Monday 17 February 2020

Reviews in Space & Time: Doctor Who 12x08 - The Haunting of Villa Diodati

Doctor Who 12x08 - The Haunting of Villa Diodati

Doctor Who and Mary Shelley - a match made in heaven? One might think so given the amount of times the two have crossed paths, with the 19th century writer having previously crossed paths with the Tenth Doctor in the Battles in Time comic strip and been a fully-fledged companion to the Eighth Doctor in a series of Big Finish audio adventures. But without arguing just which of these are considered canon, it’s time for a new first encounter with Doctor 13 in The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Edging one step closer to the two-part series finale, this episode from writer Maxine Alderton and director Emma Sullivan promises to be the injection of gothic horror series 12 has lacked thus far.

Arrival at Villa DiodatiSpooky goings on

1816, the year without a Summer. The Doctor and friends decide to drop in on the Villa Diodati mansion in Switzerland, rubbing elbows with the likes of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. The fam are under strict orders not to mention the word "Frankenstein", but something's wrong. Percy Shelley is nowhere to be seen, there are strange going ons inside the house and outside a mysterious figure is waiting to break through.

Navigating the haunted maze that Villa Diodati has become, the Doctor attempts to put history back on the correct course. But when that mysterious figure fully reveals itself, the only thing that matters is Captain Jack Harkness' warning. "Beware the lone Cyberman, and don't give it what it wants."

Beware the lone CybermanAn impossible decision

Despite its regular insistence that everything needs an extraterrestrial explanation, Doctor Who can do straight supernatural extremely well when it wants to. A large gathering in a dark house with a missing person mystery might sound cliche, but when it comes to setting up the tone at atmosphere The Haunting of Villa Diodati revels in it. The completely coincidental timing with Storm Dennis hitting the UK couldn't have felt more appropriate, as Doctor Who serves up a dimly lit spectacle best experienced in a darkened room. But at the same time show is as careful as ever to balance horror with humour, giving the proceedings an almost Scooby Doo-like quality as the gang split up to experience their respective horrors in different parts of the house. How to handle a larger cast has remained a consistent problem for the series, but this is the kind of setting where it's very easy to give everybody something to do without having to worry about just how much it's serving the overall plot. With all that in mind, it's surprising that it's taken this long to get this kind of story with the 13th Doctor.

There's no denying that The Haunting of Villa Diodati does its utmost to steep itself in that dark atmosphere, and while it may be successful for the most part that does make it in episode that takes a fair bit of time to gain momentum. There's a lot of fully immersing itself in the period to kick things off, giving the chance for it to settle in with some of its more humorous moments (Ryan being challenged to a duel being among the highlights) before settling in with a much darker tone. But in setting up its mysteries it's almost as though the episode goes too caught up in revelling in that atmosphere, bringing plenty to the table in terms of creepy imagery but not quite doing enough with any of it. Between flashing images, ghostly apparitions and severed body parts it feels as though no cliche is left unturned. That in itself isn't the problem - it's that like several other episodes this series these moments turn out to be window dressing more than anything else, with the real meat of the story pushing all that aside for a similar, but different kind of horror. However the changeover is where the episode does find its focus and begins to move toward something much more exhilarating, it's just a shame that there feels like such a big disconnect between the two halves.

The oncoming stormLord Byron

But what's perhaps even more surprising than the appearance of the much anticipated lone Cyberman (which to its credit is another well kept secret by the production team this series) is that for an episode that stars Mary Shelley she really isn't that much of a focus at all. Previous episodes starring historic figures, especially the ones starring the current Doctor, have always placed them on a pedestal - attempting to educate viewers on the lesser known faucets of their lives as well. The origin of Frankenstein naturally plays a big part in the episode but it isn't the only one either, as the story also has to balance several other famous figures from the 19th century. What it lacks in having fun with some of the more surreal moments from Shelley's life it tries to make up for with other characters, but doesn't quite get right there either. Lord Byron's womanising might make for good comedy, but portraying him as a coward feels off the mark. Even Percy Shelley feels more of a plot device than character - a victim not only to the cyber technology that's installed itself in him but also in that he has to see his own impeding death to be free of it. There isn't a weak performance among the guest cast but this is where the story plays into those haunted house cliches negatively - in that they're simply bodies you're wondering who the next bad thing will happen to.

In an age of technology the Cybermen have come a long from their Frankenstein-esque origins of the 1960s, but if there's one thing this episode did to well it was stripping them back (both literally and metaphorically) to what made them such a chilling and effective villain in the first place. Much like Dalek did all the way back in 2005, this episode is about showing that less truly is more - fully displaying the horror of a single Cyberman rather than the faceless armies they’ve been reduced to in the last few years. However this isn’t your regular Cyberman though, for a start he even has a name - Ashad. Presumably one of the last remnants of the Cyber War, Ashad is only partly converted - he has the body, but his emotions (particularly rage) all seem to be intact.

The Cyberman stalksMary and Percy Shelley

While a Cyberman that still has its emotions does fundamentally undercut what the race is all about, in the context of this particular episode it does make sense. With Ashad presumably set to return in next week’s episode there should almost certainly be more backstory to how he got like this, but in this moment it’s of course to be that Frankenstein inspiration. The visual side of this works perfectly. Ashad is a much-needed reminder that there are people underneath those metal bodies, and the fluctuations between his normal voice and the cold drone of the Cybermen perfectly conveys that fleeting humanity. Moments like him using lightning to recharge his systems are a little on the nose, but work well nevertheless. The standout moment comes as Mary attempts to show Ashad the same compassion the monster sought in her novel, only for him to push it aside. It isn’t quite as deftly handled as Big Finish’s The Silver Turk was, but it certainly wasn’t a bad effort.

Ashad’s arrival might have brought some much needed focus to the episode, but the cyber technology that came along with it struggled to be little more than a plot device that could quickly hand-wave away the mysteries that had been plaguing Villa Diodati beforehand. While the full extent of just what the Cyberium is won’t be revealed until the next episode, from this we can know that the nanomachine blob can do everything from reanimate corpses and turn the house into a maze of illusions to bringing back the Cybermen from the brink of extinction. The only thing left unanswered was Graham’s ghost story, which might not have gelled all that well with where the episode ended up going but did at least serve as a reminder that there’s still a place for the wholly supernatural in Doctor Who.

What it did do though was able to bring out another show-defining performance in the 13th Doctor, when she’s faced with an un-winnable decision to make. Over the course of series 12 we’ve slowly begun to see cracks form between the Doctor and her “fam”, but it truly reaches boiling point here as the trio consider killing Percy Shelley “the greater good” and making sure Jack’s warning doesn’t become a reality. But sacrificing a life is never that easy for the Doctor, which propels her into a speech defining their team structure and how she stands “in the stratosphere alone”. The Doctor is forced between changing history or changing the future, which lives on the line no matter what decision she takes. While the Daleks may be considered the Doctor's greatest enemy, the Cybermen have also taken their fair share from the Doctor over the years as well. It doesn't feel all that long ago that we said goodbye to Bill Potts after she was converted into a first generation Cyberman, and when the Doctor tells her companions that she's not prepared to lose anyone else the loss of her, as well as Adric and everyone else she's had to watch fall, is felt.

His name is AshadThe Cyberium

Although The Haunting of Villa Diodati turned out to be another case of setting up future episodes more than its own story, it’s setting and grisly spin on the Doctor’s age-old enemy gave it a lot to work with. The slow opening and plot conveniences might not do it many favours, but the subtle Frankenstein nods and excellent performance from Jodie Whittaker are enough to balance these issues out. With the Cybermen poised to return to their former glory, the only question remains is whether Doctor Who finally has these iconic monsters figured out for the modern age? Stay tuned for Ascension of the Cybermen and find out!

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