Dear reader episode 8 of series 12 and it’s an adventure where our Tardis crew are jaunting about eavesdropping on writers and poets. Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Claire Clairemont is a group of literary friends enclosed together in a haunted house. But this is not an ordinary house. Did the episode chill the blood or inspire sleep? Let’s open the shutters and take a peek in on Villa Diodati
Episode 8 Spooky goings-on at a Swiss Villa
I am so glad that I don’t read spoilers anymore it is so much more fun when you get the surprises. I’m really not a fan of classic horror stories as a rule for purely personal squeamish reasons but together with the direction, The Haunting Of Villa Diodati had plenty of interesting things going on to suggest classic horror. Maxine Alderton delivered a wonderful script full of the expected and unexpected which I loved. Its strength was in setting up the atmosphere and the characters really quickly before the precredit sequence.
The way the story opened with a dark night, thunder, lightning, the wind howling and rain and everyone looking out of the window. It’s all the expectations from a hundred scary films set up with a very atmospheric scene with the suggestion from Mary Shelley for Lord Byron to tell a ghost story.
The script gave in a few words who these characters were with each other. Lord Byron insulted Doctor John Polidori, Claire Clairmont’s nervousness at ghost stories, Mary Shelley delighting in teasing her step-sister. As Lord Bryon recited from tales of the dead the direction as the camera followed behind the nursemaid putting the baby to bed served to emphasise what you cant see.
All the creepiness such as creaking doors, flying vases, skulls in cots, hands running around continued until the arrival of the “visitor “which kept up the tension. Initially when we had the interesting idea with the house within a house, which I thought was a clever way of heightening the claustrophobia I did think of recursion and M. C. Escher’s Print Gallery showing a distorted house as used for inspiration in “Castrovalva”.
I enjoyed finding out about all four of the characters at Villa Diodati. The production felt authentic to the strengths of what the BBC does well regarding historical dramas, so observations on the look of the house, the clothes and the manners, script observations of the societal norms. One has to remember that they were these writers were relatively young. The scene of them teaching the “Fam” the dance and gossiping about their companions was a great way of the script using exposition but also saying something about their concerns using the “social media” of the day. The scandal of the day where Mary Shelley had eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a married man, or Lord Bryon who had a reputation with the ladies would have portrayed them as non-conformists in a society governed by social rules.
I really liked Mary, who at this stage is probably 18 or 19, totally loyal about and to her “husband” and has a natural concern for her baby William. Her distress trapped on the stairs at not being able to get to her son was palpable. Later she had to see Percy and there is that moment when you can see the genesis of the idea of the Frankenstein’s monster as she saw Ashad’s incomplete suit. When she appealed to Ashad as a father that felt touching in her desire as a mother and wife to save Percy and just for a moment I hoped he and it had pity… but ultimately the Cyberman was lost of his soul way before he became one. He was a fanatic.
Dem Bones Dem Bones
Mary is someone emotionally intelligent enough to withstand Lord Bryon’s rather rebellious and self-indulgent nature. His mementoes such as the skeleton and plume suggested a deep admiration of the military although his character lacked some conviction when confronted by the more bizarre. I must say though I absolutely loved the creepy hand bursting through the painting and moving along the floor. One of the highlights is when Doctor Polidori was going to get his gun and the hand appeared at the door. The expected slapstick as it attacked Ryan was funny as was the Doctor tasting the skeleton.
The wicked and the divine
I enjoyed Yaz’s conversation with Claire Clairmont and I’m guessing Yaz does have hero-worship of some sort about the Doctor. Given her inner issues when younger with bullying, joining the police presumably to make a difference I can see how she wants to be more fearless, curious and adventurous like the Doctor. Whether its anything deeper emotionally I couldn’t say.
Claire Clairmont though had a major teenage affection, bordering on obsession for Lord Bryon “We have an exceptionally strong attachment” she commented. Its wasn’t a relationship of equal regard as he was shown enjoying toying with people and considered his charm would always carry him through life. Lord Bryon’s relationship with Claire Clairmont at this point would be a dismissive one.
Caught by Yaz trying to break into Lord Bryon’s bedroom looking for letters about herself Claire would have been of similar age to Mary, only18, and probably desperate to know if the older Bryon cared about her. Lord Bryon’s sorrow at Fletcher’s death allowed me to feel a pang of sympathy for him. It’s an interesting idea that she wanted someone not “dull and boring” as in January 1817 the real Claire would go on to have a child, Allegra, with Lord Bryon and neither, would there when the child died aged five years old in 1822.
Having the Tardis fam arrive in the middle of the evening and be let in when the group were together was probably the only point I found a bit incongruous especially as there wasn’t anything on the psychic paper. I did wonder at the Doctor’s decision to bring her crew to visit the Shelleys. Offering “quality historical experiences” I guess it is a unique perk and she wanted to share those opportunities with others. Saying that Graham quoting Dickens was especially funny and the comedy from him reacting to events around him with the ghosts, with looking after Polidori, his interactions with Claire and Fletcher (I loved Fletcher’s constant eye rolls), as well as the banter with the Doctor, had me smiling.
Graham is loving life with the Doctor and Bradley Walsh reminds us every week that he is a proper actor and not just a game show host. Talking of Doctor Polidori his pomposity did allow for some lovely dark comedy between him and Ryan, as he challenged Ryan to a duel. The aghast look on Graham’s face at the thought of being a second is priceless.
POLIDORI: Fletcher! You will be my second.
POLIDORI: Will Mister O’Brien be yours?
RYAN: Cheers, mate.
GRAHAM: No, what I mean. No, because there’s going to be no duel. I absolutely forbid it. Oh.
(Polidori steps forward menacingly. Ryan raises his fists.)
RYAN: Oh! What’s up? What’s up?
POLIDORI: I shall return with my pistol. (Polidori heads for the door.)
RYAN: He’s getting a gun. He’s getting a gun. He’s getting a gun.
The modern Prometheus
The arrival of the lone Cyberman was a supreme moment. I never saw it coming but it was signposted first when the nursemaid Elise saw the light of the apparition outside. I liked the gradual build-up with mentions of it as an apparition of a death god. The inhabitants of the house were so busy with the mystery within the house they probably put the apparition outside to one side. But I loved the arrival of the lone Cyberman and how quickly the story changed to become about the retrieval of the Cyberium.
MARY: Dark. Charred by fire. Suspended over the water like a death god rising from Hades.
He was an ominous figure but a really interesting one without the emotion inhibitor and I was impressed at how angry he was. I’ve never liked the cold logic of the Cyberman so seeing a disturbing: battle-scarred version with a monstrous human face peering out is an intriguing option. That the lone Cyberman remembered his name as Ashad lulled you into a false sense of security that Mary’s appeal could succeed. That he spared the child because he was a “useless runt” but slit his own children’s throats took my breath away as did the death of Elise and Fletcher. It was brutal but in keeping with the Cybermen. He was Frankenstein’s monster incomplete emotionally as a human and not a fully converted Cyberman either
Jodie had a great performance for this episode, probably one of my favourites this series. She is like one of the Scooby Doo gang investigating a mystery and I enjoyed her put-downs of Bryon who was attracted to her mind, also seeing her trying on the plume and really wanting it. As soon as the lone Cyberman appeared she grit her teeth and was strong, forceful and determined. Jack’s warning flashed through my head and I liked how Yaz challenged the Doctor.
THE DOCTOR: Words matter! One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink. The future will not be the world you know. The world you came from, the world you were created in won’t exist, so neither will you. It’s not just his life at stake. It’s yours. You want to sacrifice yourself for this? You want me to sacrifice you? You want to call it? Do it now. All of you. Yeah. Cos sometimes this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit in the stratosphere. Alone. Left to choose.
The bitterness at rejecting his solution spoke of a huge understanding that she was the only one able to decide the best course on the current circumstances. I like the fact that she has to be the overriding monitor of events because there is no one else. That she showed Percy his death was a cruel choice in the short term but it saved established history.
Shelly’s poetry and writings influenced many other writers and political thinkers and who knows how that would have changed had he died. She saved Percy Bysshe Shelley but at what cost to the future? I loved the dilemma she faced and her braveness in taking the Cyberium although it was inevitable as the Cyberman stated that she would have to give it back. Ashad would have taken it from Percy Shelley without her there without a thought. It was such a neat conclusion setting up a fantastic premise to fix future events in the next episode.