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Recap / Doctor Who S38E8 "The Haunting of Villa Diodati"

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The one where sanity is tempered by steel.

Written by Maxine Alderton. This episode first aired February 16, 2020.


Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, 1816. The infamous Lord Byron, along with Mary "Mrs. Shelley" Godwin, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Byron's personal physician John Polidori are kept inside by a dark and stormy night, for what has been several days in a row. It is eventually suggested that maybe one of the men should read some chilling ghost stories. Byron is more than amenable, but the reading is interrupted by an unexpected knock on the door: the Doctor and company, soaking wet from a walk up from the TARDIS.

The fam only plans to stay for a short time, with rules including not to mention Frankenstein and "Nobody snog Byron", but there's already something wrong with this fabled night where some of Britain's greatest literary minds came up with chilling tales of terror: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary's future husband and one of the participants, is missing. Apparently he went down to the lake earlier and failed to return. The Doctor has a feeling that she and her friends are going to have to stay at Villa Diodati for a little bit longer than she'd prefer.

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And there are unsettling things going on in the house: a vase leaps from its pedestal and across a hallway, smashing against a wall. A skeletal hand emerges from a fallen painting. Mysterious figures appear: a maid, a young girl, a shadowy figure seen in a flash of lightning. Graham, searching for a toilet, goes up a staircase only to find himself emerging from a doorway that he already came through on the floor below.


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Tropes:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: While he's attractive, the Doctor is immediately uncomfortable being around Lord Byron, tries to avoid him and steadily gets more annoyed with Byron hitting on her.
  • Abled in the Adaptation: Downplayed. The real Byron had a deformed foot which caused him to limp; in the episode he walks normally.
  • Ambiguous Situation: In real life, Claire was unable to leave Byron due to being pregnant, and Byron later kept her isolated from their daughter Allegra until her death at just five years old. It's unclear if her telling him they're through is just tragic Dramatic Irony or the Doctor actually did change this part of history.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: For Ashad, his children became this when they joined a resistance to oppose the Cybermen, a race that he greatly revered. It ultimately led to him killing all of them for it.
  • Anything That Moves: The whole TARDIS crew knows Lord Byron's reputation as a philanderer and immediately agree not to let him have an inch. The Doctor in particular is very annoyed at his flirting throughout the episode. By the end, his mistress Claire (Mary's stepsister) is furious with him by the end of the story.
  • Artifact Domination: Percy Bysshe Shelley is taken over by Cyber technology after finding it by accident.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: While the Doctor is given the opportunity to take a third option when the Cyberium enters her, the lone Cyberman threatens to destroy the Earth if she doesn't hand it over, leaving her with no choice but to give it the Cyberium. There is still hope, though, as the Doctor intends to follow him forward in time to hopefully prevent any damage.
  • Been There, Shaped History:
    • The Cyberman's conflicted feelings and nature are implied to have inspired Frankenstein, despite the Doctor's early orders that nobody should mention the novel.
    • On a lesser note, the episode ends with Byron's public recital of his poem "Darkness" — with its closing phrase, "She was the Universe", implying it was also inspired by Thirteenth's showing this episode.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The villa goes full "Castrovalva" under the influence of the Cyberium.
  • Body Horror: When Cybermen "upgrade", it's done in one of two ways: either a fresh brain is removed from a victim and placed in a fully-constructed Cyber body, or a victim has parts welded onto them, ending with their brain wiped of all emotion and jacked into the Hive Mind. What we have here with the Lone Cyberman is an example of the latter... except it looks like the Cybermen quit mid-conversion. Half his face-mask is missing, as are one of his gloves, both exposing the pale skin beneath. To make matters worse, see the next trope.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Prior to his partial cyber-conversion, Ashad was disdainful towards humans despite originally being one himself, and sought to become a Cyberman to remove himself of this perceived taint. Even being rejected for cyber-conversion did not deter him from revering the Cyberman, and he even killed his own children for joining a resistance that opposed the Cyber-Empire.
  • Broken Pedestal: At the end, Claire calls Byron out on flirting with the Doctor without any thought for her feelings, and for using her as a human shield against the monster, and tells him "the spell is broken".
  • The Bus Came Back: The first appearance of the Cybermen in any way, shape or form in this doctor's run.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday:
    Lone Cyberman: You appear courageous, but your vital signs betray a heightened state of anxiety.
    The Doctor: Or as I like to call it, "Tuesday".
  • Call-Back:
    • The Doctor finally encounters the Lone Cyberman that Captain Jack was trying to warn her about. Unfortunately, circumstances conspire to force her to give it what it wants in order to prevent damage to the future of the human race.
    • Unlike in previous episodes where the Doctor and the fam are proclaimed to be a "flat-team structure", the Doctor declares that sometimes, the team structure isn't "flat" at all but instead "mountainous", with her at the summit.
    • The multiple fits of self-loathing Twelve had for "losing people" really come out in Thirteen's early minor breakdown about the Cybermen.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: Invoked by the Doctor, who notes that the Cyberman can't simply kill her to get the Cyberium to leave her, as she's a good enough host that it would put up quite a fight to stay where it is. The Cyberman instead threatens to kill everyone else so she'll give it up willingly.
  • Changed My Jumper: The companions wear nice Regency attire... while the Doctor just goes for a Waistcoat of Style under her Badass Longcoat.
  • Cliffhanger: The fam heads off for the end of the Cyber Wars in an attempt to head off the damage the Lone Cyberman could cause because the Doctor had to give it what it wanted.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Contrived Coincidence: Two seemingly real ghosts just happen to appear in Villa Diodati at the exact same time the Cyberman attacks it, making a fake haunting and a real haunting coincide with no apparent connection.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Downplayed. While the Lone Cyberman does show more emotion than most Cybermen, it's limited mostly to rage.
  • Demonic Possession: Discussed as a possible explanation for what's going on when the sleepwalking Polidori emerges from an apparent "wall" into the room where the Doctor, Byron and Claire are.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: When Dr. Polidori sleepwalks into the room where the Doctor is, she notes that he hasn't just walked through a wall, but gone up a whole floor at the same time, and that would only make sense if where they think they are isn't actually where they really are.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: The Doctor licks the dust of some human bones to determine what century it dates back to.
  • Foreseeing My Death: The Doctor uses an old Time Lord trick to put Shelley into a state of near-death to release the Cyberium from his body, by bringing his mind forward in time to his eventual death by drowning.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Mary and Byron mention that Shelley was having visions of a figure rising from the lake. It turns out that a powerful Cyber AI has taken up residence inside him, and as a result the figure he saw was the Lone Cyberman.
    • When the Doctor shouts to Graham from Byron's chamber, he can hear her quite clearly and asks her how she's doing that, to which she answers that she's shouting down through the fireplace. It turns out that they're actually in rooms right next to each other, but the Perception Filter is preventing them from realizing this until the sleepwalking Polidori reveals the situation.
  • For Want of a Nail: The Doctor refuses to let Percy Shelley die at this moment as it would make the future of culture and society unrecognizable, potentially erasing even more people.
  • Guttural Growler: Ashad the lone Cyberman has an incredibly deep and grating voice, most likely augmented with a mechanical voice filter.
  • Haunted House: While most of the unnatural things going on in Villa Diodati are caused by the Cyberium (including the missing Percy Shelley being the apparition Yaz sees, and the twisting hallways), it's implied by the end that there are some real ghosts inhabiting the house.
  • Helping Hands: Byron has, for very Byronic reasons, brought a 15th-century sailor's skeleton to the party in a chest. Its hands, and only its hands, are reanimated and escape. One of them tries to throttle Ryan, conveniently putting the idea of a duel out of Polidori's mind. Later on, the skull has also animated, though it's being kept in a glass jar and doesn't do anything meaningful.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: Inverted. Byron, who in real life fought in the Greek wars of independence, is shown cowering behind Claire.
  • Historical Domain Character: Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. They were good friends in real life. Also present are Mary's future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron's personal physician Dr. John Polidori, and Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont.
  • Hope Spot: Mary tries to appeal to the Cyberman's humanity... only to find out it has long since left him.
  • Human Shield: Byron ducks behind Claire when Polidori sleepwalks into the room through what they think is a wall. She is not happy with him for this later.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: The Cyberman lets Mary's son William live when it finds the baby and his nurse hiding inside a chest, although it later claims that this is because the child was useless for conversion. A nod to real life, as William Shelley died of malaria when he was three.
  • Invisible Wall: When the Doctor manages to locate the door leading out of the house, her attempt to leave is blocked by one of these, leading her to realize that the house is shielded.
  • I See Dead People: Graham says word-for-word that "I think I'm seeing dead people!" The Doctor brushes him off with "Ghosts don't exist!", but Graham seems less than convinced. Indeed, the woman and girl that Graham sees are later implied to be real ghosts.
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: The story begins during a nighttime thunderstorm.
  • Lightning Can Do Anything: When the Cyberman tries to fire on the Doctor and its weapon fails, the Doctor informs it that travelling though time has drained its batteries. It responds by breaking a nearby window, thrusting its arm outside and drawing a lightning bolt into itself, providing it with a power boost.
  • Mama Bear: From the moment the weirdness starts, Mary's only thought is getting to her baby.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The two ghost-like figures that Graham saw who may or may not have been actual ghosts... their presence is seemingly unconnected to the Lone Cyberman.
  • Mobile Maze: The Cyberium, inside Shelley, twists the hallways of Villa Diodati around each other as a security feature. A Perception Filter is part of the defence.
  • My Greatest Failure: The Doctor still feels the sorrow of losing Bill Potts to cyber-conversion. (And probably Adric as well.)
  • My Skull Runneth Over: The Cyberium's database is slowly killing Percy because the vast data it possesses is too much for his mind. By contrast, the Doctor's Time Lord brain can handle it.
  • Mythology Gag: In the Big Finish audio dramas, Mary Shelley was a companion of the Eighth Doctor for some time, where the two did also encounter Cybermen. This episode ends up taking inspiration and some story beats from two of their stories together; specifically "Mary's Story" (another horror-themed story set in Villa Diodati where the "monster" gets electrocuted) and "The Silver Turk" (Mary encounters a damaged Cyberman who partially inspires Frankenstein).
  • Neck Lift: The Cyberman lifts up Byron's valet by the collar when their paths cross, before breaking his neck.
  • Neck Snap: How Elise the nursemaid is killed.
  • The Needs of the Many: Invoked by Ryan when he suggests that sacrificing Shelley's life would be worth the lives saved by keeping the Cyberium out of the Cyberman's hands, but the Doctor counters that maintaining Shelley's life has as much as an effect on the human race going forward as ending it would on the victims of the Cyber Wars.
  • Nice Hat: Thirteen takes a page out of Eleven's book: picking up a French war helmet and wearing it just for the hell of it. It even looks like the hat One wore in "The Reign of Terror"!
  • No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel: While the Doctor has had people crushing on them before, Thirteen's brilliance while looking like a small blonde woman gets her condescended to and fetishised by Byron. She gets especially annoyed by him calling her "Mrs. Doctor".
  • Nominal Importance: Ashad is the first Cyberman to use an individual name in TV canon since their first appearance in "The Tenth Planet".
  • Offing the Offspring: The lone Cyberman states that when he discovered his own children joined a resistance to combat the Cyber-Empire, he slit their throats.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: After Shelley is finally found and he explains what's happened to him, the incidents from earlier of the vase flying into the wall and the apparitions seen by Yaz, Ryan, and Mary are reviewed, this time explained as being caused by the unwillingly invisible Shelley.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: When choosing between killing Percy and letting the Cyberman get what it wants, the Doctor makes it clear that the "flat team structure" that has been previously mentioned is not truly the case, when it's often her left having to make the impossible decisions with far reaching consequences, alone, because no-one else can.
    Ryan: Shelley's only one life against all those others.
    Mary: What are you saying? How can you condemn him to death like that?
    The Doctor: But is he, Ryan? 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. The future will not be the world you know. The world you came from, the world you were created in won't exist, so neither will you. It's not just his life at stake. It's yours. You want to sacrifice yourself for this? You want me to sacrifice you? You want to call it? Do it now. All of you.
    [silence]
    The Doctor: Yeah. 'Cos sometimes this team structure isn't flat. It's mountainous, with me at the summit in the stratosphere, alone, left to choose. Save the poet, save the universe. Watch people burn now or tomorrow. Sometimes, even I can't win.
  • Oop North: The Doctor's Northern accent is lampshaded by Dr. Polidori:
    Mary Shelley: I don't think they're really from the colonies.
    Lord Byron: No, she is from somewhere much, much stranger.
    Dr. Polidori: [matter-of-factly] The North.
  • Perception Filter: Part of how the house is turned into a Mobile Maze. Dr. Polidori's sleepwalking enables him to get past the filter, allowing the Doctor to figure out how it works so everyone can move around.
  • Real After All: The ghostly woman and girl that Graham saw are implied to have been genuine ghosts.
  • Redemption Quest: Having failed to keep the Cyberium out of the hands of the Lone Cyberman despite her best efforts to do so without risking humanity's evolution/existence in the process, the Doctor (with her companions) sets off on one at the end of the episode by travelling to his time to confront the might of the entire Cyber-Empire.
  • Regency England: Although the episode is set in Switzerland, the costumes fit this era of history.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The actual nature of the visions of a woman and child that Graham encountered is not revealed.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Shelley covers a bedroom inside of Villa Diodati with symbols and numbers that he got from the Cyberium, written on the walls and on papers scattered about the room.
  • Sadistic Choice:
    • Either let the Cyberman get what it wants and cause the death of billions, or let Percy die with enormous consequences for the human race in the long run.
    • When the Doctor takes control of the Cyberium, the Cyberman threatens to summon its ship and destroy the planet unless she gives it to him. Yaz thinks he's bluffing, but history has proven fluid enough this night that the Doctor refuses to tempt fate.
  • See the Invisible: While trapped on the stairs, Yaz, Ryan and Mary see the shadow of the mysterious figure Yaz saw earlier cast against a doorway on the floor below. It turns out this is the shadow of the missing Percy Shelley, who has been rendered mostly invisible by the Cyberium.
  • Series Continuity Error: A minor one, but since the TARDIS can translate even French, Graham should hear the Swiss chambermaid speaking English.
  • Servile Snarker: Fletcher. He rolls his eyes at his employers' scary story competition, as well as when Polidori press-gangs him into being a second in a duel.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shown Their Work: Unlike many works where it would be relevant, the Doctor actually mentions that it's The Year Without a Summer, caused by the ash cloud from the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.
  • Slashed Throat: The lone Cyberman states that he slit the throats of his children after discovering that they joined a resistance to combat the Cyber-Empire.
  • Sleepwalking: Dr. Polidori is prone to this. However, in this state he's immune to the Perception Filter creating the Mobile Maze keeping everyone trapped, which allows the Doctor to figure it out so everyone can move around.
  • Take a Third Option: The Doctor uses a Time Lord trick to give Shelley a vision of his future death, so the Cyberium believes he is dead, leaves his body and binds itself to her. The Cyberman can't force her to give it up, so it threatens to destroy the planet unless she willingly relinquishes it.
  • Two-Faced: The lone Cyberman's mask is either broken or incomplete, allowing the left side of his face to be seen.
  • Unnaturally Looping Location: The Perception Filter of the Cyberium creates the illusion of looping stairs and rooms.
  • Weather Manipulation: The lone Cyberman is implied to be responsible for 1816's status as the Year Without a Summer because it needs the storms to be able to recharge itself.
  • Wham Episode:
    • Yaz implies that she actually has a crush on the Doctor.
    • The Lone Cyberman appears, and the Doctor ends up snapping with anger as a result.
    • The Doctor is forced to give the Lone Cyberman what it wants, leading her and the fam into the Cyber Wars to try and fix things.
  • Wham Shot: The Doctor has just figured out that the figure hovering over the lake is a time traveller that's attempting to materialize in 1816; right as she says this, the figure materializes in the hallway... and is revealed to be a Cyberman.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The Doctor flips out when Ryan suggests that they should let Shelley die to save billions of lives, which seems like a pretty reasonable suggestion. She explains that the math is not as simple as one life versus billions, as sacrificing Percy Shelley would significantly alter Earth's timeline to the point that their present, the 2010s/2020s, would no longer be the same present they came from.
  • The X of Y: "The Haunting of Villa Diodati".
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: Unsurprisingly, the Doctor is forced to give the lone Cyberman what it wants, so she and her companions set off to do the next right thing and join the resistance against the Cybermen on their own turf.

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