Can you feel it coming in the air tonight? There’s Nikola Tesla, a big tower, some scorpions, scare-mongering, Niagara Falls, Rani from The Sarah Jane Adventures, red-eyed demons, a stolen possibly-alien-but-not-exactly-ish gun, mood lighting in the TARDIS, and Salateen from Caves of Androzani.
That was Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, and in his review, Rick Lundeen said:
“This wasn’t the Doctor showing off again (“Hey, I can introduce you to Shakespeare!”). This was a story where you actually learned something interesting you may not have known before, not a case where they bludgeon you over the head about the very well known subject of climate change. I equate Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror to a more successful attempt than Demons of the Punjab last series.
“Although Demons hamfistedly wedged unnecessary sci-fi into that story, I was totally unaware of the Partition and really appreciated being educated a bit about it. Same thing here, learning more about Tesla but with an overall better and more well integrated sci-fi product. I’m all in favour of learning if it’s presented properly and not shoved down my throat. Here, I feel it was presented nicely. I credit Nina Metivier, as yes, there was subtlety and nuance here.”
I set up a force-field around DWC Towers so no one could escape. Some contributors nonetheless ran (I think we’ve trapped some in the ladies’ loos, but I’m forbidden from entering, so I guess I’ll have to set up a tent outside and wait patiently), but I tracked a few down and asked them what they thought of the story…
I approached this episode without any preconception. But what I took away from this was that at least the programme is now pointing in the right direction. It was a good old fashioned adventure featuring historical figures who help defeat the aliens. It looked good, the monsters were mildly scary, it ran at a fair pace, and the guest stars all did a good turn. Solidly average would be a good description. It wasn’t without its problems, but then most episodes have something to nit-pick over. With Tesla’s Night of Terror, it was the awkward edit at the end when the incidental music crashed into the theme tune.
The trouble was when it was all over; I just felt that, even though I’d just enjoyed a large meal, I still felt hungry. I wracked my brains as to why this was the case and it occurred to me that it was all so unemotional. No one reacts to their situations, except verbally. As has been pointed out before, it’s a long way from that moment when Bill needed a toilet break after her first trip in the TARDIS.
But despite all this, I am still trying to be optimistic. I like to think that the programme is generally getting better: it’s moved on from the terrible Series 11, but hasn’t quite gotten into its stride yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
To be honest, I never heard the name “Nikola Tesla” until reading the details about the titular episode in 2019. On that note, I wish they had replaced the “Night of Terror” title, with something more original, as it sounds too close to a certain Series 6 episode. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to learn quite a lot from his creativity overall – in 50 minutes.
A definitive improvement from last week, with a complete change of setting and period. The early 20th Century explores the scientific developments and rivalry of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, something I wasn’t aware of beforehand. I couldn’t be more impressed with Goran Višnjić’s portrayal of the titular character, even though I haven’t seen much of his work. And with Robert Glenister, 36 years after The Caves of Androzani, he brilliantly nailed it with the American accent.
What also fascinated was Anjli Mohindra’s performance as the Racnoss-like Queen Skithra, a complete contrast to portraying Rani in The Sarah Jane Adventures. (Aren’t these species supposed to be related, considering their similar characteristics?) One thing to point out, she and Bradley Walsh previously made their debuts in the same spin-off, with the latter being unable to recognise her with all that makeup. Such a funny coincidence, right?
I know many of us fans have been hyped about callbacks and story arcs, including the Master’s shocking return, but I was really pleased with the Silurian blaster (albeit with green lasers, instead of red) playing a key role in the Skithra’s scavenging agenda. Was it Chris Chibnall’s idea to feature it, considering that he’s written a few Silurian-oriented episodes during Matt Smith’s tenure? With only 6 episodes to go, I think we’ll be in for more surprises and Easter eggs like never before…
Fans of Doctor Who have certain expectations that are difficult to express. No matter how much we claim that it is “the show that can be anything”, we tend not to like it when it deviates too much. We treat Doctor Who like comfort food or a security blanket. Something we can settle down with to lift our mood or take our minds off day to day living. We want it to have a certain tone, hit certain emotional spots, and we don’t want our expectations too subverted across the hour or so we spend with it.
For me, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror got closest to that feeling of comforting Doctor Who-ness of any story since Chris Chibnall became showrunner. Not a classic by any means, but as a solid, mid-season celebrity historical I thought it worked rather well.
The rivalry between Tesla and Edison was entertaining and we were treated to some factual history without it feeling forced upon us (something this era has been guilty of on several occasions). The villain, the Queen of Skithra, was delightfully camp, echoing Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan (from the Beeb’s other sci-fi show, Blake’s 7) and any of the “special guest villains” from the 1960s Batman TV show, and we even had some running up and down corridors (okay, they were train carriages, but you know what I mean).
A lot of people are commenting on how improved Doctor Who feels this year, and judging by the first four episodes I can see where they’re coming from. By the end of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, I felt I had watched a reasonable episode of my favourite television programme. For 50 minutes or so I had escaped the real world, comforted by my Doctor Who security blanket. Can we really ask for anything more from a TV show?
I have a question for the floor. Why is it that, whenever Number Thirteen meets anyone famous, it takes half the episode for the penny to drop? Mistaken identity often enhances a narrative, but it jars when the pudding is overegged. Are we really supposed to believe that there isn’t a visual dictionary in the library, or that no one checks the readouts to see when and where they’ve actually landed? It’s happened twice this year, once with Ada Lovelace and once with the pioneering inventor who graced last Sunday’s episode, and on both occasions the audience has been quicker on the uptake than the Doctor – who manages to wander into and escape from the Niagara Falls power station without having a clue that she’s in the presence of the man responsible for building it.
I’m not going to say that’s my only hang-up with this episode – we could also talk about the historical revisionism, the TARDIS crew’s apparent apathy to new wonders and situations, and the sub-par villains (honestly, when did Doctor Who monsters get so dull?) but this was, perhaps, the first time this year it’s felt like we were actually watching the show as it used to be, for better or worse. Here’s a litmus test: you remove Whittaker from the equation and you substitute another Doctor and it still works. In this case, it’s quite easy to imagine Tesla happening with Tennant at the helm, perhaps in the company of the perennially clueless Martha. Certainly the story has that vibe to it: a world on the brink of destruction, the tortured nature of misunderstood genius, and the hungry prejudice of a placard-carrying mob.
We might question why the Skithra opted for Tesla, rather than someone who’s actually going to understand the technology they’re throwing at him, but this was never really about them: it’s about Tesla and Edison and the rivalry between them. That Tesla is whitewashed while Edison is made something of a pariah should come as no great surprise to anyone, but it’s to Nina Metivier’s credit that she avoids turning the light bulb pioneer into an out-and-out villain: Edison gloats and generally behaves rather selfishly, but he also expresses remorse over the loss of his staff (“These were men with families!”), he doesn’t cut and run, he doesn’t try and sell out Tesla to the villain of the week, and at the end he extends a hand of friendship, even if he’s only following the money. A well-rounded supporting character. In Doctor Who. And there was me thinking we’d left those days behind.
Series 12 has been a great improvement over Series 11, and my entire family has agreed with me – we even liked last week’s Orphan 55. But this one spoke to me on several levels.
First, I loved the historical in Doctor Who. Some of Doctor Who’s best moments from the early years are the historicals (I’m looking at you, Aztecs). Now I’m not putting this with the best of all time, but there was a LOT to like here.
First off is the performance of Goran Višnjić as Nikola Tesla. It’s obvious he’s a very good actor, and my best example of that is this. Here in the states, most people know him as Dr. Luka from ER, and I have to admit when they cast him, I thought “Hey, the ER guy is in Doctor Who”. When I so identify an actor with a role, I generally see that other character in the new performance. Not here. I didn’t see any of Dr. Luka in Nikola Tesla. That’s a major credit to Višnjić. Very nuanced performance I thought.
Speaking of actors, I got a kick out of the fact that the actor playing Thomas Edison was in Doctor Who before; he was the android Salateen in Davison’s masterpiece, The Caves of Androzani. I didn’t recognize him at first, but when I rewatched knowing that, I could see it.
Another actor I liked here was Anjli Mohindra, more known in the Doctor Who universe as Rani Chandra from The Sarah Jane Adventures. Her character didn’t give a lot of chance for emoting, she basically was screaming everywhere. But it was fun “seeing” her again! A word about her costume. While the face was quite well done, the rest of her body wasn’t; I thought after having most of her minions be scorpions, she didn’t look much like one herself, and I thought perhaps that’s why so many shots of her were extreme close-ups on her face, perhaps to hide the overall outfit? Also, I did enjoy the concept of an alien race that doesn’t have their own tech, just goes around stealing stuff and using it. The scorpion pirates!
The story in general did what a good historical does. Play with known facts, teach you a few things, and have some fun along the way. I didn’t know everything about Tesla that was laid out in this episode, so that was cool to see.
I loved when Telsa was inside the TARDIS that he wasn’t doing the wide open mouthed thing that most people do when they go in for the first time. I thought perhaps with the characters background in this kind of thing that he would have blurted out “It’s dimensionally transendental”, but alas, no.
An intersting comment on the scorpions. While well executed, they seemed significantly smaller on the ship when there were more of them. Towards the end of the story when we got to Earth, they seemed significantly larger – I thought the scale was off on the ship, but they looked really good. That’s a common theme in Whittaker’s era – everything looks really good. That’s not a condemnation – I really do like the look of this Doctor’s era.
Of the regular cast, I thought Whittaker was good – if not as good as the Spyfall episodes. Graham’s track this series seems to be more comedy than the angst he had in his first series. That’s not explicitly bad, but I don’t want to see him turned into a buffoon. Ryan and Yaz? Still pretty eh – and Ryan in particular seems to be not doing much of anything important this series.
Overall though I really did like the story a lot. Thought it was well paced, I had fun, and there weren’t any glaring errors. Some of my compatriots here likely won’t think so based on the immediate reactions I read when we messaged each other, but hey. Am I too easy to please? I can’t say, but I can say I enjoyed this story a lot.
I’m afraid I didn’t like it much, even though it was good to see the return of Salateen. There seems to be an emerging consensus that Series 12 is better than the nadir of its predecessor; I’d love to be able to agree but I can’t, really. Rani’s threat to blow up the Earth was cliched and Jodie was incapable of selling it to us by her reactions. The TARDIS crew remain one of the most uninteresting in the show’s history.
Following the leak of Dominic Cummings’ vitriolic policies about the BBC, we should be genuinely concerned that the corporation is facing potentially its biggest crisis. Even if the licence fee were to remain, Doctor Who may be cut to save costs (they’ve already had to cut funding for flagship programmes like Today on Radio 4, which the government hates with a passion: status is shown to be no barrier against the axe — or at least the salami slicer). We may be in for another Michael Grade moment. If it be not now, yet it will come. May. May well.
For Doctor Who to survive, the licence fee needs to be secure and the show needs to up its game so that it becomes un-axeable.
What we have is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma (and 0% credit for stealing the line).
The Riddle is, of course, about Tesla; how can a man of such great ideas, invention, and innovation not actually make it in the world? There was such a genius, augmented in our world by the Doctor, and yet to all intents and purposes, is a failure. Even our scriptwriter could not fathom that one.
The Mystery is what the real point of the story was. We have an alien scavenger (wearing the Empress of Racnoss’ headgear) needing Tesla to ‘fix her ship’… and willing to kill to get it. Really did not understand the gist.
The Enigma is, of course, that his interaction with Edison as witnessed (great acting from Robert Glenister) has a similar dating problem as UNIT stories. The Wardenclyffe Tower was at its visually seen height in 1902 yet Edison had already sold his Edison Illuminating Company a year earlier!
Final Verdict – episode four – Some good roles but really nothing new or inspiring.
Another mixed bag, it seems, though generally more positive than previous episodes, I’d say.
Next time: Wo ho blo to cho so sho go lo plo tro co flo so to flo ro so ho kro ro flo sho flo vo flo ro sho do plo no flo sho to plo sho yo plo tro spo?