“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door…”
Well. Since you ask me for a tale of ghosts and chills and things that go bump in the night, I shall provide not a story from my own collection, but rather I shall defer to the pen of Emmerdale writer Maxine Alderton. For our entertainment tonight, she would like to transport us across the waters, where there’s a storm blowing in over ninteenth century Switzerland. It’s been the year without a summer – hardly a phenomenon if you’re in the UK, but we’ll let that go – and in a pretty house on the shores of Lake Geneva, a group of writers are trying to outspook each other on a night that’s destined to change literary history. Except right now it isn’t, because Percy Shelley’s gone missing and the others are more interested in playing Twister (they might have been having a dance, but that’s not what it looked like) than doing any writing. As observations about procrastination go it’s painfully astute, but something is quite clearly off, and luckily the four newcomers on the doorstep have arrived just in time to put things right.
The Doctor’s met Mary Shelley before, of course, and even travelled with her for a bit – something ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ wisely elects to ignore completely, much to the chagrin of various fans for whom a steady and sensible continuity is the be all and end all (what did these people do during ‘Genesis of the Daleks’?). We get a similar story – in the Big Finish audios it is an encounter with a pair of Cybermen in Vienna that sets the creative cogs a-turning, but here the encounter is framed within the simple narrative conceit that is the haunted house. And haunted it certainly is: lightning flashes at opportune moments (when it follows a declaration that the Doctor is from “the North” you will spit your cocoa), strange shapes appear in the doorway, skeletal hands lurk the corridors and vases fly across the hall. It’s all explained by the plot, with the exception of the mysterious peasant woman who brings Graham his supper, but that’s all part of the fun.
If anything, the explanation feels a little frenzied. At first we’re at a loss as to why the Doctor’s got a headache and why Polidori is able to phase shift through a wall and why the rooms are looping back on themselves (yes, Pete, I know it saves on set-design, but the article still needs an in-universe explanation). It’s all very Escher, in a good way, and it is inevitably leading to a brain dump – which you can just about follow, providing you concentrate. At first it’s all running from disembodied Hammer hands and wondering what happened to Shelley. And then, twenty-five minutes after the TARDIS crew have arrived, the story kicks well and truly into gear when a familiar-looking monster turns up in the driveway, shaking the mud from its thick metal boots. I say familiar: it’s had a couple of refits, its emotions are still working and half the visor is missing. This is a redesigned Cyberman for an age of gothic horror, both tragic and deadly, arguably more human than many of the human characters bedding down for the night at the sunless villa.
If you know your Highlander, you’ll know that Byron faked his own death, and lived for hundreds of years, turning up in 1960s California in the guise of Jim Morrison, and eventually losing his head to Duncan MacLeod. His first quickening gives Mary Shelley the idea for Frankenstein: similarly here it is the monstrous Cyberman (theatre veteran Patrick O’Kane), lurching through the villa in a mangling of limbs, perhaps the most human cyborg we’ve seen since Lytton, that provides the creative spark she needs. It’s a literal spark, the Cyberman taking energy from a lightning strike that is enough to recharge its power cells, and in what is far and away the standout scene, a frightened Mary pleads with the monster’s remnant of humanity – it’s a gambit that seems certain to pay off, until it doesn’t. If Graham’s confrontation with Tim Shaw in ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’ was irritatingly formulaic, ‘Haunting’ shows what can happen when you shake the net a little. And all the while, Byron’s whimpering in a corner and using an innocent woman as a human shield.
The other thing about this scene is the Doctor. Faced with a seemingly impossible decision – kill Shelley or doom humanity – Whittaker’s lake is finally ruffled when Ryan elects to make the decision for her, and in an instant we see all the fire and fury of Tennant at Pompeii; of Smith as he frets over the star whale; of Capaldi at the edge of the volcano. Even if the possible consequences of Shelley’s death are overdone slightly, it still works, and (just about) manages to make its point without overstating it. There have been angrier Doctors, and there has been better dialogue, but it’s welcome relief to see Whittaker finally uncaged as she turns on her companions: “Sometimes,” she spits at them, “this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit, in the stratosphere alone.” It’s an astonishing moment – it won’t be enough to silence the naysayers, but you can’t have everything.
To all intents and purposes, ‘Haunting’ is this year’s ‘Utopia’: a contextually disconnected narrative that feeds directly into the finale, as the Doctor dashes to the future in order to save it from an unavoidable mistake. It nonetheless manages to be more self-contained and standalone than its spiritual predecessor, a story about the telling of stories and what happens when they’re left untold. Just how much, we’re asked to ponder, is society dependent upon the arts? It’s a stretch to imagine that Whittaker’s arrival was enough to inspire Byron to write ‘Darkness’, but not a wildly implausible one. These people aren’t just writers talking shop: their actions would go on to reshape the world, with more ideas and narrative conceits than can be dreamt of in your philosophy. I speak from the unavoidable bias of being someone who’s often mocked for having an arts degree, but this stuff counts, dammit, and in the days that curricula are being drastically restructured and the BBC looks set to lose its license fee it feels more topical than ever. Quoth Churchill: “Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” (At the risk of watering the argument he did not, at any point, say “Then what are we fighting for?” when asked to cut arts funding.)
Not everything is perfect, but then no episode of Doctor Who ever was. I mentioned a slightly hurried info dump; elsewhere it’s a little frustrating to see Graham sidelined as this week’s comic relief, reduced to quibbling over sandwiches and being frightened by the butler while in search of a toilet. Ryan’s ‘believe in yourself’ encounter with Mary is decently written but clumsily rendered, and it’s left to Yas to provide the most malleable of this week’s companion encounters, as she ruminates with Claire Claremont over a possible love interest – it could theoretically be Ryan, it’s more likely to be the Doctor and if fan theory is correct it will turn out to be the Master. Whittaker herself is the subject of Byron’s wandering eye, although she promptly rebuffs him; something of a shame, as the fan fiction from that alone would be absolute gold dust.
But just when your interest is starting to dip then bang! The candles flicker or the staircases shift or there’s another corpse. Crammed but not quite overstuffed with ideas, this is a thrilling, compelling and downright frightening piece of television, impeccably lit (in the traditional sense of the word) and, for the most part, decently directed, although you sometimes wish Emma Sullivan would angle the cameras a little more. An unexpected gem in a lackluster and frustrating season, it is as singularly enjoyable an episode of Doctor Who as we have seen in a long time, due in no small part to Alderton’s sparkling teleplay. The next time there’s a gathering of great literary minds, they could do a lot worse than inviting her along.