Doctor Who: 12.08 The Haunting of Villa Diodati
Okay, let's get the elephant out of the room first; The Haunting of Villa Diodati doesn't make any reference to Big Finish story The Silver Turk, which saw Mary Shelley encounter a cyberman at the villa and join the Eighth Doctor as his companion for a number of stories. While it's a little disappointing to see that era of Doctor Who erased (though maybe perhaps the hint at a changed history at the end might get round that), it's clear that it served as inspiration for this latest Thirteenth Doctor story.
And The Haunting of Villa Diodati is certainly the strongest episode of season twelve yet, packed with atmosphere, tension and one of the best looking Cybermen we've seen in the series. It certainly has some faults - Mary Shelley isn't utilised nearly as she should be despite a strong performance from Lili Miller. The changing layout of the house feels similar to other Doctor Who stories, most notably The God Complex, while the traveller out of time in a haunted house has shade of Hide about it. Once again, there isn't quite enough material for all three companions (is a cull coming?) But these are small gripes.
Director Emma Sullivan really makes the most of Maxine Alderton's loving script to gothic horror and the literary achievements of Lord Byron, John Polidori, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. Taking the famous night at Villa Diodati where Byron challenged his peers to create ghost stories as a setting, the Doctor and her companions arrive to find things are not quite what they seem. Ghosts lurk in corridors. Falling objects and a crying baby put everyone on edge. Trapped in rooms with no home of escape as a storm rages outside made for a great piece of gothic horror Doctor Who in the style of the Hinchcliffe or Moffat eras.
It's a great haunted house story and the half damaged Cyberman, fulled with rage and blackened teeth exposed along with half a pale face, adds some real character to the villain. The Lone Cybermen, teased in Fugitive of the Judoon, is a menacing creation that fits with the gothic style of the episode. It's arguably the creepiest this villain has been (though World Enough and Time and Tomb of the Cybermen come close). Half way between robot and human, the Lone Cyberman serves as a chilling inspiration for Frankenstein, even if the episode doesn't play this up on relation to Mary Shelley as effective as it could have been.
Lili Miller portrays Mary with wit, intelligence and bravery, making for another effective historical figure. However, she is somewhat overshadowed by Jacob Collins-Levy's Lord Byron, who has plenty of arrogance and charm. His character is the strongest of the two, having a particularly interesting rapport with the Doctor. Whether it's the story or Collins-Levy's performance, it feels as if The Haunting of Villa Diodati is more interested in Byron that Shelley, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, given the subject matter.
There's also an intriguing hook into the final two-parter, though I wish the BBC marketing department would be content to let the audience find out for themselves, rather than blatantly announcing it on their Doctor Who Twitter account before the episode has even aired. The Doctor here is incredibly engaging and passionate, a far cry from the passive Doctor of series 11 and it will be interesting to see what the consequences of her actions are, particularly with Ryan and Yaz coming more and more into conflict with her; her rallying against Ryan's suggestion was particularly tense, suggesting a fracturing of the TARDIS family to come.
The Haunting of Villa Diodati was certainly the strongest episode of series 12 yet. While not without its flaws, it was packed full of atmosphere and tension and well paced, giving audiences a chilling version of the Cybermen and Jodie Whittaker plenty to work with as the Doctor; heroics and flaw in equal measure. It sets up the finale nicely. Let's hope series 12 can see it through to the finish line...