By Devan Coggan
February 16, 2020 at 09:20 PM EST
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Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

It was only a matter of time until Doctor Who did an episode about the very origins of science fiction. The story behind Mary Shelley’s seminal Frankenstein is almost as famous as the novel itself: In 1816, Lord Byron was holed up in a lakeside villa in Switzerland, and while trapped inside by dismal weather, he challenged a group of friends — John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and the future Mrs. Shelley, Mary Godwin — to invent the most chilling horror story they could imagine. The then-18-year-old Mary spun a tale of an ambitious doctor who tried to rewrite the rules of life and death, assembling a monster by stitching together pieces of corpses.

That late-night ghost story became what’s widely considered to be the first true sci-fi novel, and when the Doctor, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan plan a trip to 1816, they hope to witness the moment of Mary’s invention. (The only rules, the Doctor warns, are don’t mention Frankenstein, don’t interfere, and don’t kiss the notoriously promiscuous Byron.) Instead, they find themselves trapped in a ghost story of their own, crossing paths with an undead monster who proves to be all too real.

Like many of this season’s episodes, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” initially presents itself as one thing, before shifting into unexpected territory. From the moment the Doctor and company arrive in Switzerland, strange occurrences are afoot — shattering vases, disappearing figures, staircases that lead to nowhere. Mary (Lili Miller), Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy), Polidori (Maxim Baldry), and Claire (Nadia Parkes) are all there as expected, but Shelley (Lewis Rainer) is nowhere to be seen. At first, it seems like a fairly standard haunted house story is unfolding, and writer Maxine Alderton and director Emma Sullivan ratchet up the sense of creeping dread with plenty of flickering candles and unsettling scares. (At one point, a skeletal hand Byron keeps in his office starts scuttling about on its own.)

But there are darker, more gruesome things at work than ghosts. The Doctor soon realizes that they’re being stalked by an unseen foe — the Lone Cyberman that Captain Jack Harkness warned them against. These metallic menaces are one of the Doctor’s oldest, most iconic adversaries, and although many would argue that they’re second to the Daleks in notoriety, the Cybermen have always terrified me more. The notion of using human body parts to power hateful, monstrous killing machines is one of Doctor Who’s darkest concepts, and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” ramps up the body horror even further. The Lone Cyberman — whom we learn was originally named Ashad — isn’t a gleaming, metal machine but an unfinished horror, with half of a human face. A completed Cyberman has all of its emotions stripped away, but Ashad is still rough around the edges, snarling and angrily stomping about the villa as he searches for his target.

Frankenstein and the Cybermen are obvious thematic bedfellows: human corpses twisted and mangled into something that’s no longer 100 percent human. Alderton and Sullivan have fun with the Frankenstein references, whether it’s addressing him as the “modern Prometheus” — the original subtitle for Shelley’s book — or recharging his system via lightning strike. At one point, Mary herself confronts Ashad, and she’s horrified but also fascinated by the monster in front of her. She tries to appeal to his humanity, and although at first it seems like the episode might follow the clichéd route, where Ashad realizes the error of his ways and taps into his inner goodness, instead he doubles down, zealously bragging about how he slit the throats of his own children. (Again, this is definitely one of the darker, more horror-tinged episodes of the season.)

It’s also a refreshing change of pace to focus the episode not on an entire army of Cybermen but just a single threat. I love a good alien invasion story as much as the next recapper, but some of Who’s villains are at their most effective — and their scariest — when they’re alone. Think of the Daleks, who can be a bit silly in large numbers but downright terrifying when flying solo (like in the Ninth Doctor episode “Dalek”). By centering “Villa Diodati” on the singular Ashad, we and the Doctor are reminded of just how destructive a lone Cyberman can be.

Eventually, the Doctor discovers that Ashad has been searching for a piece of technology called Cyberium, a liquid metal infused with valuable Cyberman knowledge. Percy Shelley accidentally absorbed the Cyberium, which has been manipulating the house around them, and if Ashad gets his metallic hands on it, it could lead to the deaths of billions. Ryan wonders if they should sacrifice Percy to save countless more lives, and the Doctor turns on him, spitting that Percy’s untimely death could completely reinvent history — and these are the kinds of decisions she has to contend with every day.

We’ve gotten to know the Thirteenth Doctor as largely happy-go-lucky and optimistic, so it’s exhilarating to see Jodie Whittaker deliver a little more of that Doctor angst and grit. There’s an age-old weariness in her voice as she recounts how many people she’s lost at the hands of the Cybermen — and while she doesn’t mention Bill Potts by name, it’s implied that she’s still haunted by her old Twelfth Doctor companion. “Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat,” the Doctor tells Yaz, Graham, and Ryan. “It’s mountainous with me at the summit, in the stratosphere, alone. Left to choose.”

And ultimately, the Doctor chooses to ignore Jack’s warning and give the Lone Cyberman what he wants. She saves Shelley and Villa Diodati, sending Ashad into the future with the Cyberium. We’ll have to wait and see whether her decision was the right one.

TARDIS log notes:

  • We’re meeting Byron just a few episodes after we met his daughter, Ada Lovelace, in “Spyfall.” And based on Byron’s uselessness in the face of danger, it seems like Ada is much smarter and more capable than her father.
  • Most of the mysteries and ghostly happenings can be explained by the Cyberium — except for Graham’s ghost sandwich. Spooky!
  • Next week kicks off part one of the two-episode season finale. We know there’ll be some Cyberman shenanigans, but will we also see the return of Sacha Dhawan’s Master and Jo Martin’s Ruth? And might we finally learn the truth about the Timeless Child?

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