Doctor Who’s latest historical Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror welcomed ER’s Goran Višnjić into Team TARDIS in the role of the titular engineering genius. The adventure is far from the first time the visionary Serbian-American inventor (1856 – 1943) has been portrayed on screen, nor the last – later this year, Ethan Hawke will be seen playing Tesla in a biopic from the director of fantastic indie sci-fi Marjorie Prime, Michael Almereyda.
Here’s a jaunt through Tesla’s previous TV and film depictions, noting the historical accuracy or lack thereof in each, and whether or not they exploit the curious fact that Tesla once confessed to having fallen in love with a pigeon…
David Bowie in The Prestige
‘The first time I tried to change the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time? I was asked politely to retire.’
Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film about a pair of competing illusionists (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) embroiled in a deadly game of one-upmanship featured a memorable cameo from David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. In the film, Jackman’s character visits Tesla in his Colorado laboratory to commission the building of an electrical transportation machine for use in his act. Tesla builds the device, but instead of transporting an object or person, it duplicates them, as demonstrated with the presentation of a great many top hats.
Historically accurate? Tesla did set up an experimentation station in Colorado Springs in 1899. The transportation/duplication machine though is not among his many achievements. Ditto for the cloned hats, sadly, or that could have proved a pretty lucrative manufacturing sideline.
In love with a pigeon? Not explicitly mentioned, but this is David Bowie Tesla. He could get any pigeon he wanted.
John C. Reilly on Drunk History
‘Tesla was the electric Jesus.’
The story of Nikola Tesla, as narrated by actor-comedian Duncan Trussell after a six pack of beer and half a bottle of Absinthe (don’t try this at home, kids) on Drunk History is a sweary, vomit-y tale. Between moans and retches, Trussell describes Thomas Edison as played by Crispin Glover as “like, the king of electricity” but also “like, an asshole,” who spent his time electrocuting cows and scaremongering while Tesla (played by John C. Reilly) “discovered the energy to run the World’s Fair” and then “fell in love with this specific pigeon and knew that he would never invent anything worthy of a pigeon.” A startling insight.
Historically accurate? I mean, barring libel action from the estate of Thomas Edison, yes, mostly?
In love with a pigeon? He was coocoo for the coo. It says so right there.
Paul O’Neill in Nikola Tesla And The End Of The World
‘I must be introduced to the Kardashian family’
Ian Strang’s indie web series comprised of short episodes between five and eight minutes tells the story of Sophie Clarke (Gillian MacGregor), a physicist who unwittingly transports Tesla through time into 21st century London. So ensues a low-budget sci-fi that starts as a fish out of water comedy and develops into a much-watched, award-winning transatlantic sci-fi fantasy over its two series. Paul O’Neill plays the man himself with a clipped British accent, trademark centre-parting and moustache. See more about it here.
Historically accurate? Not even trying to be.
In love with a pigeon? Coo knows.
Jonathan Young in Sanctuary
‘Life’s a bitch, and then you don’t die.’
As one of Sanctuary’s The Five (a group of experimental Victorian scientists who injected themselves with vampire blood and each developed superpowers) this version of Tesla clearly isn’t based solely on the facts. Played by Jonathan Young in the 2008 – 2011 Canadian sci-fi, this time the engineering genius is an immortal part-vampire (one of his ancestors was a vamp, so a gene thing happened) with the powers of electrical and magnetic manipulation. He’s good with a quip too.
Historically accurate? Electromagnetic vampire.
In love with a pigeon? In part one of the series finale, he mentions a white dove in New York in 1943 (the year of real-life Tesla’s death, and in the series around the time he was helping the Allied forces win WWII) with great fondness.
Robert Vilar in The Tesla World Light
‘Unite the clocks. Unite the toasters. Unite the world.’
This French-Canadian film short directed by Matthew Rankin shows Tesla on his deathbed, pleading for funding from his former patron J.P Morgan. Using experimental animation techniques, it explores Tesla’s vision for a world unified through electricity for all and the financial hardships he faced as a genius unable to fund his own revolutionary research. It also plays on Tesla’s much-repeated quote about having fallen in love with a beautiful pigeon whom he loves “as a man loves a woman.”
Historically accurate? Rankin says that everything in the film is drawn from something Tesla wrote or said, based on extracts of his letters and interviews, so whirly spinning voids and fizzing electricity effects aside, yes.
In love with a pigeon? Big time. See above.
Goran Višnjić in Doctor Who series 12
‘Me, a lunatic? They wouldn’t recognise genius if it hit them in the face.’
A spot of historical sightseeing for Team TARDIS is interrupted by a weird energy signal that leads the gang to the workshop of Nikola Tesla (the Doctor won’t lie, she was expecting more). Ryan and Yaz have never heard of him and Graham’s knowledge is sketchy, prompting this mini history lesson from the Doctor:
‘Nikola Tesla dreams up the 20th century before it happens. Before you had X-Rays, Tesla had shadowgraphs. Before you had drones, Tesla has automatons. Before Marconi gets the patent for radio, they have to take it from Tesla because he invented it first. His work on alternating currents helps electrify the world.’
Tesla and the Doctor bond over being isolated, timeless geniuses far from home who prioritise ideas over money, and then they fight some aliens.
Historically accurate? The Niagara Falls generator, the NYC workshop, the public protests, the history and conflict with Edison, the scaremongering about alternative current, the $50k invention challenge that turned out to be a ‘joke’, the inventions including the death ray (yes), and the Wardenclyffe Tower parts – all real. The scorpions from outer space, not so much.
In love with a pigeon? Curiously unmentioned.
Hayden Finkelshtain in Super Science Friends
In episode two of Brett Jubinville’s adult animated series about a gang of historical science geniuses, a cartoon Tesla attempts to defeat Thomas Edison, reimagined here as a nefarious energy-stealing bank robber flanked by leotard-wearing goons. The pair’s rivalry goes all the way back to The World’s Fair in 1893, when Edison stole Tesla’s patent, ruined his demonstration and pantsed him in front of the crowd, revealing a natty pair of pink lightning strike-emblazoned boxers. Once electrically charged (by having a balloon rubbed on his hair, static fans), this version of Tesla could fly and shoot electricity from his fingers.
Historically accurate? That’s a no, though the patent rivalry thing I suppose… no, it’s still no. As far as history tells us, Tesla never had sleepovers with Darwin, Einstein and Freud, rode a battle horse, drove around in a Batmobile, or threw lightning bolts at baddies.
In love with a pigeon? There’s a framed picture of a pigeon above Tesla’s bed, so a tick in that column.
Nicholas Hoult in The Current War
‘I will be the greatest provider of electrical power in the world.’
As the story of the rivalry between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) is really only a side player in The Current War. We see him and his ground-breaking inventions from time to time as the other two men race to supply the energy for the Chicago World’s Fair in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s zippy period drama about the early days of electricity. Hoult gives a fairly understated performance as Tesla, whose genius once again fails to translate into financial wealth or great fame – an area in which the other two men succeed.
Historically accurate? There’s some poetic license in play, for instance, there’s no record of Edison and Westinghouse ever having met in real life.
In love with a pigeon? Depicting a younger Tesla, it doesn’t come up.
Dante Cimadamore and Peter Shukoff in Epic Rap Battles Of History
‘So confess/ to your thefts / and let the whole world know / what the Serbian did for the wizard of Menlo.’
Voiced by Peter ‘Nice Peter’ Shukoff and played in the video by Dante Cimadamore, this one reimagines Tesla and Edison as battling rappers spitting rhymes about their professional rivalry. It’s very cleverly done, fluently tackling the revisionist account of events and laying a justifiably furious accusation at the feet of Mr Edison. Also: dancing.
Historically accurate? Entirely. Thomas Edison actually invented the rap battle.
In love with a pigeon? Among Edison’s many taunts are the words ‘go back to your pigeons’, so it’s namechecked.
Honourable mention: Jason Jones in Sesame Street (as Nikola Messla)
Oscar the Grouch takes an online course in Grouchology (what else?) via trash can webcam delivered by none other than Professor Nikola Messla