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Doctor Who: 12 big questions after The Haunting of Villa Diodati

Who were Graham’s ghosts? What happened to the Cyberman? And was Mary Shelley’s story real?

Published: Sunday, 16th February 2020 at 8:00 pm

Doctor Who got literary in latest episode The Haunting of Villa Diodati, with the TARDIS team meeting up with real-life historical figures including Mary Shelley and Lord Byron to find their way through a spooky house and fight off a terrifying Cyberman.


By the end of the story Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor had made a terrible choice, Shelley was inspired to write her greatest work and the Doctor’s friends were ready to take on a Cyber-army – but in all the action you’d be forgiven for getting a little confused about some of the finer points of the plot.

Just what was going on with the Cyberium? Who were that creepy maid and the little girl? How does this tie into Captain Jack’s warning, and is any of this actually historically accurate?

We try our best to answer your burning questions below.

Was this really how Frankenstein was written? How much of the story is true?

As with all of Doctor Who’s historical episodes, a certain portion of The Haunting of Villa Diodati is based on real facts. It’s certainly true that the Shelleys, Dr Polidori, Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron were spending time together in the summer of 1816, and that unseasonably bad weather trapped them indoors, leading them to attempt a ghost sotry competition that resulted in the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

In Doctor Who this is presented as taking place on one specific night, though in actual fact the contest took place over three days and also resulted in Dr Polidori’s short story The Vampyre, which was hugely influential in the horror genre (partially because many mistakenly believed it to be written by Lord Byron).

The interpersonal relationships between the characters are also drawn from fact. Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin did have a relationship pre-marriage while he was estranged from his first wife (though obviously the pair did marry later), and Byron truly did have to leave England for good in 1816 after a series of scandals (which included allegations he had an affair with his half-sister).

Claire Clairmont and Byron also did have a romantic past and based on correspondence she did have more of an interest in him than he did in her. At the close of this episode it was suggested that she had lost interest – in real life she was already pregnant with his child by the time she was in the Villa Diodati.

The invention of the episode comes from the inclusion of science-fiction elements. Sadly, in real life Frankenstein wasn’t inspired by a Cyberman, as is suggested here when Mary wonders if Ashad is made of multiple people, like the Creature in her novel, and describes him as a “Modern Prometheus” – the alternate title for the book. Huw Fullerton

Why didn’t the psychic paper work?

Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh in Doctor Who (BBC)

Early in the episode the Doctor and crew arrive at the Villa from the pouring rain seeking shelter, only for the Doctor’s trusty psychic paper to produce no effect.

In the episode, the Doctor suggests that the rain has shorted out the paper – but it could be that the same “vibe” making the Doctor’s head feel fuzzy was already affecting the paper psychically as well, the perception filters inside the house interfering with its usual effect.

Also, in 2007’s The Shakespeare Code it was revealed that Psychic Paper doesn’t work on genius-level intellects, so with the likes of Byron and Shelley around perhaps it was a bit of a wasted effort anyway… HF

Were those real poems?

Throughout The Haunting of Villa Diodati a few of Byron and Shelley’s real-life poems were mentioned. If you were wondering, the lines of verse exchanged by Byron and the Doctor were from his short lyric She Walks in Beauty, and the poem he mentions shortly after that is his long narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was published in instalments between 1812 and 1818 (at this point he notes he’s working on the “third canto”).

Later, Ashad the Cyberman recites parts of Shelley’s long poem Queen Mab after establishing something of a psychic connection with him, while Byron reads from his own poem Darkness at the close of the episode. HF

Was that a Bill Potts callback?

Following the lone Cyberman's arrival, the Doctor determines to charge after him alone. Though her friends insist they should accompany her, the Time Lord refuses, recounting how the Cybermen's victims are "changed into empty, soulless shells – no feeling, no control, no way back."

"I will not lose anyone else to that!" she says. Was that a deliberate nod to the fate of companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie)? Though the Doctor will have seen plenty of innocents fall prey to the Cyber-race, Bill is the only one of their companion's to be 'upgraded' by the Mondasian monsters. (Though she got better, being transformed into sentient oil by her girlfriend Heather...)

The Doctor's emotional tone certainly suggests she might be recalling what happened to Bill. Either that, or she just really misses Danny Pink. Morgan Jeffery

When/how does Percy Shelley die?

The Doctor is able to free Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer) from the grip of the Cyberium by using an "old Time Lord trick" and pushing his mind to his "future death" – with his brain convinced that he was dying, the AI left Percy's body.

The "sneak peek" that the Doctor inflicts on Shelley is a vision of him apparently drowning. Indeed, on 8th July 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday and just six years after the events of The Haunting of Villa Diodati, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm on the Gulf of La Spezia, a body of water on the north-western coast of Italy, while returning from Leghorn (now Livorno) to Lerici in his sailing boat, the Don Juan.

His body was washed adore and later cremated on the beach near Viareggio in northern Tuscany, with his ashes being interred in Protestant Cemetery in Rome. A memorial was eventually created for Shelley at the Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, along with his old friend Lord Byron. MJ

What's the connection between Byron and Ada Lovelace?

Sylvie Briggs as Ada Lovelace in Doctor Who - Spyfall Part 2 (BBC)

While prowling the Villa with Byron, the Doctor reveals that she is a "big fan" of Ada Lovelace and her "gorgeous brain".

Lovelace, as played by Sylvie Briggs, appeared in series 12's Spyfall - Part 2 and encountered the Doctor after being abducted by the alien Kasaavin.

Born Augusta Ada Byron, the English mathematician and writer was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron (played in Doctor Who by Jacob Collins-Levy), his other four children being born out of wedlock.

Byron was in fact mentioned by the Doctor during her interactions with Ada earlier this series, a neat precursor to his on-screen appearance in The Haunting of Villa Diodati. MJ

How did Jack find out about the Lone Cyberman?

John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who (BBC)

During the episode, the warning given by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) a few episodes ago came to pass, with the Doctor finally encountering “The Lone Cyberman” and forced to decide whether to give him what he wanted or not.

Of course, in the end the Doctor ignored Jack’s warning – but how did he know to give it in the first place? Jack didn’t know the Doctor was a woman or what she’d been up to recently, so how did he know such a specific detail, only witnessed by the core TARDIS team?

To answer this, we’re just going to have to fall back on the old “it’s a time travel show” explanation, and say that Jack was told some details of what went down at the Villa Diodati in the future. It couldn’t have been the Doctor or her friends who told him, but maybe someone we meet in the next couple of episodes will pass the message on during some random encounter with Jack.

Then again, wouldn’t they already know that the Doctor had ignored the warning at that stage? So what would be the point of passing it along? Unless they thought they could change history…

Time travel, eh? Always messing with your head. HF

Who stole the Cyberium and sent it back in time?

The Cyberium was being used to orchestrate the devastation being wrought by the Cybermen in the far future – the Doctor mentions how it was "controlling data, strategy, decision making" amidst an "epic battle".

So how did it end up in a lake in 1816? "Someone took it from the Cybermen, sent it back in time here in an attempt to change the future," the Doctor speculates... but who?

In Fugitive of the Judoon, Captain Jack reveals that a mysterious group called “The Alliance” sent something “back through time, across space” to defeat the Cybermen – we now know that was the Cyberium, but who exactly are The Alliance?

Just a guess, but what if the Doctor - now hurtling into the future Cyber War - ends up forming the Alliance and sending the Cyberium back in time, creating a causal loop? Wibbly-wobbly... MJ

Why didn’t the Cyberium want to go with the Cyberman?

The episode's dramatic climax sees the Doctor in a battle of wills with Ashad, fighting over the Cyberium, but in the end, the AI chooses the Doctor as its host. She puts it down to "Time Lord magnetism", but why would Cyber-technology prefer a non-Cyberman host? For that matter, why was the Cyberium hiding from the Cybermen in the first place?

Possibly whoever stole the Cyberium and sent it back in time was also able to subtly reprogram it, so that it would shirk any Cyberman that came looking. If, as speculated above, it was the Doctor herself who sent it back, she might've even programmed it specifically to respond to her biology.

This theory feels more solid by the moment... MJ

Were Graham’s ghosts real?

Though The Haunting of Villa Diodati explains that much of the spooky goings-on were a result of the Cyberium's actions, one thing remains unexplained: "the maid and the creepy little kid" encountered by Graham.

He's the only one to encounter these 'ghosts' – they even, apparently, bring him some food. So who were they?

Possibly the Cyberium was just malfunctioning and projecting random spectral figures throughout the Villa? Perhaps the woman and the little girl were somehow sent back in time by the Alliance and were trying to send Graham a message? Or maybe, just maybe, they really were ghosts?

The Twelfth Doctor was convinced back in series nine's Under the Lake that there was no such thing, but that story as well the Torchwood tales Random Shoes and From Out of the Rain see human 'spirits' take form by way of time-travel hijinks, psychic power and/or alien interference.

So ghosts have appeared in the Whoniverse before, but always with a (semi-)rational explanation attached. Maybe we'll get one for the maid and the little girl in series 12's two-part finale? MJ

Why was Ashad an unfinished Cyberman?

The rusty, battered and half-formed Ashad was a very different sort of Cyberman, still displaying part of his real face (and his real right arm) and lacking the usual emotional inhibitor chip that helps the cyborgs manage their horrific new condition.

But why was he unfinished? The Doctor notes that it’s possible someone “got bored halfway through” but apart from that there’s not really much of an explanation for what landed Ashad in such an unpleasant inbetween state.

Perhaps during the last days of the Cyber War (when the Cyberium was sent back in time) the Cyber-Army was so desperate for recruits they had to just try and assimilate as many people as quickly as possible, and their rush resulted in a few part-human anomalies like Ashad.

Or maybe the production team just wanted to include a cool-looking Cyberman with a visible face, and didn’t see the need to over-explain the whole thing. Who could blame them? HF

Will the Lone Cyberman return?

It seems so – in the Next Time trailer for upcoming episode Ascension of the Cybermen we see Ashad on the march, so it seems likely the Doctor and the TARDIS team will encounter him again as he strives to rebuild the Cyber-Empire with the technology he’s regained.

From other trailers we know that somehow he succeeds and a full Cyber-Army (with a new look design) are on the march in the two-part finale – but we’ll have to wait until episode nine to see exactly how he pulls the whole thing off. Curse our linear experience of time! HF


Doctor Who continues on BBC One at 7:10pm on Sundays


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