Doctor Who: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

'You irritate me!'

Well, you certainly can't complain about a lack of atmosphere.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron was renting a house in Switzerland. Percy and Mary Shelley were staying at a house nearby. The weather was crappy, and they made a bet about writing ghost stories. Only Mary ever got around to writing hers, which was Frankenstein, and that's where science fiction came from. The end.

That's the story as I've always vaguely understood it. Turns out that it's a bit of an oversimplification. And at least half of the details are wrong. (Both Byron and Dr. Polidori had works published based on the bet, just for starters. And if you'd told me that there was someone named Claire Clairmont there, I would have accused you of just making the name up.)

I know better now, because I just went down a serious rabbit hole reading about all five of them as a direct result of watching this episode, and they're absolutely fascinating. This is what Doctor Who is for, or at least this is what Doctor Who was for once upon a time. It was intended to inspire the viewer to go out and learn more about the people and places that it introduces us to. Anyone who knows how and why the word 'Massacre' was coined has a 98% chance of knowing it because of the classic series, but don't ask them about it as it'll start fights over what the early stories were 'really' called.

I mention this, because it brings up a difficulty for me, a survivor of the American school system, in reviewing certain episodes of this show. It came up in the comments section a few episodes back regarding Ada Lovelace, and it's back again here. Specifically, there are a number of aspects in this episode that either weren't sufficiently explained, or are so well known in the UK that they simply don't require explaining.

Case in point, Shelley's vision of his own death. We see a hand in the water, and thanks to Wikipedia I now know that Shelley drowned in a shipwreck at sea about six years after the events we're seeing. But in that all we saw was a hand, I kind of had to infer from the way people were reacting that his death wasn't too far off. To be clear, I really liked that they didn't make a big deal of explaining it, but I wish I knew if it was just my educational background at fault and not the storytelling. So, for the sake of this review I'm going to be assuming that the portions which were unclear to me represented gaps in my own knowledge of things that the primary audience would be well aware of, and so aren't really flaws.

I can't, after all, complain that the film 1917 doesn't make any sense just because I've never heard of World War I.

For what it's worth, I adore the story of how Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, and have ever since I first heard it as a boy, so I was eagerly anticipating this one. And man, on the field of pure atmosphere, it did not disappoint. The new lenses they've been using since Chibnall took over earned every penny spent on them this week, because the haunted house shots of candlelight and muted shadows looked absolutely gorgeous. Particular appreciation has to go to both the lighting and sound design on show here as well. A haunted house story lives or dies (no pun intended) on how effectively it creates the right atmosphere and they completely nailed it. I could have happily bathed in that atmosphere for hours and hours.

The only flaws I can really point to here all come down to the fact that this should have been a two parter. Then we could have stretched all that lovely atmosphere of everything up until the Cyberman arrives as its own ghost epic of shifting walls and missing Shelleys, then pivot to the more overtly sci-fi stuff of the Cyberman, Cyberium, and setup for the big season finale two parter.

Which isn't to say that the haunted house atmosphere stopped working once there was a Cyberman stomping around in it. It absolutely should have. There's no possible way that that should have worked. And the numerous attempts to directly underline how the basic concept of the Cybermen was directly inspiring Mary's book should have been the most irritating thing ever. I'm actually afraid that if you just read the script it would be. But it isn't, and it doesn't, and it works, for one fundamental reason.

They made the Cyberman genuinely scary.

That sold the whole thing. A half finished Cyberman who screams, and shouts, and hates, in that house, in that atmosphere, made the Cybermen scary to me for the first time in decades. Maybe ever.  In any other atmosphere you end up with 'Torchwood: Cyberwoman,' and nobody wants that.  I understand and respect that there are going to be some viewers out there who argue that giving a Cyberman emotions like hate and irritation goes directly against the whole point of what the Cybermen are about. All I can say is that they clearly were doing it deliberately – unlike some Cyber stories from the 80s that I could point to – and that I'd rather have an interesting aberration than a tedious accuracy, any day.

So, yes. The last minute to-ing and fro-ing with the Doctor absorbing the Cyberium, then giving it up right away, and the twice repeated 'Do you let a small number die to save a large number' needed to either be streamlined or given a whole episode to breathe. I would have preferred the latter. And why does this show insist on wanting to make me explain Utilitarianism versus Categorical Imperative every other week? The comparisons between Cybermen and Frankenstein were a little too on the nose. Claire Clairmont's part was a little underwritten.

This isn't a perfect episode. But for a show that's attempted haunted house stories many times before, they've never nailed the atmosphere better, and I'll take that any day. Now go take a read as to what all else was going on in the lives of Byron and the Shelleys at this point, because holy cow did those folks live a life.



Bits and Pieces:

-- Claire's empowered break with Byron at the end becomes a little messier once the research tells you that she was pregnant with his child at the time. And 17. And was also probably sleeping with Shelley. Oh, and the bit about how Mary called herself Mrs. Shelley even though they weren't married? That would be because he was already married to a women named Harriet, whom he abandoned and who killed herself a bit later on, ironically also by drowning. After that Percy and Mary got properly married, although it was in no way easy sailing. Did I mention that these people lived a hell of a life?

-- Really nice tie in mention of Byron's daughter Ada, who we of course met in 'Spyfall.' I wonder if that's just a coincidence due to them wanting to compare the Cybermen to Frankenstein's Monster, or if it's going to become a thing.

-- They pointedly did not explain the woman and girl ghosts who brought Graham snacks. Is that a mysterious coda to imply ghosts might be real, or an unresolved plot point we'll pick up later? I'm betting the former.

-- The snapping of Elise's neck was startlingly brutal for this show. Sadly, despite being saved here by Cyber compassion, the baby died when it was three. Lived. A. Life.

-- I loved how delicately they invoked the memory of both Bill and Adric's death by the hand of the Cybermen. And how it played into the Doctor's decisions in the last act. You didn't have to know the specifics to appreciate what she was saying, but it really added a lot of color if you did.

-- Really good fake-out of Ashad the Cyberman seeming to be redeemed and then not.

-- The poem by Shelley that the Cyberman somehow knows is part of 'Queen Mab.'  I'm sorry, I don't know if it has any thematic resonance for what's going on. The romantic poets are a little bit out of my sphere, I'm afraid. See above, re: educational gaps.

-- Was Yaz pining about Ryan, or the Doctor? She kept referring to 'person.'  I don't like either option.

-- Graham quoting Jane Austen was funny. He isn't too far off, either. She died the following year. It's actually odd that Byron didn't call him out on the quote.

-- Fair play to Jacob Collins-Levy, he made Lord Byron come off as kind of a douche, but also kind of likable in a base level charismatic sense.

-- Gossiping while doing the Quadrille is an ingenious way to handle exposition.

-- So the Cyberium is basically the old Cyber Planner.  It's been upgraded since it was played by a groovy microphone.



Quotes:

Lord Byron: "If something infernal is on my doorstep, I should be the one to go and greet it."

The Doctor: "Excuse me, Yaz, I was very clear about the rules."
Ryan: "Nobody mention Frankenstein and don't interfere."
Yaz: "And nobody snog Byron."

Ryan: "It's a hand. It's definitely a hand."

Doctor: "Is anyone else trapped?"
Graham: "Yeah. And I think I'm seeing dead people."

Doctor: "You're not as Cyborgy as I expected."

Doctor: "Save the poet, Save the universe."

Doctor: "Saving Shelley was step one."
Yaz: "What's step two?"
Doctor: "Fixing the mess I made in step one."



Well executed atmosphere can cover a wealth of sins. And here there were only a couple of minor sins to cover, so they had plenty of atmosphere to spare.

Eleven out of thirteen Doctors.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

8 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Mikey, wonderful review as always. I actually haven't seen the episode yet, but you pulled me in because my absolute favorite episode out of six seasons of Highlander, "The Modern Prometheus," was based on the same thing. And it indeed got me reading about that famous house party.

https://www.douxreviews.com/2009/06/highlander-modern-prometheus.html

Anomaly21 said...

I didn't know really anything about the historical events/ figures here either, between this and Tesla/Punjab/Rosa i'm learning more history than I have in years lol!
I actually got my family to watch this episode as i had a feeling it'd be decent, but wow I didn't expect such a solid episode. In my family's words 'that felt like a proper episode of Doctor Who again'- and that's from someone who already forgot the last three episodes and dislikes/is disgusted by Cybermen.
Then again a new writer's first episode is often alright, i'm just glad for this ep though regardless of how the finale/ series arc turns out.
I think the humor Ryan/Graham/the Doc had really helped(different outfit/hat and her team speech all quite Doctory despite Jodie being eh to me), and more good Historical figures with Byron/ Mary Shelley/Polidori!

Mikey Heinrich said...

So, true story - I woke out of a dead sleep last night to the realization that I had accidentally called Byron's daughter Ava instead of Ada, because that's what happens when you're trying to prep reviews of both Doctor Who and Legends of Tomorrow.

On looking at it this morning it would appear that Billie has very kindly caught my error, for which I am eternally grateful :)

How embarrassing. Although Sara Lance having Lord Byron as a Father-in-Law does have a certain appeal...

Billie Doux said...

Mikey, that wasn't me! I bet you fixed it yourself. :)

Anomaly21 said...

Maybe Graham's helpful ghosts fixed it lol, they would notice!

sayla0079 said...

Good ep one of the best this season. Props to Whittiker for nailing the speech about not always being able yo win and the part about not losing anyone else to the Cybermen.

e said...

"Did I mention that these people lived a hell of a life?"

Can you recommend any books that cover their lives during this time period, or the infamous House Party that led to the Creation? When you started to read more about this, did you come across good resources you may wish to share?

Great review!

with all thanks,

Mikey Heinrich said...

I'm afraid my research was just linking through web articles from a google search, but it did lead to a lot of interesting material.

I suspect that Billie may be able to use some mad library skills for a proper book or two on the subject though.

And thank you!