1816 was described as “the year without a summer”. The previous year’s eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, itself the culmination of several other volcanic eruptions across the world since 1812, had had a drastic effect on the declining weather conditions and the ensuing cold and torrential rain caused crop failures across the world. Scientists also observed dark spots on the sun and undercurrents of unease and portents of doom accompanied this bleak weather. It even obscured the sunlight, so there was suddenly a need to light candles indoors at midday and the situation disturbed the roosting patterns of birds. It’s a volcanic winter that perhaps foreshadows the ultimate destination of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”, a devastating future where humanity fights the last of the Cybermen.
In June 1816, it was under similar conditions that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (she didn’t actually become Mrs Shelley until December of that year), Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, and Byron’s former lover and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont spent three days in the rented Villa Diodati at Cologny and the chalet Maison Chapuis on the shore of Lake Geneva.
History doesn’t record the arrival of a mysterious Time Lord and her friends from Sheffield. However, Maxine Alderton’s “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” does and manages it very successfully, bringing the various personalities and their particular foibles to life. Mary Shelley isn’t a complete stranger to the Doctor Who universe, having appeared in a run of Big Finish episodes between 2009 and 2011 as the Eighth Doctor’s companion. That story, “The Silver Turk”, even featured a damaged Cyberman that inspired Mary to write a little literary number called Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Some say Who canon has now been contradicted with her appearance in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”. All I can say is the canon is flexible enough to accommodate all versions. Don’t let it spoil your enjoyment of a good television drama. Besides, the way this story bends and alters time there’s nothing to suggest that both versions of The Doctor meeting Mary aren’t canon.
Much the same atmosphere that inspired Mary Shelley’s (Lili Miller) novel is rapidly established and Alderton makes a virtue of her research by using evocative dialogue and interpersonal relationships to establish the febrile conditions of that singular evening where the group indulged in reading ghost stories and then challenged each other to write their own. Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy) bows to the request for “something to awaken thrilling horror” and proceeds to read from the French anthology Fantasmagoriana, translated by Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson in 1813 as Tales of the Dead. As he intones the story of “The Death Bride”, director Emma Sullivan lets her camera prowl through the corridors and rooms of Diodati, connecting the feeling of dread and unease with the candlelit interior space. Sullivan, her camera operator Mark McQuoid and director of photography Ed Moore, should be praised to the hilt for the episode’s visual homage to the Gothic horror genre. The use of candlelight is particularly effective and, although notoriously complicated to shoot scenes using it as a light source, the episode looks stunning.
It’s ironic that, given it’s a full-blooded tip of the hat to all the Gothic horror motifs that we’ve come to appreciate, Shelley’s Frankenstein originally reconfigured the female Gothic that was, by 1816, being satirised for its own well-worn tropes. A line that Alderton gives to Mary, as she requests a ghost story to “curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart”, is actually her own description of Frankenstein‘s basic aims beyond a tale where creature and creator are mirror images of each other as father and son, caught between duty of care and moral superiority. These are themes that Alderton reflects on later in the episode.
Startled by a knock on the door, Shelley and her friends are confronted by the equally spooked visitors on their doorstep: The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh), all bedecked in Regency finery and soaked to the skin. It reminded me of another Who pastiche of Mary’s story, “The Brain of Morbius” (1976), where The Doctor and Sarah arrive in the rain at the mad scientist Solon’s laboratory. Here, it’s very amusing that the damp’s affected the psychic paper brandished by The Doctor and that Graham starts quoting the wrong writer (Austen) by way of introduction and as a sly dig at The Doctor’s ability to park. Taking shelter, they all agree not to interfere, not to mention Frankenstein and not to snog Byron who, by the way, was on the run from the scandal associated with his divorce, several affairs, and the gossip about his relationship with his half-sister Augusta.
His lover Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes) was also pregnant by the time she arranged their trip to Lake Geneva, perhaps in hope of rekindling her association with Byron. So, he’s a bit of a bad boy, a cad that Collins-Levy partly captures in a performance full of haughty superiority that epitomises Byron’s quote “we are all selfish and I no more trust myself than others with a good motive.” Whether he was such a coward, that he would use Claire to shield himself from Polidori emerging from a wall or the creature that finally invades the villa, is debatable I’d warrant.
The Doctor and her companions are clearly here to “witness some of the most enlightened minds… at the absolute zenith of their creativity” but Alderton builds on this expectation for comic effect. Not for her the group’s copious intake of wine and laudanum and Shelley fleeing the villa, screaming, when the power of Byron’s recitation of Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” provokes a hallucination of a woman who had eyes instead of nipples on her breasts. That’s not quite in the remit of family viewing and, if you’re after that sort of thing, then I’d recommend Ken Russell’s retelling in the wonderfully overwrought Gothic (1986). Bursting in on the group, The Doctor finds them in a heap on the floor having a good giggle after a game of blind man’s buff, far more inclined to have a bit of dance then get knock-down drunk.
During the quadrille, we get all the goss on the villa’s residents, despite Byron’s detestation for idle tattle. I think we also have to offer a round of applause to Stefan Bednarczyk as the long-suffering, eye-rolling valet Fletcher, who manages to cut through this party’s pretentious inclinations with many a withering glance and blunt aside. His reaction to the proposed duel between Ryan and Polidori (Maxim Baldry) is priceless. Alderton’s mission to defy certain expectations is capped when, at The Doctor’s suggestion to Mary for a blood-curdling tale of horror to “get them back on track”, she merely demands “another quadrille”.
The Doctor acknowledges that something’s not quite right. There’s no sign of a competition to write a spooky tale, a challenge that would eventually generate Polidori’s story “The Vampire” and Mary’s novel Frankenstein and, more to the point, no sign of the aforementioned Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer). The reason why they’re “one man down” is first evidenced when Graham goes and looks for a lav and finds himself lost in the corridors of the house. A haunting is apparently underway as vases inexplicably crash against walls, disembodied skeletal hands scuttle across the floorboards and ghosts serve up canapes. As Graham goes round in circles, Yaz finds Claire attempting to pick the lock of Byron’s room. She’s keen to find his letters and confirm he still has feelings for her. They have a brief but interesting exchange about Byron’s enigmatic approach, one that is the antithesis of “reliable and dull”, and Yaz compares him to someone she knows. Is this an admission about The Doctor and Yaz’s feelings for her? However, a ghostly apparition interrupts them and a flash of lightning reveals the skeletal hand on the wall above them.
Halting Byron’s “Mrs Doctor” flirtations in their tracks, The Doctor discovers Shelley is indisposed. Meanwhile, Ryan encourages Mary “to stick with it” when she confides that her efforts at writing couldn’t possibly match those of her parents. We also discover that Polidori is prone to sleepwalking. His actual interest in the subject was outlined in his medical thesis and somnambulism and trance states were themes in his story “The Vampire”. After the reanimated hand attacks Ryan and The Doctor deduces there’s “nothing abnormal” about its provenance, Polidori concludes that she and this strange group are from “the north”, somewhere far stranger than the colonies in his estimation. Later, his late-night walking through walls reveals that the shifting dimensions of the house, and its ability to fold in on itself, are part of some perception filter securing the premises from some external intrusion.
Sullivan’s direction emphasises the claustrophobic nature of this beguiling architecture as various parties find themselves returning to their point of origin after trying to leave rooms or staircases. It certainly emulates the Victorian Gothic of “Ghost Light” (1989) and the notion of the haunted house as a site of secrets, particularly those related to this episode’s ambiguous relationships and the familial unit of Percy, Mary and their child William. The Gothic house as a character in its own right, representing physical and mental disorder, is probably best expressed in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the combination of fear and cinematic space is constantly reused in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”. There are many shots that frame characters in doorways, on stairways, or push characters into the background and frame them with heavy black borders in the foreground. These emphasise the house’s metamorphosis, the diminution of characters within the architecture, punctuated with candlelight, as the edges of frames bleed off into the darkness.
Shelley, eventually discovered in the cellar, has been having visions of a figure “dark. Charred by fire. Suspended over the water like a death god from Hades” and those visions are real, indicative of a Cyberman returning to the past in search of a “guardian” at Villa Diodati. This is the lone Cyberman that Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) warned The Doctor’s companions about in “Fugitive of the Judoon“. It, like some Terminator from the future, has come looking for the very thing that mustn’t fall into its possession as the episode shifts from being a haunted house scenario and turns into a race against time to prevent a future empire from rebuilding itself. This battle certainly tests The Doctor’s mettle. She insists on facing it alone, passionately arguing that she does not want to see more humans “changed into empty soulless shells.” Her cry of “I will not lose anyone else to that” suggests a painful reminder of the fate that befell former companion Bill Potts in “World Enough and Time“.
Poor old Fletcher and the French nursemaid Elise (Sarah Perles) are murdered by the Cyberman before The Doctor can intervene. The latter scene is really quite disturbing when it tracks down Elise. She’s hiding with the crying baby William in a chest and Sullivan chooses to shoot the creature from a distance as it coldly cuts off her scream. Equally chilling is how it then lifts the child up and, face to face, advises him “don’t be afraid little one… you will be like us.” This triggers off many associations with Mary’s book, where the creature murders characters in revenge against his ‘father’ who has abandoned his parental responsibilities for the being he created. It’s also redolent of the moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) where the monster mistakenly drowns a little girl. While Mary’s creation has a tormented soul and is attempting to force an acknowledgement from his creator, this incomplete, bitter Cyberman is on a quest to find its own creator in the form of the Cyberium, a sentient blob of software that contains plans, strategies and instructions to rebuild the Cyber race.
Alderton also links the half-Cyberman and the reanimated bones of a 15th-century soldier Byron recovered from the battle of Morat with the amalgam of body parts that constitute Victor Frankenstein’s creature. Prior to their arrival at Villa Diodati Byron and Polidori had just returned from a sightseeing trip to the battlefield of Waterloo, after the defeat of Napoleon’s army, and perhaps the dead soldier and the Cyberman are “reminders that we tread in the dust of empires.” The reanimation of body parts also reflects the then-current fascination with galvanism and with Cyberman creator Kit Pedler’s notion that we would end up replacing our bodies with plastic and metal. Galvanism is emphasised again during the fight between The Doctor and the Cyberman when a lightning strike re-energises the creature just as the “spark of life” brought Frankenstein’s new Adam into the world.
Patrick O’Kane is superb as the raging Cyberman, Ashad. It’s particularly surreal to hear him quoting Shelley’s poem “Queen Mab”, where its utopian political philosophy proposes a vision of humanity free of social evils and vices and a perfect future society. Travelling through time and space the queen of the fairies presents this vision to the spirit of a sleeping child to illustrate human folly and error. For the Cybermen, this would be a logical achievement by converting humanity and ridding it of pointless emotions. Ashad and The Doctor share that vision. While Ashad travels back through time to erase the human spirit to win a future war and create a logical utopia, likewise The Doctor journeys to defend and preserve that compassionate, albeit imperfect, human spirit. The poem is about replacing humanity’s worst impulses, the capacity for evil and tyranny, with virtuousness, love, and hope. However, the Cybermen would rather exploit the former by eradicating the latter. It’s also a whopping great clue as to who is “the guardian”. It’s the poet hiding in the cellar.
“History is vulnerable tonight,” warns The Doctor. She must try and prevent Ashad from recovering the Cyberium. Shelley, having found it in the lake, became possessed and, as an invisible phantom, used it to protect the house and himself. At the same time, his brain under strain from containing the knowledge and future history of the Cybermen, he has feverishly been noting down symbols and numbers. “Someone took it from the Cybermen, sent it back through time here in an attempt to change the future,” reasons The Doctor. That leaves us with the question: who did that?
The meaty dilemma at the heart of this episode also reflects upon the sentiments of Shelley’s poem. Shelley will die unless the Cyberium is removed but, upon removal, Ashad will retrieve it and “armies will rise and billions will die.” Ryan offers that Shelley’s only one man in the scheme of things. The Doctor’s counter to that is that Shelley’s work is important because “his thoughts, his words inspire and influence thousands for centuries. If he dies now, who knows what damage that will have on future history? Words matter!” She warns him that this one death, this one ripple in history, means Ryan and his world won’t exist. Whittaker’s powerful speech as The Doctor concludes that, though they may be a team, it’s her decision alone that will matter, and it’s her choice to “save the poet, save the universe.” It will mean either people die now or die tomorrow and she concludes, “sometimes, even I can’t win.”
Ashad arrives and threatens to execute Shelley to extract the Cyberium. Mary turns on the creature, demanding that this “composite of parts” reach into its soul because she can see the man who spared her son William. Again, it’s a powerful moment that reflects back on the nature of Mary’s own creation, the monster that actually wasn’t a monster until his father abandoned him. Victor’s creation had a human soul tormented by loneliness and the absence of his father. She hopes that Ashad, as a father, can recognise the human capacity for compassion and, briefly, the audience is hoodwinked into thinking that he does. Until this once loved “modern Prometheus” (another nod to the title of Mary’s book) takes ferocious glee in announcing that he spared her son “because he was a useless runt” and that he slit his children’s throats “when they joined the resistance.” It’s a gobsmacking scene, superbly played by O’Kane and Miller. For Ashad, death can only bring improvements and updates and this inspires The Doctor to shock the Cyberium out of Shelley’s body by forcing him to witness his future death by drowning in 1822.
After The Doctor takes possession of the Cyberium, Ashad threatens to use his ship to tear reality and destroy the Earth. Unsure if he’s bluffing and that the world didn’t end in 1816, she yields and he takes the Cyberium. Again, she can’t win and will not risk the destruction of the planet. As Ashad gloatingly observes, “we are inevitable.” “Yes. You are, ” concedes a defeated Doctor. Her only hope is to use Shelley’s symbols and numbers as coordinates to take them to the future and prevent the inevitability of Ashad rebuilding the Cyber army.
After Claire gives Byron a piece of her mind (yes, we knew he was mad, bad and dangerous to know and she’s right to upbraid him but I’m not sure he was considered a coward), the episode ends on an effective coda as The Doctor reasons with her companions that they do not need to get involved in what she is about to do. However, all three of them are willing to ensure that her plan works. The scene briefly fades to Byron reading from his poem “Darkness”, written in July 1816, an apocalyptic response to that “year without summer” and a portent of the future that many took seriously at the time. The episode ends on a contradictory image, with the poem’s bleak ending suggesting the darkness that has extinguished the human race, a scenario played out in the future between the human and Cyber races, has now become the universe, where the line “she is the universe” is intoned over a head and shoulders shot of The Doctor. Will she be the end or the salvation of the human race and its future?
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is a successful debut from Maxine Alderton and it’s safe to say she’s turned in one of the best episodes of Whittaker’s era. Her knowledge of the period is evident and the moral questions the story raises are not incongruously didactic in nature. The dilemmas evolve out of the story and it’s all the more powerful for that. This and a good sense of the characters, particularly The Doctor, is underpinned with superb efforts from the production team, including the set, costume and makeup design, and the efforts of director Emma Sullivan and her director of photography. Hopefully, this sense of purpose will not be lost in the forthcoming finale.
Cast & Crew
writer: Maxine Alderton.
director: Emma Sullivan.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Jacob Collins-Levy, Lewis Rainer, Lili Miller & Maxim Baldry.