Doctor Who: Terrifying Adversary Returns to Distress Itinerant Scribes
Before we begin this week, I’d like to draw your attention, in adjacently relevant form, to the Patient Centurion, the Doctor Who writings of perhaps the only bigger Doctor Who fanatic on this corner of the internet than my dorky behind. I always love reading different takes on the Whoniverse, especially when they come from people with a real passion for the show, and this blog totally fits that bill.
But! To the episode at hand, The Haunting of Villa Diodati. It’s been a while since we’ve had something really juicily ghostily, and frankly, that’s just not acceptable. As I’ve written before, much of my passion for this show revolves around its ability to send children and their sticky fingers and smelling of yoghurt behind the couch and far away from me. Doctor Who, at its best, can tell some truly spooky ghost stories, thanks to the fact that must rely on the constraints of a family show; no gore, no sex, just that good, bone-deep chill that comes from yarns that have no choice but to scare with story alone.
And what better place to set this than the titular Villa, home to a collection of some of
most overrated intensley pretentious painfully overwrought except Mary Shelley Whom We Stan most iconic British writers of all time? Against the brutal backdrop of a hopeless 1816, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, written by Maxine Alderton and directed by Emma Sullivan (who has, for sure, been taking some cues fromthe Haunting of Hill House playbook), looks set to be a perfect little slice of literary nerd Gothic horror.
Which it totally is, until it isn’t. This is a crammed fifty minutes of TV, and it speaks to the sheer deft craft of the script that it manages to unfold a very unsettling Ann Radcliff-esque Gothic horror that balances the spooky apparitions with a light roasting Lord Byron and the deliciously scandalous gossip of this incestuous social circle. I always appreciate an episode that isn’t afraid, as in the classic Unquiet Dead, to use classic storytellers and their storytelling to unabashedly raid as a style guide for this particular tale, and Villa Diodati is a perfect example of that.
But really, what this episode becomes is the most interesting thing about it. Jack Harkness (for whom, in this house, we would do anything for) warned the Doc’s assistants of the Lone Cyberman, who turns out to be the cause of a lot of the seemingly supernatural events plaguing the Villa. And God, this has to be one of the most deeply unsettling uses of the classic villains that I’ve ever seen – the Cyberman in question enters the story half-formed, armour incomplete and glimmers of humanity showing through, but still just as ruthless and unstoppable as ever. I love the idea of using non-traditional beings as the haunters for a haunted house story (See also, somehow:Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), and a Cyberman is about the last thing you’d want to encounter on a late-night trip to the loo. Apart from my cat.
I adore an episode which allows us to connect with the Doctor a little more deeply, and this is exactly that; the final act, as she must decide between saving the life of the innocent Percy Shelley and potentially averting the millions of deaths at the hands of a Cyber-Army, as well as her desperate attempts to rescue another human from the grips of the Cybermen – this is raw, emotional, angry stuff from Jodie Whittaker, a reminder of just how much she has suffered and just how big an impact it’s had on her. Watching her try to appeal to the humanity of this creature, as though saving it might be enough to undo what happened to Bill just a couple of seasons echo, is a perfect invocation of this show’s history. In fact, this episode reminded me a lot of Dalek, the first-season classic which is still up there with the best, with its complex morality and painfully conflicted Doctor.
Oh, and then you can throw in the parallels between this Cyberman and Frankenstein, a gloriously well-written outing for all the assistants, and stunning direction and set design, and this story is just overflowing with more ideas than I can even come close to unpicking in just one review. I know that I’ll come back to this episode soon enough, and frankly, I can’t wait to watch it again – it’s bold, spooky, silly, and works both as a gift to people who are well-versed in the series as a whole and those who just jumped in a season ago. The Haunting of Villa Diodati is a masterful episode, and there is nothing more worth saying about it than that. Apart from, uh, all of this, I guess.
If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out the rest of my Doctor Who recaps right here and hey, how about checking out my movie blog, No But Listen? If you just stop by for these recaps, then might I draw your attention to the fact that my first book, Rape Jokes,was released in between the last couple of seasons, and, oh, just so happens to have a few five-star reviews, not that I’m counting? As ever, thank you for reading, and drop your take on this episode in the comments below!
(header image via Radio Times)