For a show with the longevity of Doctor Who, there’s always a possibility that someone else may have already pipped you to the post when it comes to a story idea or a setting. However, what’s probably far more annoying is finding that you’ve already done it to yourself.
The latest Doctor Who adventure – ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ – is set during that infamous stormy night around Lake Geneva in 1816, when Lord Byron and the Shelleys told ghost stories, which gave rise to the idea which Mary turned into Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. However, the evening is interrupted by seemingly supernatural occurrences, including the Doctor arriving on their doorstep. Which is great, except for the fact that this has all happened before, albeit somewhat differently (not to mention in an altogether separate medium).
Flash back around 11 years, and Big Finish Productions gave us ‘Mary’s Story’, part of a four-part Doctor Who audio anthology called ‘The Company Of Friends’. In it, Paul McGann’s eighth incarnation of the Time Lord – himself the archetypal ‘Byronic Man’ – ended up crashing the party, and inadvertently giving rise to elements of the Frankenstein story, before taking Mary off in the TARDIS for a series of adventures. Same setting, different plot. It’s an officially licenced story, but just how ‘official’ any Big Finish story stays is a matter of whether or not the TV series wants to cover the same territory, as is the case here.
That’s the trouble with multimedia spin-offs or continuations – you’re only as canon as you’re allowed to be, until it’s decided otherwise by the powers-that-be. Just look at the Star Wars ‘Expanded Universe’ range, which got rebranded as ‘Star Wars Legends’ when the sequel trilogy came up with stories which were incompatible with the continuity which had already been created by the books and comics, so the rebrand freed the filmmakers up to tell new stories unencumbered by what had gone before. It just goes to show that one day you’re the cock of the walk, the next you’re a feather duster. Canon is as fluid as the story requires, or perhaps – in the opinion of some fans – doesn’t even exist.
As far as the makers of Doctor Who seem to be concerned, they don’t appear to want to set out to overwrite or contradict Big Finish. In one case, they took the central theme of ‘Jubilee’, a Big Finish story featuring a lone Dalek being held captive and tortured, and turned it into ‘Dalek’, one of the strongest Christopher Eccleston stories; they even got the same writer to adapt it, giving it a new setting and set of characters, thereby leaving the original tale pretty much intact. In another case, Steven Moffat had Paul McGann’s Doctor namecheck most of his companions from Big Finish in his swansong minisode – ‘The Night Of The Doctor’ – explicitly tying in the two continuities for the first time on screen.
However, despite the reputation of Big Finish and the strong catalogue of stories they’ve created over the last 20 years, it’s understandable that the Doctor Who production team wouldn’t want to creatively tie their hands by refusing to go forward with an idea simply because it clashed with or contradicted one which – in all fairness – would only be known to a few tens or hundreds of thousand fans. Just as well, really, as one such Big Finish tale – ‘The Silver Turk’ – had Mary Shelley meet a lone, damaged Cyberman, which further reinforced the notion behind her creating the character of Frankenstein. It’s for fans to try and reconcile these sorts of clashes – they love that kind of intellectual challenge.
In ‘The Haunting Of Villa Diodati’, Maxine Alderton gave us an episode which was full of creepiness and suspense and dripping with Gothic atmosphere, helped by the wonderful look of the production. The BBC always excels when it comes to doing historical pieces, and it must be a costume designer’s dream to be allocated to something like this, where you can really go to town and research the period, unlike those offworld tales, where lately it seems like the future is populated mainly by people in dull, utilitarian jumpsuits. The script also helped consolidate what’s gone beforehand this series, making it feel there’s actually been some guiding plan or controlling hand at the wheel all along, which is more than slightly reassuring.
For example, the Doctor’s reference to having met Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, which took part in ‘Spyfall’ (Part Two), helped create the feeling this was all carefully charted out in advance. The other big point was the appearance of the ‘Lone Cyberman’, as mentioned in the warning (or prophecy) given by Captain Jack Harkness in ‘Fugitive Of The Judoon’. Knowing that there was such a dire and grave sense of threat and dread about what the appearance of the Cyberman would mean, it certainly contributed to ratcheting up the tension, and spun the story off in a perhaps not wholly unexpected but still undoubtedly different direction to what appeared at first to be just a ghost story.
The ‘Lone Cyberman’ (Patrick O’Kane) was quite unlike any we’ve seen in the show previously, due to his being damaged and incomplete, meaning that not only could we get a true sense of the body horror of conversion due to the human hand and partly-exposed face, but he was also able to emote – which is exceptional enough in a Cyberman – and deliver lines with true menace. For example, the moment when it seemed as though Mary (Lili Miller) was able to connect with the Cyberman – who had previously been known as Ashad – on a human level by talking about his children, only to have the chilling revelation of what had happened to them, was one highlight amongst so many in this episode.
The fact you couldn’t appeal to its better nature, despite the direction in which things seemed to be pointed, was a surprise twist. Of course, there was the usual sci-fi MacGuffin laid out here, intended to propel us into the two-part series finale (or three-part, technically, if you count the setup here), but perhaps the most important aspect of the whole story was seeing that even the Doctor can’t always win, and sometimes there aren’t any good choices, it’s just a case of picking the least worst one and then trying to sort things out afterwards. Jodie Whittaker played an absolute blinder here, especially the moment of rare anger towards her friends, when she railed against the way they apparently saw the “team structure” – and, it seems, the whole dynamic of their friendship – working.
The cracks may be showing in Team TARDIS, but not – thankfully – in either the writing or production values this week. If the rest of the series can approach anything close to this standard, then we should be in for a treat. For something which was stitched together from a number of spare parts from different sources – the evening at Villa Diodati; Mary Shelley meeting a Cyberman – this week’s Doctor Who managed to breathe some much-needed new life into the programme.