“Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit, in the stratosphere alone. Left to choose.”
After the high concept shenanigans of last week’s episode, this week’s episode of Doctor Who was a seemingly straight forward affair; part ghost story, part famous-historical-figure episode (which are often the absolute best episodes of Chibnall-era Who). As the episode went on, however, it became clear that maybe it wasn’t as straight forward as it first seemed and was possibly about to collapse under the weight of everything it was attempting (famous wordsmiths Shelly and Byron! Haunted houses! Mazes! Ghosts! Cybermen!). But of course, like many of the best episodes of Nu-Who, the plot points were pulled together for an exciting and (mostly) satisfying conclusion. In fact, despite a couple of minor issues I had with the episode, ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ was the scariest episode of Who we’ve seen in ages and one of the very best of recent memory. We had the Doctor going dark, haunting visuals (I especially liked the image of the cyberman materialising above Lake Geneva and the ‘ghost’ of Shelly within the house) a funny and gripping script, and a monster who was both enjoyably familiar and refreshingly new.
First things first, the thing that tends to drag down the plots of the recent seasons is the number of characters that are often in an episode. The Doctor herself has her three companions, never mind the fact that writers often try to cram the episodes fun of interesting and unique side characters (some attempts better than others). This episode managed to balance them all though, or just about. I’m still not sure about the maid or Claire and Polidori but, in the end, they served the narrative more than hindered it. Polidori’s sleepwalking was a key ingredient in solving the riddle of the shifting house and the maid’s death… well, someone had to die I suppose. The performances all around were great; Byron was a scumbag, who I enjoyed watching the Doctor taking down a few pegs, and the Shelly’s were integral to the plot without spending ages on them. The companions were again fantastic, with Tosin Cole’s Ryan still continuing to impress after a shaky first season. Madip Gill was still not given enough to do though, even though past episodes have shown how great an actress she is. Of all the companions, Bradley Walsh’s Graham once again got the best stuff (perhaps an intentional move by the writers after his popularity in season 1). Him seeing the ghosts who possibly turned out to be actual ghosts irked me at first. I thought that either longer should have been spent on the reveal that they were “real” ghosts or less time should have been spent establishing them in the middle of the episode. Either way, I eventually grew to like their inclusion and it allowed for some supremely creepy visuals. Could Graham seeing ghosts have something to do with his fear over a cancer relapse?
Like I said, the visuals in this episode were stellar. The creepy ghosts, the long takes, the haunting death-visions of Shelly’s. The show has really stepped it up in the visuals department these last two seasons but crucially, this season, it now has the writing to back it up. Jodie Whittaker has been let down by lacklustre writing and muddled morality in the previous season but this time round she gets to show a darker sider to the character, and its here she really shines. The speech she gives about not being equals with the rest of the gang; having to make the big decisions than no one else can, is possibly her best moment as the Doctor so far. I’m loving the possibilities of this darker Doctor story and it’ll be interesting to see if Chibnall and the other writers can stick the landing in regards to the fate of the companions.
The villain this week was superb also, the writers managed to successfully bring back a fan favourite bad guy while leaving room for new storylines. And I absolutely loved that Captain Jack’s warning came back, and the Doctor had no choice but to ignore him. As soon as we heard Jack’s warning we all knew The Doctor wouldn’t follow it, otherwise the story would have nowhere to go. But the writers managed to have the Doctor’s reasons for doing so not feel cheap or contrived. The Doctor appealing to the Lone Cyber man’s humanity was predictable (love beats hatred once again) but it was nicely subverted right after. The stuff with Shelly was ever so slightly rushed (I would have liked more time spent on him dealing with the fact that he’d just witnessed his own death) but it allowed for a satisfying conclusion while also setting up the finale over the next two weeks.
I’m not sure how Chibnall and the writers are going to end the season, or how they’ll wrap up the loose ends (the Cybermen, the timeless child, the impending doom of the companions, Captain Jack, the Master, the destruction of Gallifrey, the other Doctor who’s just roaming about). But they’ve done enough fantastic stuff this season already that I’m more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Bring on next week.