Since Chris Chibnall took over as lead writer of Doctor Who, the show’s historical episodes have been its highest quality ones — that is, until “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” Beginning with a dull and uninspired romp through a spooky house, nothing interesting happens until halfway through, which abandons the mess of a story by simply acting as a teaser for the finale.
The episode is set in 1816 at Lord Byron’s (Jacob Collins-Levy) titular Villa Diodati, where the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions find themselves. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Lili Miller), who would go on to marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Lewis Rainer) and write the Gothic novel Frankenstein, is also there. Rather than explore any of these writers’ history, however, they are treated merely as key figures to be protected from the alien threat of the week.
The alien threat, as is revealed following half an episode of unfunny Scooby-Doo-like hijinks, is the previously forewarned Lone Cyberman, Ashad (Patrick O’Kane). Battered and broken, the typical emotional inhibitors who give Cybermen their robotic personality are missing, as is half of its helmet. In an episode meant to be unsettling in its premise and setting, Ashad’s appearance and performance as a cruel but pained mutation is the only element that achieves actual chills.
The Doctor also has one of her most intense performances yet, regularly belittling her companions and claiming ultimate authority over the situation in multiple scenes. The Cybermen are clearly personal to the Doctor, and Whittaker does a fantastic job portraying the same hubris and arrogance that previous regenerations have fallen victim to.
Overall, however, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is completely forgettable on its own, with a messy and unoriginal plot that relies on a setup for the finale to maintain any interest at all. It’s always a gamble taking on new guest writers for Doctor Who, as some new perspectives have contributed to the Doctor’s best adventures. Guest writer Maxine Alberton, however, has written a dud.
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.