❉ New writer Maxine Alderton delivers a stone-cold horror classic.
“One death, one ripple, and history will change.”
Doctor Who can never go wrong when it mines the Gothic. Think The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977), Ghost Light (1989), Tooth and Claw (2006) and Deep Breath (2014), to name just a few stories to benefit from the genre’s combination of horror, death and romance.
The series had already done its own take and what is arguably the well-spring of Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) in The Brain of Morbius (1976), in which Dr Solon, like Victor Frankenstein, cobbles together dead body parts to create a new, living, murderous creature. Bearing in mind Frankenstein’s pervasive influence on both horror and science fiction, it was surely only a matter of time before the TARDIS crew would alight at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland on the night Frankenstein was brought into being to visit Mary (Lili Miller), the architect of the genre they sometimes inhabit, together with Lord Byron (Jacob Collins), Percy Byshe Shelley (Lewis Rainer), Dr John Polidori (Maxim Baldry) and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes).
The slightly schizophrenic nature of the series continues as this week’s episode was, again, the opposite of the previous week’s. Where Can You Hear Me? ranged – ultimately ineffectively – over several locations and fudged both its science fiction and human interest storylines, Then Haunting of Villa Diodati was confined to one location and tightly focused on a small cast of characters who were given room to develop. In Doctor Who terminology, the Villa Diodati was very much a ‘base under siege’ story, and that formula has been a winner more often than it’s failed.
Writer Maxine Alderton’s experience in writing and script editing the rural soap Emmerdale (1972 – ) was evident in how the relationships between the Diodati residents were convincingly established and explored; the raffish Byron dallying with the affections of the married Claire and coming on to the Doctor, Mary concerned for her child (her first-born daughter had died) and worried about her missing lover, Shelley (even though she tried not to show it), and Polidori aggressive because of lack of sleep, which turned out to be an important plot point. Their dialogue, too, sounded pleasingly authentic – “I’ve never known air so dank or frigid” was just one delicious example. Rather wonderfully, the background to the Diodati residents was filled in through conversations between them and the TARDIS crew during a quadrille dance. Alderton’s period research was impressive.
Used to writing for a large ensemble cast, she is now the second writer on the Whitttaker team to be able to give the regular cast of four something significant to do in every episode. There is, however, a growing tendency to give Graham all the funny lines, and he had more than his fair share here. “You’re like ninjas, you lot” made me laugh out loud.
Establish your characters well so the audience cares about them and then the weirdness can begin, and that was the case here, from a skeleton’s crawling hand – another familiar horror trope – the geography of the villa suddenly changing and strange apparitions appearing. Like all the successful Gothic horror Doctor Who stories before this, the science fiction explanation for all this was seamlessly done: an alien AI had merged with Shelley so that he became its ‘Guardian’ and gave him powers to cloak the villa and prevent its residents from leaving. (Why it reanimated a skeleton’s body parts was rather less clear).
Executive producer Chris Chibnall’s policy of zero advance publicity delivered again here, revealing that the AI was the Cyberium, a repository off all Cybermen data sent back through time from a future war, pursued by the Lone Cyberman Captain Jack Harkness warned the TARDIS fam about in Fuigitive of the Judoon.
It was an absolute masterstroke casting a battle-scarred Cyberman as the monster in a drama featuring Mary Shelley, just as she’s about to write Frankenstein. The parallels between the ruthless cyborgs and the creature in the book are, when you think about it, obvious: both are stitched together from the remains of other humans to create another life-form. It was a great touch, too, that Alderton used lightning to restore the Lone Cyberman’s strength, as this elemental power source has been used to animate Frankenstein’s creature in the original novel and the many and varied film versions of the story.
And what about Patrick O’Kane as Ashad, the man who worshipped the Cybermen, eventually became one and then became the last of their kind? Considering how timid Jodie Whittaker’s era has been with its villains, Ashad is far and away the most vicious and terrifying. The moment where it looked like he was going to respond to Mary Shelley’s sympathy, then revealed that “I did have children… I slit their throats when they joined the resistance” in that gravelly, menacing voice, fixing Mary with a penetrating stare from his half-revealed face under the Cybermen’s broken face plate, has to be one of the most chilling scenes in all of Doctor Who.
As you can see, Alderton clearly knows how to write for the series, no more so than in the character of the Doctor herself. It was brilliant to see Jodie’s Doctor confronting Ashad with vigour and wit, and then put in a serious moral dilemma at the end. The situation prompted her to anger about, in the end, always having to make difficult choices: “Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat, its mountainous,” she spits, “with me in the stratosphere, left to choose, alone… Sometimes even I can’t win.” This is the first time time we’ve seen this haunted, angry side too Jodie’s portrayal, and it more than confirms that she can do gravitas, in a performance that stands with the best of the Doctors before her.
I loved The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Everything worked. The direction, looking like it was inspired by candle-lit lighting of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), and gleefully mining the horror movie motifs of thunder and lightning, was skillfully atmospheric, as was the sombre, unsettling incidental music. All of the supporting cast made a lasting impression, with Jacob Collins’ louche Byron close behind the front-runner O’Kane. Collins’ was a gift of a part and he literally had the last word, quoting from Byron’s poem Darkness in tribute to the Doctor. Honourable mention should also be made of the villa’s manservant Fletcher (Stefan Bednarczyk), gamely playing up to the miss-direction of his character as the possible villain.
The Haunting of Villa Diodati, courtesy of Maxine Alderton’s confident writing, Emma Sullivan’s assured direction and a first-rate cast, shows that Jodie Whittaker Doctor Who CAN be every bit as good as any period of Doctor Who before it. It’s just a shame that she didn’t have stories like this at the beginning of her tenure to win over and consolidate a new audience.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.