The eighth episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who, The Haunting of Villa Diodati takes us, along with the Doctor and her fam, back to the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, where Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr Polidori are playing happy families. Arguably the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is about to be born out of unseasonable rain and a night telling ghost stories. It’s one of the most famous house parties in literary history.
Except that when the Doctor and her companions rock up on the doorstep, the group is more interested in dancing than storytelling. The tale’s Gothic horror kicks up a notch when the characters start seeing ghosts and a disembodied skeletal hand starts rocketing through the corridors. Rooms loop back on themselves so it’s impossible to leave. And where is Percy Shelley, anyway?
It’s in this episode that we first meet one of the major villains of the series finale: Ashad, the “lone Cyberman” prophesied by Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon. Except he’s not quite a Cyberman: for reasons we’re not yet privy to, half his helmet is missing and he still feels the emotions that Cyberman technology usually suppresses – giving us a cyborg who’s much more uncanny than your standard issue Cyberman. In the episode he’s presented as the inspiration for Frankenstein’s creature, but I think he’s also speaking to our own anxieties about the permeable boundary between technology and the human: his un-Cyberman rage, his lone-wolf attempt to restore the race of the Cybermen and his rejection of the kindness and sympathy Mary Shelley offers him all have something of the radicalised white supremacist about them. And where does such radicalisation come from? The internet, of course; endless racist screeds colonising young men’s minds, creating rage-fuelled cyborgs determined to defend whiteness from a non-existent sea of threats.
In true Gothic fashion, placing the symbol of this anxiety in 1816 both distances it and makes it more troubling: on the one hand, it’s temporally distant from us, placed in a Gothic pastiche that’s rendered unthreatening by its familiarity; on the other hand, Ashad’s presence there, as well as the presence of the thing he seeks, is changing history itself (altering the inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein) and threatens to alter it further by causing Percy Shelley’s death six years too early. (To stretch the metaphor a bit, consider how internet white supremacy is linked to acts of historical revisionism like Holocaust denial.) And the threat Ashad poses is not successfully contained: he escapes, with the knowledge of all the Cybermen contained in the Cyberium, which Percy Shelley has unwittingly been hosting. The Doctor has to make a choice between Percy Shelley’s survival and the thousands of lives a regenerated Cyberarmy might claim: a choice we might characterise as one between the individual and the collective. The Doctor makes the Romantic choice, favouring the individual genius (Shelley) rather than following the utilitarian principle of securing the greatest good for the greatest number; but it’s a choice that leaves Ashad at large, the anxiety he embodies unresolved and uncontained. Here we see, perhaps, the Romantic ideal breaking down, its emphasis on individualism revealed as dangerous and imperfect – depending on how compelling we find the Doctor’s assertion that Percy Shelley’s death in 1816 would be worse for the future than allowing Ashad to rampage through it.
This Great Man theory of history is one we’ve seen a couple of times in Thirteen’s run (as well as in Doctor Who more generally), most notably in last series’ Rosa – which is where I want to pick up on another Thirteen trend, that of spotlighting notable women in history. The focus of The Haunting of Villa Diodati is initially on the truly remarkable Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein as a pregnant, unmarried teenager, as well as the equally unmarried Claire Clairmont, who in the episode recognises the narcissism and selfishness of her lover Lord Byron and decides to throw him off (sadly not something that really happened); that its Great Man turns out to be Mary’s lover Percy Shelley, who though he may have had a substantial impact on Western thought has not received anywhere near the popular and critical attention that Mary’s work has, does a disservice to both these women and the generally more inclusive bent of Thirteen’s series.
Having said that, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, though imperfect, is probably one of the best episodes in the series so far, with its Gothic creepiness and its array of well-written female characters. It’s also meaty enough to reward close engagement, with its use of Gothic and Romantic conventions, which I haven’t particularly found to be the case with other episodes this series. There were things which annoyed me ideologically about it (namely the prioritisation of the individual over the collective and the shift of focus from Mary to Percy Shelley), but overall it was a fun watch and a relief from the general pacing errors that have plagued series twelve.
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