The Doctor Who episode “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” takes place near Lake Geneva in June of 1816. Those familiar with history and literature will recognize the occasion even before the key characters are introduced, such as Lord Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. That year came to be referred to as a year without a summer, with dreadful weather and gloom blamed on volcanic eruption. Byron comments in the episode, “The very world itself seems sick.” As so often, Doctor Who will offer a different, science fictional explanation. But first, the Doctor and team show up at the house while these famous writers are telling a scary story of Hildegard and her coffin. Their arrival is one of the things that serves to break the mood even while the newcomers are there hoping to witness one of the most important evenings in literary history. And so, when the Doctor says they are going to “witness some of the most enlightened minds of the generation” they in fact see them drinking and playing rowdy games. After they dance and gossip, the Doctor suggests they write the scariest ghost story ever. But it turns out that Percy Bysshe Shelley who plays an important role in that evening according to our history is missing from the scene.
Meanwhile, odd things are happening. A vase flies across a hall and shatters. A spider-like skeleton hand pops out of a painting. Apparitions are seen. The Doctor says she senses that the house is “unrelentingly evil.” This leads those in the home to suspect that they are from someplace stranger than the colonies. “The north.” But in true Doctor Who fashion, when the suggestion is made that the house is haunted, the Doctor says, “Unlikely.” They are told that Shelley (still not there) earlier saw an apparition above the lake. “Suspended over the water like a death god rising from Hades,” (to use language repeated again later). But once again, characters say things like “There’s always an explanation,” and the Doctor says confidently, “Ghosts don’t exist.”
Eventually they realize (thanks to an eerie sleepwalker) they are dealing with a perception filter, an illusion. They can then move around more freely inside the house, but still cannot leave it. Byron says, “I’ve never believed in such things but could this be hell?” The Doctor realizes that they are dealing with a traveler moving through time, and a high-tech security system. That’s when an unfinished Cyberman appears. I especially appreciated the Doctor’s emotion at the prospect of possibly losing someone else to transformation into a Cyberman. I like when the show doesn’t just deal with season arcs, with occasional references back to other episodes thrown in more like candy for longtime fans than anything essential, but instead offers more substantive continuity.
The Cyberman is looking for someone or something it calls the Guardian. It kills the valet when it learns that it isn’t him. It also kills a French nanny who prays in French as she tries to protect the baby, William.
The Doctor confronts the Cyberman, saying “You’re not as cyborgy as I expected.” It says it is looking for cyberium, which the Doctor has not heard of before. The Cyberman recites Percy Shelley’s poetry. Why? Because it turns out that Shelley is the Guardian. He found something in the lake that shimmered and looked like quicksilver, which entered him when he picked it up. Since then he sees symbols and numbers, which he wrote on paper and even on the walls but which continue to fill his mind. The cyberium contains the collective memory of the cybermen. Someone took it from the cybermen and sent it back through time to prevent that future.
There is a lot of discussion of changing history and changing the future. The Doctor says, “History is vulnerable tonight. I mean it.” I also loved the phrase “Words matter.” Considering the prospect of allowing Percy Shelley to die in order to heed Jack Harkness’ warning, the Doctor offers the counterargument that this one death, one ripple, would have immesurable consequences, so that the future they know won’t exist. She mentions that, despite them being a team, often she is up at the pinnacle of a mountain rather than on a level playing field with her companions, and has to make impossible choices. On the one hand she says, “Save the poet, save the universe.” On the other, “Sometimes even I can’t win.”
Mary Shelley speaks to the Cyberman as a man. When the Cyberman says, “I am better than men,” she says, “I still see a soul in there…I see the man who spared my son.” She also utters the phrase “This modern Prometheus” which was a brilliant touch. She recognizes that he was a father, who loved and was loved. He reveals that his name was Ashad, and we hope for a moment that this attempt at human connection will reach him. But then he says he slit his children’s throats when they joined the resistance.
Another approach is needed, and so the Doctor gets the cyberium to leave Shelley and go into her. But the Cyberman threatens the entire planet. The fact that in the future as they know it the world doesn’t end in 1816 doesn’t provide confidence when it comes to choosing a course of action. But when the Cyberman says, “We are inevitable,” that seems to resonate with the Doctor, who (despite Jack’s warning in an earlier episode) gives it what it wants. She realizes that she has put the future in danger. She says it is step one of a plan, from which she reveals step two is cleaning up the mess she made in step one. She also confesses that she used a time lord trick to give Percy Shelley a sneak peek of hiw own death to get the cyberium to release him.
A nice twist at the end is when they have to consider the possibility that Graham saw actual ghosts that had nothing to do with the cyberium and other things that were supposedly behind their spooky experiences that evening. The Doctor responds to Graham’s “Ghosts don’t exist, right?” by saying, “Unless they do.” This might seem to be at odds with the Second and Third Doctor emphasizing that there is no such thing as the supernatural to companions like Jo Grant and Leela. Was the Doctor simply messing around with Graham, being open-minded, saying that there can be ghosts but even those have a scientific explanation, or something else?
At the end, the writing continues. The Doctor has often safeguarded history. This time she also played the role of custodian to the formation of great human literature. It wasn’t exactly the first time, if we consider the encounter with Shakespeare. But here we are given to understand that she played a role in inspiring it, when we see Byron reading his poem “Darkness” and are meant to understand that the phrase “she was the universe” indicates that inspired was by the Doctor. This was a particularly nice touch, since Byron did in fact write that poem that summer, and so here we see not only the Doctor within the episode, but Doctor Who within our real world, safeguarding history rather than treating it casually and carelessly.
For someone interested in religion, the episode has lots of interesting fodder for discussion and reflection, from the question of the value of poetry and human words, to the ongoing place of gods, Hades, and hell even for humans who no longer believe in such things, and the question of whether everything seemingly supernatural or spiritual is bound to have a rational explanation. I appreciated the recognition that decisions are hard, momentous, even decisions that might seem poised to save the day. But perhaps most of all I am grateful that in a manner directly addressing our time, when there are threats to the humanities and it is quite common to denigrate the value of literature and the imagination, this episode affirms the value of those things, both through its genre of storytelling and through the content of the story.
What did you think of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”?