The Spool / TV
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” Puts “Doctor Who” Back on Track
Spurned inventors and a chilling villain make for one of the most coherent, moving episodes of Whittaker's tenure.
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Spurned inventors and a chilling villain make for one of the most coherent, moving episodes of Whittaker’s tenure.

After the unmitigated disaster that was “Orphan 55,” I was almost ready to write off Chibnall-era Doctor Who as a lost cause that barely resembled the kind of tight, warm-hearted science fantasy the show could be in its best moments. Lucky, then, that “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” comes along just in time to reaffirm to audiences that yes, this is still Doctor Who at its core, and in the right hands (i.e. with the right script) the current stewards in charge can create a thrilling, heartfelt hour of television — one that doesn’t just offer up a well-paced, whiz-bang adventure but provide a few relevant prods at contemporary issues.

Between “Rosa,” “The Witchfinders,” and “Tesla,” it seems Jodie Whittaker‘s turn at bat works most effectively in the show’s infamous ‘celebrity historical’ episodes — The Doctor and gang meet a famous figure throughout history and save their life (and their legacy) from some kind of nasty alien beastie. Maybe it’s the show’s renewed zeal for tying historical sins to present ones; maybe it’s Thirteen’s wide-eyed empathy and excitement (the one real character trait Whittaker’s been given time to flex in her time in the TARDIS); maybe it’s the go-get-em enthusiasm of Team TARDIS that lends itself well to digging into the feats of history’s most underappreciated names. Either way, when Whittaker’s TARDIS heads to the past to meet a famous face, that’s when the show’s major flaws (a sense of pace as overcrowded as the TARDIS console room) tend to dissipate most.

Goran Visnjic as Nikola Tesla – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

Instead of the million obnoxious subplots that pervaded “Orphan 55”, “Tesla” keeps its focus firmly on the titular inventor (Goran Višnjić, whose turn on NBC’s criminally short-lived adventure series Timeless probably prepped him for this kind of historical romp), whose interception of radio signals from Mars gets the attention of some skittery, scorpion-like beasties called the Skithra. Luckily, the Doc (Whittaker), along with Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill), is on the case, with all the slapdash plans and motor-mouthed exposition that implies.

As history (and The Prestige) have taught us, Tesla is far more than the namesake of Elon Musk’s electric car marketed to (and driven by) exclusively rich douchebags — a contemporary of Thomas Edison, the Serbian-American inventor is the inventor of alternating current (AC), as well as a million other things like mechanical power generation, and some first furtive attempts at remote control. (The ep also tries to pin wi-fi on him, but let’s not throw Hedy Lamarr under the bus too quickly.) But of course, he struggled in his lifetime with controversy, skeptical investors, and — most notably — Edison’s deliberate campaign to discredit and steal his work.

But refreshingly, this episode manages to allow the TARDIS team to breathe and let Tesla, Edison and Tesla’s assistant Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee) take center stage. While Team TARDIS is largely relegated to the background save a few smart quips from our favorite pensioner Graham (“Oi, AC/DC!” he shouts to Tesla and Edison to stop one of their squabbles), the Doctor and our guest stars get distinctive focus, which helps the pace immensely.

Nina Métivier‘s script works best when taking a pause from the alien-chasing action to explore these facets of Tesla’s life, especially when the gang runs up against Edison himself (Robert Glenister), who’s unapologetic about his feelings of entitlement to Tesla’s inventions. “Anyone can have ideas,” he growls. “I make them happen.” But of course, working-class Graham has some insight into the kind of capitalistic opportunism that drove Edison: “Men like you don’t pay a bloke this much attention unless you think there’s a payout coming.”

“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” comes along just in time to reaffirm to audiences that yes, this is still Doctor Who at its core.

It’s all a bit broad, and its fealty to historical truth is just slightly better than Drunk History (quick, no one tell the kiddies about Tesla’s thoughts on eugenics!). But hey, if Who is gonna valorize noted racist Winston Churchill, might as well throw in Tesla too. Of course, these kinds of historical episodes are going to be tough for a kids’ show to cover — like all of us, none of history’s greatest figures are paragons of virtue, and they operated on mores and worldviews we would balk at now — but Višnjić’s deeply earnest, invigorating take on Tesla at least makes for a lovely figure on which to center the episode.

While the villains of the week aren’t super inventive — the Skithra Queen (Anjli Mohindra) feels like a palette-swap of the Racnoss from 2006’s “The Runaway Bride” — they serve as potent thematic parallels to Tesla’s story. Like Edison, the Skithra need Tesla’s inventions, and they’re willing to kill to get them. At the very least, Métivier uses Tesla’s story as a potent rejoinder to modern skepticism towards the value of immigrants and the exceptionalism of the ‘job creator’; people like Tesla should be allowed to create and discover without getting their work stolen out from under them — whether by opportunistic hucksters or alien races who scavenge their technology from other species to keep going.

Given all the show has to juggle, it’s a miracle that this is probably one of the most sensibly-paced hours since Chibnall took over. From a fateful train ride running from spooky radio-controlled zombies to a twisty climax using Tesla’s real-life Wardenclyffe Tower to defeat the Skithra, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” moves at a brisk pace without, for once, losing the script. And yet, for all the bombast, the hour still managed to pull off some valuable thematic beats about the predatory nature of capitalism and the ridiculousness of xenophobia. Season twelve has been a rollercoaster ride, to be sure, but let’s hope the rest of the season is more like this old-fashioned chiller.

Random thoughts:

  • While Edison was still played up as a sniveling villain, I’m glad he got to at least participate as an erstwhile ally in the proceedings (especially when running with Yaz down the show’s 1900s America set, revolver in hand busting caps in alien scorpions).
  • The Doctor’s admonishment of the Queen that all she leaves behind is “a trail of blood and other people’s brilliance” is just… well, brilliant.
  • Another lovely line to Tesla from the Doc: “You’re going to change the world. But first, you have to save it.”
  • The Silurian blaster the Skithra agent carries is a nifty way to a) hint at the aliens’ scavenging M.O. and b) save on budget by using an existing prop.
  • I’ll be busy with the Sundance Film Festival next week (check out our most-anticipated list here), but Beau North will fill in for me. Look forward to her take!

Doctor Who, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” Trailer: