Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley (well, she will be), John Polidori. All great writers, and fascinating human beings. It’s a job to get a sense of that from this episode, which just packs so much in. It’s difficult enough to get to know four different historical figures in a single 50 minute episode, but when that episode also contains a very complex haunting story and then ties it in to a returning monster, the characterisations struggle to come across. It doesn’t help that the Doctor travels around with four companions nowadays. It’s a crowded narrative.
So I’m not sure this episode did much of a job of examining these four important characters, or even explaining clearly what they are famous for. Earlier this series, Doctor Who did a very good job of shining a light on a lesser known historical figure: Nikola Tesla. Most of us probably came away from that having learnt something new. Could you say the same about John Polidori, other than a vague impression that he was a bit of an idiot? That idiot arguably invented the whole vampire genre. Well, vampyre, strictly speaking.
The episode was set on the night that the four writers accepted Byron’s suggestion to write a ghost story each, and as always Doctor Who continues to rob historical figures of their own original ideas by showing an adventure with the Doctor to be their source of inspiration. When the Doctor arrives, apparently an expert in these four writers, she is immediately surprised to see them cavorting around. Does she know nothing about them? My favourite character actually turned out not to be one of the writers, but the valet Fletcher, who communicates exactly how tiresome he finds everything, just with his expression. He’s also pretty handy with a tray, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Where the episode was really on solid ground was with all the scary stuff. The spidery hands were creepy enough to activate the arachnophobia instinct, especially the one lurking above Yas’s head. The episode was shot by candlelight, which was extremely effective, and the apparitions worked well. I enjoyed how the explanation for them fitted so perfectly, and yet a couple of them defied explanation.
“Ghosts don’t exist, right?”
“Unless they do.”
That’s an unusual thing for the Doctor to say, somebody who usually has a boring technobabble term for anything supernatural. I liked it.
What I didn’t like so much were the times the episode went a bit too far. Maybe it’s the paternal instinct in me, but I was very troubled by the danger to the baby, and when it was replaced with a skull and a hand in the cot I thought that was stepping over the line of good taste. Similarly, I didn’t like this:
“I slit their throats when I joined the resistance.”
The episode had enough scares. It didn’t need to conjure up that image in the mind of children watching, if any actually are still watching Doctor Who any more. That line came from the lips of the Lone Cybermen, whose appearance was predicted by Captain Jack. I’m in two minds about the half-converted Cyberman. He retained his emotions, which added another layer of threat, but on the other hand seeing the man inside the costume does diminish the fear factor to some extent, especially as so much of the face was visible. You lose the uncanny valley dread that the Cybermen inspire, for a start. As a one off, it’s OK. I’m sure lots of fans will say that his appearance was predictable. We knew a Lone Cyberman was coming later in the season and this episode features the writer of Frankenstein. I am a little ashamed to say that I didn’t see that coming, but perhaps that shows the wisdom of teasing a big development like that and then forgetting about it for a couple of episodes. More importantly, it illustrates how involved I was in the story.
Having said that, I don’t think I was really invested in the moral dilemma, which was a lot of fuss over nothing. Of course the Doctor wasn’t going to just sacrifice Shelley’s life. She does what she always does: deal with one problem at a time, rather elegantly expressed with the idea of undoing the damage of “step one” in “step two”.
I suppose we need to go off and re-evaluate Journey into Terror now, from the First Doctor story The Chase. Now that we know the original source of inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster, in a way that was our first Daleks vs Cybermen story, and we never realised it.
“Words matter.” RP
The view from across the pond:
Where do I start? You know, if this season of Doctor Who has taught me anything, it’s: go in expecting nothing. The few times I went in excited for one of these episodes this season, I’ve been horribly let down. Now when I expected rubbish…
The Haunting of Villa Diodati was a very pleasant surprise. I spent the week condemning what I expected was going to be a lonely episode right before things should have gotten “good” with the 2 part finale. Sort of the way 2005’s Boom Town happened just before Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways. Boom Town was not a bad episode, but it was a lonely episode surrounded by far superior ones. Seeing what Chibnall has been giving us so far, it was an easy expectation to have. But from the moment the opening credits revealed the writer was not Chibnall, I experienced what can only be called “a glimmer of hope”. If I’m being honest, Maxine Alderton’s opening was not an inspiration to me. When people knock at the glass doors, one shouldn’t jump when the resident opens the door. Glass, a reasonably unexpected invention that allows us to see through wall, should have shown both the visitors to the homeowner, as well as the homeowner to said visitors. Then the rather unexpected comment about the psychic paper, “might need a blow dry”, just made it clear that Maxine was after a laugh, when it really wasn’t needed.
But then the episode starts getting creepy quickly. A hand rips out of a painting, creepy apparitions appear in the hallways, there’s a kid behind a closing door, and the house functions much the way M. C. Escher’s paintings do. The hand alone was a priceless piece for me as it moved around like a sinister spider. My wife pointed out that it served little purpose, and in fairness, she is right, but it was so utterly magnificent that I can turn a blind eye. Frankly, the scene with it on the wall above Yaz’s head just made my day. I am an absolute sucker for a bit of eerie! And the episode didn’t stop there! The baby’s crib occupied by a skull with skeletal hand was marvelously disturbing. Bravo!
On top of the creepy, there was a suitable amount of comedy. Graham is, hands down, the funniest of the characters. His toilet excursion was far funnier to me than perhaps it should have been. “Splendid. Very convenient!” Or his “I’m going with: alien parasite” gave me reason to chuckle. I also loved the idea that team TARDIS come from somewhere “much, much stranger”, “The north!” But there was something that was plaguing the entire episode for me: the use of the accursed Sonic Screwdriver. I truly see why JNT destroyed it all those years ago. When the Doctor said of the house, “it isn’t letting me think”, I immediately applied that to the sonic. It doesn’t let her think; it gives her all the answers. And she seems to have no concern about who sees her use it, regardless of how out of place it is. Say it with me, class: anachronisms. And apparently Dr. McCoy’s scanner in Star Trek might be loosely based on the Sonic, since it can give a breakdown of the elements in bone. And for what it can’t do: the Doctor can always taste human bones to figure out what century they hail from. You know… because that makes sense. “My bones have never caused such mischief before!” (Let it go… just, let it go…)
But ignoring the problems, which in fairness don’t take away much of anything (I’m picking nits, as it were…) the unexpected happens when a form is seen in the lightning roughly half-way though the episode. When the Doctor realizes it’s a time traveler, I was expecting a repeat of Matt Smith’s Hide. We had all the right elements: ghost story, creepy house, historical characters, historical setting, and a time traveler to boot! What I didn’t expect was to have a prelude to the finale. We went from Boom Town to Utopia in one fell swoop. Once the Doctor realizes we are in Cyber-territory, things get really exciting.
14 years ago, I wrote a complaint about Russell T. Davies and, while I apologize for ever doubting Russell, I do still stand behind my idea of what the Cybermen should have been upon their return. It took those 14 years for my idea to sink in and by God I was happy with it. The idea of a half-finished Cyberman was far creepier than the Age of Steel variety of machine men. This had organic bits. This had an arm that was important from Mondas and a back full of lights. It resonated power and terror. They felt like there was decaying human flesh mixed with eternal metal. That is far more terrifying than robots. When this particular human reminisces about his children and then the horror of what he is sinks in, we realize the Cybermen should be the most terrifying of all races in Doctor Who, and we get a glimpse of what they really are all about. “You will be like us.” The Doctor is horrified and ignores the advice of Captain Jack because she realizes sometimes she can’t win. She’s truly between a rock and a hard place. She has to give the lone Cyberman what it wants! The Cybermen are back and they are glorious. Let’s hope they stay that way.
But the episode didn’t just impress me with the enemy or the creepy bits. It was a writer’s dream. When the Doctor realizes the stakes: one man or billions, the revelation is based on who the man is. In this case, it’s a writer. One man can make a difference. (Which is doubly ironic for me because tonight I also watched Classic Trek’s Mirror, Mirror. “In every revolution there is one man with a vision!”) I should also point out that this scene leads to another dialogue triumph when the Doctor talks about the org structure of her team, where she is with some of the decisions she has to make. If she allows Byron to die, the future that Ryan comes from would not exist. “I will not lose anyone else to that,” she says, clearly remembering Bill Potts. She isn’t going to gamble on that. Her point, though, is that words matter. And that gave me hope. Maybe Roger and I will make a difference with our website. As writers our words could potentially influence someone. And maybe that changes the future. Even on a super small level, maybe it matters. And that is what dreams are made of!
Back to the past, Mary Shelley gets her inspiration, even calling the Cyberman “this modern Prometheus”, a cobbled together bunch of parts, who gets power from lightning. History remains intact. The gorgeous Nadia Parks as Claire Clairmont gets to smack Percy down with an empowering “the spell is broken!” because the way he treated her. (Marvelously said.) Percy Bysshe Shelley gets to end the episode with a quote while the camera falls on the Doctor, “she was the universe.” And the Doctor gets a great quote, “Don’t lose hope!” I had truly started to lose hope this season. I think I’ve been convinced to trust the Doctor and hold on for just a little longer! ML