I do wonder how many more encounters with historical and cultural figures are on Doctor Who’s wish list this year. Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner has, so far, indicated a return to original Reithian principles to ‘entertain, inform and educate’, with takes on Rosa Parks, King James I, Ada Lovelace, and Charles Babbage. In Nina Métivier’s “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” we get two for the price of one, the titular Tesla and his arch-rival Thomas Edison.
Their rivalry is presented as the battle between Tesla, Edison’s former employee, and his ex-boss to corner new markets, as a tale of inspiration versus outright commercialism. Although Tesla was a brilliant thinker and inventor, his ideas struggled to gain backing. While Edison chalked up thousands of patents, Tesla found financing an issue and his ideas about wirelessly transmitting voices, images, and moving pictures, never got off the drawing board or out of his head. Edison’s ideas endured while Tesla’s faded into obscurity and he died, destitute, in 1943. “Night of Terror” marries this theme — an empathetic, conceptual thinker against entrepreneurial business brawn—with scavenging, parasitical scorpion-like aliens the Skithra.
We join Tesla (an effective, often moving performance from Goran Višnjić) as he seeks financing for his wireless power system—the Wardenclyffe Tower—on the back of promoting his first-of-its-kind hydroelectric power plant to the public at Niagara Falls in 1903. His philosophising about “so much more in nature that cannot be seen by the naked eye, forces invisible to us which animate the universe” is perhaps foreshadowing how he’ll soon encounter hidden, extraterrestrial creatures he could never have dreamed of. His notion of receiving an electrical signal from Mars is met with vitriolic scorn by the assembled public, but that’s the least of his problems when one of his technicians is apparently killed by electric shock and he discovers that parts of his apparatus have been stolen.
After further investigation, Tesla and his assistant Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee as a proxy ‘companion’ to Tesla) encounter a strange alien sphere. There are several intruders on the premises, with The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions on the trail of a mysterious signal at the same time a potential investor is shot dead by alien gunfire. I love the way director Nida Manzoor jump-cuts from their escape through a door onto a “perfect getaway vehicle”, in this case a train steaming full speed (literally putting the steam into the steampunk vibe of the episode) to New York City. Manzoor keeps the pace energetic throughout but never lets it overwhelm the episode’s coherence.
Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) are in suitable Edwardian garb for a sightseeing trip that’s suddenly turned into a mission to identify Tesla’s assailant, who can juggle and throw electric current around. The Doctor’s companions, nonplussed by her enthusiasm at meeting “Nicholas something”, are upbraided for failing to recognise this “total genius”. Later, Graham acknowledges Elon Musk’s Tesla cars are named after him but is still unable to state what Tesla was famous for inventing. The Doctor rightly counters that Tesla “dreams up the 20th-century before it happens” with his teleautomatons, shadowgraphs, and transmitting coils.
An intruder breaks up the party before we can get too cosy and director Manzoor then oversees a chase on a moving train (is this a first for Doctor Who, I wonder?) that shuffles the requisite motifs, of fights in train carriages, rooftop pursuers, and frenzied train carriage decoupling, in an enjoyably brisk sequence. With the scavenging nature of their, as yet unseen, alien enemy to be determined, The Doctor identifies the weapon of choice used against them as a Silurian blaster. She also determines that Tesla has brought the alien sphere with him but he and Skerritt refuse to hand it over.
The turn-of-the-century development of New York is again a metaphor for futurism; a city of new technologies and ideas that will forge the modern world, and the consequences of “more people getting rich quick and more poor people than ever before.” It’s also the site of protests against Tesla during what was known as ‘the war of the currents’, as Tesla’s patron George Westinghouse and Edison competed to introduce their lighting systems, with Westinghouse running on high-voltage alternating current (AC) generators, patented from Tesla, and Edison using low-voltage direct current (DC). Interestingly, the protestors regard Tesla as a Serbo-American “foreign lunatic” who does not belong in America, and perhaps this echoes some of President Trump’s recent ‘America First’ diatribes and disdain for the advice provided by his on-staff experts.
Tesla allows The Doctor to examine the sphere and she identifies it as an Orb of Thassor, a relic of an ancient race designed to preserve and spread their legacy long after their demise. Again, this underlines the nature of ideas, their ownership and currency and how they can be appropriated and manipulated for altruistic and profit-making purposes. There’s a lovely exchange between Tesla and The Doctor about the creation of ideas, inventing something out of nothing, and seeing the world differently from others. Tesla remarks that he stills feels like an outsider even after coming to America, a place where he thought he and his ideas could live and prosper. Despite The Doctor’s plea for patience, he receives bad news about the funding for his Wardenclyffe project.
Edison (Robert Glenister from Classic Who’s “The Caves of Androzani”) is branded a “liar and a thief” and the episode sets up their rivalry effectively. He’s public enemy number one and deemed the most likely to want the Orb and sanction the use of alien weapons. Edison’s gruff humour and blunt corporate ambition, epitomised with his name in lights in his busy factory, is shown in direct contrast to Tesla’s sensitivity, underlined in a quiet moment where we see Tesla in long shot in an empty room, contemplating the news about his project before he explains its relevance to Yaz.
The alien sphere springs into life and Edison’s lab is attacked by the mysterious electric current juggler, who wipes out Edison’s employees. Edison’s spy, Harold Green, is also found dead and they determine that someone is using the dead man’s image to cloak their true identity. It’s no longer a battle between Edison and Tesla but a conflict with something unafraid to take lives for its cause and, as a consequence, we briefly glimpse an Edison who genuinely cares about his employees. However, where his solution is to offer more violence, the Doctor argues that this threat needs to be contained and identified. A quick dabble with some chemicals and she has the possessed Harold Green trapped in flames facing some pertinent questions. Alien body horror is a Doctor Who requisite, of course, and amidst the flames we glimpse something rather nasty beneath the human camouflage before hightailing it.
Despite The Doctor’s warning, Tesla and Yaz are transported by the reanimated creatures to the Skithra’s cloaked ship. The Skithra, a race of scorpion aliens led by their Queen (The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Anjli Mohindra), are scavenging parts to repair their ship. Mohindra actually steals the episode and, rather like Sarah Parish’s turn as the Racnoss Empress in 2006’s “The Runaway Bride”, she gives, out of necessity because of being encased in heavy prosthetics, a big but hugely enjoyable performance. Manzoor goes for a plethora of close-ups to emphasise this, only occasionally giving us a full view of the character. She’s brought Tesla to her, after using the alien sphere to look for him, to work on their weapons and ship. Again, her modus operandi recalls Edison’s treatment of Tesla when he hired him to make improvements on his generators, their subsequent dispute and battle for ownership of technological advances. It’s also worth saying that Segun Akinola’s score for this episode is outstanding. It’s full of unusual motifs for the Skithra and offers a decidedly mournful theme for Tesla.
To track Tesla to the Skithra ship, The Doctor and her friends (including Skerritt and Edison) take the TARDIS to Wardenclyffe to find Tesla’s original records of the signals he received from Mars. The Doctor transports to the ship to confront the Queen: “Stolen tech, stolen faces and now all your stolen gear is breaking down. And what d’you do? Steal someone else to fix it.” The Queen would rather scavenge than try and generate her own ideas. It’s also clear to her minions that when the Queen is talking you don’t interrupt her. Tesla was selected because he actually replied to their signal, something he forgot to mention in passing, and the Queen now deems The Doctor surplus to requirement. Fortunately, The Doctor plays for time and, among the bric-a-brac on the ship, finds a flash camera. Smile and say cheese provides enough of a distraction for the Doctor to teleport her, Yaz and Tesla back to Wardenclyffe.
Tesla and Edison’s reactions to the TARDIS are again an indication of their creative thinking. Tesla intuitively grasps the concept of ‘bigger on the inside’ and transdimensional engineering… whereas Edison looks perplexed by it all. You’d have thought by now that these moments would have become rather passé but characters seeing the inside of The Doctor’s time machine for the first time continues to delight. However, there’s more urgent business when the Queen demands the return of Tesla or she and her hordes will destroy the planet and its inhabitants. In a quiet moment of contemplation, The Doctor and Tesla discuss the nuances of cultural recognition and legacy. He feels the failure of Wardenclyffe will mark him as little more than a footnote in history. Reflecting on this, he decides to hand himself over to the Skithra but The Doctor does not see this as his immediate future because Wardenclyffe offers the potential to send the Skithra packing with a giant lightning bolt.
Edison pooh-poohs the idea, triggering a further debate about who owns ideas and who brings them to fruition. Tesla mocks Edison for his lack of ideas, preferring instead to fill “a factory full of men to do your thinking for you. Half of your inventions were thought up by other people.” Tesla is positioned towards the genius end of the scale between genius or billionaire entrepreneur whereas Edison is at the latter. Elon Musk is perhaps a relevant example of this today. RJ Quinn in The Independent referred to him as “a poster child for the Dunning-Kruger effect, where your perception of your own intelligence is inversely correlated to actually how clever you are” and that his “empire is built on a combination of luck, fantasism, gross inequality, and a truly staggering government subsidy package.” Edison’s response is to claim that “All those men, all those inventions. I turn them from a sketch into real things people can buy. That’s how you change the world.” They continue to argue until, inevitably, Graham has to crack that joke, “Oi, AC/DC! You two might be the greatest minds of the age but is there any chance you can stop squabbling while we try and save the planet?”
The last 10-minutes are enjoyably thrilling as the Queen’s scorpion army descends to Earth to begin their carnage and kidnap Tesla. Edison, a man with little empathy towards Tesla, uses the threat of Tesla’s experiments with electricity to clear the streets as the scorpions claw over buildings and stumble their way towards Wardenclyffe Tower, where The Doctor and Tesla prepare to hurl a lightning bolt at the Skithra ship. There is some excellent VFX work here, and while it may not depict massing hordes of creatures, the scenes of them chasing Edison and Yaz down the street or surrounding the Tower brim with threat and danger, particularly when it is revealed The Doctor and her friends will need to hold them off after the TARDIS force field is dropped so that the Tower can power up. However, the plan doesn’t include the Queen popping down to join her troops in battle and, as The Doctor rightly notes, “if I’d known we were going to have a royal visit, I’d have put the kettle on.”
Suffice it to say, The Doctor takes this queen of “shreds and patches” to task. The Queen will have no legacy to call her own as her existence relies upon the efforts of others. It will be as if she never existed. Tricked into taking the impromptu teleport device in the belief that it is a weapon, The Doctor manages to activate it and send the Queen back to her ship. An electrifying experience sends her, her scorpion brood and her ship back into space. In the aftermath, Edison tries to invite Tesla to work for him again but they agree to disagree on Tesla’s future work and as The Doctor points out to Yaz, nothing has changed despite Tesla saving the world with his Tower. His fate of “no money, no fame” remains the same. His idea of a connected world will live on after his death. “I work for the future and the future is mine,” he believes. Sadly, he never saw that future but, in effect, he becomes the Orb of Thassor, imparting his knowledge to future generations. History, while it may have sidelined him, does offer him more than a mere footnote.
Unusually, this ‘celebrity historical’ bucks something of a trend. They don’t always turn out to be the strongest episodes of a typical Doctor Who season. Whether that’s indicative of the quality of Chibnall’s seasons to date is moot but certainly “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” can hold its head high as an above-average entry in the ‘celebrity historical’. It’s well structured, boasts some excellent performances from Višnjić, Glenister and Mohindra, effective creatures, production design and music. Whittaker is again very confident in the lead role but the only set back here is that the three companions get less to do with so much of the story being handed over to Tesla and Edison. Graham is fast becoming defined solely by his witty lines and his interplay with Ryan and Yaz is still a character in search of definition and motive. The companions would benefit by getting the lion’s share of at least one story, one that would give them the emotional depth and resonance both as an ensemble and as individuals.
Cast & Crew
writer: Nina Métivier.
director: Nida Manzoor.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Goran Višnjić, Haley McGee, Robert Glenister & Anjli Mohindra.