Doctor Who – Season 12 Episode 8
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati”
Doctor Who brings a haunted house story, another historical celebrity and the return of an old enemy to challenge The Doctor.
Haunted house stories have become a staple of this show with an example almost every season in one form or another. It’s easy to see why it’s a well that keeps being returned to as it allows the location to take on a life of its own and heighten the tension through spooking the characters as well as the audience through unexplained creaks, bizarre happenings and a creepy monster.
The first half of this episode throws almost every haunting trope imaginable at the audience to varying degrees of success. Some are laughable such as the skeletal hand skittering around and choking Ryan where some are effective such as the slow burn realisation that there’s a presence in the room that can’t immediately be identified. Another notably hilarious trick the episode tries is the rooms that loop. These aren’t used particularly well especially the example where The Doctor runs out of frame only to run back into it. It just looks like she’s running around impatiently rather than actually being stuck in a loop she can’t escape from. The horror would have worked far better if the production team had stuck to one or two tropes and concentrated on doing them well rather than cramming in as much variety as possible in the time allowed.
As with most episodes this season, there is a fairly large guest cast. This is another episode where historical celebrities feature; this time it’s Mary Wollstonecroft Goodwin -later to be known as Mary Shelley, the writer of Frankenstein (Lili Miller) and the English poet Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy) among others that populate the collection of characters. Since there are so many of them and so much for the episode to get through they largely become defined by one character trait. Byron’s main trait is that he’s sleazy and inappropriate which leads to an admittedly funny exchange with The Doctor where his attempt to hit on her isn’t something that impresses her in the least. Byron works well enough for the most part, at least in context but his arrogance does become tedious very quickly.
Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer) deserved a lot more attention than the episode has time to give him. In a more focused narrative he would be a far more tragic and sympathetic figure than he comes across. The tragedy comes from him being unfortunate enough to discover the dangerous sought after alien artefact and finding that it ruins his life in various ways. It is something the episode quickly covers late on which is enough to explain what’s going on but not enough to create an emotional connection to it. Percy is the focus of a mystery more than he is a character which means there is limited time to connect with him in any meaningful way. The threat associated with removing the artefact from him is massively undercut when The Doctor easily finds a way around it. This makes it impossible to take the stakes seriously as if she can easily resolve something then she can theoretically easily resolve anything.
Mary receives a great deal more attention than any of the other characters which makes sense given the episode takes place on the night that inspired her to write Frankenstein. She receives some really important advice from Ryan who talks to her as he struggles to play the piano. He tells her that he was always told to keep trying and advises her that she should do the same with her writing because there’s no reason not to. This was a nice character moment and nicely dodged the time travel trope of inspiring the writer by directly quoting things that they wrote.
Her scene with the Cyberman, Ashad where she tries to appeal to any Humanity that might exist within him is also really strong as it shows a strong desire on her part to see good where there doesn’t appear to be any. It’s also a clear inspirational factor for the Frankenstein story as the character she will create appears monstrous but is ultimately misunderstood. I was impressed by how subtle this was as a reference while also being meaningful in the context of the story as it allows for some insight into the back story of Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) before subverting expectations and having him lean into his complete lack of empathy. Allowing him to be beyond redemption heightens his threat value as there’s absolutely no way to reason with him.
Ashad does suffer from a lack of development. Up until a point he’s a force of nature that adds to the haunted house problem as the randomness of events within the house means that he can crop up anywhere. His introduction as the ghostly figure outside before forcing his way in is really effective and the broken armour design aesthetic with his face partially uncovered was a memorably creepy image that set him apart from previous Cyberman appearances.
His arrival is an obvious -and referenced- callback to Jack’s warning about the Lone Cyberman a few episodes ago which does nicely add to the mystery as it reminds us of the question around what it is he wants and why he shouldn’t be allowed to achieve his goal. It also creates a question around what scenario will be set up where The Doctor will have a difficult choice with one of the options being to give Ashad what he wants.
The Doctor makes reference to some situations being impossible to win and this appears to be one of them. When she becomes the host for the Cyberium, Ashad threatens to destroy Earth if she doesn’t surrender it to him. This sets up a difficult choice as The Doctor knows that giving Ashad the Cyberium will allow him to rebuild the Cybermen which creates represents a significant danger for the universe but she also can’t sacrifice Earth so she has to make a difficult choice and ultimately chooses to give Ashad what he wants so that Earth can be saved. Her decision comes after Ashad declares that the Cybermen are inevitable which seems to make the choice easier. This makes sense as The Doctor has routinely witnessed seemingly destroyed enemies returning so isn’t prepared to accept that sacrificing Earth would be the end of the Cybermen once and for all. If she allows Earth to be destroyed and then runs into the Cybermen again somewhere down the line the sacrifice will have been for nothing.
As good as the notion of a no-win scenario is, I found the actual execution to be somewhat lacking for a number of reasons. For one thing, The Doctor immediately comes up with a plan that allows her to save Earth and possibly prevent the rebuilding of the Cyberman army so the idea that she doesn’t win is completely undercut. Nothing has really been lost here other than people who would likely have died anyway, history is preserved and she still has a chance to defeat Ashad. I also don’t believe that Jack would willingly sacrifice Earth in order to ensure that Ashad doesn’t get what he wants. He is someone known for making difficult moral choices but he would never make that kind of choice. He also would never assume that The Doctor would make that sacrifice. It’s possible that he didn’t know all of the details but he seemed really knowledgable when he warned the companions so it seems to be something that was developed as a tease without being properly thought out. It’s also worth bearing in mind that The Doctor’s presence makes no real difference here. If she hadn’t arrived then Ashad would have still managed to take the Cyberium so it’s not as if she led him to it. The only difference is that Percy would have died but the end result would have been largely the same. The no-win idea would have been more impactful if it had been more closely connected to The Doctor.
It’s disappointing that we were robbed of a true no-win scenario as the episode builds up to it brilliantly. Jodie Whittaker’s performance as she gives a speech about what it can really be like to be her and the weight attached to some of the difficult choices she has to make is excellent. She’s beyond the point of letting her companions weigh in on the decision because they don’t understand the magnitude of what’s at stake and tells them on no uncertain terms that she’s in charge so there is to be no debate over what their next move is. It’s bizarre that this isn’t addressed at any point in the episode even for them to agree with what she says and defer to her considerable experience. Instead they pledge to help her at the end of the episode as if nothing had happened. It’s very weak to have the companions be so selective on when they challenge The Doctor.
Other than that, this was a great episode for the companions in general as they each had something meaningful to do. I’ve already talked about Ryan and Mary. Another significant scene was Elise and Yaz where Elise talks about her feelings for Lord Byron and her inability to express them properly as she’s worried he might not feel the same way about her. Yaz relates to Elise’s reasons for being unsure how he feels and references someone she knows who is like that. It’s as close as we get to her admitting she has romantic feelings for The Doctor and hopefully starts something that can be built on in future episodes. There is also a further example of her showing initiative and following The Doctor’s example without waiting for her to return therefore reinforcing her desire to be operating on her level rather than being a subordinate. This makes it doubly confusing as to why she has nothing to say when The Doctor tells everyone that she’s in charge. Graham has some fun moments if not especially deep such as being brought food by ghosts and constantly looking for a toilet. His interactions with the various characters are always fun to watch thanks to Bradley Walsh’ ability to blend into any crowd and still be noticed.
An uneven episode with a strong antagonist and excellent character moments that is let down by overusing horror tropes and failing to use the characters to their full potential. The horror would have been far more effective had there been focus on doing a small number of them well. Some of them work really well but some are laughable and ridiculous so there needed to be a greater sense of balance to the attempts to scare audiences. Another large guest cast mean that most of them lack personality and have one single defining trait such as Lord Byron being sleazy. It is used well here and there but it makes the guest characters less than memorable. Mary is used to much greater effect and there are a couple of subtle references to Frankenstein that work really well as potential inspiration. Ashad is a good villain but suffers from a lack of development brought on by focusing on the mystery surrounding him for too long. He looks great and is appropriately menacing while also being beyond reason which vastly increases his threat level. Percy has a similar problem as audiences are supposed to engage with his tragic back story but it comes too late in the episode for it to receive the attention it deserves.
The no-win scenario idea is good in theory and executed well on the surface as The Doctor is faced with an enemy she can’t reason with and has to make a difficult choice between dooming the Earth to being destroyed and having the Cybermen restored. She chooses to save Earth and risk the return of a full strength Cyberman army. The no-win scenario is undercut by the fact she immediately has a back-up plan. Nothing is actually lost through her decision and it’s difficult to believe that Jack would encourage her to make a decision that means destroying Earth. It’s also worth noting that if she hadn’t been there then the result would have been almost no different so it’s not as if she was responsible for leading Ashad to what he was looking for. Her speech where she tells her companions that she’s completely in charge because she understands what’s at stake and the impact her decisions can have is brilliantly performance though bizarrely has no consequences by way of a reaction from any of the companions even if they were to agree with her. Despite that this was a great episode for all of the companions with Ryan helping to inspire Mary to continue writing, Yaz trying to resolve her own feelings about The Doctor through advising Elise and Graham generally having excellent interactions with everyone.
- strong material for all of the companions
- subtle Frankenstein references that help inform Mary’s character
- facing The Doctor with a no-win scenario
- a strong antagonist in Ashad
- The Doctor’s speech about how difficult it is being her
- Percy arriving too late in the story for the audience to truly connect with him
- Ashad suffering from a lack of development
- too many horror tropes with some of them being more laughable than scary
- the no-win scenario not working as intended
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