Doctor Who: 12-04 “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Nothing lasts forever. Little else is that truer than in Doctor Who, and a run of form between stories. Part of Who’s magic is how easy it is to hop from far-flung future to periodic past, with smatterings of suspiciously Welsh looking quarries in-between- yet that’s also sometimes its biggest downfall. Series 12 is no different, with Orphan 55 bringing that cannon-fire start to a sputtering halt (I was maybe led astray by an entertaining first watch, but it’s one of the weaker, more disappointing Chibnall era stories). Luckily enough that other bread-and-butter Who staple alongside the base under siege, the celebrity historical, has come along to re-electrify Thirteen’s second run- just about living up to the cracker of a title, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.
Tooled up with the show’s second-ever all-female creative duo after last series’ The Witchfinders, director Nina Mansoor and Series 11 script-editor Nina Métivier (who worked together on the BAFTA-winning CBBC series Dixi) prove to be an excellent match. Series 12 has been plagued by pacing problems, so it’s a blessing to enjoy the much more composed- but still energetic- pacing of Tesla (calling it that for brevity’s sake, forgive me). We don’t even get introduced to The Doctor for a few minutes- instead ushering us into Tesla’s (and his secretary Dorothy Skerritt’s, played with curiosity and warmth by Haley McGee) world, with insight on the utter rejection he faces- despite the incredible breakthroughs he is making. Even Segun Akinola’s music gushes discovery- driving home how momentous Tesla was instantly.
Like certain other Who-storicals, this is one with a sad real-life ending- much like Van Gogh, Tesla’s historical significance was only really gained posthumously (more worryingly, Tesla’s most mainstream claim to fame these days is being the name on a relatively unhinged billionaire’s range of cars). And while Tesla doesn’t *quite* come to such a paradoxically soul-crushing but life-affirmingly heart-breaking see-your-accomplishments finale, the appropriate reverence is given to him- another figure plagued by doubters who didn’t understand his brilliance in his own time.
Tesla is played with intense likeability by ER alumni Goran Višnjić. It’s one of the show’s best real-life person turns, bringing the Serbian-American engineer- whose invention of the alternating current (AC) power system in the Gilded Age 1800s revolutionised the 20th century, and the world- to charismatic life. His frustration shows through the cracks, refusing for his ideas to be denied, even against xenophobia. It’s quite refreshing to see him stubbornly shut down The Doctor early on, telling her that he will uncover the mysteries of the story’s MacGuffin himself, such is his will- until Team TARDIS tag along.
That’s the real genius of Tesla– continuing Series 12’s success of finally pitching Jodie Whittaker up against worthy foes or equal intellects, not least this week with a fellow inventor. Thirteen has been established as a tinkerer since her very first outing (which gets referenced!) And it’s always joyous to see her in her inventing pomp- not least as Thirteen has at times, had precious few chances to assert her character traits on stories. Tesla lets her harness that spirit tenfold, from initial adoring fangirling over her fellow inventor through to the climax when she gets to problem-solve quickly on her feet to defeat the threat- Jodie is in her element again throughout, unorthodox solutions aplenty.
The threat in question is the certainly-not-the-Racnoss race known as the Skithra, led by their fang-toothed Queen (Anjli Mohindra, Rani from the much-beloved, dearly missed The Sarah Jane Adventures). Mohindra does her best with a Sarah Parish Racnoss Queen inspired performance, snivelling like a possessive and spiteful child in hammier than ham fashion. The Skithra themselves are a relatively interesting design with red, illuminating eyes peering out of their CG husk bodies, even if they are just space scorpions. One of their gimmicks is the ability to shapeshift, which gives us their most effective scenes- like grasping out of a train carriage shrouded in shadow, or their taken faces looking like they’re melting.
Rather than last week’s incredibly unsubtle relation between the monsters and story, the Skithra at least have thematic workings- even if not the most subtle still. They have workings like that seen in the factory of Tesla’s big rival, Thomas Edison, played with snide practicality by Robert Glenister, returning to Who for the first time since Fifth Doctor send-off The Caves of Androzani. Appreciatively he isn’t a complete baddie either, rather slanderous and antagonistic. The Skithra are a hive mind (well, let’s ignore the one killed for arguing)- faceless drones with a ruler who takes what’s “theirs”, all others doing the work for no recognition. Their arguments align, using others’ ideas and combining them for strength- the importance stressed of Edison having tangible materials capable of being made real, more important than ideas themselves. It’s also relevant to Tesla’s relevance through technology. “You’re a man of parts” he lambasts Edison with, a man owning a factory full of people thinking and working for him- almost like say, a hive mind.
While the conflict between Tesla and Edison is what keeps you hooked ahead of the alien menace, having that historical conflict parallel the invaders gives some thematic unison, and it’s no accident that Tesla and Edison eventually (sort-of) put their differences aside to resolve the danger, while the Skithra still keep in-fighting, letting Yaz and Edison escape. The Tesla/Edison snark-off is engaging, their past laid out- representing the battle of capital versus labour, of casual exploitation by the big boys- Graham even gets to tell a story of solidarity. It’s about vision and imagination over components, which is the soul of Who lain bare- and there’s an irony in it taking an alien race to appreciate Tesla’s ingenuity before his species do.
The inventor’s spark gives Tesla a sense of creativity and fun, making the celebrity appearances feel more integral than just a running gag per se. It helps that the Bulgarian shooting set is immaculately dressed, to draw you into their world. The idea of building something yourself rather than stealing another concept runs through the story, and this team-work creativity gives us one of our better views at how this stacked TARDIS crew can work efficiently- in the climax as they work to foil the Skithra’s goal of kidnapping Tesla to work on their galaxy-burning weapons (love that visual transition from the blueprints of Tesla’s incredible Wardenclyffe tower to the action) all our cast get an active role in driving the plot and their strength in numbers is a benefit for once.
While Tesla still struggles to service our main crew fully, they at least have some moments- even Yaz drives things forward (!) As she partners up with Tesla early on, easing him towards being more open to learning to work together in the joined struggle, and a cute, knowing back and forth about “her” remote control idea. Ryan and Miss Skerritt get a sweet moment sharing their changed worldviews, while Bradders has some typically superb line deliveries and humour with Tosin Cole. Ryan and Yaz continue to need fully centring though, and that concern continues- it doesn’t always feel natural.
Tesla offers up a moving, nuanced portrayal of a trailblazer, more loving than broad pastiche. His moments in the TARDIS are delightful, with his exclamation of “the internal dimensions transcends the external” which gets a fitting “spot-on” from The Doc. He also features in my favourite story visual- standing in the TARDIS after the Skithra are repelled, with those glorious new lighting changes- an exhausted, but ultimately triumphant genius. A nice visual metaphor for the man himself.
It’s another story with a troublingly muddled morality though, with The Doctor’s rather easily convinced (and quite violently described) resolve to kill the Skithra- despite having told Ryan “no guns!” earlier. If the ever-developing darkness continues though, this could be a well-placed character moment (a mention of dead planets gets a stern rise out of her). However, the lack of a mind wipe on Tesla and Edison, just two episodes after Lovelace and Khan had the treatment (unwillingly, in one case) done to them, is strange. While the show is usually quite blasé on the matter, so soon after those cases make it feel a bit iffy- even if Tesla hadn’t learned about his personal future as our two heroines had. It still reads off.
Tesla is appropriately venerated by his grace note, his relationship with Edison is wrapped up in bittersweet fashion as two men on different paths. Tesla’s claim that he belongs to the future is tinged with poignancy given his penniless, acclaim-less death, but that doesn’t matter- as The Doctor says, no matter what anyone says, history doesn’t change what he’s done. “Don’t give up” she tells him, and as he waltzes away, he is assured in himself that he will bring the change. And he does, even if it is long after his death. The ideas- of the world wireless system, radar, remote control- will survive forever.
After comparing Orphan 55 to plain Victoria sponge last week, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (one last time, fine) is that but with lashings of cream and jam inside, finished off with a cherry on top- nothing particularly outstanding, but immensely more satisfying. It’s maybe not as accomplished as Series 11’s historical outings and it’s a mixed bag for the companions again, even if it does the legwork to have them all at least relevantly involved at some level. But Tesla slots comfortably and proudly into the canon of well-executed, pathos-filled Who stories featuring famous faces from the past, as a well-paced, confidently acted (especially by a terrific Whittaker/ Višnjić inventing double-act) and thoroughly enjoyable visit to one of history’s most influential, but perhaps not as well-known, figures. Next week, another wild swing in story direction as the Judoon return, to stomp through modern-day Gloucester (only you Who, only you).