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Credit: BBC America

Doctor Who, 'The Haunting of Villa Diodati': She was the universe

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Feb 16, 2020

You know, the Doctor is called the Doctor — only her monster is called Doctor Who.

Previously on history: Mary Shelley invented horror and sci-fi, and Lord Byron is a f***boi. That pretty much brings us up to date for this episode of Doctor Who.

On that infamous night at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in 1816, during which the classic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was born, its author, the then-Mary Godwin, her fiancé Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and Byron's physician John William Polidor came together for a few a dark and stormy nights to tell terrifying tales. Also, there was an evil skeleton hand, a group of people seemingly not of this time, and at least one mechanical being.

Well, at least these are the circumstances surrounding our story this 2020 evening, one of murder, intrigue, and one very spunky storyteller.

The Doctor and fam arrive in full glorious period regalia to join our literary heroes for an evening of inspiration and spookery, but all is not as it seems. Something wicked is afoot — or a-hand, as it were. 

Something is messing with our heroes — televised and literary alike. Stairs lead back to their entry point, people are walking through walls, mysterious figures appear and vanish with a thunderclap. And, as the Doctor quickly notes, Shelley is missing (and eventually so is their baby son, William) — and his presence is part of history's canon. The house is wrong. But what's wrong with it? Is it ghosts, or something far more insidious and familiar?

It's Doctor Who. It's that second one. Questions are answered (while many more arise) with the appearance of a Cyberman, apparently the lone Cyberman as foretold by Jack Harkness. But this is no typical Cyberman. This being is still visibly human, at least partly, and speaking the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley and looking for "The Guardian." The Guardian, as it turns out, is Shelley, infected by Cyberium (a liquid metal-esque bit of Cyberman technology containing all the race's knowledge within), and also responsible for the shifting Villa Diodati (or at least the perception of its inhabitants). But the Cyberium is too strong, and if it has its way, it will destroy Shelley — and with him, the ripple effect of his impact.

"Words matter. One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink."

It's a common thread in Doctor Who, fixed events versus preventable tragedies, and there's rarely rhyme or reason who the Doctor gets to save. This is something we haven't had to see in our typically optimistic, hopeful, noticeably absent of much backstory Doctor. 

"'Cause sometimes this team structure isn't flat. It's mountainous, with me at the summit, in the stratosphere alone left to choose."

In the way our true families don't always know the true us, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham don't know what the Doctor has been through or faced in her many, many years. She's hidden it and made sure they see the best of her, the hopeful remains of a thousand lifetimes of loss. But ultimately in every hard moment, it's her alone at the summit, the only one who gets the choice. She's running. She's always running. But, as we saw last week, at some point we have to stop.

"History is vulnerable." It always is when the Doctor is involved, but this is different. This is a woman's history, women's history. Without Mary Shelley, where do sci-fi and fantasy and horror go and how seriously are female authors taken without the female author who started it all? As many of us know, we're not especially treasured now. But without her? Who knows.

Credit: BBC America

History is vulnerable. Ours, all the more so. 

In this moment, the Doctor saves Mary, Percy, Lord F***boi, et al., but the Lone Cyberman marches on. Next week, we'll see what they bring in their wake.

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