The Haunting of Villa Diodati

Posted in Audio by - February 17, 2020
The Haunting of Villa Diodati

Aired 16 February 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

As the twelfth series of Doctor Who hurdles towards its monumental two-part finale, ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ by Maxine Laderton starts the celebrations early with a horror-laden visit to the 1816 locale in which Mary Shelley found her inspiration to create Frankenstein during the famed year without a summer.

Whereas earlier stories in this run have found success by splitting up the TARDIS team to emphasize the immense scope of certain events, ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ wisely keeps its core cast together from the start in order to maximize the genuine sense of tension and unease within these claustrophobic confines. With effective use of both lighting and lightning to complement superb camerawork, the mysterious goings-on that see ghostly apparitions, reanimated skeletal remains, and an inescapable home with an interior that is seemingly impossible to navigate are each brilliantly realized and effectively maintain an increasing sense of impending dread as a strange luminescent figure continues its approach to the villa.

Within Doctor Who lore, Mary Shelley has previously met a Cyberman in the audio adventure ‘The Silver Turk,’ but that in no way diminishes how effectively the creature dubbed the Lone Cyberman by Jack Harkness earlier on parallels the famed creature that Shelley would go to create, the various body parts from different iterations of the enemies all the more effectively conveying a sense of convergence to this being she dubs the modern Prometheus. The cracked faceplate and scarred skin of the human beneath are inspired choices, and the immense characterization that goes into this man who still has emotions but who so clearly wanted to be converted and who describes himself as inevitable is an incredible driving force for this narrative that in some respects delves into the original purpose for the creation of this race back in ‘The Tenth Planet’. Intriguingly, though, Mary’s attempts to show empathy and to treat this hybrid man with the kindness that her literary creation would so desire are met only with scorn and again prove just how effective a singular foe of an all-powerful and innumerable race can be as he continues his quest for the Cyberium that holds all knowledge of the Cybermen and that could turn the tide of future warfare in their favour.

Yet it’s with the Cyberium that the logic of the show becomes somewhat muddled. The Thirteenth Doctor has from the start operated under the mindset that time must play out as it always has, and she quickly makes a set of rules for her companions to follow to ensure that the established course of history is followed as they enter the villa. Yet after somewhat dismissively passing off the deaths of household staff members that should not have occurred as anomalies, she turns all of her focus to saving Percy Shelley when he is revealed to be the guardian of the Cyberium because his death would change all of history. This puts undue importance on one individual compared to everyone else which until recently with the likes of ‘Rosa’ has not often been a part of the franchise’s focus beyond certain fixed points in time, and even though it leads to a monumental speech in which the Doctor declares herself as at the summit of her team structure in this situation, the fact that the billions of deaths that could result from Percy not dying here are so far away in both space and time somewhat takes away from the massive moral ramifications of this debate that other stories have effectively explored. Still, while the potentially fascinating storyline of the Doctor holding the Cyberium herself is quickly dropped here, having her instead seemingly disregard the warnings of Jack by handing it over to the Cyberman absolutely opens up a tremendous narrative potential for the finale.

Still, the young cast of supporting actors manage to bring these young Romantic era figures to life vividly, Lili Miller in particular glowing as she shows Mary’s infatuation with the darker side of human nature and her utter devotion to life itself. Nadia Parkes plays the lovesick Claire Claremont brilliantly against Jacob Collins-Levy’s confident but self-centred Lord Byron, and it’s hard not to see the parallels being drawn between Byron’s situation and the Doctor’s with a companion’s departure seemingly looming after Yaz and Ryan’s recent talk in the TARDIS and with Yaz commiserating with Claire about obliviousness before Byron’s spell over Clare is broken by his own actions. Maxim Baldry likewise excels as the insomniac John Polidori whose own writing would go on to inspire Bram Stoker, Alderton amazingly succeeding in adding dimension to each of this expanded cast in a short span of time. With each of the companions also receiving a moment to genuinely shine through comedy or introspection within this story that is unafraid to leave some of its ghostly mysteries unresolved, ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ with a reading of part of Byron’s Darkness to close it out asserts itself as a standout of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era to this point that confidently sets the scene for the fallout that will assuredly be so far removed from this point.

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