Timestamp #300: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

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Doctor Who: The Haunting of Villa Diodati
(1 episode, s12e08, 2020)

Timestamp 300 Haunting Villa Diodati

Enter Frankenstein’s monster.

The place and time are Lake Geneva, June 1816. As a thunderstorm crashes down upon the Swiss countryside, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (the future Mary Shelley, the mother of science fiction), Lord George Gordon Byron, Doctor John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont bemoan the abnormal summer weather and enjoy a horror story. As Lord Byron reaches the climax of his tale, the crowd jumps at a knocking on the door.

When the tense crowd opens the door, they find the Doctor, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan. Everyone screams!

The Doctor flounders with the soaked psychic paper and Graham stumbles with modern vernacular, so Ryan simply asks to come in. They are excited to see the creative minds at work, but instead, dance with them and are treated to gossip about Mary not being married despite taking the Shelley surname and Byron separating from his wife to elope with Mary’s stepsister Claire.

Graham ventures off to find a bathroom, the Doctor tries to convince Mary to write a horror story, and the maid Elise is haunted by flying vases and disembodied hands. Graham ends up walking in circles through the house as mysterious figures appear and disappear around him.

Yaz finds Claire trying to break into Byron’s room to find letters about his feelings for her. Yaz consoles her before spotting one of the mysterious figures. Meanwhile, Byron chats up “Mrs. Doctor” while deflecting questions about Shelley. They also talk about Byron’s daughter Ada and the “unrelentingly evil” vibe surrounding the house. While chatting with Ryan, Mary laments her poor writing talent.

Graham returns to the drawing room as Polidori challenges Ryan to a duel for a perceived offense. The conflict is interrupted by the disembodied hand. It chokes Ryan and is shot into dust by the butler Fletcher. The Doctor tastes the dust and places it around the fifteenth century. Byron shows the collected party his odd collection, including the remains of a fifteenth-century soldier.

The soldier is missing two hands.

Mary explains that when the weather got worse, Shelley started having visions of a figure floating over a lake. Yaz plans to visit Shelley in his chalet while Graham sees the mysterious woman and girl but dismisses them as Polidori snoozes.

Everyone finds themselves circling throughout the house. Mary attempts to find her son, but the house won’t let her. Elise finds baby William and spots lightning on the lake. Meanwhile, Polidori awakens and sleepwalks through a wall. The Doctor discounts a haunting because ghosts don’t exist, and she eventually deduces that a perception filter is at work. As everyone in the house slowly gathers together again, Mary finds a skull and a skeletal hand in William’s cot.

The group traps the animated skull and hand and then shares their findings. The Doctor finally realizes that 1816 was “the year without a summer” due to volcanic activity. She spots the glowing figure on the lake and determines it is a time traveler. The figure materializes in the hallway, and the Doctor immediately recognizes it as a lone cyberman. The Doctor warns everyone to stay put lest they be assimilated as Cybermen, then goes alone to confront it. She doesn’t want to lose anyone else to the mechanical menace.

The Cyberman kills Fletcher and tracks Elise due to William’s cries. The Cyberman seeks a “Guardian” and does not kill the baby. The Doctor finds it and questions the incomplete form, but the Cyberman cannot attack her due to depleted power cells. The Cyberman allows itself to be struck by lightning to recharge. It speaks of a Cyberium that has selected another host.

The rest of the group finds a supposedly vacant room, but it is covered in Shelley’s writing. In the cellar, Claire finds a man who mutters about keeping a Cyberman out. This man, Percy Bysshe Shelley, is the Guardian. The Doctor meets up with this group, finds baby William, and visits with Shelley. The Cyberman teleports to Shelly in search of the Cyberium, but Shelley somehow sends it away.

Through a psychic connection, the Doctor realizes that Shelley found a shimmering silver by the lake. It hid inside his body, cloaking his movements and altering everyone else’s perceptions. His mind is full of images, symbols, and numbers, and no amount of writing will remove them. The Doctor realizes that the Cyberium contains all future knowledge of the Cybermen and was sent back in time to change the future. It will burn Shelley’s mind if he keeps it.

Despite Jack’s warning, the Doctor convinces Shelley to stop fighting the Cyberman’s influence. Unfortunately, if she saves Shelley, the Cyberman will be able to raise an unstoppable army and kill billions. There is no right answer, and the Doctor is furious with the choice forced upon her.

The Cyberman arrives and demands that the Cyberium release Shelley. Mary confronts it and learns that it was a father once, a man named Ashad who was transformed in death (and killed his own children for joining the resistance against him). Using that story as inspiration, the Doctor shows Shelly a vision of his own death and forces the Cyberium from him.

Everyone is teleported back to the drawing room as the Cyberium chooses the Doctor. Ashad calls upon his ship and threatens to destroy the world, so the Doctor releases the Cyberium to Ashad’s control. The lone Cyberman vanishes and the thunderstorm disappears. The Doctor decides to travel into the future with Shelley’s scribblings to fight Ashad before he can destroy everything.

The next day, Claire berates Byron over his poor treatment of her and breaks up with him. Team TARDIS convinces Mary to keep writing and apologizes for giving Shelley a sneak peek of his death. Graham is confused by the ghosts (who weren’t ghosts) and the Doctor offers to send her companions home as she faces the Cybermen.

The companions refuse, and over a reading of Byron’s Darkness, the team sets course for destiny.

In a good suspense story featuring a possible inspiration for Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, we get a prelude for the most divisive story in modern Doctor Who history. The premise was sound with our traveling heroes on a quest to see the origins of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, and it evolved into a fantastic mystery thriller that brought us back to basics with historical and problem-solving elements.

The centerpiece – the lone Cyberman from Jack’s warning – is itself an amalgam of modern Doctor Who history. The body is mostly from Nightmare in Silver with lower legs from Rise of the Cybermen and arms from World Enough and Time. The helmet is a new arrangement but is inspired by a design by assistant Matthew Savage. (A 2016 three-dimensional update was showcased on his Instagram profile last year.)

The drama of this episode, with a chance to permanently defeat a menacing enemy at the cost of the greater good, was tense. This is when Doctor Who‘s social messaging is on target, with subtle pokes that make the audience feel the choice rather than experiencing a bludgeon to the head.

And, as mentioned before, this is the last prologue before the Doctor Who universe changes once again. To call what’s coming divisive is an understatement.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen and Doctor Who: The Timeless Children


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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