I usually watch new Doctor Who stories in the quiet comfort of my bedroom on Sunday afternoons, but I will happily watch Doctor Who with a crowd whenever given the chance. “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” written by Maxine Alderton and directed by Emma Sullivan, was the most recent occasion and one of the most enjoyable Doctor Who viewing experiences I have ever had. I had the immense privilege of watching this story in the main hall of the Gallifrey One Convention, played up on a big screen for hundreds of rabid Doctor Who fans to watch together for the first time. I loved it, and it is easily my favorite story of Series 12 so far, and likely of Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall’s overall tenure.
Doctor Who (Series 12)
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati”
Emma Sullivan (director), Maxine Alderton (writers)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
February 16, 2020
This story centers around the Doctor and her companions (played by Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh) crashing the lake house party in 1816 where the story of Frankenstein is first drafted by a young Mary Shelley (played here by Lili Miller).The Doctor’s fannish hopes and dreams are quickly disposed of as the group realizes the party is not what it seems or should be; Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer) is missing and Villa Diodati is under siege by ghostly beings.
The historical characters are well-realized and entertaining, but the story does not linger on them or their real-life counterparts. In being such a genuinely scary science-fiction ghost story, Villa Diodati is not able to fall prey to the navel-gazing celebrity historicals often concern themselves with. The story is haunting and mysterious and perfectly balances suspense and intrigue with lighter character moments and humor. Every scene both unravels some element of the mystery while also setting up clues for the next. It’s a simple story and one Doctor Who has done many times, but also one Doctor Who can do very well. Mysterious forces attack a historical character or characters, only to be revealed by the Doctor and company as aliens or time travelers or both. It’s the quintessential Doctor Who historical, mixing a science-fiction Scooby Doo plot with BBC period drama.
Each member of the Tardis team gets plenty to do here, investigating both all the strange parts of the house and the large cast of guest characters stuck inside with them. This story hits every beat of a classic ghost story, from a rainy night to strange travelers to mysterious disappearances to otherworldly visitations. Doctor Who can be any genre, a conceit that is often equally freeing and overwhelming, even in the same story, yet this is a perfect ghost story. A good ghost story hinges on a good ghost and the lone Cyberman perfectly fills that role here. This story reiterates a truth discovered early on in the New Series in the Robert Shearman story “Dalek”, one evil alien killing machine is often scarier than an entire army of them. The single Cyberman here is especially haunting because of the design and direction choices surrounding him. He looks like many Cybermen we’ve seen before, but he is run-down and struggling to repair himself, his suit seeming almost more wood than metal at times, and his face poking through the damaged faceplate, reminding us of the humanity he once had and lost. Cybermen make an easy and obvious thematic and narrative parallel with the Frankenstein story, one that’s been played up before in other Doctor Who stories (some even also featuring Mary Shelley). This story’s success hinges on that, and the viewer being vaguely aware of both what a Cyberman story and what a Frankenstein story should look like, but it doesn’t beat the point over our heads. Mary calls the Cyberman a “modern prometheus” at one point in a moment that’s both funny and terrifying, but the plot overall feels more Edgar Allan Poe than Mary Shelley.
Every character gets their own moment to shine over the course of 45 minutes, and Alderton’s script effortlessly manages the large supporting cast. Each of the companions gets their own larger character moment and pairs off well with a mix of historical guest characters. Jacob Collins-Levy’s Lord Byron is particularly funny and the Doctor gets a few good digs at him, without him feeling like a caricature. Whittaker’s Doctor delivers a wonderfully terrifying and harsh reproach to Ryan when he suggests leaving Percy Shelley to die in order to save humanity. Her character arc this season has centered around anger and disappointment and she has often felt cold to her companions, and this story’s ending is no exception. Yet here, the Doctor is written, directed, and performed so well that her anger feels real and justified and in-character. This story follows on from clues in an earlier story (‘Fugitive of the Judoon’) and larger Cyberman mythos and will tie into future stories, notably this season’s two-part finale, but this story works perfectly as a standalone Doctor Who story and a highlight of the program in recent years.