Doctor Who review: “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” gives us Mary Shelley and hard choices

The last Doctor Who episode before the two-part season 12 finale is a gorgeous hour full of scares, Shelleys, and the return of a classic Who villain.

English major Whovians everywhere, rejoice! It’s now basically canon that we have Mary Shelley’s iconic novel Frankenstein because of Doctor Who.

In real life, Shelley’s iconic novel came into being just as the Doctor describes it early in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”. This trip to Geneva in 1816 really did happen, and Lord Bryon really did challenge everyone to a ghost story contest. The story that Mary Shelley told that night ultimately became Frankenstein.

To be honest, the fact that “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” turned out to be yet another Cyberman origin story is mildly disappointing. The episode was largely promoted as a ghost story, and I think a tale of death and loss might have been a better fit for this particular historical setting and moment and it unfortunately turns this episode into little more than an extended trailer for next week when, the show, keeps insisting, the real action starts.

Now, I guess we get to thank the Cybermen? Or, at least the “Lone Cyberman” to be exact.

Yet, all that said, there’s certainly a lot to love about this installment, which is beautiful to look at and thoughtful in its themes. The magical puzzle box house that changes the order of its rooms to protect “the Guardian” and defend itself is fascinating, as are Graham’s random unexplained ghosts. The story is also dark as all heck, certainly the darkest hour of the season, and possibly of Jodie Whittaker’s run in the TARDIS. (And I mean that in both the literal and figurative senses of the word.)

This is not a story of the Doctor saving the day – it’s one of her making the best of a bad situation and choosing the least horrific of fairly terrible options. Percy Bysshe Shelley is saved, but now has to live with the knowledge of his own impending – and fairly imminent – death. It’s actually true that Shelley died young – and well before his wife – drowned in a mysterious boating accident. And she kept his heart in a drawer for the rest of her life. The real-life Shelleys were hardcore, is what I’m saying.

Here, Shelley’s Frankenstein is recast as a story that’s as much about the monster at its center, rather than the reactions of the humans who reject him. Perhaps, in the world of Doctor Who, Shelley writes Frankenstein to tell a better, or at least possibly more hopeful, version of this tale, one that more clearly mirrors the initial backstory she imagined up for the “modern Prometheus” she considered Ashad to be. Which, given that the original bragged about slitting the throats of his own children (YIKES), is a decision that’s pretty easy to understand.

Furthermore, for all that this is a Cyberman story, at least it’s one that we haven’t really seen before. “Lone Cyberman” Ashad is truly monstrous: Half-human, half-Cyberman, with a little bit of extra God knows what through in for good measure. His appearance is ghastly, and his raggedy edges somehow make the entire concept of a Cyberman as frightening as it’s ever been.

All these classic Doctor Who villains are always inevitably running around the universe trying to find some way to return their murderous races to the height of their powers. Why Ashad wants to do this is a bit of a mystery, given that he’s a Cyberman that apparently never completed his conversion. He still feels plenty of things, rage primarily among them, and is motivated to find the cyberium in a way that feels much more driven by emotion rather than logic. One has to wonder why – does he believe the rest of his race will fix him? Is he attempting to punish them? Save them? Or has he just gone mad after so long on his own, his mind in as many tatters as his body?

Rarely have we seen a prophecy/prediction/warning so blatantly flouted, too. Jack Harkness, who presumably hasn’t contacted the Doctor in what may now be centuries at this point – he is functionally immortal, after all – returns to impart the simple warning that under no circumstances should he give the Lone Cyberman what it wants. And, in true Time Lord fashion, Thirteen immediately turns around and gives the first lone Cyberman she sees precisely what it wants. Sigh. We all knew this was going to happen, right?

The sequence in which Thirteen decides to hand over the cyberium is fascinating, however, primarily for the conversation between the Doctor and Team TARDIS, who argue over whether any of them would be willing to trade their own future existences in order to obey Jack’s warning. Sure, her subsequent speech about words mattering and Shelley’s poetry in particularly inspiring millions for hundreds of years is lovely – this episode is really a love letter to English majors everywhere – but it can’t quite cover over the tacit admission that sometimes, for the Doctor, some lives matter more than others.

We’ve seen that before, of course – looking at you, Clara Oswald – but forcing the rest of Team TARDIS to be at least somewhat complicit in that decision too, well…it feels uncomfortable. At least to me. Here’s hoping we come back to that moment again, as it appears as though the gang must basically fight another Cyber War for the future of the universe in the season finale.

Doctor Who continues Sundays at 8pm ET on BBC America.