In the fourth episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor collides with Nikola Tesla and a thieving species bent on destruction. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Oh, holy shit, I loved this episode. It’s interesting watching this after “Orphan 55” because the teleplay for this does not do what the previous episode did. Here, there is but a single story with only slight thematic and emotional detours, and because of that, there is so much space for everything to breathe. It is a singular experience, but I think that’s a good thing here. Nina Metivier’s story is sharp, it’s funny, and it manages to dig deep into the emotional well that is The Doctor and Nikola Tesla. What happens when two people who feel deeply out of place because of how they see the world finally get to meet?
Well, you get this.
I couldn’t place where I’d seen Goran Višnić before. It was on Leverage! He was Damien Moreau, but here, he ABSOLUTELY KILLS IT as Nikola Tesla, and I think his performance helps to make this wonderful script even more powerful. There’s a fascinating way that it fits in neatly not just with the character of The Doctor as a whole, but with recent events, too. So much of series eleven was The Doctor forging bravely into the future because… well, The Doctor is a character defined by their past. It’s the whole point of their character in some respects! They stole a TARDIS, they ran away, and they’ve never cared about being respectable (respected, yes, but that’s not the same as respectable), but rather about being good and helpful. And maybe loved here and there, too! There’s a reason for all of that. So after an entire series with only a few moments that felt reflexive on the character of The Doctor, this felt refreshing and exciting.
So, let’s talk about “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.” As a whole, it’s not a terribly complex episode, but as I alluded to, that works in its favor. So does the time period, and I think it was brilliant to choose the point at which Wardenclyffe was built, but was near “failure” due to Tesla’s inability to secure further financing. This was a moment that was rich for the sort of storytelling we got: There was Edison’s and Tesla’s rivalry/feud on display. The Edison Machine Works company was thriving, while Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing was struggling. Tesla was truly imagining the future at a time when so very many people thought he was a fraud and a fool. If I remember correctly, each of the things referenced here as his “creations” or “inventions” were all real, including the death ray.
All of this was used in the episode to build up the life of a man that was way before his time. Which isn’t to ignore that he was a flawed person, or to ignore some of the discriminatory treatment he was subjected to. The show had to simplify things in order to tell this specific story. But through the use of a new species—the Skithra—two very entertaining elements are brought to the forefront, the first being Tesla’s competitiveness with Thomas Edison. I said on video that I remember reading somewhere that Edison was the kind of abrasive like we see here, but I literally cannot back that up with a single source, LMAO. So, let’s assume that’s some of it is one of the fictional elements that Nina Metivier created. The rivalry WAS real, and Tesla really did work for Edison until he went off on his own. And it’s true that Tesla pursued AC power while Edison focused on DC power. The episode highlights the friction repeatedly, but it gets exaggerated for dramatic effect so that Edison refuses to see the truth of what’s happening before. He’s the great skeptic here, the character who refuses to accept much of what’s happening… well, unless there might be some personal gain to be had.
Still, this allowed for an actual character subplot: Edison coming to respect Tesla, not only because the Skithra “chose” him, but because Tesla was willing to believe in the impossible. Interestingly, this doesn’t change the past, which I also thought was a very compelling choice in the story. There are no mindwipes or altering of reality here, despite that the titular Night of Terror brings an alien species to Earth that some people DEFINITELY saw. And Tesla, Edison, and Dorothy Skerritt all got to see inside the TARDIS! So I love the idea that this doesn’t change history, that all three of these people just continued living their lives as we knew it. They went through this scary, otherworldly experience… and it somehow just fit into their lives. I think for Skerritt and Tesla in particular, this makes their stories so fulfilling. The Doctor and her companions likely just inspired them to keep on dreaming.
I also loved the dual parallels!!! That’s the other major element here that really worked for me. As I said early in the review, The Doctor and Tesla find that they can relate to one another as outsiders who don’t seem to fit into the world they were born into. Again, the chemistry between Jodie Whittaker and Goran Višnić was INCREDIBLE, so that helped a lot. But all those times they’re able to let down their guard? That they’re able to be a tiny bit vulnerable with one another? It just BROKE me. (Oh god, so did Tesla asking The Doctor if she’d seen a dead world. YEAH. VERY RECENTLY. YOU HAVE NO IDEA.) But there are also some really wonderful moments between the companions and these historical figures. It was so cool that even though Yaz was ignorant of Nikola Tesla, she still showed interest in him as a person and as a scientist. And how about that scene where Dorothy bonds with Ryan and Graham about how someone who was utterly not boring completely changed their life?
I figured out who I thought the Skithra were, by the way: the Racnoss! You know, back from Donna’s first appearance in “The Runaway Bride”? I just googled the Racnoss Empress and I get why my brain went there. They are vaguely similar? Anyway! Not that important aside from documenting my thought process. I actually liked the Skithra, particularly because their motivation as a species was so straightforward. They are a people who survive solely by one means: They steal entirely out of necessity. Their ship is a bizarre and complicated collection of whatever it is they’ve found to keep it together. Hence, their pursuit of Nikola Tesla: They believe that he is the engineer who could fix it all.
What’s neat here is that the show isn’t saying that you HAVE to invent absolutely everything to be considered good. Hell, The Doctor FREQUENTLY uses other objects and tools to solve her problems, and she literally does so multiple times here. But there’s an undeniable contrast here that The Doctor is keen to point out: The Skithra want to kidnap and exploit someone who has spent his whole life facing difficult and seemingly insurmountable problems. Who also doesn’t KIDNAP PEOPLE in order to solve them! To The Doctor’s sense of morality, what the Skithra do is unfathomable.
Still, I found it very in character that a solution to this not only utilized the entire cast of characters, but it didn’t involve killing off the Skithra. I know that they were all backed into a corner and the stakes were literally EVERYONE’S LIVES, but I was a little alarmed that killing the Skithra and their queen was an option. I mean, I suppose that’s the point, right? The Doctor doesn’t like to kill other lifeforms, and the Skithra queen pushed her to that point. I do wonder if we’ll see them again, though. They disappeared, but is that disappearance permanent? Or will they want to get their revenge?
All things said: I really enjoyed this episode!!! I hope there are more historical fiction-based episodes this series.
The video for “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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