Spyfall 1: It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Spyfall 2: It’s Time She Spent Some Time Alone
Orphan 55: Climate Chaos in Cardiff
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror: Great Men and Great History
Fugitive of the Judoon: The Book of Ruth
Can You Hear Me? Doctor Who and the Problem of Evil
In 1818, the poem Ozymandias was written twice. Two sonnets, both inspired by the same writings and the same statue, sharing lines and imagery, but differing in style. Two tellings of the same story, describing the same details and themes, but written by two different, competing poets. One has been remembered, and since its author’s death has been celebrated, endlessly, both as an acclaimed example of English poetry, and as a pop culture touchstone – the go-to reference point for any story about a figure of great status and command who has it all crumble to dust around her – and the other has been forgotten as anything other than a shadow of the former. One could say, lost to time.
Part 1. This Forgotten Babylon
In 1816, the Doctor visits the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, in which a group of incestuous friends and poets have gathered to share horror stories, one of which will change the history of science fiction forever. As is probably unsurprising if you’re familiar with similar historicals, the implication is that Mary Shelley is inspired by the events of this adventure, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the version of Frankenstein we now all know: A damaged Eighth Doctor stalks the grounds and haunts the house after a strangely possessed Percy Bysshe Shelley regenerates him with electricity. (He’s full of a magic space McGuffin, you see.) In a twist, it’s revealed that the Doctor actually has foreknowledge from earlier adventures, which leads to his uncharacteristically abrasive confrontation with the poets. Eventually the Doctor disgorges the ‘vitreous time’, and after some discussion Mary decides to come with him, flying off towards the Cyberman adventure teased earlier in the story.
In another timeline, in another medium, the story of how the Doctor accidentally inspired Frankenstein had already been told – the obscure 2008 Battles in Time comic, The Creative Spark – but despite this, Mary’s Story received some attention for the way in which it acknowledges other media and eras, with explicit references to comics and prose companions like Ssard and Compassion, and directly confirming the extended universe in a way that, surprisingly to me, hadn’t happened like this before in the audios.
But what really stands out to me, and what I want to talk about today, is how despite trying to fold decades of conflicting mediums into a single, in-continuity timeline, despite the fact that we know from dozens of references in other audios that Mary and the Doctor end up travelling together, and despite telling a flashback-bootstrap story that shows us their future together while the present is still unfolding, the story doesn’t once give up on the idea that emotionally clear, character-motivated, human-level decisions are what drive the narrative. The final beat, when the Doctor offers to make Mary his travelling companion, is this:
MARY: Your future self told me I had travelled with him. Seems it is my destiny. It appears I have no choice in the matter.
DOCTOR: Oh, there’s always a choice.
And I can’t help wondering if time might be more pliable than we are often led to believe.
Wait. Hold on. This isn’t the right story, is it?
Let’s go back and try again.
Part 1. A Traveller From an Antique Land
In 1816, the Doctor visits the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, in which a group of ingenious friends and poets have gathered to share horror stories, one of which will change the history of science fiction forever. As is probably unsurprising if you’re familiar with similar historicals, the implication is that Mary Shelley is inspired by the events of this adventure, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the version of Frankenstein we now all know: A damaged Cyberman, regenerated with electricity, stalks the grounds and haunts the house after a strangely possessed Percy Bysshe Shelley. (He’s full of a magic space McGuffin, you see.) In a twist, it’s revealed that, although she didn’t know it, the Doctor actually has foreknowledge from earlier adventures, which leads to her uncharacteristically abrasive confrontation with the Fam. Eventually the Doctor disgorges the ‘cyberium,’ and after some discussion they decide to come with her, flying off towards the Cyberman adventure teased earlier in the story.
In another timeline, in another medium, the story of how the Doctor accidentally inspired Frankenstein had already been told – the obscure 2009 Big Finish audio, Mary’s Story – and because of this, Villa received some attention for the way in which it ignores other media and eras, with extremely vague references to past companions like Bill and Adric, and directly contradicting the extended universe in a way that, surprisingly to me, hadn’t really happened like this before in the TV show.
For clarity’s sake, I don’t think this is a problem at all, nor is it a case of copied homework. New Doctor Who stories treading on the toes of old ones was always bound to happen, and this isn’t really the first time at all, even if it is the most obvious and irreconcilable example, although I do think that revisiting the same event so similarly, three times over, is a symptom of a limited idea of what Doctor Who can be, and that’s the real issue I have with this episode. This show can iterate on the same historical setting or story again and again, and that’s a real asset, and one that could be used to great effect, but The Haunting of Villa Diodati is held back, severely, by its adherence to the formula of how the show does history – the formula we talked about regarding Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – because the problem with this episode’s ending goes right to the roots of the show.
Part 2. Frankenstein’s Choice
At the climax of the story, the Doctor has to choose whether to heed Jack’s warning and let Shelley die, or give the Cyberman what he wants and let the future be plunged back into war. It’s not perfect – why the Cyberium is so vital isn’t clear, and as we see next week the war is already over, so, like, huh? – but it’s a fine Big Decision to hang an episode around; a meaty moral question with no easy answer, that sets characters against each other depending on their values: is it ever okay to sacrifice one person for a greater good? A trolley problem, more or less.
But then said trolley is immediately derailed:
RYAN: Shelley’s only one life against all those others.
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. … 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.
What’s left instead is a Big Decision that’s too unclear to us to carry any real weight, and too unclear to the Fam to spark any real drama. It’s confused, and it’s confusing, because what now are the stakes?
There is a momentary implication that the reason it wouldn’t be right to let Shelley die is his art — like in 2010’s Vincent and the Doctor, where the threat of the painter’s possible death is doubled by the tragedy that the world could be robbed of his yet-unmade works — but we realise, as the Doctor talks, that here the value isn’t placed on Shelley’s art itself, but rather its Historical Importance. The effect it would have on the timelines.
Of course, as many people have noted, this is an example of Great Man history at its worst and most obviously classist, and one that the Doctor backs all the way. It’s not just that Shelley is a person of cultural significance, or of particular interest to the Doctor, but that he is uniquely, factually important to the history of humanity in a way that the fabric of spacetime itself reinforces. So, when his servants die without so much as a ripple of change to the future, this morally and intellectually bankrupt view of history is hardcoded into the material the narrative is made from. It’s not something Chibnall or Alderton intended to say, surely, but a result (and perpetuation) of the way that we write about history, especially in Who.
The other big victim of the Who ‘history formula’ here and throughout the show as a whole is the clarity of what changing history actually means. The Doctor says that saving Shelley would cost Ryan’s life (and the rest of the Fam’s too), but do we really believe that? Do we buy that the Doctor is agonising over the choice between continuing some vague (and depopulated) future war, and killing her best friends? Do we really believe that’s the decision she’s making in this scene? That that would take her more than a moment to pick, if those were really the outcomes?
And, if we agree that the butterfly-hurricane outcome of Shelley’s death would be to divert the course of history entirely, is the implication of what the Doctor is saying here that never having existed is pretty much the same as dying? That’s not necessarily an outrageous claim, but it would mean that any change to the past is a genocidal evil, and that has horrific implications for the Doctor’s carefree galivanting through history. I don’t ask this to extrapolate ridiculous consequences from a single scene’s dialogue, but to question whether there is actually any substance to the excuses we’re always given for refusing to change time. Do we really believe that the rules the Doctor swears by are real? And, more importantly, do they make for good storytelling?
Part 3. King of Kings
The Doctor pulling rank on her companions, taking back the idea of the “flat team structure” that literally nobody watching the show actually believed for a second was real, and raging about her singular responsibility as the one who has to make the hard decisions is refreshingly dramatic for this era, but I can’t help feel that it’s hollow, too. The reason that the Doctor takes charge here isn’t actually because she’s the stronger force of personality, or because she has more invested, emotionally, in the situation than the rest, but because she knows the rules of time travel, and of the show, and she knows that changing the past isn’t something we do. The actual question never mattered — whether or not it’s okay to trade one life for others gets swept away as if it’s irrelevant, because it is — because this isn’t about character so much as it’s about those rules.
This is a problem close-enough-unique to time travel storytelling, where how things should be is set in stone by how they were, and you can’t change the past, not because it’s right or wrong, or anything grounded in the real world, but because it breaks time. It would be a paradox: a literally logical impossibility. When telling stories with stakes on the scale of whole societies, like Villa pivots to in the last few minutes and like historicals generally tend to, this inevitably breeds a conservative social position — that changing the world from how it is is a fundamentally wrong and broken and impossible idea — that is often completely counter to the writer’s actual beliefs. It’s a trap of the genre and is exactly why stories like 2018’s Rosa jar so badly; they’re narratives about activists and enactors of change told in plots about maintaining the temporal status-quo at all costs, because that’s what the conventional rules of time travel stories demand.
In the worst offenders, this necessity to maintain according to the rules just replaces character-based motivation entirely, and it takes a hell of a lot of work and skill to disguise the fact that the driving force of your story is just a logical requirement rather than anything meaningful. But even in the best cases, this kind of rules-y time travel storytelling has truly terrible implications the moment that you try to apply its lessons to the real world.
If we go back in time to 2008’s Fires of Pompeii, to pick one example of many, when facing the deadly historical eruption, Donna wants to save people because she is kind and compassionate, and the Doctor wants to stand by and let them die because the rules say that’s what he has to do, he’s not happy about it, but he’s got no choice, cos that’s what the rules say, even though, as we’ve seen, those rules are inconsistent and the consequences for breaking them are abstract-at-best. What are we supposed to take from the Doctor’s position? That breaking the rules is worse than letting countless people suffer and die? What’s the applicability of that to the real world, and what does it teach kids? That we should all obey the rules, even if they seem pointlessly cruel? That we should be proud of our steadfastness in bravely doing nothing? That we should take the guy in the suit with the title Lord at his word when he says it’s just as hard for him, having to watch, and managing to, bravely, absolutely refuse to help even though it would be effortless for him to do so?
Well the episode says otherwise, because of course, as is intuitively obvious, Donna is right and helping people is good. The Doctor capitulates and breaks the rules… and the world doesn’t explode. And neither does the show, despite the fact that these rules of time run so deep that it’s hard to imagine these stories without them. But as the Doctor said herself: There’s always a choice.
If the rules of time are, as they seem, just a convenient lie that we write into the show so we can keep telling these same kinds of stories, over and over, milking the same few pop-history icons dry again and again, in every medium, then we can just chose to write different stories instead. Ones where we’re allowed to do the right thing, and our actions are guided by what we think is good, not by what the rulebook says.
But the Doctor’s supposed jurisdiction over time runs right down to her blood. The stories we tell are defined by the hero we have, and the hero is defined by her origin. If we really want to challenge what this show can be, we’re going to have to go back to where everything began…
And everything is going to change. Forever.
What powerful but unrecorded race,– Not Percy Bysshe Shelley
Once dwelt in that annihilated place?
To be continued…
NEXT TIME: THE FINALE: The Lie of the Timeless Child