The Haunting of Villa Diodati

Story No. 318 Aaaahhhh!
Production Code Series 12, Episode 8
Dates February 16, 2020

With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Maxine Alderton Directed by Emma Sullivan
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens

Synopsis: Mary Shelley and her friends have taken up residence at the Villa Diodati. But something is coming.


A Review by Matthew Soflaten 29/5/20

What a relief it is to see that Doctor Who can still be dark and scary under Chibnall's supervision. Horror is one of my favourite flavours of Doctor Who, but judging from what I've seen so far, I didn't think Chibnall felt the same. There have been dark moments over the course of his era (especially in the previous episode's Can You Hear Me?), but, on the whole, I'd gathered he favoured the sci-fi, action side of things. The only episode I'd truly loved since Chibnall took over had been Fugitive of the Judoon, but that was because it was exciting, action-packed and intriguing. I hadn't been expecting to be scared or disturbed by Doctor Who for the foreseeable future, and so this episode was a delightful surprise.

A historical horror story featuring Mary Shelley sounds like a perfect recipe for a great Doctor Who episode, to the point I'm actually surprised it wasn't attempted in the classic series. I am aware that there is an audio story with that premise, but, forgive me, I'm not familiar with the Big Finish side of Doctor Who (yet), so this is the only ''attempt'' I've seen so far, and all I can say is that it was a resounding success, horrific and humorous in equal measure.

I must confess, whilst I'm very familiar with Frankenstein, I don't know too much about Mary Shelley or Lord Byron as people. However, as characters, I thought they were great here. I particularly enjoyed Lord Byron's character, who is, funnily enough, the first character to flirt with the newly female Doctor. As Jodie Whittaker is an attractive woman, I always thought it was a little unbelievable that none of the male characters have made romantic advances on her so far, but it was done here to great comedic effect, and I found her being called ''Mrs. Doctor'' particularly amusing. Jacob Collins-Levy did a great job portraying him as an arrogant, self-centred womaniser and successfully portrayed him as both contemptible and strangely likable.

I thought the story had a great build-up, with lots of comedy. I laughed out loud when Ryan was challenged to a duel and the exasperated reactions of the other house-guests, and yet there was a very sinister atmosphere: the dark, stormy night; the big mansion. The story slowly creeps up on you as it gets scarier and scarier, with the crawling hand and the flashing images giving it the vibe of a really well done horror film.

The surprises in this series have been great. I always sigh when I imagine how much more exciting Bad Wolf and World Enough and Time would have been had we not known about the Daleks or the Cybermen appearing in each one respectively. Chibnall has done a much better job delivering these twists and it makes it so much more exciting.

Ashad looks, sounds and acts horrifyingly sub-human, stomping around the dark mansion with his hideous half-face, demanding who the guardian is. I really felt on edge when Ashad lifted the baby up, truly worried as to what he was going to do, and I found myself really, really hoping the Fam would heed the Doctor's advice and stay put, because the way Ashad looked, it made me really dread seeing anyone getting converted. I think it's saying something that seeing as conversion is something I want to see, Ashad actually made me really nervous about it actually happen. I really thought Mary was appealing to his human side when she asked if he'd been a father, thinking he'd spared her son out of mercy and was really taken aback by the incredibly dark revelation that followed

Ashad is easily the scariest villain from Chibnall's era- this monstrous creation makes series 11's Tim Shaw look even more insignificant amidst Who's rogue's gallery than he already was, and he really pushes the limits of how scary the monsters can be. My faith in Chibnall is being restored more and more as time goes on.

As for the regulars, whilst Jodie is still far from my favourite Doctor, I'm very much used to her by now, and here she does very well at handling some darker material. I particularly enjoyed her debate with Ryan. At first I agreed with Ryan, that they should let one person die to save many others (and I'm glad this point was brought up, too; I wouldn't have liked it if every character immediately opted to save him without question), but then after the Doctor's pleasingly fierce response, I found myself hoping she would save him after all. I found myself consistently thrilled and surprised throughout this episode, and I could totally understand her reasons for giving Ashad what he wanted I really like it when I can truly get into the protagonist's head and fully relate to their motivations throughout, and this episode did that tremendously well.

Another thing I liked was that they were subtle about inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein; it was just the implication. Nothing in this episode felt forced; it had the perfect doses of humour and horror, one of the best designs ever in Doctor Who and a cliffhanger that honestly made me yearn for the next part, which I plan on reviewing soon. Series 12 really is a breath of fresh air for the programme, and The Haunting of Villa Diablo is likely my favourite of the season, with the feel of a modernised Hinchliffe era, which happens to be my favourite. I honestly can't fault it, so I shall, of course, give it the 10/10 it deserves.