The past few episodes of Doctor Who had slowly begun to unravel a lingering problem with this latest iteration of the show: too many people at the TARDIS console, leading to narrative setups that take too long to get going, or leave some of our heroes behind to really get there. Ahead of its season finale however, the show managed to find a way to have this large crew really work.
The answer to doing so in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” involved a few things – a classic threat and some good, old-fashioned spookiness, for a start. But it also mostly worked because instead of spreading Ryan, Yaz, Graham, and the Doctor out across different storylines and isolated networks of supporting characters, it instead created a pressure cooker of drama by trapping them all together in one small space: the titular estate of Lord Gordon George Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy) on the alleged night that one of Byron’s guests, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Lili Miller), pens the short story that would become Frankenstein, one of the earliest works of science fiction in the Western literary canon.
Even if that space was, paradoxically, large and volatile enough to keep team TARDIS mostly separated, after discovering rather quickly that something is not quite right when a 19th century villa keeps folding in on itself like an Escher painting come to life. But that simple act – cutting the Doctor off from her friends forcefully, not just to spread them all out on their own adventures – made “Haunting” an episode of escalating unease and dread matched by its gothic, haunted-house sensibilities. It was less about the Doctor and her friends individually coming to their own conclusions about just what the mystery threat of the week was (in this case, “why the hell is this Villa folding in on itself?”) before coming together for the climax, as was the case with both “Praxeus” and “Can You Hear Me?”. Instead, albeit separated, they all had to work together to solve it out even as the pressure of their separation threatened to undo the entire team in the process.
The mad, bad, and dangerous to know Lord Byron, and a few of his friends. Image: BBC
A lingering sense of dread pervades the entirety of the episode, an encroaching inevitability of horror that feels very appropriate when the episode’s true and familiar threat is ultimately revealed (more on that in a bit), but it’s not just the horror of a creepy house at night that creates that dread in “Haunting”. One of the more intriguing subplots this season of Doctor Who, in ways good and bad, has been how the shocking revelations from the Master about the destruction of Gallifrey has shunted the Thirteenth Doctor down a dark path that has seen her grown increasingly at odds with her “fam” of companions. It’s the unease of that relationship that simmers throughout “Haunting” as much as the spooky goings-on at Diodati do.
From the moment of their arrival at the Vill,a with Graham jokingly (but only sparingly) admonishing the Doctor for making them walk to the estate through the storm, to the parallels drawn between Byron, Shelly and her stepsister Claire (Nadia Parkes) exchanging gossip with their new guests about each other behind the mask of pleasant, courtly dance, it’s an episode that feels rife with simmering tensions. Tensions that inevitably begin to unravel when, through no fault of their own, the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham are split, alongside Diodati’s residents, across a building where hallways circle back in on themselves and walls are not quite they seem. They mostly unravel on the Doctor’s end, admittedly – as she gets increasingly exasperated not just by the bad vibe she feels in Diodati’s faux walls, but because her friends keep ignoring her requests to stay put and do as they’re told and only getting themselves increasingly more lost in the villa’s shifting landscape in the process.
A ghost in the machine. Image: BBC
This pressure cooker of frustration ultimately explodes violently when the catalyst of Diodati’s twisty-turny structure is revealed. The house is folding in on itself as a defence mechanism, because a Cyberman – the last Cyberman, as heralded by Captain Jack earlier in the season – is attempting to search for a strategic supercomputer that has found itself hidden within Villa Diodati to prevent a dire, cyber-run future. It’s a moment that throws the Doctor off entirely, not just because she suddenly has to confront this prophecy that has the entire future of humanity at stake when all she wanted was a fun time seeing Frankenstein get written. But because, in one of the smartest callbacks to Doctor Who’s past this season – one that has been almost alarmingly laden with them – facing the Cybermen once more dredges up a trauma from before her regeneration: the death of Bill Potts, and her own transformation into a Cyberman.
It’s a profoundly heartbreaking scene, one that Jodie Whittaker delivers brilliantly. The Doctor’s frustrations with her friends’ willingness to run headlong into danger clashes with the sudden spark of grief that being confronted with a damaged, partially-converted Cyberman evokes within her. Her fear and sadness as she declares that she will never lose anyone else to the Cybermen is palpable, but there’s also a darkness to it evocative of this incarnation of the Doctor’s new penchant for her superiority. It’s not just that the Doctor doesn’t want her friends to die, she reminds them that the only way for that to happen will be for them to do as they’re damn well told for once.
Yaz, Mary, and Byron uncover Percey Shelley’s maddened scrawls. Image: BBC
It’s a fury that comes to the fore again when, inevitably, that doesn’t happen, when the Doctor discovers the location of the Cyberium supercomputer the Cyberman wants – actually biologically embedded within a trapped, and seemingly dying, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who has been using its abilities to place perception filters and safeguards around the Villa as an act of defence. As the Doctor is with a nightmare scenario of letting Shelley die before his time as the Cyberium’s infection slowly kills him, or giving the Cyberman what it wants and bringing Jack’s portent to life, it’s Ryan that makes the mistake of questioning her. What’s a single Romantic poet’s life against, potentially, all of humanity It’s not even the “needs of the many” argument that Ryan clumsily attempts to make that sets the Doctor off – although her railing against him that Shelley’s place as a poet, rather than some great scientist or political leader, does not diminish his work’s influence on the world and generations beyond him is a great addition to Doctor Who’s championing of the power of stories.
It’s that, in a moment where she herself increasingly realises the inevitability of defeat – that regardless of what is about to happen, she will not be able to save everyone – that once again someone, one of her closest friends, would question her authority. And, once again as it did back in “Orphan 55”, the mask falls, and the Doctor makes it very clear: team TARDIS may indeed be a team, but atop that team is the Doctor, and she gets to decide who lives and who dies, because she is smarter, more powerful, more experienced, than anyone around her. And even her closest friends need harshly reminding of that alien anger every now and then. This isn’t the Twelfth Doctor angrily, passionately declaring why he fights the battles he does in “The Doctor Falls”, or even the Eleventh Doctor’s prideful boasting against his foes in “The Pandorica Opens”. It’s the spectre of the Time Lord Victorious, an arrogance lingering deep beneath the surface of every incarnation of the Doctor whether they want it to or not.
The Doctor barrels ever further down her dark path. Image: BBC
It’s the cathartic release of what has been a fascinating arc for the Thirteenth Doctor to go down on this season. The Master’s claims have truly unsettled her, events only compounded by being confronted with a mysterious, unknown version of herself that seems so very much unlike everything the Doctor otherwise stands for. And yet, here she is, becoming very much like that Doctor, as she makes her choice – save Shelley, and deal with the Cybermen in the future – regardless of what anyone else dares to tell her. And, at least in the moment, as she rails against her friends, she doesn’t care.
Really, it’s the perfect stage set for this season’s finale. The Doctor has made her choice and now has to deal with its dire fallout. Not just because failure could mean the Cybermen’s rise and the end of humankind, but because otherwise could expose fractures in her relationship with the people closest to her: fractures that, once and for all, could tear them all apart.
That is if the Cybermen don’t get to them all first. Bring it on, Doctor Who!
“The everlasting universe of things/Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves/Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom – /Now lending splendour, where from secret springs/The source of human thought its tribute brings/Of waters – with a sound but half its own.” Mount Blanc, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Image: BBC
- The poem Byron reads from at the end of the episode is called Darkness, and no, despite the parallels in that last stanza, he’s not writing about a figure like The Doctor. Instead, he’s writing about, err...the apocalypse? As mentioned in the episode, the summer of 1816 in Europe was marked by a series of climate events that lead to it being described as the “Year without a Summer”, where ashen fallout from the – at the time unknown – eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year prior sparked a volcanic winter. Tambora’s eruption created severe food shortages across Europe and periods of extreme weather, like the stormy night on which Byron and the Shelleys played the fateful game that lead to Frankenstein. The period of unsettled climate activity also sparked incidents of mass hysteria, fuelled by several alleged predictions that the Sun was going to imminently extinguish, and it is this that Byron writes about in Darkness. Written after the end-times date predicted by Italian astrologist, July 18, Darkness imagines a terrible going out of the universe, where the remnants of humanity eventually turn on each other as food runs out and the titular Darkness encroaches, until it reaches totality in the line “She was the Universe.” It’s an interesting read – you can do so here – given the historical context and its climate-driven angle, especially in our modern era, but also for how Byron, as the Romantics were wont to do, both evokes and subverts biblical imagery of the apocalypse to present an even far bleaker end – where no religious fervor, class, or individual piety could save the human race. Pleasant stuff, and evocative here, given the impending threat of the Cybermen.
- So what was meant to happen on the night Frankenstein was born? Well, it wasn’t really a single night. The Shelleys – not actually the Shelleys at this point, as they had yet to marry – and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont had been visiting Byron’s estate in Geneva, having fled the disapproval of Mary’s parents of her romance with Shelley, as he was a married man (they married in December of 1816, after Shelley’s then-wife committed suicide). After Byron suggested a writing competition about ghost stories to distract his visitors from the grim weather, Mary initially struggled to think of an idea for several days at the villa, until conversations between Shelley and Byron about the nature of death and the occult – specifically of the idea of a dead body being brought back to life – sparked the first seeds of Frankenstein (sorry, no Cybermen to be found here). Shelley encouraged Mary to expand the idea into a full-length novel, where Mary drew upon her own personal tragedies – Frankenstein was written in the wake of her half-sister’s suicide, and her first child had died young. William, the baby Mary’s seen doting on throughout this episode, would not survive before Frankenstein was published, first anonymously, in 1818.
- Okay fine, let’s stop talking about the historical context of English Literature and talk about the Cybermen. Sigh. But also yay, because how good and creepy and just incredibly tragic was Ashad’s design? It wasn’t just the broke, battered nature of the Last Cyberman that made it such a compelling figure, but its emotionality. It felt not just evocative of the grandiose Cybermen voices of the ‘80s, but raised an interesting and compelling train if thought I’d love to see Doctor Who pick up on in its finale: if part of what makes the Cybermen so creepy is that they are us, stripped of the very thing that defines us a human beings – our capacity to feel emotion – what is a Cyberman who can feel those, and almost revel in the hate of it? Was it just Ashad himself, only part-converted? Are these new Cybermen just built without emotional inhibitors and driven furiously mad by the process? Bring on the next two weeks so we can find out!