Finally, the thirteenth Doctor’s era gets a true masterpiece, an episode which not only contains a fantastic Whovian story in its own right but one that involves a historical figure and prepares the way for a high stakes season finale. While the past few episodes have struggled to juggle the number of characters and locations into a cohesive and satisfying narrative, this one – written by Maxine Alderton – scales everything back to the interior of a single house and in that claustrophobic setting paradoxically finds more than enough room to accommodate not just the Doctor but each member of ‘the Fam’ in an atmospheric and sumptuously staged haunted house tale.
Arriving at Villa Diodati in 1816, the Doctor is looking for a bit of historical fun, witnessing the creation of the short story which would go on to become ‘Frankenstein’. But when they arrive on this dark and stormy night, there’s a distinct absence of writing and an even more distinct absence of one Percy Bysshe Shelley. But before the Doctor can unravel the mystery of what’s not happening, the things that are happening suggest that something is very, very wrong with the Villa Diodati and before the night is through, the Doctor will have to make a fateful decision.
There have been many times in the current era where its cinematic ambitions have been undercut by obvious budgetary limitations but “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati” looks gorgeous. Of course, the BBC loves historical drama and Chibnall and co have clearly been given the keys to costume department because everybody is dressed to the nines and looks fabulous, especially the Fam who scrub up very nicely in 19th-century duds.
The story cleverly pairs Ryan, Yaz and Graham with one or two of the guests of Villa Diodati, allowing them to wander off on their own spooky adventures while the Doctor remains focussed on the central enigma of the house and its pervasive sense of evil. That it manages to do all this without ever feeling even a little bit ‘Scooby-Doo’ is testament to the terrifically creepy ambience the episode is blessed with. There’s a genuine dread infused into the action, and the performances from main and guest cast rise to match the high standard of the production.
This would have been a top tier “Doctor Who” episode without the appearance of a big name monster, but the appearance of The Lone Cyberman, Ashad, an incomplete and apparently cobbled-together conversion, takes it another level entirely. Of course, it’s a wonderful conceit to pair a patchwork, shambling Cyberman with the genesis of Frankenstein’s Monster and there’s more than a hint of “The Terminator” in there too but the parallels are allowed to remain background details rather than rammed down the viewer’s throats. It’s a story which treats the viewers with a respect that’s often been sorely lacking in the series writing to date. The details, little touches and rich moments are allowed room to breathe and flow organically and even the regulars are freed from their usual duty of reciting exposition, with the exception of the moment when Yaz, Ryan and Graham feel the need to remind the Doctor of the exact text and probable significance of Captain Jack’s needlessly cryptic and light-on-details warning.
Jodie Whittaker delivers probably her best performance to date as the Doctor, mercurial, inscrutable, irascible and whimsical by turn with her reaction to encountering the Cybermen again simply breathtaking. Her raw heartache at having to confront her recent losses at the hands of the Mondasian monsters: Bill and, of course, her own former incarnation, balanced with the dawning horror of the no-win scenario she faces in the moment is played superbly. And her stark warning to the Fam to mind their place when she makes the only decision she could really make feels very portentous as we head into the finale. Just because the Doctor can’t win, doesn’t mean she’s going to lose so she kicks the cyber can down the road a bit in the hope that she’ll figure it out later.
Season 12 has, so far, been a significant improvement on the previous year and while the old bad habits remain, the new writers brought in have clearly had an improving impact. Rumours suggest that the writer of this, the season’s best episode so far, has become a staff writer for the forthcoming season 13 and that’s a cause for optimism is nothing else. All eyes now turn to the season finale, a two-part epic that promises to not only bring the Cybermen back with a vengeance but bring some closure to the mystery of The Timeless Child and even perhaps the identity of Doctor Ruth. It’s the third season finale in the past five years to feature The Cybermen so let’s hope Chibnall has figured out something new and interesting to do with them. But for now, let’s bask in the glory that is “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati”