Haunted By The Past…And The Future
Tripwire’s man in Los Angeles Robert Cave takes a look at the eighth episode of Doctor Who, which was on BBC1 last Sunday…
Series 12, episode 8
The Haunting of Villa Diodati
Writer: Maxine Alderton
Director: Emma Sullivan
Well, I wasn’t quite expecting that! “Celebrity historicals,” wherein the Doctor and companions meet various famous folk from the past and team-up with them for hi-jinks, shenanigans and perhaps even an adventure, can be tricky to get right – especially if there are more than a couple historical figures to fit into the narrative. Fortunately, veteran soap writer Maxine Sullivan is well used to the rigours of juggling the large casts, although her previous work on Emmerdale might have featured slightly fewer aliens.
Set in 1816, the plot sees the Doctor and fam turning up at the titular villa in Geneva to hang out with poets Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his soon-to-be wife, the writer Mary Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and the writer Doctor John Polidori. There is a fun little jump-scare before the titles, with a damp Doctor and chums built up as some kind of infernal threat.
Once they are out of the rain the gang’s directives are clearly stated: don’t snog Byron and don’t mention Frankenstein. But while both Byron’s notorious womanising and Mary’s iconic creation both inform the action, the story actually focuses more on a haunted house mystery and the appearance of a semi-complete cyberman in search of technical data that will apparently prove vital in the cyber-wars to come.
A popular and prestigious set of antagonists in the classic series, the cyberman have long struggled for significance in the revived series, partly due to Russell T. Davis’s well-intentioned decision to reinvent and substantially simplify their convoluted in-show continuity in order to make them more accessible to a modern audience. This time out, the cyber-threat feels a lot more substantial, partly due to Captain Jack’s warning about “the lone cyberman” in Fugitive of the Judoon, but also due to the performances of the Ashad the semi-cyberman (Patrick O’Kane) and Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. She really sells the idea of the Doctor’s anxiety, feeling boxed into a choice between saving poor Percy, and through him the world we know, and giving the cyberman the strategic advantage they sought in their future conflicts – future conflicts we should be getting a further glimpse at in the series’ two-part finale coming up over the next two weeks.
But outside of the cyberman himself there was a lot of other stuff I really liked about this week’s episode. For starters, the simplicity of some of the episode’s visual effects really worked for me and neatly conveyed the creeping realisation of something uncanny being at work in the villa. The inclusion, and lack of a complete explanation for, Graham’s ghostly apparitions was also really enjoyable. I suspect they too may be linked to the upcoming cyber-storyline and could conceivably foreshadow someone leaving the show… or not.
I also liked seeing the Doctor repeatedly dealing with Byron’s unwanted attentions, keeping the seemingly perpetually priapic poet at bay and modelling skills that should not be necessary but all to often are for a new generation of female-identifying Doctor Who fans. On a similar note, it was nice to see Claire Clairmont having the opportunity to grow past her Byron-infatuation and her stepsister Mary get more active screen time than her partner.
Ryan and Yas both got fun character moments, the former as he successfully attempted to play chopsticks for Mary on the piano and the latter as she revealed a romantic interest in someone who could be the Doctor… or not.
Next week we have the cybermen ascendant. But will we see any more of Ruth, the other Doctor? Only time will tell. See you next week.