Now that we’ve shaken off the nightmares of last week, how does everyone feel about a little haunting? How about “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” then? As promised at the tail end of the last episode, the Doctor and fam are off to see about a girl—in this case, Mary Shelley on the night she was inspired to write her classic horror novel, Frankenstein. (Stop me if you’ve heard this Big Finish story before.)
The episode opens in Lake Geneva in 1816 with a room full of who’s who in the writing world, including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley), among others. They’re doing what creative types do best when they’re off the clock: drinking and playing games. Tonight’s round includes telling ghost stories, and that’s when Thirteen and crew make their spooky entrance. The Doctor goes old school reminding her companions not to mention anything lest they change the future—a point we’ll circle back around to at the climax of the episode. Thirteen and her companions are allowed to indulge in a round of dancing and gossip (which quickly illuminates where we are in the Shelleys and Lord Byron’s lives).
But then Percy disappears and things start getting weird. Apparitions appear, people are stuck in loops of entering and exiting the same room over and over, people start walking through walls and then there’s the lone Cyberman Jack Harkness warned Graham, Ryan, and Yaz about in “Fugitive of the Judoon.”
The Doctor’s quick to work out what’s up. It appears there’s a perception filter set throughout the house and she realizes this Cyberman has traveled back in time to collect something. She sets out to face it alone, swearing she’ll not lose another companion to the Cyberman (a strong and heartfelt callback to Bill’s ultimate fate during Twelve’s last arch in Season 10.)
Thirteen finds the lone Cyberman looks unfinished compared to others she’s encountered on her travels, and he’s out of juice from his time jump from the future. (It’s a great new deconstructed design, too, since the new series Cybermen have had more art deco styling in the past. This really fits the tone of the episode and plays up the Frankenstein references.) Since the inhabitants are stuck in the house, they split up to search for Percy, only for Yaz, Mary, and Lord Byron to find his room covered in strange scribbles. Graham and other party-goers head to the cellar.
Meanwhile, the lone Cyberman accidentally gets an energy recharge from a bit of lightning and reveals what he’s after: Cyberium. When he’s struck again, he begins to quote Shelley’s poems, beginning with this verse from “Queen Mab”:
“There’s not one atom of yon earth
But once was living man”
The others hear this, recognizing his words. Graham and the others come across Percy, who accidentally became the Guardian of the Cyberium when he was out for a walk one day. He fished what looked like quicksilver out of the lake and it took hold of him. From then on, no one could see him and he tried to work out what had possessed him. He’s also been the one that’s been trying to keep the Cyberman away by changing the house and transporting him away from the villa.
While Lord Byron and the remaining partygoers hide upstairs, Mary listens by Percy’s side as he explains what happened. The Doctor decides to extract the Cyberium from Percy but her companions are quick to remind her not to give the Lone Cyberman what it wants and she should kill Percy to save the rest of the world when Thirteen reminds them (and us, the audience) who the hell she is:
“If he dies now, who knows what damage that will have on future history? Words matter. One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink. The future will not be the world you know…it’s not just his life at stake, it’s yours. You wanna sacrifice yourself for this? You want me to sacrifice you? You wanna call it, do it now. All of ya. Yeah, ‘cause sometimes this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me and the summit in the stratosphere alone left to choose. Save the poet, save the universe.”
Damn. (Also, was that a “Heroes” throwback or what? Just me?)
There’s stunned silence from her companions who are finally understanding who the Doctor might be (and I really hate that it’s taken two seasons to get here.) The Cyberman returns, demanding the Cyberium or he’ll kill Percy. Mary steps in, trying to humanize the mechanical monster that stands before her only to drop the subtitle of her famous novel: “modern Prometheus.”
This doesn’t sway the Cyberman for long, although he does give us his pre-Cyber conversion name (Ashad) and he threatens to kill Mary when the Doctor realizes what she must do. She tricks Percy’s mind into thinking he’s close to death and it releases the Cyberium allowing the Doctor to absorb it.
Ashad threatens to call his ship and destroy Earth, so the Doctor makes a hard call and gives him what he wants after all, and the storm breaks and Percy is restored. So she saved Percy, but now must stop the Lone Cyberman. The Doctor tells the fam that they aren’t allowed to come with her, but they do what all good companions do, telling her to press on with them by her side. Then, the episode closes with words from “Darkness,” Lord Bryon’s poem:
“…The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.”
After half a series of muddled episodes, we’re finally settling into the conflict that every Doctor faces–whether to keep their companions safe or to let them venture on in the face of extreme danger. Thirteen has been a happy-go-lucky, science nerd type of Doc (think of Ten, without all the leftover emo pining for Rose), but this season we’ve finally seen her push back a bit, whether it was at her companions or telling Lord Byron to knock it off with the flirting. (That certainly never happened to the Eighth Doctor.) Whittaker is at her most powerful and confident in this episode and I was living after that speech that left the fam in silence. You could feel her anguish and how alone she is, even amongst her friends.
Over the course of Season 12, we as the viewers have come to realize just how much the Doctor’s companions don’t know about her. They’ve tried to build to this crescendo all season, with Ryan and Yaz questioning the Doctor’s actions the most. (Graham questions less but might understand more since he’s a bit older, plus we don’t know how that cancer scare is going to shake out.)
I’ve mentioned before how much I love historical episodes, and this one really hits the mark in ways that “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” did but on a higher level. Then again, I’ve got a degree in English and any Doctor Who episode that quotes poetry makes me an easy target. (Thanks, Maxine Alderton, you made me dust off my bookshelf.) The gothic setting and tone was really everything and the poetry was the icing on the historical cake.
It did have me longing for another listen of Shelley’s adventures with the Eighth Doctor, so it might be time to make another cuppa and settle in with that one-off (and all the ones that follow). (Seriously, if you loved this episode, you need Big Finish in your life.)