This review contains spoilers after the squirrel.
12.4 Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror
Nikola Tesla possibly invented the teleporter and looks exactly like David Bowie. This should be common knowledge, but for whatever reason, this week’s Doctor Who chooses to ignore the events of totally-factual movie The Prestige and instead depicts Tesla as a struggling inventor in period America whose ambition and intellect far exceed his bank balance.
Yes, Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror is the first proper historical episode this year and sees the Doctor fangirling over an encounter with a famous face from the past – a format that’s as familiar to veteran viewers as last week’s ‘base-under-siege’ adventure was. This is the kind of story that can be helped along enormously by the effort put into whichever influential figure the Doctor and her companions are due to bump into – a nuanced portrayal of that person can give us something moving like Vincent And The Doctor while a broad, breezy pastiche serves us up something more forgettable like The Shakespeare Code.
It’s good news on that front, as Goran Višnjić steals the spotlight this week with his portrayal of Tesla; the inventor is depicted as likeable and charismatic, but also stubborn and, frankly, exhausted. He’s got good on-screen chemistry with almost everyone, including Jodie Whittaker, with whom he shares a lot of screen time. It’s been a long time since Doctor Who dipped back into history without also dragging some monsters along for the ride, though, and the mandatory alien threat is nowhere near as interesting as the human characters we’re introduced to, which means the episode is a bit of a mixed bag overall. Let’s nudge Daphne the squirrel aside and talk spoilers…
There’s no cold open this week, so after the titles we jump straight into the company of Tesla and his secretary Dorothy Skerrit as they come under fire – first from angry locals who believe that Tesla’s inventions are dangerous, and then from a hooded assassin with a laser blaster. We stick with Tesla and Skerrit for a good few minutes before the Doctor arrives, which gives us a chance to see what kind of person Tesla is when he’s not being shot at.
If you don’t know anything about Tesla’s non-fictional accomplishments, you certainly will by the time the episode’s over. The show’s revitalised commitment to educating as well as entertaining sees the Doctor rattling off Tesla factoids to her companions like she’s rehearsing for a guest spot on QI’s T series. Though some of the info-dumping feels a bit forced, a lot of it is surprisingly pertinent to the plot, especially when we arrive at the Wardenclyffe Tower project that dominated Tesla’s later life.
What’s noticeable is that while the episode (penned by Nina Metivier, who worked as a script editor on Series 11) goes to great lengths to introduce us to Tesla and his visionary ambitions for electricity, it also drops in fellow inventor Thomas Edison with far less of a fanfare. “Everybody knows” Edison invented the light bulb, Graham tells Yaz, but there’s little reverence shown for his contributions to the world here.
Instead, Robert Glenister (returning to Doctor Who for the first time since The Caves of Androzani, fact fans!) is cast as a dour businessman who takes credit for other people’s hard work and puts profit ahead of progress. Edison was a renowned taskmaster, but this is an oddly unsympathetic portrayal, especially when contrasted with his ‘rival’ Tesla. He’s not quite as unlikeable as the Trump-esque hotel owner in Arachnids In The UK, but he comes close at times. Even Graham takes an instant dislike to him.
Does Edison’s surly attitude make it more likely that he’s in league with whoever trying to zap Tesla? The Doctor certainly thinks so, at least until the true villains are literally unmasked and revealed to be the scorpion-like Skithra, who are mucking around on Earth in holographic disguises having bumped off the people they’re masquerading as.
The Skithra are shown to be a race of alien scavengers who take everything they want by force because it’s easier than being creative and inventing things, an attitude that the Doctor finds rather pathetic. You’d think that seeing an entire species behaving in this way might lead Edison to a hand-wringing revelation where he learns the error of his glory-hogging ways, but thankfully this episode is far more subtle when conveying its themes than last week’s Orphan 55.
Subtlety, however, is not a descriptor that can be applied to the Skithra Queen. She’s played by Anjli Mohindra (Rani from Sarah-Jane Adventures, fact fa—all right, I’ll stop) and at some point along the way, someone seems to have found a copy of The Runaway Bride, spotted the Queen of the Racnoss and declared “everyone ruddy loved that character, let’s do her again!”
When the Queen was glimpsed in promotional material, there was speculation that the Racnoss were returning in the same way as we’re seeing the Judoon next week because the creature designs are so similar. On top of that, Mohindra plays her character pretty much exactly how Sarah Parish performed back in 2006 – the snarling, the head tilts, all of it. It’s a bizarre choice to duplicate prosthetics and a performance that many fans panned the first time around, especially when it’s only the Queen who shares the Racnoss aesthetic – the rest of the Skithra are ‘just’ slightly-dodgy CG scorpions.
Tesla is top of the Skithra’s shopping list, as it turns out, and they plan to abduct him and have him create weapons and other villainous things for them. They seem pretty well-armed as it is, though, and threaten to wipe out New York City using their cloaked ship if Tesla doesn’t surrender himself. The Doctor’s response is to rig up Tesla’s half-finished facility to zap the Skithra ship and KO the Queen, because they’re a “hive species” and that will cause all of the others to collapse, too.
Even by Doctor Who standards, a series that once gave us time-travelling Christmas Trees, this feels a bit left-field. We spend time with the Skithra and don’t get any sense that they have a hive mind, and in fact one of them gets executed by the Queen for interrupting her. Later on, two Skithra crash into each other while chasing Yaz and Edison – Borg, they most certainly are not. It’s as though the episode has set up a confrontation that it’s now struggling to find a tidy resolution for, and it’s one of the reasons the second half falls a bit flat. For all his creativity, Tesla is reduced to pushing the button that enacts the Doctor’s plan rather than taking the lead and solving the problem.
The Skithra Queen may be a reheated Racnoss and she’s dispatched in a fairly clumsy way (what’s stopping her from coming back when she regains consciousness and trying for Tesla again?), but it’s the human interactions that are the meat and potatoes of this episode. Ryan, Graham and Yaz all have some good scenes together, and Yaz in particular serves to soften our perceptions of Edison when they team up for guard duty halfway through. The only character who feels a bit superfluous is Dorothy, who spends most of the story primly trailing along behind a surprisingly chilled-out Ryan and an unusually grumpy Graham.
The number of companions crammed into the TARDIS these days has often been a cause for criticism, but there are two small moments this week that hint at some of the possibilities a larger main cast can offer. The first is the Doctor’s sudden realisation that even if Tesla won’t voluntarily surrender the Orb of Thassa she knows he’s swiped, she and her companions actively outnumber him and Skerrit – they can go on the offensive for once and bully their way into his life, taking it in turns to guard him if needed. (Mind you, the Doctor gets distracted by the prospect of Tesla’s laboratory not five minutes later and lets him walk right out of the door, but in theory…)
The second moment is the heist-like montage near the end of the episode, as the Doctor and co. prepare for what turns out to be a fairly limp battle with the Skithra. It’s fun to watch the companions splitting up to go and act as part of a larger scheme, as the added pairs of hands give the Doctor more scope to think her way out of situations with unorthodox solutions by effectively being in several places at once. Scenes of teamwork like these help justify having such a packed police box, so let’s hope we see more of them.
Team TARDIS aside, the standout performance remains Tesla – even if he is presented much like a historical Tony Stark at times, such is the intensity of the Doctor’s gushing. When he ran out of money, the real Tesla spent his final years moving from hotel to hotel and leaving unpaid bills behind him, but this episode glosses over that sad end to his life in order to present a portrait of a man whose ideas for wireless power and information transmission were decades ahead of their time. Although it’s not as impactful as Rosa, this is another historical outing for the Thirteenth Doctor that shows us that the show can introduce us to some truly remarkable humans, even if it doesn’t always know what to do with its aliens.
Read Chris’ review of the previous episode, Orphan 55, here.