‘Doctor Who’ 12.04: ‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’

This week on Doctor Tesla, the eccentric inventor meets a time travelling alien doctor…

“An electrifying adventure, in more ways than one…”

This series of Doctor Who is turning out to be something of a quality rollercoaster, far more than Series 11 was. With the charmingly named Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, this week the series was largely back on form, bar the major, recurring drawback of Chris Chibnall’s tenure as executive producer.

Goran Višnjić, the Croatian/American actor/heart throb, late of 1990s super-soap ER (1994-2009), was excellent as the eponymous (real) title character, portrayed here as part showman, part modern magician and part wide-eyed visionary. In 1884, the self-taught Serbian electronics genius and pioneer relocated to the USA, specifically Long Island in New York (where the story was set), where he propounded such revolutionary theories as a “world wireless system” (modern translation: the internet). This would have been his crowning glory, focused through the Wardenclyffe Tower. As the story showed, Tesla ran out of funding before the project could be completed, so it was fitting that what some considered the inventor’s last great folly played a crucial part in the story’s climax, channelling an energy beam to see off the spacecraft of the alien, Scorpion-like Skithra.

Another joy of this episode was the rivalry between Tesla and Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister, excellently sly and opportunistic). Throughout the story, the point was made that while Tesla may have practically defined 20th century electronics, he lacked the business acumen to make his ideas a lasting reality. Edison possessed this acquisitive trait in spades, hiring a factory full of workers to produce new inventions for him, which he then patented. As Edison revealed in a marvellously written piece of dialogue, as an employee of his, Tesla spent a year fixing an electronic generator, only to have the promise of being paid $50,000 by Edison revoked in favour of “a ten-buck raise”. As he memorably put it, the “man just didn’t understand the American sense of humour.” At the same time, Edison clearly envied Tesla’s singular and potentially lucrative abilities, as Team TARDIS’s Graham noted: “you don’t pay a bloke like him that much attention unless you think there’s a pay-out coming.”

After the on-the-nose moralising of last week’s Orphan 55, it was pleasing to see some subtle writing in the parallels between the characters, which were left to the audience to pick up on (or not): Edison’s exploitation of others’ creativity was reflected in the way the Skithra stole and used other civilisations’ technology, while Tesla’s gift for innovation and imagination made him feel “out of place”, characteristics he shared with the Doctor.

Oh yes – you remember the Doctor?

I’m four paragraphs into the review and this is the first time I’ve mentioned Doctor Who’s title character. Višnjić radiated so much charisma and gravitas, completely inhabiting Tesla from the first scene where he talked proudly about his Niagra generators, that – at times – he eclipsed the Doctor. While Jodie was once again saddled with slabs of exposition (explaining the “Orb of Thassa”, revealing that the Skithra were a hive species, describing how the energy would work through Wardenclyffe Tower), Tesla drove the story forward and was allowed almost poetic moments of reflection. OK, he was the focal point of the plot as the Skithra needed him to repair their ship, but when a guest role is getting better dialogue than the lead one, something’s gone a bit awry. No surprise, then, that away from Expositionville, Jodie really shone in her confrontation scenes with the Skithra Queen (a deliciously weird turn by Anjli Mohindra, unrecognisable from her role as Rani Chandra in the Sarah Jane Adventures, 2007-2011). The Doctor’s lyrical observation that the Skithra would leave behind “a trail of blood and other people’s brilliance” is the sort of dialogue she should have had from the get go.

Behind the scenes, new writer Nina Metivier (originator of the online drama Dixi, 2014-17) delivered an intelligent and well-crafted script, where even an ancillary character like Tesla’s secretary Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee, authentic and engaging) was allowed moments of pathos and depth. Metivier played with gender roles, too: Skerritt, a woman from 1900, perhaps predictably always went along with what Telsa wanted to do, while the deciding, dramatic confrontations in the story were between two females unbound by the conventions of the time, namely the Doctor and the Skithra Queen.

The production was also an impressive calling card for new Doctor Who director Nida Manzoor, another graduate of Dixi. Amid the distractions of retro laboratories, a steam train, snarling, red-eyed alien doubles, the disturbing, vivid interior of the Skithra ship and believably lived-in New York streets, she kept focused on the interplay between the characters, to the point where I’d argue that Guest-Star-of-the-Year kudos have already been won by Višnjić. Segun Akinols provided his usual refined soundscape, except for the delightfully off-key touch of the crazy organ music that accompanied the Skithra Queen’s appearances. I’d also like to see that striking blue lighting for the TARDIS interior kept – it’s amazing how much more convincing it makes that set look.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a well told, literate story. The TARDIS crew of Yaz, Ryan and Graham all got at least one good moment and good line (Graham more so, as is usual). While the continuing propensity for ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’ prevented it from getting the blood fully pumping, the episode is easily on a par with, and arguably better than, the historical stories from Jodie’s first year, as the sci-fi content was better integrated.

After the episode finished, I headed to the internet to further investigate Mr Tesla’s remarkable but sadly rather tragic life. It’s nice to think that, on a good day, the original, semi-educational remit of Doctor Who can still work its magic.

BBC ‘Doctor Who’ page | BBC iPlayer Series link

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.

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