Last week’s episode teased us with a moment of the Doctor pondering Frankenstein. This week saw the fulfillment of that promise, albeit in an unexpected manner. There was a monster made from a dead man, but it was not the Frankenstein’s creature we’ve been long familiar with. Let’s discuss “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.”
The episode opens with some folk sharing scary stories in a mansion. During a suspenseful moment of a tale, a loud knock is heard. Everyone is frightened at what specter might appear at this time of night. The villa’s occupants could not have been more surprised to find the Doctor and her three companions asking to come in out of the rain.
This episode introduced me to quite a few bits of history that I was previously unaware of. I love when Who does that. Firstly, I knew that Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley. I knew that it was one of the earliest examples of science fiction. I knew nothing else about her. I certainly didn’t know that she married an accomplished poet. You can read all about this history elsewhere on the internet, but there are some important points. Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, John William Polidori, Lord Byron, and Claire Clairmont all associated together in this mansion. It was during an event known as the “Year Without a Summer.” During the pouring rain, these creatives would put pen to paper. Mary wrote what would become Frankenstein. John wrote The Vampyre, which would create the vampire romance genre of fiction.
The Doctor wanted to witness this remarkable outpouring of creativity. Of course, when they arrive, something isn’t quite right. The Doctor remarks that the house seems “evil.” Graham goes up some stairs, only to find himself back at the bottom. A solitary, skeletal hand emerges from behind a painting and begins to prowl. It soon attacks poor Ryan in an attempt to strangle him. After the hand is defeated, we learn that Lord Byron likes to keep literal skeletons in his closet. The bones are coming alive and attacking the home’s occupants. Graham sees two ghosts (an older woman and a young girl). Another ghostly man appears and disappears occasionally. The house traps its occupants by trapping them in loops. Also, a dark figure is appearing to hover over the nearby lake. Things have gone awry.
Eventually, thanks to sleepwalking, we learn that our heroes are having their visual perception altered with a perception filter. They are able to maneuver around the house using their other senses. Before long, they come face to face with the creature causing all (or at least, some) of this havoc. It’s a Cyberman. This particular monster is a Who classic. It is the first time one has appeared since Jodie Whittaker took up the mantle of Doctor. We knew this was coming soon however, because Jack Harkness warned her about this a few episodes back. He advised that she must not give the Lone Cyberman what he wants, no matter the cost. The universe is at stake!
The Cyberman that appears here is a bit worse for wear. He has time traveled and the journey has taken a lot out of him. Some of his exoskeleton is missing. We can see half of his face, as well as one of his hands. His energy weapon is non-functional due to a lack of power. He has planned for this last problem, however. He seems to have created the perma-storm clouding the region. He uses the storm to conjure lightening and recharge.
Everything comes to a head when we learn of the Cyberman’s goal. He is looking for something called the Cyberium. It’s a sort of liquid metal, not unlike mercury. It has decided to attach itself to Percy Shelley. It seems that the Cyberium contains the sum total of the knowledge of the Cybermen. If our monster of the week obtains it, he will try to use it to rebuild an army and unleash fury upon the universe.
So here we have the big ethical dilemma. On one hand, the Doctor has an opportunity to stop the Cyberman. But to do so requires letting Percy die. Percy is a person, right in front of her. And not just any person! He’s a poet. His work will live on past him and affect people hundreds of years in the future. His demise would have an incalculable impact on the future. But if he lives, it’s conceivable that billions might die. But that’s not a guarantee. These billions are purely hypothetical at this stage. They are not right in front of the Doctor’s face. This is a twist on the classic trolley problem. The big difference here is that you can’t see how many people are on one side of the track.
I don’t know what the right answer is. But I do know that the Doctor will find a way. That’s what she does. She is clever enough to work out a solution. Given enough time and resources, she will discover the solution that will save the billions to come. I have faith in the Doctor, and she has faith in herself. Her role in the universe forces her to do the “devil’s arithmetic,” but she is one of the few people qualified to actually solve that equation.
I was completely surprised to see a Cyberman in this episode. I knew one was coming eventually, but I didn’t know it was this soon. I also didn’t know that this would be the first of a two-parter. I am so eager to see the resolution to this plot. There are many questions left unanswered. I don’t know if we’ll find the answers to all of them next week (or ever), but I want to find out. We don’t know what’s going on with the ghosts that Graham saw. We don’t know what will happen with the Cyberman. We don’t know if Jack Harkness will re-appear. We also don’t see what impact these events will have on history itself, if any.
I can say that I really enjoyed this episode. It was definitely creepy and suspenseful. The skeletal hand was very unsettling. I loved learning about the history of Mary Shelley and company. Jodie Whittaker’s perfomance as during her speech about words mattering was great. All of the companions had moments of value. I appreciate the twist on Frankenstein’s monster and how it was represented as a Cyberman.
I was very glad to see the Cybermen return. I know that the Daleks are considered the Doctor’s greatest foe, but I think that’s incorrect. The Daleks are reliably defeatable and supremely silly. The Cybermen, on the other hand, are an unstoppable force. They have no feeling. They have no mercy. They cannot be negotiated with. They will never stop. Their voices are creepy. My wife is genuinely terrified of them. For my money, they are the best villains that Doctor Who has to offer. I look forward to seeing what they have planned next week!