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Doctor Who: The Haunting of Villa Diodati (Review)

The Haunting of Villa Diodati is an episode of extremes.

On one extreme, it’s a genuinely well-constructed piece of television that is both a triumph of production and which offers a genuinely novel approach to a familiar and iconic Doctor Who villain. It’s a fairly solid concept – to a certain extent, it’s a collision of Dalek with Army of Ghosts – but with a distinct enough flavour that it stands apart from what has come before. More than that, it continues the season’s trend of offering a more proactive and decisive version of the Doctor, building on earlier episodes like Orphan 55 and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.

Missing pieces.

At the same time, it feels like an episode that is stronger on concepts and production than it is on narrative execution. The big ideas all fit in place, but the underlying ideas feel just a little bit off. Most obviously, it’s an episode that leans very heavily into the mythos of the Chibnall era, its climax hinging not on any moral authority but the conservatism that informed stories like Rosa or Kerblam! This is an episode where the Doctor refuses to sacrifice a life to save the future, but not because that life has inherent value, but because that life happens to be Percy Shelley.

It’s a very strange and ill-judged narrative beat, not least because it so squarely misses the obvious pay-off to that set-up. “You know that in nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before?” the Eleventh Doctor remarked in A Christmas Carol, an expression of the humanism at the heart of the show. In contrast, The Haunting of Villa Diodati argues that some lives are much more important than others.

Time Out.

This hints at a big internal tension within the Chibnall era. The Chibnall era has a very fixed view of the universe and history. It is consciously anchored in the idea that what happened could never have happened any other way, so there is no point fretting about alternatives. This is obviously justified in practical terms for historical stories, since these stories unfold in a universe that the audience recognises. The Doctor can’t topple King James in The Witchfinders or stop Partition in Demons of the Punjab because that would break the show. (It would also be hugely disrespectful.)

To be fair, the genesis of this idea can be traced back to earlier iterations of the show – most notably the glimpse of a destroyed future in Pyramids of Mars. The Davies era handwaved the narrative necessity of this approach with vague talk about “fixed points in time” that underscored episodes like The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars, both of which feel like points of reference for the Thirteenth Doctor’s big speech at the climax of The Haunting of Villa Diodati.

However, while the Davies era treated this conservatism as a narrative necessity, the Chibnall era has foregrounded it as a point of principle. Tellingly, this passivity has carried over to stories not set in the past. In Arachnids in the U.K., the Doctor refuses to topple the villainous Jack Robertson despite the deaths that he has indirectly caused. In The Ghost Monument, the Doctor does nothing to stop the tyrant Ilan from perpetuating his cycle of violence and exploitation. Under Chris Chibnall, Doctor Who is firmly anchored in the idea that things can never get better.

To give the twelfth season some credit, it feels like episodes like Orphan 55 and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror recognise the problems inherent to this approach and have tried to walk it back somewhat. Orphan 55 ends with a suggestion that the future can be averted with enough effort. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror offers a glimpse of a world that might have been had things gone just a little bit differently. Even the Kasaavin from Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II are identified as aliens from another universe, suggesting alternate worlds and possibilities.

Living history.

So the twelfth season has a little bit more ambiguity to it than the eleventh season, even if the series is a long way removed from the Doctor encountering Robin Hood in Robot of Sherwood or collapsing capitalism in Oxygen. Some of that tension simmers through The Haunting of Villa Diodati, particularly when the crew show up at the eponymous mansion. “I was very clear about the rules,” the Doctor chides Yaz, instructing her companions not to alter historical events by suggesting future knowledge or the plot of Frankenstein. “Nobody snog Byron.”

Of course, the Doctor immediately breaks her own rules. After a round of dancing, the Doctor suggests to the assembled guests, “Anybody up for – and just spitballing here – how about writing the most gruesome, bone-chilling ghost story of all time?” She elaborates her pitch, “Blood and guts, throw in a corpse for good measure.” Yaz quite rightly points out that that the Doctor is being a complete hypocrite here. “You broke your own rule,” Yaz contends, correctly.

It’s an interesting moment, in large part because it hints at the inherent contradiction that has always been a part of the Doctor’s character. After all, one of the best moments in Thin Ice has the Doctor arrogantly lecturing Bill on the importance of not punching racists no matter what vile things they might say… only for the Doctor to immediately punch a racist for saying a vile thing. The idea of the Doctor contradicting her own rules adds a level of complexity and contradiction to the character, something largely absent from the Thirteenth Doctor.

However, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is very quick to walk this back. It turns out that the Doctor wasn’t just ignoring her own rules, she was actually adhering to them. “Just trying to get things back on track,” the Doctor insists, revealing that her heavy-handed ruse was effectively a variant on the awkward stage-managing of Rosa Parks’ protest in Rosa. To be fair, it works slightly better in The Haunting of Villa Diodati, because Frankenstein is not the Civil Rights movement and the Doctor provides the nudge without rendering her companions complicit in systemic oppression.

The alternate dimensions on the mantelpiece.

This contradiction builds over the course of the episode, towards the final confrontation between the Lone Cyberman and Percy Shelley. The episode is essentially structured to build to a fairly standard “trolley problem”, the classic “needs of the many” moral dilemma suggested by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Doctor is caught between giving the Lone Cyberman what it wants and the death of Percy Shelley. The stakes are high. There’s a moral debate. Ryan insists, “Shelley’s only one life against all those others.”

It’s an old debate, but there’s a reason that drama keeps returning to that simple set-up no matter how rigourously The Good Place might mock it. (Would you choose “five William Shakespeares over one Santa Claus?”) However, the reason that the debate is engaging is because it asks the question of whether it is better to be actively complicit in the death of one or passively complicit in the deaths of many more. There’s a solid argument to be made that different iterations of the Doctor would answer it in different ways.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati seems to hint at a compelling approach to this, with the Thirteenth Doctor being unwilling to sacrifice one life no matter the odds. This would be a statement of character that would at least be internally consistent with the character’s ardent pacifism as articulated in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II. However, The Haunting of Villa Diodati ultimately decides that this isn’t enough of a hook to the dilemma.

“But is he Ryan?” the Doctor responds, insinuating that Percy Shelley isn’t just some random unimportant pleb from history. The Doctor continues, “If he dies now, who know what damage that will have on future events.” She insists that the death of Percy Shelley would change the course of history in a massive way, and erase Ryan’s world from existence. “It’s not just his life, it’s yours,” the Doctor insists. This is a strange argument on multiple levels.

A Shelley Game.

On the most superficial level, it seems like the Doctor has not read The Sound of Thunder. Surely the death of a random stranger would just as easily be “one ripple” in time that would have far reaching implications in terms of their descendants and their families? The death of Percy Shelley perhaps has a larger footprint because of his literary footprint, but that just invites boring academic debates about how “important” a person needs to be for their loss to change the shape of the future.

Indeed, it’s notable that for a story that is nominally about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, The Haunting of Villa Diodati winds up marginalising that central character to focus on her not-yet-officially-but-soon-to-be husband. As wonderful as Ozymandias might be, it seems strange that the temporal dilemma at the heart The Haunting of Villa Diodati hinges on the erasure of Percy Shelley’s poetry rather than the entire science-fiction genre as it developed from Frankenstein. Indeed, there would almost be something sly and subversive in the Cybermen erasing science-fiction. Would Earth have a frame of reference for them?

That in turn gets at the bigger idea, the unspoken assumption in the Doctor’s speech that if the Cybernium had perhaps taken up residence in the body of a member of the house staff then the Doctor would eagerly and readily sacrifice that person in for the greater good. It’s an extremely selfish solution to the trolley problem, one which insists that some lives are just worth more than others and it just so happens that those lives belong to aristocrats. It’s as cynical a calculation as anything involving the Seventh Doctor.

This is a shame, because it’s an impressive moment on paper. The stakes are theoretically clear – Percy Shelley or the future. More than that, the script gives Jodie Whittaker some material to chew over, with her observation, “Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous. With me at the summit, in the stratosphere, alone. Left to choose.” It’s a nice riff on the “flat team structure” that the Thirteenth Doctor has been pushing since The Witchfinders, and even adds a shade of hubris to the Doctor’s pronouncement that evokes “the Time Lord Victorious.”

Shedding some light on the matter.

There’s a sense in which the confrontation at the climax of The Haunting of Villa Diodati is designed to be equivalent to Tom Baker’s “have I the right?” speech from Genesis of the Daleks or Sylvester McCoy’s “unlimited rice pudding” from Remembrance of the Daleks or Matt Smith’s “hello Stonehenge!” from The Pandorica Opens. It is a self-consciously epic moment, one designed for fans to quote and reference. It’s arguably long overdue, and it gives Whittaker a scene into which she can really sink her teeth.

However, as with a lot of The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, it feels like a pale imitation of material that has been handled better in (relatively) recent stories. The Thirteenth Doctor’s speech is full of bombast and fury, but it feels like a pale imitation of the Twelfth Doctor’s “I’m not actually the police” from The Girl Who Died or “why is it never anybody else’s turn?” in Heaven Sent. Those moments reflected a sense of tiredness and fatigue from the character befitting his history. The Thirteenth Doctor’s big speech in The Haunting of Villa Diodati feels rather bland by comparison.

Then again, there is quite a lot of The Haunting of Villa Diodati that feels like it is drawn from similar stories. The idea of the characters trapped by the house’s geography recalls the climax of Castrovalva or the basic premise of Heaven Sent. The episode’s slow build to the inevitable reveal that the monster is “the Lone Cyberman” is precisely the sort of stock returning monster story beat that Dark Water mercilessly parodied. This is especially true given how the involvement of the Cybermen in the story leaked eight months ago and was officially confirmed weeks ago.

With that in mind, it is admittedly strange how long it takes The Haunting of Villa Diodati to get to the actual arrival of “the Lone Cyberman.” Elements like the spectral figures, the strange geography of the house, and the animated murderous hand all feel like an effort to stall the creature’s arrival. It’s notable that “the Lone Cyberman” is first glimpsed outside the house in the distance, his shape difficult to determine. It’s also notable that – like the kept-officially-under-wraps-until-the-last-minute reappearance of the Daleks in Resolution – the title The Haunting of Villa Diodati avoids a clunky “… of the [returning monster]” title.

Fair cop.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to wonder whether Chibnall intended for the monster to be a surprise for the audience, similar the revelation about Ruth in Fugitive of the Judoon. Indeed, the publicity around The Haunting of Villa Diodati is notable for standing in marked contrast to other stories in the Chibnall era, perhaps reflecting an anxiety around the low broadcast ratings. (The show is performing well enough on catch-up that there’s little need to worry.) Given the boost Fugitive of the Judoon received on catch-up, perhaps the publicity around “the Last Cyberman” was a last-minute effort to drum up audience interest.

Regardless, there are shades of other Cybermen stories permeating The Haunting of Villa Diodati. The efforts to radically reinvent the Cybermen to make them scary again recall the efforts during the Moffat era with stories like Nightmare in Silver. Similarly, the Lone Cyberman’s declaration that “we are inevitable!” plays like a nod to the Moffat era’s approach to the Cybermen in World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls, as an idea rather than an individual species. Indeed, that episode gets a rare shoutout with the Doctor vowing, “I will not lose anyone else to that.”

In a recurring theme for the season, The Haunting of the Villa Diodati takes these small kernels of ideas from Steven Moffat and injects them into a story that more obviously evokes Russell T. Davies. This approach was evident in the way that Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II borrowed the globe-trotting secret invasion of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, but blended it with more obvious plot elements from and structural nods to the epic third season finale The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords.

More recently, Fugitive of the Judoon was built around the concept of a hidden regeneration like the War Doctor from The Day of the Doctor, but positioned in a script that was more obviously an homage to the “local invasion” stories of the Davies era like Partners in Crime or The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky along with the return of the distinctive aliens from Smith and Jones. In some ways, this feels like a shrewd approach, trying to wed the big high-concept ideas of the Moffat era with the populist approach of the Davies era. It’s trying for the best of both worlds.

Mary Shelley Book Club.

So while The Haunting of Villa Diodati might nod towards Nightmare in Silver or Dark Water or The Doctor Falls or Heaven Sent, its biggest cues come from the Davies era. The very concept of “the Cybernium” that contains the “knowledge and future history of all Cybermen” feels like an upgrade of the “infostamp” from The Next Doctor, the “Cybermen’s Database” that imprints itself onto the mind of Jackson Lake. Similarly, the idea of the Cybermen wandering around as ghosts recalls their use in Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, one of the most important stories of the Davies era.

Indeed, this is evident even in the smaller moments. The revelation of the destruction of Gallifrey in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II heavily evoked Davies’ characterisation of the Doctor as “the Last of the Time Lords.” In The Haunting of Villa Diodati, Lord Byron’s “reminder that we tread on the dust of empires” feels like on of the Davies’ era’s constant references to the last Great Time War. Of course, it very literally refers to the idea of the Lone Cyberman as the last survivor of a failing empire, but that itself evokes how the Davies era approached the Cybermen or the Daleks.

There is, to be fair, something rather modest in all of this. There is no sense that The Haunting of Villa Diodati might actually use its premise to jump off into something truly mind-bending and provocative. The Chibnall era is far too conservative to allow for something like the murder of Percy Shelley by a temporally dislocated Cyberman that leads to a season finale that plays like Father’s Day or The Wedding of River Song. As fun as it might be to see a story about what happens if the Cybermen conquer Earth in 1816, the Chibnall era seems unlikely to deliver it.

Still, there’s a lot to like. For all the modesty of The Haunting of the Villa Diodati compared to the stories from which it is pulling, it is handled with considerable charm. Most obviously, the plotting is a lot more effective than the season’s earlier episodes. Both Praxeus and Can You Hear Me? opened with the TARDIS team broken up, making it hard to properly build and escalate tension until they were reunited. In contrast, The Haunting of the Villa Diodati does a much better job of starting with the team together and ratcheting up the weirdness.

Somebody needs a patch.

The Chibnall era has a very warped approach to pacing, with episodes like It Takes You Away often feeling like hypercompressed four-parters from the classic series, covering a lot of ground very quickly. The Haunting of the Villa Diodati has a similar approach, but makes it work a lot better. The sequence of the characters trapped by the perception filter in the house is suitably intense and creepy, even if it largely serves delay the arrival of the Lone Cyberman for a few more minutes.

Maxine Alderton’s script helps in this regard. The dialogue is playful and effective, something that isn’t always true in the Chibnall era. Chibnall has something of a tin ear for Doctor Who dialogue compared to his predecessors, as evident even from the title of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. The small character beats in The Haunting of the Villa Diodata are immensely charming, from Ryan freaking out at the prospect of a ghost to Graham accidentally quoting Jane Austen to Graham’s very in-character observation that there’s never food when you need it.

Similarly, “the Lone Cyberman” is a striking creation in both visual and conceptual terms. The visual of a Cyberman that is falling apart is effective, one that the Moffat era employed in stories like The Pandorica Opens and The Time of the Doctor. However, there’s something especially fascinating about a Cyberman who appears to have been pieced together from various historical iterations of the cybernetic menace – the arm that looks to be from The Tenth Planet, the rusted plates, the modern helmet, the wiring from other iterations. It’s a Frankensteined Cyberman.

The cracked face plate is also an inspired touch, one that gets around some of the issues with treating the Cybermen as credible primary antagonists. The Lone Cyberman has a face that is expressive, and this helps to define him as more than just a faceless adversary. It’s a canny approach to a story that relies on presenting a single Cyberman as a credible threat. The scarring on the visible skin is also unsettling, while also providing a nice invocation of Frankenstein. There is a sense of the process of conversion as a body horror in a way that the polished steel case doesn’t always convey.

“Don’t worry, I hear it happens to plenty of Cybermen.”

There’s also something interesting in the characterisation of “the Lone Cyberman.” Most obviously, there’s something deeply unsettling in the fact that the Lone Cyberman has characterisation. The villain is “unfinished” and incomplete. “What happened, they get bored halfway through?” the Thirteenth Doctor goads. In fact, the Lone Cyberman is so incomplete that he even finds the Thirteenth Doctor “irritating.” The monster has not yet had his emotions completely wiped away, something that even Mary Shelley realises when the Lone Cyberman spares her son.

This leads to an interesting implication. The Lone Cyberman hasn’t been kidnapped or converted against his will. Explaining the Cybermen to her companions, the Doctor makes a big deal of how the Cybermen harvest people “without their consent.” According to her account, and fitting with the show’s approach to the Cybermen dating back to at least The Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel, the emotional inhibitor exists to numb the agony of transplantation and to protect the subject from any desire to reject the conversion.

As such, it is very interesting that the Lone Cyberman clearly wants to be converted. He is a fanatic. He is a devotee. In some respects, he seems to be motivated by hatred and anger in a way that evokes the stock portrayal of the Daleks. Of course, the Moffat era suggested some fluidity between the Daleks and the Cybermen, with the Daleks converting other creatures into Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks and the Dalek casing altering its subject’s experience of the outside world in The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

The Lone Cyberman is devoted to the cause. When he discusses murdering his own children for daring to join “the resistance”, he doesn’t describe their deaths dispassionately. He speaks with menacing glee. Part of this is obviously intended to evoke the maliciousness of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it also hints at something darker and more unsettling. In some ways, it offers a more horrifying metaphor for Silicon Valley excess than Spyfall, Part I or Spyfall, Part II.

Looking out for each other.

After all, the original horror of the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet wasn’t that machines had risen up and taken over. While subsequent writers tend to treat the Cybermen as the manifestation of a system out of control, the original Cybermen were created by choice and with consent. “We were exactly like you once but our cybernetic scientists realised that our race was getting weak,” Krail boasted back in The Tenth Planet. The Lone Cyberman seems to express that same idea. He is not a victim. He is somebody devoted to the zealous idea of strength through transformation.

This portrayal of the Cybermen suggests the eager embrace of concepts like “biohacking” or “young blood” or cryionics or artificial intelligence (or even just basic product design) by some individuals in the technology industry without any real consideration of the ethics involved. The Lone Cyberman’s assertion that he is “inevitable” seems to be a moral statement as much as a teleological one. The Lone Cyberman is an expression of what happens when the idea of technological progress is allowed to triumph above all other considerations. It is truly horrific.

That said, it’s interesting that The Haunting of Villa Diodati works so hard to establish a single Cyberman as a credible threat before pivoting into a two-part finale built around an epic war with entire legions of Cybermen. To be fair, this is a familiar move. The Haunting of Villa Diodati clearly owes a lot to Dalek, another episode that is consciously designed to take a familiar-to-the-point-of-self-parody iconic enemy and make them scary again. Notable, Dalek served as a springboard into the reintroduction of a Dalek armada in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways.

However, there is a clear difference here. The Dalek armada was treated as a big twist at then end of Bad Wolf, quite removed from the original reintroduction of the enemy in Dalek. More to the point, the invasion of the Daleks in The Parting of the Ways was presented as a monstrous and surprising event. Several of the characters in The Parting of the Ways refuse to accept that the Daleks even exist. This is a markedly different status quo than the one into which the Doctor is throwing herself in Ascension of the Cybermen. (From the teaser, Ascension of the Cybermen looks vaguely like an eighties Daleks story… but for Cybermen.)

Holding a candle.

There are other small and compelling touches within The Haunting of Villa Diodati. One of the most frustrating aspects of the Thirteenth Doctor’s characterisation has been her consistent abdication of any responsibility. To be fair, this is arguably a consistent approach to the character across all previous iterations; Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways only happen because the Doctor doesn’t stick around to clean up the mess after The Long Game. The Tenth Doctor topples Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion, paving the way for the Master’s ascent.

However, the previous two seasons refused to ever really call the Doctor out on her ineffectual approach to these things. The Doctor saved a monstrous intergalactic corporation in Kerblam!, allowed a man responsible for several deaths to walk free at the end of Arachnids in the U.K., and offered platitudes to Noor Inayat Khan before consigning her to death in a Concentration Camp in Spyfall, Part II. The twelfth season has gotten a little better at this, allowing the Doctor to stand up to the Skithra in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and the Judoon in Fugitive of the Judoon.

Even allowing for that improvement, the ending of The Haunting of Villa Diodati is a welcome shift for the character. The Thirteenth Doctor unleashes the Cybermen on the future by surrendering the Cyberium to them in order to save Percy Shelley’s life. The Lone Cyberman disappears, like Ilan at the end of The Ghost Monument or Jack Robertson at the end of Arachnids in the U.K. Instead of allowing the Cybermen to disappear, the Doctor proactively plans to stop them.

When Yaz calls the Doctor out on this plan, the Doctor describes trading the Cyberium for Percy Shelley as “step one” in her plan. “What’s step two?” Yaz asks. The Doctor responds, “Fix the mess I made in step one.” It would arguably be better to see this shift in characterisation addressed directly in the episode, for the Thirteenth Doctor to acknowledge her past failures, like A Good Man Goes to War changed the trajectory of the Eleventh Doctor and Kill the Moon changed the trajectory of the Twelfth Doctor. Still, it’s a marked improvement in her characterisation.

Byron, be gone.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati also does a nice job on smaller scale characterisation, particularly wedding that to the larger arc of the season. One of the most jarring aspects of Can You Hear Me At All? was the closing scene on the TARDIS, with Ryan and Yaz both acknowledging that they are unlikely to remain on the TARDIS forever. It seemed to come out of nowhere, even allowing for the companions’ anxieties about how much or how little the Doctor had told them in Spyfall, Part II. In contrast, The Haunting of Villa Diodati integrates that material much more effectively.

The episode makes a big deal of the relationship between Lord Byron and Claire Clairmount. Byron is emotionally unavailable and self-centred, and completely emotionally disengaged from the companion who clearly cares for him deeply. This has obvious parallels to any number of relationships between the Doctor and their companions, most obviously Martha Jones’ pining for a completely oblivious and emotionally closed-off Tenth Doctor during the third season.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati allows Yaz and Claire to bond over the experience. When Claire talks about Byron’s obliviousness, Yaz sighs, “I know someone like that.” The episode ends with Claire effectively growing beyond Byron, acknowledging that “the spell is broken.” Of course, Byron is an imperfect mirror to the Doctor – the episode stresses that he is both cruel and cowardly in different ways. However, there is enough of a resonance there that The Haunting of Villa Diodati hints at the inevitability of a companion departure, companions moving beyond the Doctor.

(That said, much like the ending of Spyfall, Part II obscures the depressing reality of what actually happened to the real-life Inayat Noor Khan, the ending of The Haunting of Villa Diodati obscures the bleakness of Clairmont’s relationship to Byron. Far from declaring her independence from Byron, Clairmont ended up tied to Byron through a pregnancy out of wedlock. It’s an element that would have added some complications to the episode’s conclusion, perhaps similar to the fatalist ending of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, but the ending of The Haunting of Villa Diodati opts for an unambiguously happy conclusion.)

Lightening the mood.

Indeed, there is something quite interesting in the characterisation of Byron himself. The Haunting of Villa Diodati treats him with considerable scorn, similar to the way that The Witchfinders held King James in contempt. Byron is presented as selfish and melodramatic, and there’s perhaps a little self-awareness in the way that the episode imports so much melodrama to him. There’s perhaps a little playful self-criticism in all of this, a suggestion that Doctor Who has occasionally wallowed just a little bit too much in absurdly heightened self-involved angst.

After all, Byron’s language evokes the way in which Doctor Who has occasionally talked about its own internal mythology in both the Davies and the Moffat eras. It is Byron who seems to suggest that the Doctor has arrived as “Hildebrand, the Death Bride.” It’s only slightly more absurd than talking about her as “the Oncoming Storm” or “the Last of the Time Lords” or “the Bringer of Darkness.” Similarly, it’s Byron who offers a “reminder that we tread on the dust of empires”, similar to how the Tenth Doctor talks in mythic terms about the horrors of the cosmos.

There’s a sense in which the Chibnall era might finally be feeling comfortable enough in its own skin to cheekily play with some of the stylistic quirks of the two previous eras, in much the same way that Moffat would occasionally poke a bit of affectionate fun at the Davies era in episodes like Hell Bent. The Chibnall era has never managed to replicate the lyrical dialogue and epic sweep of the Davies and Moffat eras, so it seems fair for The Haunting of Villa Diodati to have a small laugh at what it might see as their excesses.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati is a very well produced and engagingly written episode that works remarkably well at what it is trying to do. It is somewhat undermined by the manner in which it bungles what should be its emotional and thematic climax, scoring a remarkable own goal on what should have been a fairly straightforward moral dilemma. Still, there’s a lot to like in The Haunting of Villa Diodati. While good enough to stand with the high points of the era (Demons of the Punjab and It Takes You Away), it still stands out from the pack as a season highlight.

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