Series 12 Episode 4 19/01/20. Doctor Who stories set in the past tend to work better when they focus on a lesser known individual rather than renowned figures like Dickens or Queen Elisabeth as they can avoid the caricature and instead provide an insight into the person. Thus it proves in the tongue twistingly titled `Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror`. It is surprising he’s never been the subject of an episode before as his work is very much the kind of thing the Doctor would- and does- admire while Victorian machinery always looks great on tv. The pioneer of many of the innovations we take for granted today comes under the spotlight in a fast moving adventure that includes the educational content that has made a return under Chris Chibnall’’s stewardship. Unlike some of this Doctors’ previous lectures though this is an interesting topic.
Spoilers past this point
As they might have been better doing for `Orphan 55`, the Doctor is already out and about in nineteenth century New York allowing a satisfying establishing of Tesla’s story before she pops up. Played with the magnetism of a magician by Goran Visnjic the Tesla we meet here is a genius badly in need of finances. His Alternative Current power has had a decidedly mixed reaction some of which appears to have been stirred up by rival Edison who is developing his own version; Direct Current. And, yes, someone does say “AC DC”. Its Graham of course! Meanwhile Tesla is being pursued by a hooded being with a weapon most definitely not from 1903; it is in fact identified by the Doctor as a Silurian gun- cue alert fan ears! No, they’re not in it by the way. This scenario plays to what seems to be a visual favourite of this era of the programme- lots of heavy looking metallic machines, wires, cords and static aplenty. It certainly adds a solid realness to matters because you can sense real power thanks to the look and the sound effects. The episode definitely puts over the achievement of these inventions with knowing looks from the Tardis crew at some of the speculative ideas Tesla mentions.
Nina Metivier sketches her characters strongly inspiring good performances all round. She even manages to find a bit more for the companions to do though even here there are stretches where they are little more than passengers. Given an unusually high prominence for a guest character Goran Visnjic makes Tesla a driven visionary whose panoply of inventions comes from inspiration. It’s a consuming performance and well written from that point of view. The script also puts across well just how Tesla’s innovations were templates from which much of the future technology was shaped. Its just a pity that the script chooses to paint a less flattering portrait of his rival
Edison gets a bit of raw deal in this storyline and is painted as an antagonist and entirely from Tesla’s point of view as an opportunist businessman with a lab full of technicians doing all the work while he takes the cash. The real Edison- whose serious hearing problems led him towards his innovations in sound – was according to various accounts far more talented in his own right than this episode makes him appear. To be fair we do see a more considerate side to him later on. The inventors’ rivalry was real enough though and has been widely referenced including the films The Prestige and The Current War. Here, an abridged summary is definitely on Tesla’s side presumably to focus on his overlooked ideas. Returning to the series for the first time since 1984’s `Caves of Androzani`, Robert Glenister gives a strong performance as Edison.
There is something familiar about the Queen of the Skithra, the giant scorpion like race who seem to scavenge their way around the Universe. It is pleasing that this series has returned to the hordes of monsters to which the Skithra make a worthy addition. However their Queen’s appearance and the tone of Anjli Mohindra’s energetic performance seem so close to that of Sarah Parris’ Racnoss Empress from 2006’s `Runaway Bride` that a glimpse in the trailer led to rumours of that species’ return. Nothing wrong with re-using prosthetics of course its just that the latter is a well remembered performance and here they seems to replicate the same tones while director Nida Manzoor even shoots her face from the same angle.
The one flaw with the race- which turns out to be unnecessary anyway- is that they are that old sci-fi standby - a hive race. In other words, kill the leader and they all die. Handy for script writers to wrap things up but if they are of a hive mind why do they keep colliding into each other when let loose on the streets? I’m not sure the Skithra are the right monsters for this story which would actually better suit the single extra- terrestrial antagonist who needed electricity for some reason and perhaps would be able to persuade Tesla to help on the promise of his much needed funds.
The vigour of the episode makes it exciting throughout and balances the characters with tense moments involving the possessed technicians. The locale is well shown off by Nida Manzoor and a muted colour palette that makes the static seem slightly heightened . Matters culminate with a cracking final sequence involving a huge metal tower and plenty of scuttling Skithra. It would have been a bit more satisfying had Tesla himself contributed more to the resolution than becoming a surrogate companion. Generally the modern series does seem to struggle to balance the extremes of either the Doctor encouraging from the sidelines or else sorting out everything. Also I wonder why none of the characters were given a memory wipe as happened in `Spyfall`; perhaps the Doctor thinks they can cope with the shock better?
There’s a lot of `fact` to take in which will definitely necessitate a second watch as the script seems the richest of this year’s series so far fairly balancing the need for excitement with the rewards of factual content. Less showy than `Spyfall` and with subtler messages than `Orphan 55` this is one of those episodes we’ll likely come back to when the thrills of those others have faded.