Monday, 17 February 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-8 - The Haunting of Villa Diodati

The two-part finale is going to have to be pretty special to top that. "Diodati" is an absolute cracker of an episode, starting off as a creepy yet fun haunted house story before segueing into a brilliant new variation on the Cyberman story that kicks the season's story arc into high gear.

Doctor Who hasn't done haunted house stories all that often. We had "The Unquiet Dead" in series one and "Hide" in series seven, and there were elements of the genre in "Blink," but that's only three episodes in fifteen years. Back in the day, we had 1989's Ghost Light and 1972's Day of the Daleks, which is perhaps the closest antecedent to "Diodati," with apparitions explained away as temporal anomalies, leading to a battle with a classic Who monster with humanity's future in the balance. Where "Diodati" stands out is in setting its story on a single specific evening from history, one that has gone down in legend and, indeed, contributed so much to the horror genre that it would be unrecognisable without it.

My favourite moment in the episode is when the Doctor argues for the value of Shelley's life, not on the usual basis that a human life is worth saving regardless, but that his cultural contribution is so great that allowing him to die early would cause irrevocable damage to human history. Indeed, the legendary night at Villa Diodati in 1816 made such a lasting impact to English literature that there has perhaps never been another single night more important to our literary culture. Not only did Mary Shelley devise Frankenstein on that night, essentially creating the modern science fiction genre in the process, but Dr. John Polidori wrote the first draft of The Vampyre, a landmark of horror fiction that would go on to inspire Bram Stoker in his writing of Dracula years later. The cumulative effect on literature and pop culture of this two works cannot be overstated. Polidori was inspired himself by Lord Byron's Fragment of a Novel and loosely based the vampyre of his tale on Byron, but as Polidori actually finished his story and had the greater impact on vampire fiction. In any case, I'm prouder about what I've written than what's been written about me, although Byron probably thought the opposite.

The casting is spot on for the historical cast, with Jacob Collins-Levy making a excellent Byron. The man was, after all, notoriously both arrogant and charming, and it would be very easy to overplay one or the other of those characteristics, but Collins-Levy balances it perfectly. Byron's constant hitting on "Mrs Doctor" is perfectly in character and one of the funnier elements of the story, continuing even as the situation turns into a living nightmare. After all, it would take more than the potential death of humanity to stop Byron flirting. (Loved the Doctor's namedrop of Ada, as well, surely the only time that a father and daughter have been met in reverse historical order - River doesn't count, because she cheated.)

Lili Miller is excellent as Mary, although I feel she doesn't get the amount of screentime she really deserves here. She has some nice moments with Ryan and a good rapport with the Doctor, but given her astonishing genius as a writer I'd have thought more would have been made of her contributions to history, especially given that she essentially created the genre in which the characters exist. (Indeed, having the erasure of Mary's work threaten the Doctor and companions' future would have made more sense in a metatextual way, as without Frankenstein, Doctor Who could not exist.) Instead, most of the accolades go to her husband-to-be, also brilliantly portrayed by Lewis Rainer. Nadia Parkes is strong as the often-overlooked Claire Clairmont, who tells Byron to shove it in the most satisfying moment of the story, but hats off to Maxim Baldry (previously of the fantastic Years and Years) as a perfectly off-his-nut turn as Polidori.

The early part of the episode looks like this is going to turn into a historical romp like the aforementioned "The Unquiet Dead," or the other, author-focused celebrity historicals "The Shakespeare Code" and "The Unicorn and the Wasp." Like those, there's a real focus on how "words matter," but the genre runaround is played straighter, with some genuine chills even as the characters joke with each other. Once the house closes in on them and it seems impossible to escape, there's a real sense of dread, but events are moving quickly and the mind races as to what's going to happen next.

The missus and I were throwing guesses at each other. I was convinced that the Villa was actually a TARDIS, given that its dimensions were folding in on themselves, while we both correctly guessed that the white shadow breaking into reality was a Cyberman (after briefly entertaining the idea that it might be the Kassavin from the season opener). We were briefly convinced that the Lone Cyberman was Shelley, which would have been rather cool but quite hard to square back with established history.

Having the Cybermen crash into the story an episode early is a great way of keeping things surprising even while we're forewarned as to their involvement in the finale. The Cybermen haven't been used for body horror nearly enough, in my opinion, with perhaps the best use being their last appearance, series ten's two-part finale that almost wrote out the Twelfth Doctor. We might have expected a more Franksteinian take on the Cybermen in this story, had we known they were cropping up, but as an unexpected villain, the Lone Cyberman is all the more effective. The use of lightning to recharge him is a bit of a cute joke, but it kind of had to be done, and it doesn't retract from the nightmarish conception of a broken, beaten Cyberman fighting on out of sheer anger and willpower. The script draws attention to how different this Cyberman is to the usual conception (if not always depiction) of the emotionless cyborg, and it works. This is an entirely new version of the classic monster, showing that it's still possible to find a fresh way to approach the oldest elements of the series. Patrick O'Kane is terrifying as this rage-fuelled monster, especially in the moments when his humanity is visible. Most powerful of all is the scene in which it appears Mary has gotten through to him through his once being a father, only to have him spit it back in her face in an astonishing display of bloodthirst and hate.

Not only is the Doctor rightfully outraged and terrified at having to face the Cybermen again - after all, they both killed her previous self and mutilated her last companion - she bears the enormous weight of responsibility for her role in the universe. If anyone's still waiting for Whittaker to get her "Doctor moment," then this is it, with the Doctor shutting down her companions as she balances future and past. Whittaker is brilliant in this scene, showing just how good she can be when given strong material.

While I'm sure, due to the strong links to the season arc, Chibnall must have advised heavily on the story, the script is credited only to Maxine Alderton, and she cements herself as one of the best writers on the series in years. This script manages a moment of focus for all the regulars, be it Ryan's uncomfortable pragmatism, Graham's incredulity and fear, or Yaz's sudden openness about her feelings for someone-who-I-think-we-all-know. The lack of focus on Mary's contributions to literature is a major flaw with the script, but this remains a strong episode and easily a contender for the best Thirteenth Doctor story so far.

Maketh the Woman: I love that the fam are dressing in appropriate period costume as a matter of course now, and they all look great in their 19th century get-up. But what does the Doctor do? Puts on a waistcoat over her T-shirt and puts her usual coat back on top.

The Shallow Bit: This episode is, naturally, is full of very gorgeous people, and I'm particularly taken with Maxim Baldry and Nadia Parkes. Can we please have a moment to recognise how stunning Mandip Gill looks in her period costume though?

Random Thoughts: Why does the Doctor suddenly decide to take her companions on a hasty trip to drop-in on the party at Villa Diodati? Such sudden urges to go see a specific people and places isn't out of character for the Doctor, but is there something else at work here? Did something influence her into making that decision, specifically so she would be in the right place when the Lone Cyberman manifested?

Continuity Corner: This episode was always going to be a tricky one to fit in with the larger Whoniverse. Big Finish have featured Mary Shelley heavily in the past, played by Julie Cox, in adventures with Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor. This started with a typical name drop by the Doctor in the first Eighth Doctor audio, 2001's Storm Warning, which eventually led to "Mary's Story," an installment of 2009's anthology release The Company of Friends. This rather brilliant story saw the Eighth Doctor arrive at Villa Diodati on that fateful 1816 evening, partly inspiring Frankenstein. She then goes travelling with him, appearing in a trilogy of releases in 2011, one of which, The Silver Turk, even features the Cybermen and further inspires Frankenstein. This obviously contradicts this episode, but fortunately, this entire adventure involves a diverted timeline, neatly explaining away any historical or fictional discontinuities.

However, in checking up some of the above details on the TARDIS wikia, I discovered that there was yet another instance of the Doctor inspiring Mary to write Frankenstein, in 2008. "The Creative Spark" was a short comic strip featuring the Tenth Doctor in the Battles in Time trading card magazine. Fortunately, very few people feel moved to include these comics as part of continuity, and even if you do, if we can cope with at least four explanations for Jack the Ripper and three utterly incompatible fates for Atlantis then we can cope with this.

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