Thursday, April 16, 2020

12.8: The Haunting of Villa Diodati


Did it have to be Shelley?

Everyone knows “my name is Ozymandias king of kings” but only English students know “bird thou never wert” or “if winter come can spring be far behind?” The Doctor does her obligatory “Ain’t poems brilliant?” speech: if Shelley dies, then the whole of future history will change and Ryan might never be born.

“His thoughts, his words inspire and influence thousands for centuries. If he dies now, who knows what damage that will have on future history? Words matter! One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.”

Is this specifically true of Percy Bysshe Shelley; or would it be equally true of Fletcher the Butler or Mrs Miggins in the kitchen? Or (rather crucially) Shelley’s soon-to-be wife Mary?

Staples, Sternes, Bysshe. If my parents had given me a silly middle name I might have been a great poet too.


In the Very Far Future the human race is at war with Alienses. The humans steal the Alienses MacGuffin, and send it back in time. The MacGuffin is hidden in the body of an innocent human. One of the Alienses travels through time to try and get it back.

The only way for the Doctor to prevent the Alienses retrieving the MacGuffin is to allow the human to die. But the Doctor won’t do this. Partly because she thinks that humans are brilliant, but mostly because allowing this particular human to die would involve changing the future to a greater extent than she feels inclined to do this week. So she allows the Alienses to have the MacGuffin and and heads back to the future (TM) to try and undo the mess she has created.

That’s the story. It’s a good story. I have no problem with this story.

Icons, whether they are icons from the history of Doctor Who or icons from the history of England, are always fun. But they also feel a little bit like cheating. Fans get excited about the reappearance of any adversary, the obscurer the better. The popular press will always sit up and take notice when they hear that the Daleks or the Cybermen are making a return to the nation’s TV screens. But a story does not magically become interesting by virtue of having Daleks or Cybermen in it.

There is nothing especially Cybermanish about a pool of psychic quicksilver which contains all the secrets of the universe; or about using “perception filters” to trap humans inside a big old house. But the moment we find out that the adversaries are not just any old Alienses, but your actual Cybermen, then we know that we are watching something big and important.

And this is not just any old Cyberman. This Cyberman is the payoff to Captain Jack’s big set-up in Fugitive of the Judoon — a story which, truthfully, consisted of nothing but set-ups. Jack said that a very bad thing would happen when the Doctor encountered the Lone Cyberman, and that she was under no circumstances to give it what it wanted. This is definitely a Cyberman, and it is definitely on its own, without so much as a faithful Indian companion. But the plot manoeuvres the Doctor into a position where she has no choice but to give it precisely what it wants. It would have been the same story without Jack’s warning: but the foreshadowing has the affect of underlining the threat, twice, in red ink, and then highlighting it with a fluorescent marker pen.

There is no particular reason for the Lone Cyberman to be looking for the Cyberium in the Olden Days — although admittedly there is no reason for him not to be. Chibnall is inclined to use historical settings to provide a bit of exotic local colour. But in this case the Victorian setting is a fake-out: a piece of misdirection. It is not what the story is about. It starts out as an episode of Horrid Histories, in which the Doctor’s moronic companions entirely fail to understand that the Olden Days are different from the present, and as a result, comedy happens. There was probably a good joke to be got out of the fact that in the nineteenth century, even a very opulent house wouldn’t have had anything a modern person would recognise as a bathroom. (Do the Doctor’s companions never notice how bad the Olden Days smell?) Graham wandering the corridors saying “That’s all right I can hold it in” is not a good joke.
For a few minutes it looks as if the plot is going to be that history has wandered off its expected pathway and it is the Doctor’s job to get things back on track. Again.

But it turns out that we are in a Haunted House story. There are lots of stories in the world in which a ghost of some kind manifests in a house of some kind; and there are lots of stories in which large, old, mysterious houses have some kind of spooky mystery attached to them. But Haunted Houses are primarily fairground attractions; and this feels a lot more like a theme park ride than a story of the supernatural. Vases throw themselves across rooms; people walk through walls; infants turn into skeletons; and the corridors and stairs fold around themselves, trapping everyone in the building. We only meet the Lone Cyberman two-thirds of the way through the story: the Haunted House is the puzzle to which he is the solution.

The comedy is a little too broad and the Haunted House is not very scary; but the puzzle is quite clever and the solution is rather ingenious. The Lone Cyberman who still experiences emotions is quite interesting, and his physical appearance — the corpse like face under the half finished mask is visually arresting. The Doctor’s vacillation at the end — “save the poet or save the universe” — cuts quite deep. This is as close to a good script as Jodie Whittaker has been given to work with, and she distinctly rises to the occasion.


Yaz discovers one of the Victorian women trying to sneak into one of the gentlemen’s bedrooms. She wants to read his letters: “If he has written about me, I can ascertain his true sentiments”, she explains. Last week, Medieval Syrians spoke the language of 21st century Sheffield. This week, ladies and gentlemen from the nineteenth century speak like ladies and gentlemen from the nineteenth century; or at any rate, like characters from BBC nineteenth century costume drama. Graham in particular tries to communicate in a moronic schoolboy “old fashioned”. “Please, excuse me, fair lady. I must poppeth to the little boys' room.”
Well, then:

When the Doctor is travelling alone, as she was last week, the TARDIS translator presented her with as literal a translation of what the locals are saying as it possibly can. The Doctor is so ancient and has travelled so much that she basically sees all cultures as equally valid, or equally strange. Come to think of it, there is no reason for her to have been talking to Tahira in modern English: presumably the actual conversation happened in Middle Gallifreyan and the BBC scriptwriters rendered it as English for our benefit. We don’t want it to be like one of those old war films vare ze Germanz spik to each ovver in ze rilly rilly bad accent.

When, on the other hand, the Doctor is travelling in a group, the TARDIS identifies nineteenth century English and twenty first century English as “the same language” and allows the visitors to hear exactly what the natives are saying. (This has the interesting effect that humans who speak poor English speak better English than aliens who speak no English at all.) Like any translator, the TARDIS must be translating cultural context as well as the exact words: so it is even possible that it translates historical characters words into the kinds of words Graham and Ryan would expect them to say.

There is no plot inconsistency so big or so serious that it cannot be sorted out with an ad hoc piece of fan fiction. But the fiction is still fictional and the inconsistency is still inconsistent.

Frankenstein is the story of the creation of a monster. (“Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist who creates the monster, not the monster itself. A lot of people don’t realise this, and if you remember to correct them you will come across as a very interesting and well-read person.)

To the endless delight of literary critics, the preface to Frankenstein describes how the novel came to be written. So this novel about the creation of a monster also contains a story about how the story was created. That creation-story is almost as famous as the novel itself: everyone knows that Mary Shelley created Frankenstein because Lord Byron had challenged her to tell him a ghost story that would really frighten him. The ghost story competition appears in a play by Howard Brenton, a rather over-the-top movie by Ken Russell and in the prologue to the camp classic Bride of Frankenstein. (Armstrong and Miller did a rather wonderful comedy sketch in which Mary delights the party with a story about a talking dog who travels around with three companions unmasking ghost-impersonators.)

In 1964, the Very First Doctor encountered animatronic versions of both Dracula and the monster-of-Frankenstein in what turned out to be a haunted house attraction at “the festival of Ghana”. More famously, the Fourth Doctor encountered a crazy gothic scientist who was in the process of creating a patchwork monster to house the brain of the dead Time Lord Morbius —a story which really only makes sense if you assume that the literary Frankenstein doesn’t exist in the Doctor Who universe. But the plot — the supposed plot — of Frankenstein crops up over and over again in Doctor Who. Science can turn round and bite you on the bottom. There are some things which man was never meant to know. The Doctor’s greatest enemy is pretty much Victor Frankenstein recast into the Doctor Who milieu; recklessly creating the monsters which rise up and destroy him. He literally thinks that the Daleks will make him more powerful than God.

The Frankenstein of popular culture is a metaphor for hubris. Mary Shelley read the novel in that way: she subtitled it “the modern Prometheus”. The first dramatised version was even clearer, going with the title “Presumption, or, the fate of Frankenstein.” The excruciating prologue to the James Whale movie says that it is the story of a scientist who tried to create new life “without reckoning on God.” The Daily Mail very sensibly closed down all discussion about the genetic engineering of food crops by describing them as “Frankenstein Foods”.

But this isn’t the only way of reading the story. It could just as well be about the responsibilities of scientists to think through the social implications of their inventions. Victor’s offence isn’t that he presumptuously stole fire from the gods; it’s that he created a new creature and then left it to fend for itself. Which is what some people have accused God himself of doing. Brilliant but irresponsible men feature rather heavily in Mary Shelley’s own life story.

The Cybermen do have some affinities with the Frankenstein myth. They were certainly conceived as being a dire warning about science running out of control. They have sometimes been depicted as walking corpses, human flesh kept going with infinite mechanical augmentation. They have sometimes been shown harvesting dead bodies to create more Cyberpeople, and they have a definite habit of emerging from Tombs.

But the story of the Cybermen is not really about Science with a big S. It’s more about over-reliance on technology; about the fear that augmentation and transplantation could rob humanity of its essence. If I lose a hand and someone fits a prosthesis, then I am a human being with a prosthetic hand. So if my brain were transplanted into a robot, would I simply be a human being with a prosthetic body? And what if we got rid of the brain and replaced that with an artificial one as well? Would I have a prosthetic soul?


The olden-days characters are not merely Some Victorians: they are Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Doctor Polidori and Clare Claremont. The human with the Cyberium hidden inside him is Percy Byshe Shelley. And this is important because…. Because the action mirrors the imagery in Shelley’s poetry, in the way that the imagery in Ghostlight arguably mirrored ideas from William Blake? Except that it doesn’t: hardly at all. Because the Lone Cyberman gives Mary the idea for Frankenstein? Except that it doesn’t: not in any meaningful or interesting way. “I wrote a story about a monster because I encountered a monster in the cellar of my house” is much less of an explanation than “I wrote a story about a monster because I had been discussing scientific experiments about the principle of life; because I was only beginning to get over the deaths of my mother and my first child; and because I had a weird, Freudian dream about a scientist reviving a corpse”.

Mary Shelley arguably created the modern genre of science fiction. So if Frankenstein had not been written, Doctor Who would not exist. It would have made more sense if it had been Mary who had the lump of Cybermercury stuck inside her. “This is the night when Frankenstein was created; but the creator of Frankenstein is not here” is a more interesting pitch than “This is the night when Frankenstein was created but the author of the Masque of Anarchy is not here.” “Can you imagine a world without Frankenstein?” Is a more interesting question than “Can you imagine a world without Ode to a Skylark?”

The Haunting of the Villa Diodati is about three very famous writers: but it is astonishingly uninterested in literature. It didn’t have to be Shelley: it could just as well have been A.N Other Victorian.

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1 comment:

  1. I think the idea of Fixed Points in history that the Doctor must fight for, so Harold Godwinson with an atomic bazooka is more important than Mrs Miggins, is not so much canon as 40mm quick-firing auto-cannon with radar sights: without it, much of 'Dr Who' becomes impossible. Likewise the Universal Translator was explored in 'The Fires of Pompeii' ('sorry love, no speak-o Celtico'). The Doctor messing around with plumes (a couple of years after a couple of million people died in the Napoleonic Wars) struck a wrong note, and I would have liked Byron to say so: he didn't come across as Mad, Bad or Dangerous to Know. On the whole though, I enjoyed it: 'not a flat management structure' doesn't sound as portentous as 'A Ring-Bearer is Alone', but it suits Dr Jodie's style.


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