Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Sometimes the best surprises are those that are right there, in your face, all along. I knew for a long time that The Haunting of Villa Diodati was a story about Mary Shelley and the night that inspired her novel Frankenstein*, and I knew that it immediately preceded a climactic 2-parter featuring the return of the Cybermen – but I never for a second foresaw the presence of a Cyberman in this story. And it’s so obvious! It makes so much sense! What is wrong with me not spotting this? Of course, a lot of people will claim that they saw it from the start… but then a lot of people talk a lot of bollocks, so that’s nothing to set your store by. You know what though? I’m glad that I didn’t see it coming. Is that feeling of superiority that you guessed the twist of something really any replacement for the thrill of a well-crafted plot turn? Not really; I’d really live a life of gleeful surprise than one of being constantly and joylessly right.
The Haunting of Villa Diodati revolves around the famous night on the shores of Lake Geneva when writers and poets Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori, Percy Shelley, his ‘wife’ Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her stepsister Claire Claremont gathered to tell each other ghost stories, leading to Mary writing Frankenstein and becoming more culturally relevant than any of the rather grand and prolific authors in her company. The same scenario was the backdrop for Ken Russell’s movie Gothic – WARNING: if your kids enjoyed The Haunting of Villa Diodata, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES be tempted to show them Gothic! Anyway, in this version things aren’t as they seem and the arrival of the Doctor and her ‘fam’ spark a sequence of events that sees an evening of childish fun turning into something downright disturbing.
Strange apparitions lead to the occupants exploring the house, but the house has become a thing of shifting and confusing geography, not unlike The Avengers’ episode The House That Jack Built (or the dreadful 1999 remake of The Haunting if you absolutely must). Byron and co think that the house is haunted, but the Doctor suspects something more extra-terrestrial; she’s also wondering where exactly Percy Shelley is, as the explanation that he’s retired to a remote lake house to write just doesn’t ring true. It turns out that the two are connected, as a mysterious figure who has been travelling back through time and uses lightning as an energy source demands to find someone who eventually turns out to be Shelley, demented and raving because of something strange that he found on the shores of Lake Geneva.
The big punch is, of course, that the traveller is a Cyberman. It makes perfect sense; Frankenstein is a story about the reanimation of corpses and spare part surgery and that is essentially the nature of the Cybermen. This particular Cyberman – the Lone Cyberman that Captain Jack Harkness warned of in Prisoner of the Judoon – is only half transformed and so has an appearance that roughly equates to Frankenstein; enough to give Mary the idea for her book anyway. It’s like Timelash all over again! The Lone Cyberman is a terrific design, a dirtied-down mix of different generations of the silver giants with a half-exposed face, terrifically played by Patrick O’Kane. If I had a complaint about the character, it’s that his quite graphic description of having murdered his family is very strong fare for 7pm on a Sunday evening. Once again, I think the series is forgetting its family audience remit and unwisely aiming to emulate a Netflix / HBO production.
The rest of the cast do very well in what are basically period roles. Jacob Collins-Levy is suitably skin-crawling as sex pest Lord Byron; his attempted flirtation with the Doctor is the first time since the character changed gender that the series has tackled the idea of someone finding her sexually attractive, and Jodie Whittaker’s subsequent brush-off is understated and perfect for the Doctor. Lili Miller plays Mary as a character who sways from doting 19th century mother to a look of being slightly demented when the creative muse takes over her. The companions turn in decent performances, with some excellent comedy shtick from Bradley Walsh as Graham. Tosin Cole as Ryan is a little flat, as he is in a lot of these episodes, though I think that’s far more to do with the underdevelopment of the character than his skills as an actor. Basically, I just don’t think the writers really know what to do with Ryan.
The thing that the Lone Cyberman is seeking, and which Shelley had found on the shores of Lake Geneva, is the Cyberium – the repository of all cyber knowledge in the form of a living liquid metal. The Doctor hands it over to the Lone Cyberman in order to save lives, which is exactly what Captain Jack asked the fam to tell her not to do, but she reasons it is justified damage control here that she can put right at a later stage. Parts of the jigsaw finally fall into place, but there are still a shed-load of questions left to be answered. This story leads you to believe that the Lone Cyberman is the thing sent back through time that the Master referred to in Spyfall, but personally – CRACKPOT FAN THEORY ALERT – I suspect that the thing is actually the Ruth Doctor from Fugitive of the Judoon. Wouldn’t it be just like the Master to refer to his arch-nemesis as a thing?
I’d put The Haunting of Villa Diodati in the upper rankings of the series so far, not quite reaching the heights of Fugitive of the Judoon, but probably on a level pegging with Spyfall. Maxine Alderton’s script artfully mixes the gothic horror of the classic series with the tricksy plotting of the modern era and produces something that succeeds in both camps. The series is building its arc in an arguably much cleverer way than either RTD or Moffatt ever manages, which seems to suggest that the critical failure of Series 11 was largely down to its insistence on standalone episodes. Chibnall, it seems, works better when he’s building a labyrinth of mystery, as he would on a non-genre series like Broadchurch. Having said that, we’ve yet to see the conclusion, so it could be as full of holes as an Eleventh Doctor season (still my favourite era of the new show, despite its many flaws). Let’s hope not, eh?
*If you’re the kind of incurable pedant who gets in a tizzy because I called it ‘Frankenstein’ and not ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, then please – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – go suck a pig.