Doctor Who – Season 12, Episode 8: The Haunting of Villa Diodati – Reviewed

My second-favorite Ken Russell film, after the one-of-a-kind cinematic nightmare that is The Devils, is 1986's Gothic: a hallucinatory and psychologically-subjective imagined version of the famous weekend spent by Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr), and John Polidori (Timothy Spall) at Byron's Villa Diodati, when they challenged each other to delve into their deepest fears and spin those fears into ghost stories, ultimately creating the seeds of the idea that would become Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In Russell's film, the opiate-intoxicated, hedonistic artists become convinced that the occult ritual they perform to set the mood for their ghost stories actually worked, and they are being haunted by a demon that is materializing their greatest fears, although the film itself leaves it entirely up to the viewer to decide if anything supernatural is actually happening, or if the writers are merely being tormented by their own drug-amplified inner demons. Though Russell's transgressive, bombastic style is certainly not for everyone, the film is a pretty definitive supernatural-fiction account of one of literary history's most famous parties (and for those who are interested, my review of the film and its blu-ray can be read here). So naturally I was very excited and intrigued to learn that Doctor Who was going to take their own shot at fictionalizing that same weekend, once again pitting the real-life literary figures against a supernatural entity right out of their own stories. While it is a given that the Doctor Who version of the tale is a good deal less debaucherous and R-rated than the Ken Russell version, these collisions of sci-fi/horror and historical fiction are one of the things that this series does best, and the possibilities are tantalizing. This season already gave us one very good historical episode with Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror, and the Whittaker era had one of its best episodes ever with last season's historical Demons of the Punjab; does The Haunting of Villa Diodati continue the streak?

Just as Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and their friends are settling in for a stormy night full of ghost stories and drink, The Doctor and her fam turn up at the front door, with plans to do a bit of historical tourism: watch this famous meeting of the literary minds in action, witness the birth of one of the most iconic horror novels of all time, and then leave without disturbing anything. As The Doctor says, no interfering, no mentioning Frankenstein, and no snogging Byron. But it soon becomes clear that they are all trapped in a ghost story themselves: a sinister presence (or presences) starts terrorizing the partygoers, and the house appears to be trapped in an infinitely bending loop that won't let them leave. In this version whatever is happening is definitely real, and drugs aren't to blame – aside from some wine, Russell's probably-accurate heavy-substance-use angle is left out here, this being a family-friendly TV show and all that – but it turns out to be one of The Doctor's trippier adventures in a while, and certainly the most overtly horror in a while. The Haunting of Villa Diodati does hallucinatory Gothic horror very well, combining classic Old Dark House genre trappings with reality-warping sci-fi surrealness in a way that recalls recent classic horror episodes like The God Complex with Matt Smith and Heaven Sent with Peter Capaldi. This is screenwriter Maxine Alderton's first Doctor Who episode, but she clearly understands how this show does horror.

And yes, the episode certainly recalls Ken Russell's Gothic. Not in a way that feels derivative of Russell's film – this is quite different in the ways that matter, and is very much telling its own take on the story – but if Alderton is a fan of the film and was inspired by it, I would not be in the least surprised. It has a similar approach to the idea of the famous literary figures encountering real-life spirits rather than just imaginary ones, and the way it uses the atmosphere of the house sometimes feels similar (though that could just be a coincidence, since both clearly draw on Old Dark House tropes). Both versions of the story also dismantle the myth of these writers as great literary masters who need to be put on pedestals, and portray them as decidedly human hard-partying twentysomethings, with Byron in particular being portrayed in both cases as his era's version of a rock-star, with all the decadence that entails. It could just be that both scripts were written from a similar sensibility towards the real events, but at any rate I was surprised that the episode had a good deal more in common with Gothic than I expected. That never felt distracting, though, and the episode never felt stuck in the film's shadow because it handles the material very well in its own right, and interjects The Doctor and company into the events in a way that really works. In particular Jacob Collins-Levy's Lord Byron steals the show, giving a charismatic and mischievous, if dickish and shamelessly self-serving, performance as the famously mercurial and hedonistic poet. While clearly a narcissist and not a great guy to be romantically involved with, Collins-Leavy's performance, like Gabriel Byrne's before him, captures what an intoxicating, effortlessly charming person Lord Byron likely was (at least on the surface). He and The Doctor have great chemistry, and the predictable dynamic of him wanting to seduce The Doctor and her having none of his attempts works very well.

The Doctor also gets some fantastic material in this episode, as the darkness and uncertainty that has been brewing in her since her encounters with The Master and Ruth starts to boil to the surface. Her inquisitive-adventurer persona melts away at a few points, and we see glimpses of the sometimes-angry, sometimes-egocentric old soul portrayed so well by Peter Capaldi and David Tennant, and Whittaker handles it brilliantly. This episode sets her up for a fascinating arc in the upcoming season finale, and very much challenges the status quo of her TARDIS team.

Much like last week's Can You Hear Me? however, The Haunting of Villa Diodati would have really benefited from being a two-parter rather than a single episode. This isn't necessarily a criticism; everything in this episode works very well, and does work as a self-contained whole as presented, especially if you already have some knowledge of the literary figures involved. But between the sci-fi/horror storyline it is telling and the tantalizing possibilities of The Doctor and her friends getting to hang out with such a powerhouse of creativity and larger-than-life personalities, there is so much going on here that it could easily expand and take up more room to breathe if it had it, and probably be better. Elements of the plot move very quickly just because they need to due to the time constraints, and with such a large cast of historical figures, Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley don't all get the opportunity to be as well-developed as they could be. Both of the Shelleys in particular get a bit neglected in the character-development department, with Byron getting the most narrative attention. There is a moment in the middle of the episode that easily could have been a break between part one and part two, and had it been structured that way the sci-fi plot could have expanded and been more fleshed out in certain areas, and these fascinating personalities could have gotten more time and exploration. Still, what is here is very good; I just wish there was more of it.

Small gripes about runtime aside, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is an excellent episode. It uses the historical context and real-life characters very well, and it balances sci-fi and horror deftly, with excellent atmosphere and some great Gothic horror imagery. It definitely stands as one of this season's, and thus the Jodie Whittaker era's, better episodes. As the last standalone episode of the season before the two-part season finale, this does an excellent job of ending the show's business-as-usual on a high note, and getting the audience ready for something big to come.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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