Doctor Who The Haunting of Villa Diodati review: a ghost-story that deftly subsumes the birth of horror into the show's own mythology
Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley and her Romantic poet chums endure a night of unexpected terror with a foe from the Time Lord's past
It was a dark and stormy night… We’re at the birth of what would become a cliché but this latest Doctor Who embraces all the familiar ghost-story trappings and deftly subsumes the birth of horror into its own mythology.
The Time Lord’s rules of engagement are set. Ryan: “Nobody mention Frankenstein and don’t interfere.” Yaz: “And nobody snog Byron.” I was mildly concerned about witnessing the gormless WhittakWho Quartet blundering into this key moment in literary history, not just literary history but a seminal point in the horror genre, the birthplace of frights in the night in novel form. Admirably, Maxine Alderton (who’s written for The Worst Witch and many editions of Emmerdale) handles her subject and setting with charm and sensitivity.
The Time Lord cannot wait to engage with “some of the most enlightened minds of a generation at the pinnacle, the absolute zenith of their creativity”. Cue, the historical figures horsing about on a rug, then gossiping with the foursome during a quadrille (an elegantly concealed info-dump). What the drama makes clear is just how young these Bright Young Things of the Romantic era were, and it brings them to life with a strong cast of relative newcomers.
Lili Miller glints with naughtiness and empathy for the dark side as Frankenstein creator Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, just 18, and already known as “Mrs Shelley” before marriage. Nadia Parkes plays her lovelorn stepsister Claire Clairmont, who at the end delightfully rebukes the rakish Lord Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy). Lewis Rainer looks splendidly wan and “matinee idol” as Percy Bysshe Shelley, despite an iffy wig. Most recognisable of the set, Maxim Baldry (Years and Years) glowers as the volatile, insomniac Dr Polidori. (It isn’t mentioned here but John Polidori wrote his short story The Vampyre at the villa, which later influenced Bram Stoker.)
All five are well drawn by Alderton across the 50-minute time limit. Faring best is Mary, who relishes the tales of the dead: “Something to awaken thrilling horror,” she purrs, “to make us dread to look around, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.” Mary delights in Byron’s reading of Hildegard the Death Bride, endures more horror than anticipated as the night unfolds – and eventually, inevitably, describes the “Lone Cyberman” as the Modern Prometheus.
It is clever to suggest a Cyberman as inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Creature in her Frankenstein novel (formulated on that dark night in 1816 and published two years later). This cadaverous, botched operation of a man, reinvigorated by the equivalent of a bolt of lightning, lumbering about the villa, killing indiscriminately, responding tenderly to a baby… it’s so close to the monster that we have come to know in the movies.
This bashed-up, war-torn loner is a welcome addition to the mythology, in much the same category as the solitary, recycled garbage-can Dalek in Resolution. His half-mask allows a performance to come through, vocally and via the one exposed eye of actor Patrick O’Kane. This wretched creature, named Ashad, does not have an emotion inhibitor, so we witness his rage, his sarcasm, his sensitivity. In a neat touch of arcane continuity, his roar of anguish echoes the Cyberman who was given emotions then went rogue in the London sewers in The Invasion in 1968.
The Haunting of Villa Diodati is in good company with other haunted-house Whos: Peter Capaldi’s Knock Knock (2017), and especially Jon Pertwee’s Day of the Daleks (1972) and Matt Smith’s Hide (2013), both of which were beset with “ghosts” from the future.
Are there “real” ghosts in this story, though? The Doctor leaves Graham guessing and gawping. Some details she cannot explain. The skeletal hand, the apparitions of a housemaid and a young girl provide fleeting chills and almost read like vestiges from an earlier draft. But Bradley Walsh delivers comedy gold again as Graham, spooked by this pair (“You two just need a spray tan and a kip”) and by the sinister valet Fletcher, who keeps appearing from nowhere.
Perhaps more pressing is Graham’s need for a pee: “Big house like this, there’s got to be a lav somewhere” and later “Not a khazi for love nor money.” I don’t need to see Graham about his ablutions but am concerned that his quest for relief is never satisfied. The last we hear of this dribbling plot strand is when the valet points to a capacious po.
While the links to recent and future episodes might be mystifying, the perception-manipulating power of the so-called Cyberium (“an AI from the future containing the knowledge and future history of all Cybermen”) is somewhat opaque and bewildering too. Why has someone sent this “quicksilver” to Geneva 1816? For the most part, the storytelling isn’t impeded – if you keep alert. For once, the detail and developments aren’t related with a bludgeon.
“Words matter!” stresses the Doctor. “One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.” Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is impressive, outfoxing Byron, encouraging Mary and Percy, nearly thwarting the Cyberman but, ultimately, not heeding the warnings of Captain Jack relayed via her team. She sees the bigger picture: “Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat, it’s mountainous, with me at the summit, in the stratosphere alone, left to choose. Save the poet? Save the universe?” No bragging; she’s stating her responsibility as a Lord of Time and admits, “Sometimes even I can’t win.”
Lustrous, spooky, hitting every note, this episode is finely directed by Emma Sullivan, and has enough confidence and generosity to unwind with an almost minute-long poetry reading as the young Romantics loll in an idyllic setting. Maxine Alderton selects a passage from Darkness (a poem Byron wrote that summer) that reflects the mood of the piece and ends on an allusion to our favourite space/time traveller. Really rather beautiful.
“The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
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.”
Rare for this period of Who, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is one volume I would put on my shelf and contemplate dusting off again one day. And if it encourages viewers to reach out and discover the Romantic poets – and the progenitors of horror – this is a fine work indeed.