A sunless summer, a Genevan villa, and a ghost-story contest that would change the shape of science-fiction forever – this light-hearted adventure begins by fulfilling the time-travelling dreams of Romanticists and Gothic scholars everywhere as it transports viewers back to the night that sparked the creation of Mary Shelley’s deathless classic Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus (1818). Complications ensue as Byron’s home at the Villa Diodati transforms into a ghoulish house of horrors that the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends must navigate whilst pursued by an angry cyberman from the future. Yet in a surprising twist the story’s focus is not the inevitable parallel between the half-human/half-robot cyberman and the ‘creature’ of Shelley’s novel, but rather the hunt for her mysteriously absent poet partner Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer).
Gothic tension abounds from the start, with flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder backgrounding Byron’s reading of the Tales of the Dead (1813) – an Anglophonic replacement for the book the group actually read that night, the French Fantasmagoriana (1812). Yet the exposition resists both cliché and comedy, instead taking the middle road of exploiting the contrast between the viewer’s expectations of English Regency era society and the conventional fare of the horror genre. Scenes of dancing, gossip, and flirtation intercut with corridors peopled only by lonely servants (aka doomed characters), poltergeist activities accompanied with eerie music, and an unsettlingly agile skeleton hand scuttling along on its own. Most satisfyingly of all, scriptwriter Maxine Alderton resists leaning too far towards outright horror, instead embracing the Radcliffean concept of the explained supernatural. Initially this is with bathetic effect, as the ‘something infernal’ Byron hopes is knocking at the door turns out to be simply a rain-bedraggled Doctor and company. But when some of the team are later confronted with an apparently ghostly apparition, companion Ryan (Tosin Cole) reassuringly affirms that ‘there’s always an explanation’. Indeed, almost every supernatural occurrence is ultimately attributable to science within the show’s own logic – though the unexplained appearance of a ghostly maid and child throughout the episode forms an amusing exception to this.
Attempting to portray such a broad set of historical figures will always present challenges: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley), Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the social circles they inhabited have been subject to so much research and biography that it’s easy to feel we already know them. Under such conditions, the degree to which dramatic representations will match our existing impression of them is likely to vary for each individual viewer. Alderton steers a careful course here, puncturing the tension inspired by preconceptions of the group as ‘great writers at the zenith of their creativity’ by fleshing her characters out with a range of more earthy human emotions: love, apathy, jealousy, conceit, fear, and so on. Lili Miller is a convincing Mary Shelley, courageous and level-headed in the face of fear, while Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy) is everything one might expect from an aristocratic celebrity poet. Elegant phrases roll off our heroes’ tongues without feeling contrived as they speak of the ‘dust of empires’ and of a vision ‘suspended over the water like a death god rising from Hades’; meanwhile whispered confidences and sidelong glances create an authentic sense of a tight-knit network of friends infused with suppressed emotion.
Even so, this does occasionally feel a little contrived, most especially in the decision to reshape the relationship between Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes) and Byron (Jacob Collins-Levy). The biographical consensus is that Clairmont pursued Byron despite his unconcealed lack of enthusiasm for the affair, yet here Clairmont is presented as an Austenian-style heroine for whom the ‘spell’ of love must finally be ‘broken’ by the revelation of her lover’s unworthiness. Byron is cast as the unappreciative, and occasionally even exploitative, boyfriend, happily hiding behind the woman he is now bored with when confronted with a possible demon: distinctly uncharacteristic behaviour for the fearless youth who kept a bear as a pet at Trinity College and who nursed his own dog through rabies. This flaw is especially disappointing since the presentation of the drama demonstrates so much careful attention to historical detail in so many other areas, including the sets, hairstyles, and costumes – only the Doctor herself remains sadly historically anomalous in the clothing department.
A more serious failing however is the unfortunate narrative prioritisation of Percy Shelley at the expense of Mary Shelley, the writer around whose work this episode initially intends to focus. Mary’s dialogue as she interrogates the cyberman about his origins – ‘are you several men? A composite of parts?’ – implicates the futuristic cyborg as the alternative-history inspiration for the ‘creature’ in her famous novel. Mary’s own input to her legendary character’s development is relegated to a sentimental deduction that the cyberman’s reluctance to murder her child is an indication of a human soul and sense of affection. It’s the kind of fictional revision of history that the show tends to indulge in, and it could have worked well on this occasion had not this erasure of Mary’s creative agency been juxtaposed with the near deification of the artistic genius of her partner Percy, whose survival and continued poetic output are presented as essential components of the universe as we know it. Setting this inescapable flaw aside however, the portrayal of Percy Shelley’s importance as a poet and wordsmith does offer a rare and refreshing assertion of the potential for the written word to dramatically influence the timeline of history. ‘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,’ declares the Doctor, and to this at least the world’s literary scholars can triumphantly cheer in agreement.
Gittings, Robert, Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys 1798-1879 (Oxford University Press, 1992)
Seymour, Miranda, Mary Shelley (Faber & Faber, 2000, repr. 2011)
Sunstein, Emily W., Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991)
 Tiffany Francis, ‘Bears, badgers and Boatswain: Lord Byron and his animals’, https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2015/04/21/bears-badgers-and-boatswain-lord-byron-and-his-animals/ [accessed 30/3/2020]