of no use to him. Clearly, the lone Cyberman is a monster (an unintended inspiration for the collection of corpses that would form her reanimated Frankenstein’s monster later on…).
Using the 13th Doctor’s unique ability to do Vulcan-style ‘mind-melds’, the Doctor reaches into Percy’s mind and realizes that earlier, out by the lake, Percy stumbled across something that resembled quicksilver in the water. He reached for it, and it immediately bonded to his hand and was absorbed through his skin…fusing with his entire being. The ‘quicksilver’ was the Cyberium…the future knowledge of every single Cyberman ever and Percy just became its ‘guardian’… trying desperately to keep it safely away from the pursuant lone Cyberman. The lone Cyberman, who himself is only partly completed and in disrepair, wants the Cyberium back at all costs.
Committing what she believes to be a horrible violation of Shelley, the Doctor accelerates Percy’s mind all the way to the end of his life, allowing the young poet to ‘feel’ himself die, thus causing the Cyberium to depart his expiring body in search of a new host. Percy survives the near-death experience, but the Cyberium floats in space…suspended between the Doctor and the Cyberman, and attracting itself towards the Doctor (“Time Lord magnetism”, the Doctor quips). The Cyberium bonds with her instead of the Cyberman, giving her something with which to bargain.
That bargaining chip is short-lived when the Cyberman threatens to kill the now-useless Shelley and unravel history by undoing all of the influence his works (and his future wife’s) will have upon future generations. “Save the poet, save the world.” Despite her friends’ reiteration of Captain Jack Harkness’ desperate warning “Do not give the lone Cyberman what it wants”, the Doctor finds herself in the unenviable position of having to do precisely that; releasing the Cyberium from her body and into the waiting arm of the lone Cyberman, who, upon absorption of it, immediately vanishes…departing the early 19th century.
The Doctor now has the difficult task of pursuing the Cyberman into the future in an effort to save it. She realizes she made a terrible mistake, even as she was making it. It was a no-win situation. The TARDIS companions say their goodbyes to Percy, Mary, Lord Byron and a newly self-confident Claire. Their only advice to the literary greats is to keep up with the writing (kind of lame, but sure…). Claire also finds that she now has the self-worth to reject Lord Byron’s lascivious advances, remembering how easily he came onto the Doctor in her presence.
Aboard the TARDIS after departing 19th century Switzerland, the Doctor tells her companions that her plan is to chase the Cyberman Ashad into history and prevent his using the Cyberium to resurrect a new army of Cybermen. She adds that it’s a very dangerous mission, and that they don’t have to join her if they don’t want to. Yaz pulls notes from her pocket…notes taken of the scribblings on the walls of the house. Those scribblings are the coordinates to the Cyberman’s destination. Agreeing to remain with the Doctor, the four of them set off in pursuit…
Summing It Up.
While I’m getting a bit more used to the lack of gravitas in Jodie Whittaker’s flightier interpretation of the Doctor, I haven’t quite warmed up yet to Ryan, as played by Tosin Cole. He’s a handsome kid, but there’s really not much personality going on there. Of all the Doctor’s companions, he arguably is the most ‘real’ (a genuine everyday bloke) but the Doctor used to handpick her companions for some exceptional ability (clarity of thought, exceptional reasoning, lack of fear, gymnastic ability, whatever), not just for their utter ordinariness. If the show has to pare down its companion load by one, I’m afraid I know who’d be my pick to stay behind in Sheffield…
We’ve also seen a lot more historical visitors this year, with Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Percy Shelley, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Ada Lovelace, and Noor Inayat Khan (!). That’s a lot of historical figures for a 10 episode season, and the year’s not quite over yet. This deluge of historical figures reminds me very much of the earliest days of Doctor Who, when the series (originally intended as children’s programming in 1963) sought to be educational by providing its young audience with many ‘you-are-there’ style history lessons, with trips through time that saw the Doctor encountering cavemen, Aztecs, Marco Polo in China, the Saxons, the Vikings, the French Revolution, the Old West, etc. I certainly don’t mind if the historical settings are used to clever effect, and I give this latest episode major points for sheer atmosphere alone. However, it lacks the whimsical fun of “Tesla’s Night of Terror” or the deeper profundity of last season’s “Rosa.” “The Haunting of Villa Diotati” (as both story and historical encounter) is somewhere in the middle… not an exceptional story, but richly rendered. Positively dripping with candlelit atmosphere and smoky lighting, this episode is exceptionally stylish in its direction (kudos to Emma Sullivan).
The episode also selects a very interesting moment from history in which to hang a story; the night that inspired the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus.” Overall, I enjoyed the moments more than the whole; the disembodied hand, the bits of “Frankenstein” lore, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley’s poetry sprinkled throughout the dialogue, as well as the lovely period costumes. Which is why it’s a bit of a shame that it’s all used in the service of yet another Cyberman story. I used to enjoy the Cybermen (and still love their earlier classic appearances), but I feel they’ve been overused in both the Tennant and Capaldi eras (not unlike Star Trek’s Klingons, or the Borg in “Star Trek: Voyager”). We’ve already seen several globe-spanning Cybermen armageddons overcome by the Doctor and friends, so the threat of yet another one just doesn’t quite have the impact this story might’ve had with an unknown adversary with as-yet unknown capabilities. I couldn’t help but thinking that this story might’ve also been an opportunity to resurrect creepier, lesser-seen adversaries, such as The Silence, or even the Weeping Angels, whose gothic nature would lend themselves perfectly to the stormy night that yielded the creation of Shelley’s Frankenstein monster (itself somewhat loosely inspired by the Hebrew myth of the animated Golem statue). The lone Cyberman, as a climactic adversary of this handsomely crafted story, just feels a bit…tired.
That said, I’m hoping that, at the very least, the Cybermen of the next episode (or two) will at least have some new twist or ability that will make them relevant again, much like their deceptive appearance as ‘ghosts’ appearing for grieving relatives in “Army of Ghosts” (that idea was positively twisted…I loved it). If they’re returning once again merely as the Doctor’s Borg, it won’t be adding much to their lore.
We will see. I’m always up for a surprise!