The worst thing about this episode is that it didn't happen two years ago.
On the bright side, that's the only genuinely “bad” thing about “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”, in my opinion. I consider this to be the best episode of Doctor Who since the Steven Moffat days, and an absolute triumph for Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. Now more than ever, I simply can't agree with people who insist that the current iteration of the show is terrible and that both Chibnall and Whittaker need to depart. There were no politics this week, no sloppy writing, no over-reliance on message over storytelling. Just pure, well-crafted Doctor Who.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is proof that Doctor Who can still be amazing, even without relying on any shocking twists that may or may not lead to satisfying reveals down the line. It's a strong historical tale, a brilliantly-executed take on a familiar monster, and a gripping ghost story all rolled into one. Also, it finally gives Jodie Whittaker her defining “I am the Doctor” moment–very, very late, but at least it happened eventually. This is must-see TV.
What I Didn't Like
As I said before, it's frankly ridiculous that Jodie Whittaker only now got a scene which allowed her to fully tap into the sense of lofty responsibility that defines the Doctor as a character in all of his or her incarnations. The Doctor could be described as Peter Parker on a universal, intertemporal scale, answering the call across all of time and space to use the powers at her disposal to help when needed. It's this responsibility that adds deep grief, pain, and rage to balance out the Doctor's more whimsical, cheerful qualities. With the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors, those darker aspects were nearly always noticeable beneath the surface to some degree. With Thirteen, many began to feel that the Doctor had lost these qualities entirely, as she took on the persona of a happy-go-lucky time-and-space tour guide with no significant moments of intensity or introspection. As Series 12 unfolded, we started seeing glimpses of a darker Thirteen…but nothing compared to the Doctor's big speech to Ryan and the others in this story.
We'll talk more about that later, but for now, I just want to acknowledge that yes, this moment came much too late. Not only did we go through a whole series without anything like this, but there have been far too many episodes in Series 12 which also failed to give Whittaker this kind of material to any great extent. And now, with only two episodes left in Series 12, and Series 13 likely not airing until Autumn of 2021 at the earliest, there just isn't much time to flesh out this improved version of the Thirteenth Doctor. That frustrates me, to be honest. I'm finally convinced that this incarnation of the Doctor and the show as a whole can work extremely well. But I'm tired of Doctor Who shooting itself in the foot over and over again.
Also, there's an elephant in the room which needs to be addressed: the fact that the Doctor met Mary Shelley before, and even took her on as a companion. Yes, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” would appear to push the Eighth Doctor's adventures with Mary outside of canon, and take several ideas from those audio stories. As a Big Finish fan, I can't say that I'm perfectly okay with that. However, there are three important points to be made on this issue. First of all, it depends entirely on one's own interpretation of Doctor Who canon. I feel that different timelines are technically capable of coexisting within the broader scope of the Whoniverse. You can't really say that either one “didn't happen” or “couldn't happen”. Doctor Who has a more flexible continuity than other franchises. There is technically a sort of explanation for this change to canon within the story itself…simply, that history was altered by the Cyberium being sent back in time. Possibly, the ripples from this change caused Mary and the Eighth Doctor to never have met. That kind of thing has happened before within Doctor Who continuity.
Second, the TV show has “borrowed” from the audios quite a bit in the past, and will probably continue to do so in future. That doesn't make it a good thing, but it's something that we should have learned to accept by now. The “Rise of the Cybermen” story from Series 2 adapted some elements of the audio drama “Spare Parts”–though, granted, this was acknowledged in the episode's credits, and the two storylines do not contradict each other. The show threw Davros' ultimate fate in the audios out the window in “The Stolen Earth”–in the audio play “Terror Firma”, Davros lost his whole identity and was transformed into a Dalek himself. The audio story “Minuet in Hell” featured an amnesiac human convinced that he was actually the Doctor, very similar to the central premise of “The Next Doctor” on TV. I could go on, but you get the point. Did Chris Chibnall and Maxine Alderton knowingly lift concepts for “Haunting” from the audio dramas “Mary's Story” and “The Silver Turk”, which (respectively) featured the night at the Villa and a lone Cyberman? I don't know. I think it's quite possible the idea of using a Cyberman in a Frankenstein-based story occurred independently to both Alderton (or Chibnall) and “Silver Turk” writer Marc Platt. On the other hand, Big Finish's license with the BBC likely gives the TV writers the rights to use any concepts they wish from the audios. That may not sit well with all fans of the audios, but it's something that we have to live with regardless. I think it's a small price to pay for Big Finish to be able to go on producing all these excellent Doctor Who stories.
And third, if the show did have to contradict the audios, at least it did so with an excellent story that put a fresh spin on a similar premise to what Big Finish had already done. That doesn't absolve Chibnall of responsibility if any plagiarism did occur, but hopefully, it will make the situation a little easier for fans to accept.
What I Liked
Maxine Alderton was selected to work on “Haunting” because of her deep respect for and familiarity with all the historical figures involved, as well as the literature they produced. That really shows in the finished product. The casting, dialogue, and costume design all combine to give excellent interpretations of Shelley, Byron, and the rest. I particularly liked the fact that the story deliberately avoided certain threadbare tropes of time travel stories, conventions which even Doctor Who itself has leaned on too heavily in the past. As such, the historical characters didn't devolve into mere punchlines, and expectations were subverted more than once. We all knew that a Cyberman would feature in this episode, but things didn't unfold quite the way most people had supposed. It wasn't the predictable concept of “Mary Shelley meets a Cyberman and decides to write Frankenstein”…that was, in part, what happened, but it doesn't even begin to reveal everything. At heart, this is a ghost story with science fiction elements, not a “Cyberman in Regency England” story. Doctor Who continuity and even the time travel element are peripheral to the heart of this episode.
And that's what really makes “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” work so well–it stands on its own. Yes, it did tie into the series arc, and even answered a couple of the big questions that were raised in “Fugitive of the Judoon”. We now know exactly what Jack's warning meant and what “the Alliance” sent back in time. But “Haunting” is not wholly dependent on those storylines. You can enjoy it without knowing anything about what transpired in “Fugitive”. It's easy to get fans excited by bringing the Master back, or by introducing a startling new development like an unknown incarnation of the Doctor. Those twists can be good if they lead to satisfying answers down the line, but in the moment, all we know is that they intrigue us, not that they're good developments by definition. The “punch the air” moments of “Haunting” are self-contained, and don't rely on anything that may happen later on. It's important for Doctor Who to be able to tell this specific kind of story, since that's been one of the keys to its past successes. The show's own continuity is not sufficient on its own to uphold quality and audience interest.
However, to the extent that familiar elements did feature in “Haunting”, they were used extremely well. Bringing back the Cybermen…or one, at least…was a somewhat dodgy proposition, given that Steven Moffat told an extremely good Cyberman story not so long ago. However, “Haunting” both builds on past events (with a pretty overt reference to Bill Potts) and takes the Cybermen in a new and intriguing direction. I don't think the Cybermen have ever been quite this terrifying. There's even more blatant body horror in the design of the Lone Cyberman than we saw with Danny Pink in “Death in Heaven”…I'm not sure if that was blood or rust on the metal in spots, but it certainly looked like blood. Plus, Patrick O'Kane did a phenomenal job playing a Cyberman with all the ruthless power we've seen in the past, but with additional rage and sadism mixed in. The Lone Cyberman is probably the most chilling and intimidating villain of the Thirteenth Doctor era thus far, even more so than the Sacha Dhawan Master. I was impressed that the moment when Mary seemed to be getting through to Ashad was ultimately twisted into perhaps the darkest moment we've seen on the show since the Twelfth Doctor's final episodes. There was some very clever subversion going on there. Ashad sparing baby William out of lingering human pity and choosing to redeem himself at Mary's urging would have been pretty much par for the course in the low-stakes atmosphere of Series 11. I doubt many viewers were prepared for how truly monstrous he proved himself to be in the end.
But the standout element of “Haunting”, by far, was Jodie Whittaker's performance. I honestly feel that she has never been this strong in the role of the Doctor. She's had some great moments in Series 12 thus far, but she outdistanced them by a wide margin in this episode. A more confident blend of funny and serious was on display in her performance even from the earliest scenes of “Haunting”–her hilarious rebuffs of Byron's flirtations intermingled with genuine, brooding concern over the evil force waiting in the wings. However, it was in the final act that Whittaker finally, finally got the “I am the Doctor” scene that she's needed for so long. At long last, the mask of the intergalactic Ms. Frizzle was stripped away, to reveal the familiar Doctor we've recognized in every incarnation thus far. The man–and now, the woman–who's forced to stand high above the rest, make the hardest choices, and live with them for eternity. It seems as if the Doctor has been trying to protect her new companions from this part of herself for a long time. Even casual remarks like “We've got a flat team structure” have been a part of that facade. But this scene deliberately destroys the lie and brings back the battle-scarred old soldier who is constantly trying, but not always succeeding, to avoid being a monster. Welcome back, Doctor. It's been far too long.
Series 12 of Doctor Who still has a lot to prove in the upcoming two-part finale. Many promises have been made, and we don't know if all of them will be kept. I sincerely hope that the final episodes will render Series 12 a success overall, despite one or two noticeable missteps. Given all the crazy plot threads that still need to be wrapped up, I don't have any idea what to expect. But I do like where the end of “Haunting” leaves the Doctor and her companions. The premise of tracking down Ashad in the aftermath of the Cyber Wars is a very strong one, and I look forward to discovering how it all pans out.
In any event, regardless of what happens next, “Haunting” is a shining moment for this era of Doctor Who. If you don't watch any other post-Moffat episode, watch this one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.