The Haunting of Villa Diodati doesn’t really get going

I feel like the ingredients are all there in this episode, but the somehow they spend most of the episode just sitting there. We have a cast of interesting historical characters in a web of ambiguous relationships, in the setting of an ostensibly haunted house on the night in which one of them should write one of the two greatest horror novels in the English language … but the tension never really ratchets up above “medium”.

To be fair, it kicks into gear in the last third, when tension has been abandoned and it becomes about the lone cyberman. But that gear-change serves to highlight how relatively weak everything up till then has been.

I think the problem might be the music. Tension is a subtle thing, and it needs skilled steering — you need to stay in the shallows, neither running aground nor moving out into the main current. And music is the most powerful and expressive tool for this kind of navigation. When tension needs to be racheted up, music subliminally tells us that things are getting more serious; when the arc of tension needs a moment of relief, it’s music that tells us that, too. This episode felt rather as if Light Tension music from a sound library had been pasted over the episode more or less at random, undercutting the work of the actors.

Best moment for me — best by far — was Mary Shelley’s talking the half-converted cyberman down by reminding him that he had loved and been loved and had children of his own, only to find that he now held all those things in contempt and was just as determined as ever to push on with his plan. (Admittedly it would have been better still if I’d understood more clearly what his plan was.)

The worst moments were swift to follow, though: first, the Doctor’s clichéd and bankrupt moral calculus, valuing the life of Shelley over those of billions of people in the future, because of the influence of his poetry; then simply giving the lone cyberman what it wants despite the whole point of Captain Jack’s thread in Fugitive of the Judoon being that she absolutely must not give it what it wants. This last is egregious not only in that it invalidates the purpose of Jack’s being in that episode, but more — that it makes the presence of the Doctor herself in this episode absolutely irrelevant. Nothing turns out different than it would if she had simply taken a week’s holiday in Bognor instead.

So, all in all, an unsatisfying missed opportunity.

2 responses to “The Haunting of Villa Diodati doesn’t really get going

  1. Well this time we’re almost exactly the opposite way up! I liked the whole puzzle house business and thought it degenerated into more standard fare when they’re all just running away from the Lone Cyberman. In fact this was probably my favourite episode of the season. And modern Who normally has rubbish music. I Just try to tune it out.

    The ending though… just as you say.

  2. I like the idea of the puzzle house, and of those specific inhabitants. I just didn’t feel they made it work. I didn’t really believe in any of the people, or in their jeopardy. The music is only my guess as to what went wrong. Thinking about it a bit more, I suspect something was off with the acting, too: they could have made the poets and their entourage very modern, so that they fit in with Yaz and co. (though that would have been a missed opportunity) or they could have played up how very culturally different they were (which would have been more fun); instead the performances seemed to fall into an indeterminate grey area that was neither one thing nor the other. We had Doctor Whatzizname challenging Ryan to a duel, but otherwise they seemed pretty modern — so that one behavioural aberration stood out as unreal.

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