Doctor Who: 12-08 “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Doctor Who has an extensive relationship with the supernatural- of ghosts, ghouls, and terror. That continues in earnest for the eighth episode of Series 12, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, as The Doctor and co decide to soak up the atmos, experiencing history in the making on one of literature’s most iconic nights- Lake Geneva, Villa Diodati, in June 1816, the Romantic Regency era- the night Mary soon-to-be Shelley, at only 18 years old, conceived the idea for Frankenstein in a ghost story contest. As a Who story concept, it’s maybe one of the most natural ever (so natural that Big Finish already went there), and Haunting delivers with aplomb in a consistently engaging fashion, to produce a thrilling era highlight.
Dropped into the lonely mansion beset by Mother Nature for our third cold open of the series, Haunting introduces us to the party of Mary (Lili Miller), her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes), poet Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy) and Dr. Polidori (Maxim Baldry), frustrated at their entrapment by the elements (and speaking mostly like they would!) Mary suggests telling stories to horrify the soul- but their tales are cut short, by a swish waistcoat wearing Thirteen, Yaz, Ryan, and an unfortunately accented Graham. They quickly fall afoul of something far more terrifying than any tale- and a familiar stompy foe.
A true level of atmosphere for scares is vital- and Haunting is entirely set around the mansion. It’s an (er) Frankenstein’s monster of the classic haunted house and general horror tropes- all gigantic thunder, candles snuffed out and rattling doorknobs. Segun Akinola’s droning, creeping quirks marry with Ed Moore’s cinematography, giving the mansion an immersive space with immaculate lighting. Director Emma Sullivan and (the Who writing debuting) Maxine Alderton have crafted a story that feels similarly as loaded with ideas as prior stories- the difference being, they’re all far more charming and fitting, playing with familiar gothic sensibilities- and sadder ghost story tropes of being unseen, in Percy Shelley’s (Lewis Rainer) case.
It’s wickedly funny- “The North” might be this era’s funniest gag. The tone and flow of the story segue from spectral frights to the Lone Cyberman reveal, never dropping the pace. The elements around are relevant to each other- our guest cast and the Cyberman itself are intrinsically linked. Even if Jack’s warning come flesh/metal was telegraphed (cheers BBC), the mystery is superbly worked, with early scenes utilizing and letting the mains shine, like Yaz using her keen eye to spot the lockpick steal.
Having our characters together consistently interacting does wonders for heightening the tension, particularly when Thirteen notices things going awry as they happily dance the quadrille (neatly concealing exposition) with nary a sign of writing from the Diodati crew. It’s enhanced immeasurably by the direction, a plethora of different framing and shots- often creative, like the boom up from the staircase when the mansion starts to shift, and the low angle initial cellar shot.
It’s genuinely spooky- with the mansion lit by natural candlelight, gifting it a gorgeous, smoky golden look, contrasted with blue hues- and is awash with exquisitely detailed and dressed rooms. Inventive and chilling imagery (including a tremendous jump scare with the child behind the door!) immerses you, with phantom apparating figures abound. We’ve seen the repeating rooms trick before, not least in Who’s own Fifth Doctor jaunt Castrovalva, but it’s immensely effective in ramping up fear, disorientation, and helplessness- and cleverly plays with the perception filter trope to resolve itself.
The guest cast is joyous to spend time with- even the valet Fletcher (Stefan Bednarczyk) gets moments, his eye-rolling a bit of a meta-commentary on the youthful pretentiousness of the villa crew’s behavior. Lord Byron is smug and- perhaps unfairly, looking at real life- cowardly, Dr. Polidori (who himself wrote a cornerstone bit of fiction, the Bram Stoker inspiring The Vampyre) is volatile. Byron’s sketchy behavior (a darker mirror to The Doctor?), and Polidori’s shifty insomnia even work as a villain misdirect.
Claire and Mary are highlights, aiding the main cast’s character building. Claire is helped by Yaz, who relates with her in the aspect of Thirteen’s growing unknowable nature, sowing finale seeds- and Claire’s arc sees her growing beyond Byron’s oblivious self-centredness (though a dramatic irony, and potential real in-story history change, far from her upsetting real-life truth). I appreciated that Mary still inspires herself to her future success, and Miller infuses her with bizarreness, a love for the macabre and empathy for darkness.
Ryan’s dyspraxia dealing is dealt with positively, as he awkwardly plays the piano determinately, relating to Mary that there’s no reason not to try despite self-doubt. Tosin Cole has a humorous innings, between his frightened reaction to the “ghosts” touch and sticking his foot in it with overconfidence nearly getting in a duel- also joining the list of characters to proudly say they’ve been choked by a disembodied arm (though what reanimated the hands?) Graham’s side-plot is largely “to be scared”- and maybe stumble into the discovery that ghosts are legitimately real- which is a hilarious dark note.
When the Cyberman, former name Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) pops up (the last of the “big three” villains for Jodie Whittaker to meet), he’s unique- a very human Cyberlad, cooing unsettlingly at a baby- and sparing it- roaring (welcome back Nicholas Briggs!), taking great spite and adoration in his fate. Ashad seems to have been willingly converted and is shot perfectly through close-ups and high angles to press home power aplenty, prowling amongst the smoke. He’s surprisingly violent- snapping necks and spitting about slitting his own children’s throats. His look is a half-completed hodgepodge of Cyber elements, evoking the maliciously famous monster Victor creates. He’s even rather poetic- reciting rather Cybermen-analogous words from Percy- and reminding Thirteen with glee that his race is inevitable. The MacGuffin of the Cyberium he’s after is rather opaque, but it doesn’t hamper storytelling details- as its deeply part of the drama.
That expressiveness helps bring a multi-faceted, fantastic best out of Jodie- full of eccentric quirks and irritation at being forced to dance rather than write- but quickly becoming proactive, investigative, stern-faced as she solves the “weird vibe”. She takes a decisively strong lead, jumping in calmly to measure Polidori’s pulse, shutting down Byron’s advances (nice mention of Ada Lovelace too!) and confidently confronting Ashad when he starts to run riot- it’s just Tuesday for her, after all.
Enticingly, Thirteen becomes full of angst- the emotional isolation that she’s developed pouring outward, with her furious resolve to not lose anyone else to the Cybermen (miss you, Bill) and reaching nirvana with her rather spine-tingling assertation that it’s sometimes not a flat team structure- it’s mountainous. She’s quite aggressive, a bit of ego in there as she forcefully asks her friends to decide if they’d sacrifice Shelley. It perhaps even tragically, tantalisingly recontextualises her prior behaviour- and maybe even the show’s “clean slate” of legacy- The Doctor tried to pretend and lied, but she still couldn’t escape her own inherently contradictory nature for thrills and consequential dire choices, against her stated rules.
So, The Doctor is forced into her last minute, imperfect plan, the fiery terror in Percy’s eyes heightening the desperate choice. It’s not entirely graceful- knowing Jack’s warning sort of undercuts the drama knowing Thirteen will give it what it wants, even if still tense. It’s odd too, that the crux of the drama is defending the legacy of Percy, who dies a few years later anyway (even if he was a majorly influential poet himself, but the story doesn’t educate you on that) rather than Mary, on the night she birthed horror- whose death would surely irreparably ripple history more than Haunting asserts.
It’s consistent at least with the story established here and a larger theme of the Chibnall era- that history is very fixed, but that always feels rather against the mercurial spirit of the show. Would the choice have been as big too, if it was an “ordinary” person, or is the crux here that you can’t sacrifice people when it’s convenient- no matter who- when not knowing the consequences, especially if seeing them as unimportant in context like Ryan does with his hardline comment about leaving Shelley? The theme of literary power is also strangely unbalanced for an era so focused on education, outside of mere recitals.
Words *do* matter here though, and often fail- in a reversal of the usual, Mary fails to use emotions to combat the Cyberman, Thirteen has a chance to have an outward conflict with her friends, to heighten their disillusionment. The end beat sees Byron reading from his poem Darkness (that he wrote that summer), fitting thematically with the mood and alluding to The Doctor- there’s hesitation too in her eyes, before that smile, well aware she’s leading her friends into danger. “Just don’t lose hope” Thirteen tells the Diodati crew- how close are her friends to losing theirs?
The Haunting of Villa Diodati is a breath of fresh air for this series of Who. I’ve found much to like in most stories, more consistently than last year, yet a large portion has felt over-stuffed or missed opportunities. Haunting is an example of how to have many spinning plates, but still be thrilling- working just as perfectly as a haunted historical piece as it does as a finale lead-in, with harmonious marriage between theme and story. The guest cast sings together with our mains- and it’s one of the better uses of the Cybermen in New Who, tying them naturally to another iconic monster and inspiring one of Jodie’s best performances- that promises higher highs for Thirteen. This is an intensely watchable and atmospheric haunted house piece- a hugely impressive debut for writer Maxine Alderton. No pressure then Chris Chibnall, as we enter our head for the two-part finale…