Mary Shelley, famed author of Frankenstein and arguably one of the greatest writers in fiction. The woman who practically invented modern horror. In a Doctor Who adventure. It was always meant to be…
Beyond appearances in audio plays and spin-off novels, Doctor Who has never featured Shelley herself in a television episode, despite homaging her famous novel time and time again in a multitude of other stories. The Haunting of Villa Diodati, the debut script for Who by writer Maxine Alderton, therefore attempts to redress the balance somewhat, throwing Shelley, the Doctor and friends into a gloomy haunted house story where nothing is as it first appears.
Initially, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is exactly what you expect it to be – a dark isolated haunted house chiller, complete with vanishing phantoms, flying objects and sinister sounds echoing through the hallways. It’s here that the story is at its best, teasing out the mystery in a manner most intriguing, packing in some nice sci-fi conceits (not to mention a few chills) and generally having fun with the characters.
Once we reach the halfway point though, we’re introduced to the Lone Cyberman that was teased by Captain Jack a few episodes back, and from there the story begins to feel a little less special. The mystery is wrapped up in a (mostly) satisfying way but the sudden veer into arc-plot territory comes out of nowhere, and the chilling ghost story vibe is substituted for a rather uninspiring runaround instead, as the half-converted Cyberman gives chase in search of some Cyber-MacGuffin or other.
This would be fine if the resulting dilemma the Doctor faces was a tad more interesting then what we get here. When Captain Jack ominously warned not to give the Lone Cyberman what it wants a few episodes back, did we really expect it to turn out to be so literal an ‘it’? The Doctor is faced with giving the Cyberman the aforementioned MacGuffin it’s searching for or letting Percy Shelley die. So she hands it over. End of (for now, at least). Perhaps we’ve been spoilt by this season’s great twists, but we were hoping for a tad more of an emotional dilemma then what we get here.
The design work on the half-converted Cyberman is a display of brilliant design initiative from the Millennium FX team and the costume designers at least. In fact, the episode as a whole is a technical triumph, showcasing great work from the cinematographers, sound designers and the visual effects team. Sadly, the direction is a little too flat when it comes to the sudden scares and the spookier moments, none of which quite have the ‘oomph’ they need to really be effective, which does render proceedings rather hollow.
Worse still, the presence of Mary Shelley feels like an afterthought, as it ultimately does little to drive the story. There are knowing nods to Frankenstein and Shelley’s work here and there, but none of it (or her) ever feel important to the main plot. The entire story could easily work almost beat-for-beat with original characters taking the places of the Villa Diodati’s residents, which is a shame, as a Cyberman/Shelley crossover can and would totally work (see Big Finish’s superb Eighth Doctor audio adventure The Silver Turk for proof of this).
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” Shelley wrote. Perhaps this sums up the main issue with The Haunting of Villa Diodati‘s narrative issues. On the whole, the episode is an awkward mish-mash – one part standalone horror (that for the most part works despite weak direction), the other half an unsatisfying instalment in the ongoing arc-plot (which sadly fails to offer any major twists or live up to expectations).
Perhaps it is merely a precursor to big things next week, but for now, we’re let with a patchwork episode that’s been awkwardly stitched together like Frankenstein’s (and Shelley’s) famous monster itself!