The Haunting of Villa Diodati Review
*deep, calming breaths*
OK, so it’s a highlight of the Chibnall era. It features several of Jodie Whittaker’s best moments as the Doctor. It has an effective sense of mood and creepiness throughout. The arrival of the Cyberman at the halfway point effectively turns the entire story on its head. It uses the Cyberman well, drawing more body horror out of the concept than anything since… OK, since the last Cybermen story, but it at least has the decency to acknowledge that the Capaldi era actually happened, and anyway, this is getting an appreciably different sort of body horror off the concept. Despite having the oversized TARDIS crew and a large supporting cast, everyone actually feels like they have a character and gets at least one clear-cut moment to themselves. And there’s a bevy of clever bits—the skull and hand in the cradle is one of the best jump scares in recent Doctor Who memory, and giving Shelley a vision of his death is poetic and unsettling. Oh, and the Cyberman quoting Shelley is magnificently fucked up. Really, this is not merely competent, it’s well-executed. If the show were this well-made every week I wouldn’t be a burnt out and cynical husk of a fan who writes ostentatiously pessimistic parodies of her own work.
Unfortunately, all of this quality is in the service of a fucking “the Cyermen inspire Frankenstein” story. This is not so much bordering on self-parody as the capitol city. This is the sort of thing that when your sixteen-year-old cousin does in a Doctor Who fanfic you go “oh, bless.” It’s an idea that when Big Finish did, everyone went “well that’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?” It’s the most tedious, unimagnative “going with your first idea” bit of bullshit the series has coughed up in recent memory—an idea that is not merely bad but insulting.
It’s ironic that this should air the day that the Dalek Eruditorum post on The Invasion goes up, because it takes the cynicism of that story and dials it up to eleven. Never mind parading the Cybermen around a bunch of London landmarks to trumpet the series—we can take the entire literary tradition from which they originate and go claim that they’re inspired by Doctor Who. The show has flirted with this before, obviously, but always as a textual joke—the Doctor inspires The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Martha is the dark lady in Shakespare—but this is pitched in a largely serious story, as the core concept instead of as a joke at the end. Also, The Shakespeare Code was trash. Doctor Who’s tendency to romanticize great (wo)men of history is routinely annoying, but I’ll take the most mawkish speech about genius that Russell T Davies ever rewrote over the vapid exaltation of Doctor Who as the wellspring for all creativity.
And on top of that we get the deeply fucked up morality of “sure, billions will die, but Percy Shelley is more important.” Never mind the “all of you will cease to exist” bit, which manages to make how time works incoherent in the exact opposite way of Orphan 55, this is a genuinely horrible line of thought, and one that’s only there to force the Doctor’s hand in letting the Cyberium out, which could have been achieved through dozens of other means, several of which would also involve restructuring the scene so that Mary Shelley actually accomplishes anything in it. But more to the point, this scene’s interactions with the “the Cybermen inspired Frankenstein” plot are particularly horrible. Percy Shelley: his poetry is so important that it’s worth a billion lives. Mary Shelley: only important cause she ripped off Kit Pedler.
Other problems prevail. Key beats are unearned, most obviously the Doctor deciding she can’t win and is going to give the Cyberman what it wants. (Seriously, it’s one partially converted Cyberman. The Doctor has routinely fought armies of the things. Hell, Season One Torchwood could handle a partially converted Cyberman; why is the Doctor throwing up her hands in despair and letting it win?) Major revelations generally come ever so slightly before they’re adequately set up. (The Cyberman turning up is trying to mask its suddenness with OMG zeal, for instance.) For all that it manages to balance its cast, it still can’t actually find anything for Ryan to do besides be lame comic relief, and literally has nothing for any of the celebrities to do except have Mary Shelley be around in a scene so she can be inspired to write Frankenstein.
And yet for all of this, from fundamentally bad premise to flawed moments of execution, this is fully functional, quality Doctor Who—a thing we haven’t had in well over a year. It gives the show some real momentum heading into its finale—a thing we haven’t had since Clara died. If you’re capable of foolish and rash optimism, it’s possible to believe that it’s going to go well over the next two weeks and that Series 12 will come out to basically successful.
God I hope I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
- I really am astonished by how extraneous the historical setting ultimately was. As Annie Fish pointed out on Twitter, this could have just been a story where some people in a house are menaced by what turn out to be Cybermen, and it would have been stronger for it.
- The flip side of this is how much of a waste it feels like to burn our Lord Byron and our Mary Shelley historicals on this. I mean, good lord, there’s at least a dozen more interesting Byron stories to be done than this.
- At least there’s a grim satisfaction in a story that claims Mary Shelley based Frankenstein on the Cybermen making the Cybermen scary by ripping off the Borg.
- It’s notable that Chibnall’s approach to bringing back classic monsters has been to rip off Dalek twice now. In neither case does he seem to quite get what makes the lone survivor approach to a monster story work.
- So, at what point in the finale do we reckon the Master shows up? Will they go for the double Master cliffhanger? The title of part two tells us that it’s got to get a bit Time Lordy somewhere in there. (Follow-up question, obviously, is what point RuthDoctor shows up.)
- It’s weird, but this season, despite being clearly better than Series 11, has actually managed to be even more demoralizing. I think because now that you can see what bits can and will improve, you can also see what bits are just going to be stuck at Eric Saward tier bullshit forever.
- All right. See you all next week. I… can definitely wait.
- Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
- Fugitive of the Judoon
- The Haunting of Villa Diodati
- Can You Hear Me?
- Orphan 55
February 17, 2020 @ 10:32 pm
Begging your pardon, I thought the story actually side-stepped the pitfall of “Mary Shelley never had an original idea, she just wrote about her real experience with the Cybermen” quite nicely, albeit at the cost of not having the story be about Mary Shelley to any kind of meaningful degree.
What I mean is, well, the couple of lines that she gets when facing the Lone Cyberman which ostensibly reference Frankenstein (“are you a patchwork creature?”, “these modern Prometheus”)… they’re very ostentatiously inaccurate, aren’t they? Mary seems to get the impression that the Cyberman is a patchwork creature from the fact that it’s got half a human face and half a Cyberman face, but this is obviously bonkers.
So I think it’s quite possibly intended to be read as Mary trying to read her own sci-fi ideas into what’s going on (consciously or unconsciously), as opposed to the Cyberman being what sparks her thinking about sci-fi things to begin with. She’s been daydreaming about modern Prometheuses and patchwork corpses, and so when a “Doctor Who” monster vaguely fitting that description strolls in, she wonders aloud if this is the creature she has been considering.
February 17, 2020 @ 10:52 pm
It would’ve been nice, then, for her to mention those ideas at any point prior to her little speech.
February 17, 2020 @ 11:04 pm
Fair, fair. I never did say it was done elegantly. But look, all I can say is, that was the way I interpreted it upon first watch, so conspicuously clunky was the association of “slightly beat up Cyberman” with “patchwork person”. I may be reading too much into it; I hope that I am not.
February 17, 2020 @ 11:38 pm
‘Unfortunately, all of this quality is in the service of a fucking “the Cyermen inspire Frankenstein” story.’
I really don’t care about things like that. And that was such a minor aspect of the story anyway.
Also, I wonder if the importance of Shelley to the “world” is not more specifically about the world of Doctor Who as inheritors of Romantic ideals. Ryan as a character could not exist without the impact of the Romantics, because he’s a character in a show about a Byronic hero.
Also, I cannot possible picture a version of modern Britain that has moved on from the 19th century, so I think the Doctor had a point.
I think “words matter” was a peculiarly Moffat-y point to make, and gestures towards the intertwining of stories/writing and lives.
February 18, 2020 @ 2:11 pm
What I think we needed from the episode is perhaps an indication of WHY words matter, and I don’t think we get quite enough of that. In isolation “words matter” is an extremely Doctor-y thing to say and feels consistent with the character. And look, I get that we only have around fifty minutes and we need to have a stompy-stompy bad guy in there somewhere (the Cyberman trying to “sneak” down a corridor was a genuinely hilarious moment though). But if you are going to not focus on Mary – the wrong choice, of course she should have been the focus – and go for Percy instead then, well, tell us why his words matter. Because they do! People think of Shelly as a poet, obviously, but he was also a philosopher and radical – that’s one of the reasons he was never much acknowledged during his lifetime, a lot of what he wrote was regarded as being downright revolutionary. And his writing had a profound effect, from the Chartist movement in 19th century England to the likes of Ghandi and MLK (some of Shelly’s earliest works were treatises on non-violence as a viable form of political resistance). This isn’t to lean into some great-man-of-history bullshit, but Shelly’s writings have made a difference on the modern world – Karl Marx is a direct influence too. The Doctor’s “your world wouldn’t exist” line may be an exaggeration but it’s not wholly wrong either, and we need a reason to care about that side of things. What we desperately require is some context. I still think this is a strong story but, as seems to be the theme of this season, the difference having one good solid pass by a strong script editor would make remains exceedingly clear.
February 17, 2020 @ 11:41 pm
“I really am astonished by how extraneous the historical setting ultimately was.”
What about the part where the Doctor basically describes Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, and generally gave in to her strongest tortured Romantic hero shtick?
February 17, 2020 @ 11:52 pm
Setting it in a random house would improve it immeasurably. On top of the problems mentioned here, what is the Doctor doing seemingly trying to mess up history in the first place by adding four extra (not terribly good at blending in although maybe that’s just for humour) people to an intimate important historical event like this in the first place? Possibly something you could overlook in some places, but not when the same story makes a big thing about not changing history later on, and the season started with mind-rape because people have seen the future. What’s she going to do if someone accidentally says something they shouldn’t?
I also really dislike just the lying and attempts to use the psychic paper to get into a private party for kicks. That stuff is for when there’s actually some sort of problem or crisis. Made me uncomfortable about Demons of the Punjab too, but it’s worse here.
February 18, 2020 @ 12:19 am
Ryan managed to get to be the only one of the three companions who in any way focused on getting Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. So he at least is the “Interested in not destroying things companion”.
This was a lot better before the Cyberman showed up wasn’t it? Goes from a creepy story with a great hook (History is messed up, and has been messed up for a while) and then ends up with apparently history going the exact same way after they see a metal man kill the valet.
Also, the bits that understood the romantics (and why Byron sucked so much) felt so out of place with the great man of history stuff, especially since by the end, it’s PB Shelley and Byron, the worst person the Doctor has met since Nixon without the irony, who are valourised. The Romantics aren’t these great people. Everything all of them but Mary Shelley did was done better by people who came before (including Mary Shelley’s parents who are mentioned in the episode). Without PB Shelley,
maybe Wilfred Owen doesn’t write. Not sure if the entirety of history (especially fluid Doctor Who history) is destroyed.
Honestly, I think the episode should have killed Byron off, had the Doctor read the lines from the poem at the end from the only remaining book of Byron in existence, inside the Tardis library. Maybe it’s just my hatred for Byron, but I honestly think that like “The Mona Lisa is a fake” or “Atlantis was destroyed three times”, “Byron was killed by a Cyberman” is the sort of stupid alternative history I love when Doctor Who indulges
As for the Cyberman, the idea of a bunch of cultists who want to die to become Cybermen is a great idea that could, and should, carry a whole episode. Instead, it’s probably just been used as a throwaway line here. A whole episode of this cultist, broken Cyberman would have worked.
So two of the best concepts for episodes this era (up there with It Takes You Away) were combined into a mess that still didn’t work. And has someone use a woman as a human shield then end with them being clapped by a large audience. Put a haunted house Frankenstein story early on, where the Tesla episode was, or last week. Put a surprise Cyberman story here. Combine that with Orphan 55. Anything but this.
Maybe I just dislike Male Romantics (excluding Blake, of course, and bits of PB Shelley) to the point where it gets in the way of the episode. But, god, Byron sucks.
February 18, 2020 @ 9:08 am
It’s great that Claire rejects Byron at the end, but (counting on my fingers) she’s already pregnant. And that didn’t end well for anyone.
February 18, 2020 @ 12:28 am
literally has nothing for any of the celebrities to do except have Mary Shelley be around in a scene so she can be inspired to write Frankenstein
No no, it also had Lord Byron around to hit on the Doctor and get inspired to write “Darkness.”
February 18, 2020 @ 12:38 am
Echoing the sentiment that it was better before the sneering angry Cyberman (like that’s a novel idea) popped up. Everything after that point passed by in a blur of bullshit. The Doctor’s “sometimes this team structure isn’t flat, it’s mountainous!” might be her most belaboured bit of dialogue ever. Stories about the Doctor’s burden of making the impossible choices have been done before, and done intelligently (MotOE?) – this was a series of literary references grafted onto a load of instantly forgettable codswallop about Cyberium.
February 18, 2020 @ 12:42 am
The other key difference between the earlier jokes about the Doctor inspiring authors and this is simple: Those were relatively deep cuts for a BBC family show. Charles Dickens never finishes Mystery of Edwin Drood, so the Doctor has inspired an untold tale. It’s always off limits to us because it interacted with Doctor Who.
Shakespeare’s Dark Lady is barely taught in UK schools, because the homosexual stuff in the sonnets is barely taught and so is the more overtly sexual stuff. Martha is also again fitting into a mystery with a forever off-limits answer.
A Cyberman inspires Mary Shelley could be gathered from the barest knowledge of Mary Shelley, Cyberman and Frankenstein. It’s an online t-shirt shop reference. If they wanted to continue the tradition, make the Doctor the figure of the lonely Mortal Immortal, or being the last of her race, a Last Man. Something that shows an appreciation for Mary Shelley beyond Bride of Frankenstein.
February 18, 2020 @ 5:46 pm
I think that you make an important point here about the device being applied to literary mysteries in the other two instances.
I can’t bring myself to be as bothered as our hostess by its use here, but it’s because it’s so pointless. It’s not in any way meaningful in itself to suggest that Mary Shelley ripped off Kit Pedler. She didn’t – the conceit can’t actually work as a way to exalt Doctor Who as the wellspring of human creativity, because it’s nonsense.
So there has to be some additional point for this device to be useful, and because it’s absurd, it’s inherently better suited to humor. So it works quite well in The Unquiet Dead, because (at least to me, anyway) it’s amusing to imagine that the conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood was going to turn on BS blue gas monsters from space.
In fact, I think this is another one of our hostess’s failures of “aboutness.” The device is there in a story that is ostensibly about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, but isn’t actually saying anything about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.
February 18, 2020 @ 12:58 am
It certainly wasn’t made explicit that Mary Shelley was inspired by the Cybermen to write the story. Aristide Twain makes good points about it above. At no point is there a jazz-hands “look what made Frankenstein happen” moment. The Doctor’s concern with not being involved in the genesis of Frankenstein also makes me think, with only a modicum of charity, that we can assume she has this in hand. And they are yet to have their ghost story contest, from accounts of which we can verify they have no recollection of Robocop-type creatures turning up at the Villa. (This argument is less silly than it might sound, I hope, in the context of stories which really do claim a Who origin for historical events.)
Mary’s reference to the modern Prometheus is a little obscure in the context, adding to the unclarity of cause and effect here, since Victor Frankenstein was the Prometheus.
February 18, 2020 @ 1:03 am
In summary, I think it’s a form of nit-picking here. The aftermath and how they came to write the stories was left open, and it’s easy to interpret it as the cyberman having no influence at all on the story. It’s a thematic congruence and nothing more.
I came away from this episode relieved they hadn’t touched on the origins of “Frankenstein”, except for a mention by Yaz, only to that it’s considered here to be the egregious fault of the story.
February 18, 2020 @ 1:14 am
February 18, 2020 @ 6:09 am
I think almost every celebrity historical would have been better (or, depending on the case, less dreadful) with only the “historical” and not the “celebrity”. Admittedly I dislike the entire concept of the Doctor being behind every famous person in history — that’s more something a Jaggeroth or the Silence should do. But also, with the sole exception of the depression-focused “Vincent and the Doctor”, the character interactions are almost always painful and gushy and full of dumb forced jokes like “Don’t talk about Frankenstein” / “Hey! Who wants to write the greatest ghost story ever!”
“Demons of the Punjab” is the one great story of the Chibnall era; it’s a history that focuses on ordinary people. “Rosa” got about halfway into being the other great story of the Chibnall era; if it had stayed with the small-town police and the racial issues, and skipped the celebrity oohing-and-aahing and the ridiculous forced “We have to get her on that specific bus” plot, it might’ve been there.
And yes, I’d’ve loved this story to be a fabulous ghost story, turned Cybermen story, with a random bunch of irresponsible British people. And with Whittaker’s Doctor finding some less offensive motivation for her (one hopes) less offensive actions.
February 18, 2020 @ 6:49 am
In fairness, the celebrity appearances of Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon were funny and charming. Which gets at the other huge reason I prefer historical without celebrities : the portrayals will almost always be insulting to the concept of historical knowledge.
Byron and the Shelleys managed in this otherwise strong episode to feel rather ordinary, I thought. Byron and Percy in real life were awful, but they weren’t ordinary.
February 18, 2020 @ 6:51 am
I kept thinking of the Highlander episode where Methos has to dodge an opium-drenched dubcon threesome.
February 18, 2020 @ 6:50 am
I missed the Doctor’s big speech about saving the poet because I was ranting, “She’s right there! Mary Shelley is right there!” This series loves historical women, and this story is about the inspiration for Frankenstein — so why isn’t she the one who’s conspicuous by her absence, the one who’s battling the monster?
Has history changed after all, since she’s inspired to write the movie version of the creature and not the literary version? She even confuses the creator with his creation by calling the Cyberman a “modern Prometheus”.
Why doesn’t anyone point out that this was the night science fiction was invented?
Cool skellington monsters but.
February 18, 2020 @ 10:06 am
I wonder if its lack of Mary Shelley focus came from the same place as Kerblam!’s lack of Amazon destruction advocacy, and is the notion that Doctor Who is about surprises so should avoid doing the most obvious thing. Even though frequently things are obvious because they’re right.
February 18, 2020 @ 1:48 pm
(I can’t believe I’m posting in reply to Kate Orman. Kate Orman! You’re awesome!)
To be at least a little fair, there isn’t a “moment” science fiction was invented, it’s a gradual accretion of styles and approaches. Obviously Frankenstein is a key part in the development of what we now think of as modern science fiction but it’s been – with some justification, I’d say – argued that “Gulliver’s Travels” could lay claim to being the first “science fiction”. Once can go further back – “Empires Of The Moon”, or “New Atlantis”, and indeed further back still into myth and legend. I’m not saying this in any way to take away from Mary Shelly’s achievements, and obviously Frankenstein is a defining text of the genre, I mention it merely to suggest that definiens are broadly a little more complex than that.
February 18, 2020 @ 3:25 pm
I think if we’re going to have a first, Frankenstein is a strong choice. Gulliver does have a section mocking the Royal Academy, but that’s the only real “science” part. Frankenstein is imbued with the scientific revolution, and science in its post 17th century form is usually what we think of when considering science fiction. On the other hand the wider genre of fantastic fiction might also be the oldest, including the original Prometheus even. And Frankenstein of course is also Gothic horror and so on. Very Doctor Who.
Of course Who had already “done” Frankenstein in The Brain of Morbius. I was relieved in a similar way after the Witchfinders, that Hauting had left a subject I deeply cared about untouched. That is: very relieved.
February 18, 2020 @ 4:52 pm
Oh for sure it’s a strong choice of course, I’d hate anyone to think otherwise, I just think it’s an interesting debate. In terms of Gulliver, both the Lilliputians (“The Armageddon Factor”/ Drax’s shrinking gun and of course though they’re not alien “Planet Of Giants” and “Into The Dalek”) and Houyhnhnms (Cat Nuns? God help us, the Myrka?) are functionally what we would treat as “aliens” in any modern science fiction novel which gets a big tick from me as well as, as you mention, the Royal Academy material. I guess it also depends what kind of science fiction we’re talking about – that old favourite “hard sci-fi”‘s first novel could, arguably, be “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, with Verne going out of his way to make it as scientifically accurate as was possible. Obviously that’s later than “Frankenstein”, but as the first hard sci-fi novel? Sure, it’s got a claim. I find genre origins terribly interesting.
February 18, 2020 @ 6:29 pm
Victor is deeply grounded in modern science, and he comes to his discovery within that framework. And what his arrogance, and what he actually does, is a wonderful, ever-expanding metaphor for some of the faults of scientism and parallels some current scientific enterprises – cloning, cryogenic freezing, and certainly AI. (Although incidentally, I don’t think a sentient AI is possible.)
The creatues Gulliver meets might be like aliens but that underlines the point in a way. Why is Forbidden Planet science fiction and The Tempest not? It’s because they are shipwrecked in space, not on earth. The Doctor pilots a ship on an almost endless voyage. Why isn’t that just an account of an erratic, mysterious voyage?
All of the above fall under “fantastic fiction”. Yes I think it’s just interesting too.
February 19, 2020 @ 3:48 pm
” I don’t think a sentient AI is possible”
You can’t just chuck that in there without further comment! Elaborate! (please imagine that word ring modulated).
What is it about protoplasm that makes you believe it is uniquely capable of supporting sentience?
February 19, 2020 @ 6:51 pm
It’s not about what the material basis is made of, it’s because I think consciousness isn’t the same kind of thing as matter. Matter is inert, dead. Awareness is, well, aware. No amount of complexity in matter can lead to the production of simple awareness. A computer can appear to be sentient, like HAL9000, but it’s just programmed to seem that way. Even if it can self-program, that’s just an increase in material complexity.
This, of course, is why the cyberman can’t be the whole inspiration for Frankenstein. The key idea and key moment of the book is the endowing of previously dead organic matter with life. When a human is turned into a cyberman, the sentience was already there. (What happens if you gradually replace all the parts is debatable. I think at some point the “human part” of the cyberman would be killed.) We’re not told exactly how Victor achieves what he does, except that he does it on the basis of his own discoveries in the natural sciences.
Of course, a straight up materialist who rejects this understanding of awareness is simply not going to agree with me.
This is all beyond the scope of a comment, which is why I was so brief about it. Here are a couple of articles around these themes I’ll link to, if El doesn’t mind.
February 20, 2020 @ 10:47 am
Of course, a straight up materialist who rejects this understanding of awareness is simply not going to agree with me.
I’m only kind of a materialist and I don’t agree with you either. Even if you’re right that consciousness is this mystic thing totally unconnected from the matter that it runs on, even if you’re right that the universe isn’t designed so that matter can generate consciousness rather than some god having to go around injecting it into every brain, why would you think that whatever makes consciousness would only install it in meat? Why does God hate metal?
February 20, 2020 @ 1:53 pm
I don’t think it’s a mystical thing. I don’t think it’s totally unconnected to matter – I’m not a dualist – and I’m not a theist! And I do say at the start of my comment that it doesn’t have to be protoplasm etc.
February 23, 2020 @ 11:17 pm
Fair enough. Why does consciousness hate metal, then, and if consciousness in your opinion isn’t totally separate from matter, why are you so certain it doesn’t arise naturally from matter? (And for that matter, why are you so sure anyone else is conscious? How is this different from solipsism?)
February 20, 2020 @ 11:59 am
“computers have no understanding of the sentences they process […] not [because] they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but [because] they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong”
I disagree with the “and cannot be”. I won’t derail further.
(Amused that before I click reply I’m going to tick the “I’m not a robot” box…)
February 18, 2020 @ 8:39 am
So a middling era with massive faults and a pronounced conservative streak produces an episode that puts its version of Doctor Who as the originator of science fiction and comes as ludicrous for it. Is this enough to make “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” the Chibnall era’s “Timelash”?
February 18, 2020 @ 11:50 am
I really enjoyed this episode despite its flaws. I think most of its problems – the Doctor inspiring famous works, gushing about celebrities without actually showing us what makes them so great – are the ones we’ve seen in virtually every celebrity historical so far, and so I’m inclined to give them a pass. It’s not like we can really expect Chibnall to correct the mistakes of RTD and Moffat eras, can we?
I don’t agree that this story would’ve been better without the historical context. It added to the haunted house vibe which fits well with Byron’s fascination with death and corpses. But yeah, it could’ve been used much better.
I also didn’t really care about the idiotic moral choice because, again, the show does that from time to time, most notably in “The Fires of Pompeii” and “Waters of Mars”. But it was truly very, very bad that they didn’t use Mary Shelley instead of Percy Shelley. Even the shape of the story seems to know how wrong that is – if Percy Shelley is so important, why is he so overshadowed by every other character in the story? Even the ending focuses on Byron instead of him.
I feel like the show repeated the same mistake it made with Nikola Tesla: it chose a famous historical figure that most of the viewers know next to nothing about and then generally failed to show us what was so great about them. Graham couldn’t come up with any famous inventions by Tesla and this story barely gave us a glimpse of Shelley’s poetry.
As for Mary Shelley, was she the first celebrity writer on the show that we meet BEFORE she wrote anything famous? Perhaps this added to the sense of wrongness when the show implied that Cybermen inspired her to write “Frankenstein”.
Anyway, I loved how well-defined all the characters were, I loved the creepy hand and the villa turning into a maze. And even Whittaker finally got a few memorable moments, almost 2 seasons in. (It’s just a shame she made a lot of acting choices in this one that were straight up stolen from Tennant). I’m a sucker for quality, I can’t help it, and this was as close as this season got to it.
February 18, 2020 @ 12:24 pm
There is one other writer who appeared on the show before being famous, HG Wells. And that wasn’t well remembered.
February 18, 2020 @ 1:25 pm
So after adoring last week’s episode, which was roundly panned, I now find myself in the inverse – everyone loved this episode, but it fell completely flat for me. The first half was pretty fun, but the appearance of the Cyberman had a deflating effect on me. It was more “oh, great, these losers again” than “OMG, Cybermen!”. And I cannot agree that this gives us any momentum going into the finale, given that the episode slows right down to give us a pretty standard “wrap up and say goodbye to the guest characters” sequence in the last five minutes. There were highlights for sure, but the episode never cohered into anything more than disparate pieces for me, and I was left feeling like everybody else watched a different version of this episode that was the classic everyone seems to be seeing it as.
There was one thing that I think brought down the episode for me. It all comes back to the “don’t change history”/Great Man bullshit. It’s been a constant theme of the Chibnall era, and has irked me every time it has come up. It forms the core of “Rosa”, it’s brought up in “Demons” and “The Witchfinders”, it gives us the mind-rape in “Spyfall”. The series has never been totally consistent with the rules to time travel for sure, but at it’s best it always feels much more at home with “time can be rewritten” over “you can’t change history; not one line”.
And this is important. It’s not about the continuity of made-up rules. The approach that the show takes to time travel contributes to the feel and texture of the show.
If the past can not or must not be changed, then the story feels rigid, fixed. The Doctor becomes an overseer, a conservative figure ensuring that everybody obeys the rules and nothing changes – a Lord of Time. It positions the present as a pre-determined peak of history, a stop along the train tracks of our future, that every tragedy and crime against humanity in our history (or present) was absolutely necessary, because if anything had happened differently, the world would be worse. If the past is can be changed, then the story becomes fluid, alive with possibilities and, well, mercury. It positions the Doctor as an anarchic force of chaos that can mix up any story she enters – a heroic renegade who rejected the Time Lords. The present becomes something that can be affected – we do not have to accept the status quo, and the future is an open book.
Doctor Who comes alive when this is the case. I’ll give credit to “The Shakespeare Code” for basically dismissing the butterfly effect as a joke so they can move on with the adventure. “Thin Ice” goes one better, explicitly stating that yes, you can change the future, in every single day of your life. That’s the heart of the show. You can change things. The actions of individuals matter. The world is full of hope and possibilities, and the future is not written in stone. The butterfly effect is not something to be feared, but to be embraced as a wonderful infinite freedom.
So back to this episode. The Doctor is faced with the choice of letting a man die, or letting the Cybermen kill millions. Now actually both these choices are bad ones, the Doctor’s power is to always find a third option, but I’d give this a pass if the show had used a random person as the potential sacrificial lamb, and chose to save one insignificant human. That would be in keeping with the show’s morality – all life is valuable and the Doctor will never not help a person in need. But that’s not where the emphasis was. This is PB Shelley. People have heard of him, so his death would matter. The valet and the maid that were killed? They were just the Help. They couldn’t have possibly changed the future – the important thing is that we save the people that become celebrities. This episode has no engagement with PB Shelley as a real person (for better or worse), just as an icon. And while I like “words matter” as a line in isolation, it is utterly banal to assume that losing these specific words would necessarily result in the present day being worse. It’s the Great Man theory taken to it’s logical conclusion – all Great Men are necessary by virtue of being Great Men and must be preserved on that basis alone.
(“Father’s Day” handles this much better. It too invokes changing the past as Dangerous, but it refutes the idea that saving the Little People doesn’t matter. Rose says it’s fine because her father is not a Great Man and never will be, and the Doctor explicitly rejects that (“There’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t alive before. An ordinary man: that’s the most important thing in creation.”).)
So this episode is already swimming in Great Man bullshit and “everything must go as planned” conservatism. But the cherry on top of this shit sundae is when the Cyberman is threatening to destroy the Earth (sidenote: having the Doctor’s “impossible choice” side-stepped, and then instantly repeated about 30 seconds later is utterly pointless, and the Cyberman having a planet-destroying ship at his beck and call instantly undermines any “lone survivor” thing they episode is trying to do) – and the Doctor confidently declares that the Earth did not end in 1816. To which I say – wha?! That response undermines the premise of every story. And the Cyberman just tells her she’s wrong and she’s like “huh, guess I am”, which just makes her look like a total idiot. It’s totally backwards to the stock line that every companion has in their first adventure to the past – they declare that they know that gas aliens don’t walk around in human bodies in their time, and the Doctor informs them that that can change. It’s fundamental to every single story that the future can be changed – otherwise the characters really would have no reason to not just walk way and say “welp, I know everything already turns out fine here!”
So we have the the timeline of humanity as simultaneously immutable and in need of protection to keep from changing. Our main character is a guardian of that lack of change, declaring total knowledge of the course of history and total control over the lives. She has become Time Lord Victorious – saving the Great Men and sparing not a thought for the Little People. There are no longer infinite stories, just a single railroad that we must proceed dutifully along. The mercurial heart of the show has been stopped dead.
But hey, we’re about to get a Cyberman finale and a big reveal about the history of the Time Lords, so that can’t possibly go badly, can it?
February 18, 2020 @ 3:30 pm
Your comment has got me thinking that it also feels a little at-odds to have the Doctor/show argue against the possibility of a mutable past in the same season that looks poised to do a massive rewrite of the Time Lords’/Doctor’s origins. We can’t lose PB Shelley’s works even if it means saving billions of lives, but where’s that sense of conservatism when it comes to the history of the series itself? (Not that I’m against the idea of obliterating the canon for the sake of a good story, mind.)
Were this the kind of show that did things like thematic resonance anymore, I might think that the Doctor’s decision to uphold the past here is not about stanning a Great Man so much as it is a metatextual reflection of her anxieties about Ruth and the Timeless Child and such; resisting in some way the idea that her own past (as a character rooted to an extent in Romantic heroism) can be different from what she knows. But it’s Chibnall, so…
February 18, 2020 @ 4:15 pm
Both of your comments made me realize that Thirteen’s whole character can be read as “after experiencing the biggest change so far – turning into a woman – the Doctor becomes so terrified of change that she decides to turn into a conservative”. But of course it’s more meta than that. It seems that making the Doctor more fluid makes the world around them more rigid. Almost as if there’s a cosmic balance.
February 18, 2020 @ 5:25 pm
Strongly agree. One of the things that’s really problematic is that by dint of repetition across SF media, “You shouldn’t change the timeline” has come so often to be taken for granted as if it’s a fact about morality, not, as Emily says, a made-up rule. I encounter this so very often when listening to geeky podcasts – this blanket assumption that things have to be this way, and that there is some intrinsic moral value to the way that history happened to, well, happen, that any change to the past will always produce a present that is worse.
There’s a decent aesthetic reason why Doctor Who shouldn’t change human history, because we want a recognizable human history still to be there next week for a different writer to set a story in. But to import that aesthetic consideration into the story as a question of right and wrong — that just leads over and over again in SF to the position that all of the suffering and injustice in history was “worth it,” necessary to create our world, which is the best we could possibly have done.
(And look, if “not changing the timeline” is something that you can use as a decent plot motor sometimes, surely at this point we can safely say that an awful lot of the stories that you can tell well with this device have been told already?)
I’m not as hard on this episode overall as Emily, because there is a lot I like about how it was done. But that scene grated.
February 19, 2020 @ 11:53 am
The best argument against a mutable past is that it doesn’t make sense. That’s why the sci-fi in Father’s Day is ludicrous. It makes no sense for Rose to remember two different deaths. If she went back in time to change the fact that Pete died alone, the fact that he DOESN’T die alone means that she would have no reason to go back, as there would be nothing to correct.
What people call paradoxes or lazily “timey-wimey” as we have in Blink is actually the only logical way for time travel to the past to make sense. So when Sally’s friend is zapped to the past, she does “change” the past, but in such a way that the past with her contribution is the only version of the past that exists, and all events after that are influenced by that contribution. And no, there is no version of the timeline where the future does not include that contribution.
It’s similar to the time travel logic of Prisoner of Azkaban.
Again, it’s the only way that time travel can have internal logic.
You can argue that Rosa does that: there is no “standard” history that the TARDIS crew must uphold. The history of Rosa Parks as we know it is and has always been the event in which Rosa was asked to stand up for Graham. In other words, any “attempt” to alter the past simply confirms what you already know about the past, even if you “succeed”.
February 19, 2020 @ 12:20 pm
“Again, it’s the only way that time travel can have internal logic.”
Time travel doesn’t exist. Its rules and internal logic are storytelling devices and should only matter as long as they don’t stop one from telling a brilliant story. You found “Father’s Day” ludicrous, I found it very moving and memorable. Rose remembering two different deaths is a beautiful, very human moment: that’s how our memories work, they’re mutable, imperfect. Sometimes we remember events not how they happened, but how we wanted them to happen. Sometimes we spend years imagining “what if” and then cry because of conversations that never happened. Had “Father’s Day” cared about time travel logic, we would’ve lost the emotional truth of that double memory.
“Back to the Future” lacks internal logic as well, but it’s still loads of fun – in part because the rule of cool/rule of fun overrides everything else in those movies. I wouldn’t trade that for “making sense”.
February 20, 2020 @ 2:47 am
Writing that time travel doesn’t exist is a strong statement. Sure, we have nothing like a Tardis, but we have hypotheses that, for example, gravity, and even the putative Higgs singlet, may not be constrained to four dimensions. While the notion of information ‘travelling’ into the future is obvious and trivial (this post is an example), what about information that ‘travels’ into the past?
February 20, 2020 @ 9:15 am
Fair enough. I shoud’ve said “Human time travel as depicted in fiction doesn’t exist, at least not yet”.
February 19, 2020 @ 12:01 pm
“this blanket assumption that things have to be this way, […] that any change to the past will always produce a present that is worse”
I blame Bradbury, and specifically “A Sound of Thunder”. That story cast a LONG shadow.
“surely at this point we can safely say that an awful lot of the stories that you can tell well with this device have been told already?”
No reason not to keep telling them… as long you REtell them well. After 57 years we can safely say there’s going to be some recycling…
February 18, 2020 @ 6:34 pm
The thing is, the Doctor isn’t more fluid. She’s more rigid in her thinking than any other incarnation. And not in a “has strong beliefs that they obsessively stick to” sense, but more in that Chibnall can’t seem to consider a morality outside of a limited framework, which is swallowed at face value without examination. It’s what I call Trope Morality, in which the morality of the story is not drawn from a genuine engagement with an ethical question, but simply copied from standard tropes repeated in fiction.
This Doctor doesn’t hate guns because of a belief around the how it makes violence easier and less personal, or because of lingering trauma from the Time War, but because it’s a rule that The Doctor Doesn’t Like Guns. She tells her companions that killing a mass murdering psychopath would make them Just Like Him, not through any dissection on the cyclical nature of revenge, but because that’s what heroes say in movies. She insists that the past cannot be changed – not by figuring out the exact domino sequence of events that would be triggered by this event, but because the rule in sci-fi stories is that Changing Things Is Bad.
It’s not the ethical standpoints themselves that are problem, it’s the lack of engagement. It’s the assumption that this approach to ethics is correct, simply because that’s the way it’s been done before.
February 19, 2020 @ 8:25 am
I strongly agree about Trope Morality – it’s one of the laziest things a writer can do, and it always makes the story worse. And in the Chibnall era that’s the only morality we get. (See especially “suffocating/starving spiders is good, shooting them is bad”). Ugh.
“The thing is, the Doctor isn’t more fluid. She’s more rigid in her thinking than any other incarnation.”
You’re right, of course. I didn’t make myself clear. What I meant by “fluid” is simply the fact that the Doctor can be a woman now. As evidenced by the 12+ white male Doctors we’ve had before and the massive fan uproar after Whittaker was cast, “The Doctor is male” was seen as one of the most fundamental facts about the character. Now that fundamental fact has changed. And in response, both the personality of the Doctor and, apparently, the laws of history became more rigid. Which is of course Chibnall’s fault, but when looking at things from a meta perspective, it gives the impression of a cosmic balance of fluidity and rigidity, of changeable and unchangeable. Which I thought was interesting.
February 19, 2020 @ 11:41 am
“There’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t alive before. An ordinary man: that’s the most important thing in creation.”
Personally, I find populist bullshit like this more offensive than the Great Man theory of history.
February 19, 2020 @ 12:00 pm
I get that you might disagree with it, but why is it offensive? Surely we live in a world where the life of ordinary people is often undervalued. Where’s the offense in valuing it more?
February 19, 2020 @ 5:17 pm
I think you have to project surplus things onto that statement to interpret it as populist, rather than simply advocating for the sanctity of life.
He didn’t say “good ol’ traditional ‘white working class’ males are more normal and more important than everyone else in creation, take that you cosmopolitan elites”.
February 19, 2020 @ 6:53 pm
I’d add that for me at least rigidly insisting that history can’t be changed gets more uncomfortable the grimmer the future looks— if you can’t pretend the actual future is in any way rosy, suddenly it’s a lot harder to justify not stopping countless atrocities. If you’re just doing it to save the world you love, it’s at least arguable you’re not only no longer a hero but someone who’s actively becoming the villain.
This is why I think the Monk is arguably a better hero for our times than the Doctor. They wouldn’t put up with any of this Time Lord nonsense; they’d just change everything and the hell with it.
February 20, 2020 @ 3:16 pm
All time travel fiction that I’m aware of pretty much ignores the butterfly effect. Under the butterfly effect, you don’t even need to step on any butterflies, just the air displaced by a materialising time machine will cause any reasonably distant future from that point to have completely unrecognisable randomness-dominated details like which people have been born. It’s possible to imagine genuinely using it in a story, but usually too much random change interferes with storytelling, since there’s a strong tendency for everything to be important.
Things like “Ada Lovelace can’t be allowed to hear the word ‘computer'” sort of gesture in the direction of the butterfly effect with no real understanding of it, if there’s something about time which means you can land your time machine in the past and still have been born in the present when you return, (perhaps something done to the universe by the time lords when they invented time travel, for those who like explanations,) then things just aren’t proceeding according to chaos theory, so there’s no reason why Ada Lovelace knowing what a computer is should be any more of a problem, it’s a the same level as a bit or air displacement. And the only reason for a writer to make an issue of it is because they want to.
Creating paradoxes is different, but that’s not the case in most of these examples. Funnily enough, in the only two Doctor Who stories I can think of where changing the past would create a paradox, there have been special circumstances which makes that specific change something worth criticising within the story. In the Aztecs, if Barbara stops human sacrifice, her future self won’t be motivated to stop human sacrifice any longer, but it’s also an act of deceitful imperialist “white man’s burden” hamfistedly imposing your own values on another culture which you don’t understand whilst thinking you’re doing it a favour. (Or at least it can be read that way.) And in Father’s Day, if Rose saves her father, she will no longer be motivated to go back to his death, but it’s also an act of wanting to change your own past instead of looking to what you can do in the future, which probably comes under emotionally unhealthy activity. Though I’m not an expert here.
(And paradoxes aren’t a problem in stories which use many worlds interpretations. Someone just did it from a different timeline.)
March 22, 2020 @ 2:07 pm
Late to the party, as it took a pandemic to make we watch this. I was on the whole pleasantly surprised; it was certainly interesting up to the Cyberman reveal and tolerable thereafter.
No love for the valet? The actor deserves credit for some exquisite eye-rolling there. There is something quietly effective about the way that the camera settles on him and the other servants; they are music playing machines, babycare machines, and dispensable in the way that “the help” always are. I’ve heard the genesis tale of Frankenstein many times, and yet mentally I’ve completely failed to connect to the size of the house and the fact that of course Byron would have had servants.
Who does the Cyberman kill? The machine-man kills the man-machines.
Haven’t seen the rest of the series yet (apart from a few reviews) so I don’t know yet exactly how it ends for the “ghost servants” so my theory may be invalid. Enjoy, ignore, or whatever.
February 18, 2020 @ 3:49 pm
Also, apparently there was a real ghost haunting the Villa, even though The Doctor explicitly poo-pooed that idea earlier, but we’ve got to get on with the finale. No one cares except Graham, because he ate a ghost sammich, and that’s got to be unsettling.
February 18, 2020 @ 4:47 pm
That other ghost thing had better pay off…
February 19, 2020 @ 12:44 am
Felt more like a homage to the Woolly Rebellion from last season.
But it was given so much focus to not matter at all.
February 19, 2020 @ 8:35 am
Why would it be more explored/paid off? It was clearly a classic “… or was this crazy thing true after all?!” horror twist ending. They never pay off, they’re just flavour.
Roderick T. Long
February 23, 2020 @ 8:36 am
Compare the tangerine at the end of “Last Christmas.”
February 18, 2020 @ 3:50 pm
It wasn’t saying “Percy Shelley is more important” than the billions. It wasn’t saying this at all. Ryan’s utilitarian argument gets countered by the Doctor pointing out that there might be other unintended consequences. That’s all we need to know really. And those consequences might even be worse. All this is a strong enough counter-argument by itself. Add to that the horror that utilitarian arguments can lead to, in this case letting the man in front of them die so that others will live. Only usually in these situations you don’t know how things will turn out for sure. In fact, they’ve only got Captain Jack’s testimony to go on here to justify effective murder. What if he’s wrong?
It’s actually quite a sophisticated bit about utilitarianism, and uses time travel and the Doctor’s insight into the bigger picture to illustrate something. I understand it serves a plot function too, but perhaps of all the way this could have been done, it was done this way deliberately because it’s an interesting and substantial way to conclude the story.
I don’t believe it’s about Shelley’s poetry being more important: I think that’s being read in. Most people, one hopes, don’t think like that. (And as I commented above, the Cybermen just don’t inspire Frankenstein, unless you want to read it that way. I was very relieved they didn’t.)
And I think the ethics of the new series have sometimes been dodgy.
(You cannot argue that it makes time incoherent. The reasoning is valid in the logic of the show – you can make it work.)
February 18, 2020 @ 6:44 pm
Sci-fi trolley problems are never good arguments about utilitarianism because their situations bear no resemblance to how utilitarianism works in real life. The problem with utilitarianism is that even an earnest person trying very hard to do the right thing will tend to have conclusions they want to reach, for reasons as trivial as “it makes my job easier”, and will convince themselves of those conclusions, rather than making objective assessments of the probable outcomes. That’s just how the human brain works, in most cases at least. “Don’t kill people” doesn’t have room for that sort of thing.
It’s very, very heavily bound up in what actually happens in practice, and as such is hard to do well in fiction in general, just because what happens in practice now depends on what the author decides, let alone once someone takes the possibilities offered by sci-fi to contrive bizarre situations with no resemblance to anything which could possibly happen in real life.
February 19, 2020 @ 2:22 am
Trolley problems of any kind mostly aren’t great ways to think about ethics, and aren’t how things are in real life. However, I don’t think you could easily reframe the Doctor’s argument in a non-SF setting.
“Objective assessments” can lead to some very chilling results.
February 19, 2020 @ 3:51 am
Sorry, I meant to say you can easily reframe the Doctor’s arguments in a non-SF setting. Although actually philosophical literature often does use unlikely examples that aren’t logically impossible.
February 18, 2020 @ 6:50 pm
It seemed such an obvious and typical rejection of the “one for billions” mathematics. The Doctor saves the one and then tries to save the billions. And with an obvious “sacrifice one for many” theme that we’re expecting with the Time Lords and the Timeless Child, I expected the complaints to be heavy-handedness, not the “Shelly is obviously important to history” angle. Mary asked that he not be sacrificed, again obviously: why does that not count? In an episode where she had very little agency available to her, I thought Mary asserted as much as she could have.
February 19, 2020 @ 2:40 am
I thought she came across strongly too, a brilliant individual with no fear of the Cyberman. And then she wrote Frankenstein, and Shelley wrote a preface putting and put it into the first edition without mentioning that Mary didn’t write it. I don’t know if she really had the doubts about her skills shown in the episode, but the modesty makes sense under the circumstances.
February 18, 2020 @ 7:48 pm
“Ryan’s utilitarian argument gets countered by the Doctor pointing out that there might be other unintended consequences. That’s all we need to know really. And those consequences might even be worse.”
They might be. Or they might be better. What bothers me is that the episode simply uncritically insists that Changing Time Is Bad, without having any interest in engaging with the idea of what changing this specific event would actually mean. It’s only answer is to invoke Great Man theory, with the Doctor stating that his poetry has an impact.
It’s not an effective repute of utilitarianism because, as Lambda says below, it bears no resemblance to the concept in real life, and it doesn’t really engage with it. It just invokes the trope of Changing Time Is Bad and leaves it at that.
February 19, 2020 @ 2:37 am
I don’t mind the pro-literature element here, but it didn’t imply to me that if he wasn’t a writer, he wouldn’t matter. The argument is generalised.
“One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.”
Great man theory is a read: I don’t think it goes this far. And I like that the Romantics are getting a look in here.
I don’t think you can simply say it will be better, or worse, like a mathematical equation. Boundless good might happen, but if it means Ryan never existed, that alone is impossible to measure. And I don’t understand why you think it is uncritical about changing time being bad. Ryan has a very strong criticism to make. For the Doctor it’s an unresolvable dilemma, or she paints it as such.
Besides, if there is any chance the Doctor can go forwards in time and fix things, it’s utterly immoral to let Shelley die. Quite apart from philosophy, in her world, she can try to do this. “What’s step two? Fix the mess I created in step one.” In the timeline the Doctor knows, Shelley lived.
February 19, 2020 @ 8:57 am
“One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.”
That one line in itself implies that changing history is dangerous and a thing to be wary of. (One might even argue that the word “blink” is used here to evoke the horrible fate of the victims of the Weeping Angels, who also have their timelines violated). Compare it to the wording the Eleventh Doctor used to express the same idea: “Time can be rewritten”. A possibility, not a threat. And it’s not like the Moffat era shied away from showing us the horrors of rewriting history – just look at what happened to Rory in S5. But still, the focus was on the fact that we can rewrite bad events and make them better.
“And I don’t understand why you think it is uncritical about changing time being bad.”
Probably because this whole era of the show keeps making that point, starting with “Rosa”. And in this episode Thirteen doesn’t really present the choice as “an unresolvable dilemma” – she resolves it immediately by deciding that she can’t risk history changing. The possibility of the world changing for the worse is, in her mind, more important than the possibility that it might change for the better.
February 19, 2020 @ 10:45 am
“Probably because this whole era of the show keeps making that point, starting with “Rosa”. And in this episode Thirteen doesn’t really present the choice as “an unresolvable dilemma” – she resolves it immediately by deciding that she can’t risk history changing.”
This is it. The more I think about it, this episode wasn’t particularly egregious in its approach to changing history; more it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. The series has been uncritically repeating “you can’t change history” as a moral fact since Chibnall started, and it’s something I feel is both against the show’s best themes, and utterly nonsensical from a Watsonian point of view (why do we need to be super careful not to change pre-2019 Earth events, while we can do whatever the hell we like in the far future? To a planet-hopping time traveller, neither of these are “the past”; it’s all relative).
And it dovetails uncomfortably with the general trend of the Doctor not interfering against villains in positions of authority (not!Trump in Arachnids, Kerblam!, Tzim-Sha, Lenny Henry’s character in Spyfall, etc, etc). It feels like every aspect of the show is saying “don’t interfere, don’t change things, don’t question the system, the status quo is acceptable and must be preserved”. Which ultimately is my central objection to the Chibnall era.
February 19, 2020 @ 12:06 pm
I see it the opposite way. She does find a solution to the dilemma: she tricks the Cyberium into thinking Shelley has died so that he doesn’t have to literally die. Trolley problem solved. But she railed against Ryan’s suggestions that making those decisions is straight-forward.
Then there is ANOTHER dilemma which is related to giving up the Cyberium so the Cyberman won’t kill everyone. But now giving in to the Cyberman does not directly endanger anyone, and she can make that decision herself (after realising that Cybermen are inevitable), because she knows what to do to fix it.
February 19, 2020 @ 8:54 am
The issue with the Trolley Problem in this episode is that I don’t think it’s meant to be about the numbers. The Doctor’s priority throughout the episode’s ending is saving the Byrons and the Shelleys because they’re the ones who are actually in the room with her and she’s not going to watch them be killed because of her decisions. The debate is meant to be “save the world or save your friends”, and the Doctor’s decision making is based primarily on pragmatics – she’ll save the people around her because they’re under a more immediate threat before using the time it takes the Lone Cyberman to make an army using the Cyberine to save the rest of the universe. It’s ultimately akin to the actions of Capaldi’s Doctor in “The Doctor Falls”: you save the people around you because they’re there and you’ve got to do everything you can even if it’s stupid decision in the long term.
The issue is that it’s a bunch of famous writers that she’s trying to save and her monologue muddies her motivation in a way that doesn’t really fit with the scenes around it, making a debate that should be “We need to stop the war.” “But they’re right here and I’m not letting them die!” into “We need to stop the war.” “But they’re right here and are too important to not save!”
(I pretty convinced that her monologue’s going to have been rewritten by Chibnall: based on the rest of the episode, Alderton would’ve written something smaller scale, Chibnall wouldn’t have thought that it sells the gravity of the situation, and this is all probably his way of making the situation feel bigger.)
February 19, 2020 @ 11:20 am
It’s a celebrity historical. It would be quite surprising if it didn’t think being a celebrity makes you more important.
February 19, 2020 @ 12:11 pm
“you save the people around you because they’re there and you’ve got to do everything you can even if it’s stupid decision in the long term.”
This. Isn’t that one of the things people actually praised about 13? That she is just a traveller who helps whenever she can, instead of a cosmic force putting everything in the universe right?
If the Doctor care about saving all the people who will suffer anywhere and anywhen, she would have already gone to a specific point in time to avert wars/disasters as we see in Into the Dalek, Battle of Rancid Kodak, Oprhan 55, etc.
She fixes what is right in front of her.
February 19, 2020 @ 5:58 pm
Yeah, it took what would have been one of the core traits for this Doctor and putting it in a situation where it is a failing (tragedy as specific to the character’s nobility and all that), and instead made it feel reprehensible.
February 20, 2020 @ 9:11 am
The only problem is, this Doctor’s characterization was so insonsistent and weak that for me “fixing what is right in front of her” never even registered as a core trait (which made it hard to appreciate the tragedy you describe). Sometimes she fights evil, sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s socially awkward, sometimes she’s not. For me she mostly just makes faces at things.
I challenged a friend once to identify an episode for each of the Doctors where that particular incarnation acts most out of character (e.g. “Lie of the Land” for Twelve). They said that for Thirteen, it’s “The Witchfinders” because she actually tries to rescue the woman being drowned at the beginning. I can’t really disagree.
February 21, 2020 @ 5:31 pm
My argument is less that the Doctor tries to fix what is right of front of her as much as she always thinks of individuals and individual solutions as the key aspect. So, she would hate to lose a life to save a billion, which is something 7 would do straight-forwardly.
Her other key goal is a fear of being alone, which was hinted at with her first episode and Demons, and outright said in Spyfall and Can You Hear Me? So perhaps fearing to lose her companions would lead to the choice in the episode.
If 12 were in this situation, he’d probably punch Byron, say “I can’t lose you” to Clara, then take the thing off Shelley and pretend to not feel exhausted from it.
February 18, 2020 @ 6:19 pm
I actually quite like what was done with the cybermen in this episode.
I have a theory that while the Daleks can’t ever change, the Cyberman often do, they’ve taken turns as desperate survivors, suppose it Communists, and as icons of consumerist culture and body horror.
These changes often reflect the fears in society at the time the stories are being made, so I quite like the idea of a race of beings that thinks it’s being logical rational but which in fact is acting on rage and anger, it so easily describes the modern white male anger complex and the so-called dark enlightenment philosophers.
February 21, 2020 @ 6:42 pm
That’s actually a fascinating take on it. I didn’t even think to look at it that way. I’m fairly sure it’s not the intent based on the word of the script and I think the cultish stuff works against the reading. But as an approach, it could be really interesting to take further.
I’ve love to see the Cybermen used to explicitly explore ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ foot-stamping – ‘we must survive’ isn’t really a logical conclusion, after all – it’s the starting premise and a decidedly nonobjective one.
February 18, 2020 @ 6:59 pm
I admit I was expecting this to hit with El a bit better than it did. In place of the celebrity historical, we end up with all the characters caught inside the gothic horror story genre. The threat posed both by the Cyberman and by Shelley’s potential death was a narrative collapse; arguably, it’s being presented (ahistorically) as a potential generic implosion as the possibility of a particular sort of story gets destroyed from the inside by an agent generated by it: the Cybermen exist because of Mary Shelley, so of course this one spares her child on the grounds that in fact, the Cybermen are her offspring. “You will be like us” indeed!
That makes the Lone Cyberman a hybridization between its qlippothic predecessors and the Daleks, the traditional series agent of narrative collapse. It’s also hate-filled and has a persecution complex and a willingness to destroy the planet it’s on to get what it wants (no wonder the organic core appears to be a cis-het white male who has reproduced and then murdered his children). And lo and behold, the Maguffin it’s after is some sort of AI-substance that sure looked mercurial to me.
This is messy as hell, but I’d expected it to be the kind of messy that plays well around these parts.
February 18, 2020 @ 7:24 pm
We’ll see how it goes in the Eruditorum. But as Under the Lake/Before the Flood shows, just because there’s fun ideas for me to play with doesn’t mean it’s a good story.
February 20, 2020 @ 2:58 am
Funnily enough, the Shadow of the Eruditorum hung heavy over me as I watched it. I couldn’t help saying to myself ‘El’s going to really hate that’ at various points, and it’s no pleasure to have been shown to be right (especially as I agree about a large proportion of them).
February 19, 2020 @ 12:54 am
In all fairness to Shelley… he wasn’t just a purveyor of pretty trinkets, in the manner of RTD-trumpeted “greatest writers in all human history” Agatha Christie and JK m*********ing Rowling. Per Wikipedia “Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, the writings of Leo Tolstoy, and Mahatma Gandhi’s passive resistance were all influenced and inspired by Shelley’s theories of nonviolent resistance, in protest and political action. It is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, which has been called “perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance””. So there’s certainly a changing-the-course-of-human-history argument to be made here.
Would still have been more fun to see Mary Shelley kicking more ass, of course.
February 20, 2020 @ 10:57 am
It would have been nice if they’d actually explained why Shelley’s words were important, then. If you just say “This famous poet is important because he wrote things!” without saying what he wrote, you’re just doing the celebrity worship that the RTD celebrity historicals did.
(Not That) Jack
February 19, 2020 @ 6:55 pm
How to sum up how obvious the set up of “Mary Shelley gets the idea of Frankenstein from the story” was:
A friend of mine, who knows I’ve stopped watching the show, sent me a text an hour before they watched it: “If this story is the reason why Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein I’m going to scream.”
Two hours later they sent me a screaming emoji.
I also have to say that somehow this season has brought in Ada Lovelace, Mary Shelley, and Lord Bryon as celebrity historical guest stars and fucked every one of them up in some way, shape, or form. Even Eric Saward didn’t fuck up that often. Somehow.
February 20, 2020 @ 3:00 am
Are you 100% sure about that?
February 20, 2020 @ 4:18 pm
It’s not made explicit. If you’re looking for it and you want it in some sense, it’s there. I was worried about it, but it would be so tedious and obvious that if it’s possible to read it differently, I will. But I was relieved – it just wasn’t there, unless you layer an interpretation over it. The modern Prometheus wasn’t the creature, so Shelley’s confused. She hasn’t begun to write the story. The essential idea behind Shelley’s story wasn’t there at all. But having Shelley meet a cyberman is cool.
Even Andrew Ellard seems to see it this way, so I can’t dismiss it out of hand, and I can see how that scene might make you think so. But it’s not explicit. It doesn’t have to be there. And who would want it to be?
I think the choice of historical figures has been fantastic, and there’ve been no major problems with their depiction. Byron is deliberately not much like the real Byron, except for his philandering. But are we really going to have the real Byron on a family show (unless he’s the main villain)? It’s fine that he’s fictionalized.
People have really got it in for this era. I understand it has faults, but this story knocked it for six by Doctor Who’s standards.
February 19, 2020 @ 7:08 pm
I read pretty much all the above before seeing the episode so I have little to add, but wow was that a story completely disconnected from its setting and characters. I have to agree, it would have been stronger for not being set on that particular night, since it ultimately had sod all to do with those events or anyone involved in them. Which is really annoying since we’ve already had a story this season which managed to meld characters and events in a pleasing manner (what with Tesla’s Mars signals being revealed as the instigating event of the plot). Here? Percy goes for a walk by the lake and is nabbed by a special effect, then everyone’s merrily knocked off their ‘proper’ historical course for the rest of the story. Goodness knows how all that fits with the don’t change history vibes since apparently, we’re now in a timeline where the real events of that night never happened, on top of two people dying when they previously did not. Just treating it as escalating changes that could snowball could have fixed that complaint, but it’s not even really discussed.
As for the Cybermen . . . it is surely possible to make them horrifying and unsettling while still being emotionless and logical. Heck, ‘The Silver Turk’ managed that one! Here, there was an absolutely golden (silver?) opportunity to have the Cyber-borg respond to Mary appealing to his human nature re sparing her son with something like, ‘yes, so that we can make him better’ and instead we get shouty Cyber-cult nonsense. It was even set up beforehand, in the very scene where he spares the baby! I don’t know why that’s what bugs me most. Perhaps it’s simply that in the absence of engaging with the real people involved in any satisfying manner, it would at least have been nice to see some interesting engagement with the Doctor Who concepts. Yet . . . no.
What a dreadful waste of pace and atmosphere.