After the uneven Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who hit a creative brick wall last week with the jaw-droppingly awful “Orphan 55”, it just as quickly rebounded this past weekend with arguably the best historical episode of the series to date. Scripted by Nina Metivier, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is, in some ways, a typical ‘aliens intrude upon human history’ DW story, but told with just the right amount of wit, silliness and verve, and terrific performances by Gorin Visnjic as Nikola Tesla, Anjli Mohindra as the Skithra Queen, and Robert Glenister as Thomas Edison.
****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS INSIDE!*****
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.”
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” begins at Niagara Falls, with Nikola Tesla (Gorin Visnjic) is standing by his hydroelectric plant, making his pitch for wireless energy transmission using a prototype tower (similar to ‘wi-fi’ but a century early). His asks for a ‘mere $50,000 investment’ in this new technology (a crazy sum in early 20th century dollars). Would-be investors balk, and one of them mentions Tesla’s crazy obsession with ‘signals from Mars.’ Tesla’s assistant, Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee) interrupts her boss in an effort to dismiss his Mars’ claims, but he doubles down on his Martian claim, scaring off the money men. Brilliant mind, no business sense, as the Doctor will later point out.
Later that evening, Tesla is alone when he a small hovering sphere catches his curious gaze. He takes the device, putting his engineering acumen put to bear on the tiny glowing green sphere. Soon he is pursued by a mysterious cloaked stalker carrying a large alien energy weapon. Tesla is saved by the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) who absconds with Tesla, who’s pocketed the sphere, and the two of them make a mad dash for an express train to New York, where the Doctor’s TARDIS fam are waiting; Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill); all three decked out in period-appropriate early 20th century ensembles.
Soon the cloaked figure makes his way to the Doctor’s car, and the Doctor shoos her companions to the train, while she uncouples the car carrying the mysterious being. A nervous Ryan, who suffers from dyspraxia, is encouraged to leap into the next car for safety. The mysterious visitor falls behind as his car is decoupled…
Safe for the moment, the Doctor soon realizes just who Tesla is (“genius!”), while the others know of the name, but can’t recall his specific contributions. As the Doctor summarizes, “Nikola Tesla dreamed up the 20th century before it happened.” An understatement, as Tesla’s wide-ranging legacy has only recently been appreciated a century late.
Their temporary safety ends as the cloaked figure somehow catches up to their car and breaks in. The Doctor quickly outwits and disarms the cloaked stalker, who turns out to be the reanimated body of a worker who died at the Niagara hydroelectric plant hours earlier. The worker was carrying a stolen alien weapon. She and her companions take the cloaked zombie’s weapon and flee.
The next day, the Doctor and her companions roam the streets of early 20th century New York; of course, nearly none of its present-day iconic sites (Times Square, the Empire State Building, etc) are built yet, but…to Yaz’s delight, Central Park does exist.
The group come across a group of protesters who are against the works of Tesla, who fear his innovations out of ignorance… ignorance which is being fueled by bitter rival Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister), who is still angry at Tesla for leaving his employ, and frankly, for being far more clever. I really enjoyed how this episode addressed the rivalry between the two with a more modern eye towards the underappreciated genius of Tesla. Too many texts I’ve read as a kid virtually ignored Tesla while trumpeting Edison, whose accomplishments had more to do with business savvy and self-promotion than superior engineering acumen.
The Doctor and her companions are headed to Tesla’s lab to gather clues as to why the undead figures seem to be after him. In one of my favorite moments of many in this episode, the Doctor is eagerly anticipating her first visit to Tesla’s lab….until she arrives, and finds it not quite the den of wonders she expected. I gotta say, Jodie Whittaker plays that comic bit to perfection.
In Tesla’s office, the Doctor indulges in a bit of sincere fangirling at some of the ideas of Tesla’s that came to bear fruit in later decades, such as the modern X-ray (“the examining ray”). Tesla, still grateful to the Doctor’s rescue the previous night, delivers to her the object she was looking for when she met him…the green alien orb that found its way into his office earlier. The Doctor takes her sonic screwdriver to examine the device, and Tesla is fascinated by the Doctor’s device…he seems to intuitively understand that it is some kind of energy measurement tool. He and the Doctor get each other… genius to genius. The Doctor identifies the sphere as an ‘Orb of Thassa’, an alien device used for peacefully relaying the culture of its makers. But she soon realizes it’s been repurposed as a spying device.
Soon, the cloaked figure arrives at the main workshop and kills several of Tesla’s workers by electrocution (their deaths can be falsely labeled as ‘accidents’ due to Tesla’s work with electricity). The being then makes its way into the Tesla’s lab, where it is momentarily trapped in a ring of chemical fire by the Doctor. The Doctor and some of the others escape, but Tesla and Yaz are teleported up to an alien spacecraft.
Once aboard the darkened murky ship, they find a race of scorpion like creatures called the Skithra; a hive race controlled by a Queen (Anjli Mohindra, in a deliciously over-the-top performance). Shortly thereafter, the Doctor transports aboard the Skithran ship, and she learns from the artifacts she finds there that the Skithra are a race of scavengers; they acquire stolen technologies from multiple planets that they conquer, but lack the intelligence and patience to use them, hence they kidnap geniuses such as Tesla to serve as their engineers in order to keep their stolen, decaying technology functional.
Much as the Doctor warned the arachnid-Empress of the Racnoss in “The Runaway Bride”, the Doctor warns the Skithran Queen to leave Earth forever or suffer the consequences. Using a portable transmat device not understood by the Skithra, the Doctor saves Tesla and her group and transports them back to New York. Realizing they may need his help in defeating the Skithra as well, the Doctor enlists the aid of Tesla’s rival Edison, and she welcomes the two aboard the TARDIS.
Once there, Tesla is amazed but not too overwhelmed; he once again intuitively understands its trans-dimensional design. Graham issues a comical stern slap-on-the-wrist warning to Edison not to look too closely at the Time Lord technology, since he knows the savvy businessman would wish to exploit it, of course. Once again, Graham gets a funny moment.
The Doctor has a plan to defeat the Skithra, whose vessel is cloaked in the skies directly above Tesla’s Wardenclyffe power transmission tower. Using the Tardis to supply the Tower with a tremendous surge of power, the Wardenclyffe Tower will focus the energy directly into the underbelly of the Skithra vessel, either destroying it or at least warding it away from Earth. If the Queen is aboard the ship and is killed, the Skithra, a hive race, will be rendered harmless. Turns out the Skithra were indeed, Tesla’s “Martians” from whom he was receiving the mysterious radio signals. I’ll admit, when Tesla first mentioned ‘Martians’ at the beginning of the episode, I honestly expected to see the Ice Warriors…
Trying to draw the angry protesters away from Tesla’s lab in order to carry out their plan, the TARDIS companions are pleasantly surprised to see Edison doing his part in helping to draw them away from the coming conflict with the Skithra by ‘warning’ the protesters of a dangerous ‘experiment’ that is about to happen. Their fear does the rest, and the protesters flee post haste.
The Skithra begin roaming the deserted streets, often bumping into and fighting with each other, as their own aggression and stupidity momentarily distracts them from their purpose. I enjoyed seeing aliens whose incompetency was part of who they are, rather than intelligent beings being inefficient because the writer needed them to be. One could see how these creatures would lack the smarts to properly use their stolen tech, let alone carry out a careful search for an individual on an alien planet. Despite their fearsome scorpion appearance, the Skithra are bumbling, comical idiots… much like the mentally deficient Pakleds on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
The Wardenclyffe Tower is charged, and the TARDIS’ pulse is fired through it up to the Skithra’s ship, but the Skithra are not defeated; the Queen had herself transported to Earth for a final confrontation with the Doctor. Yaz, Ryan and Graham fight off the Skithra, who, it turns out, are also quite vulnerable to ordinary early 20th-century weapons (including Tesla’s prototype “Death Ray”). The Skithra vessel, under increasing bombardment by the Wardenclyffe Tower, is forced to flee in retreat. Early 20th century New York is safe… for now.
The following day, as life returns to normal, Edison makes a final offer to Tesla to come back to work for him. Knowing his name won’t be recognized in his lifetime, Tesla still refuses Edison’s offer. Tesla says his goodbyes to the Doctor and her companions.
“Tesla’s Night of Terror” is a dramatic one-eighty from the hodgepodge mess we were served up last week with “Orphan 55.” This is Doctor Who firing on all thrusters again. Nina Metivier’s script is witty, fanciful, historically interesting, and even educational, like the earliest days of 1960s Doctor Who, when the trips through time were also meant to give younger viewers a genuine history lesson or two with their entertainment (“The Aztecs”, “Marco Polo,” etc).
On the entertainment side of things, the casting and performances are a delight, with Gorin Visnjic (reminding me of a younger Kevin Kline) as Nikola Tesla. Anjli Mohindra voraciously chews all of the scenery in sight as the Skithra Queen, and Robert Glenister gives a nice bit of humanity to the less sympathetic rival of the piece, Thomas Edison. Haley McGee also deserves a round of applause in the less flashy role of Tesla’s more grounded assistant Dorothy Skerritt (see what I did there? Grounded? Hehe...). Her frustrated attempts to keep her boss’s feet on the ground prove futile, but not for a lack of effort. The Doctor and her companions are also on their A-game in this episode, and they all look rather handsome in period costumes, especially Mandip Gill’s Yaz, who looks like a passenger ready to book a first-class cabin on the Titanic. Also loved Bradley Walsh’s Graham, who does a bit of comical hand-slapping when the opportunistic Thomas Edison takes his tour of the TARDIS. Tosin Cole has a bit less to do as Ryan, but it was nice to see that the character’s dyspraxia wasn’t ignored yet again in this episode, as it often is when it becomes inconvenient. His hesitancy at leaping from the moving train car was a subtle reminder of that.
To be honest, I’ve had a few issues with Jodie Whittaker’s interpretation of the overly frenetic and often superficial Doctor (similar issues I had with the early days of Matt Smith as well, who eventually settled into the role quite nicely). But in this particular episode (and intermittently in others, such as “Rosa” and “Spyfall Part 2”) has proved that she can deftly balance the heavier moments with the more comical ones. I see her Doctor as a work in progress, and I’m very much rooting for her to succeed. Stylish, colorful and energetic direction by Nida Mansoor is a major plus to this episode as well.
The Tesla/Edison feud is one that has reemerged in the pop culture of late, as the full impact of Tesla’s unsung contributions are beginning to be felt in the wireless wi-fi age. This was a story that was virtually screaming to be adapted into a Doctor Who adventure. Beside being honored as the brand name of Elon Musk’s line of luxury electric cars, it’s nice to see the unsung genius get his due, even if only in a work of fiction (the late David Bowie also played Tesla in 2006’s “The Prestige,” directed by Christopher Nolan).
I’ve had many issues with the maddeningly inconsistency of the Chris Chibnall-era of the series; it often reminds me of the late 1980s-era of Doctor Who, which also featured a few gems (“Remembrance of the Daleks” “Greatest Show in the Galaxy” “Curse of Fenric”) as well as some of the series’ all-time worst (“Twin Dilemma” “Time and the Rani”, and almost anything with Mel in it). The Chibnall era has had that same ’see-what-sticks’ approach as well, but it’s very encouraging whenever a real gem like “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” emerges from the lot. This episode had me smiling ear to ear. I loved every minute of it, and I daresay this was the Chibnall era’s best to date.