Well, Jodie Whittaker’s TARDIS fam sure are spoilt for company. With the abundance of company in last week’s ‘Orphan 55’ fresh in our memories we’re already thrust into the 1900s for a Nikola Tesla story that seems oddly prescient considering the recent release of The Current War. As far as historical figures on the show go however, it’s a pleasant surprise to have a screenplay from last series’ script editor Nina Metivier that fleshes out character… even if it might come at the expense of an alien threat. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’ begins in Doctor-lite fashion, allowing the audience to live and breathe the 1900s as Tesla himself struggles to find financial backing for his work. Goran Višnjić instantly wins us over with a heartfelt and touching portrayal of a man whose eyes widen at the prospect of the new, whilst his assistant Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee) is unfortunately left to the sidelines most likely due to time restraints. These brief minutes without The Doctor flow through his struggles in the lab late at night with a restrained confidence and some of the most efficient characterisation the show has seen in Chris Chibnall’s stint as showrunner. It’s when Tesla stumbles upon a floating green orb and begins to be hunted down by a mysterious masked figure that typical Doctor Who tropes begin, and soon enough The Doctor has whisked Tesla and Dorothy onto a train to safety.
The initial meetup between Tesla and the fam is kept brief, as is most of Yaz, Graham and Ryan’s interactions throughout the entire episode. The show’s insistence on adding more cooks in the kitchen doesn’t do it any favours, but ‘Night of Terror’ wisely chooses to keep The Doctor and Tesla himself at the forefront. After discovering the masked figure to be an alien assassin in human disguise, The Doctor begins to wonder why Tesla is being targeted and demands to see his laboratory. I’ve spoken before about Chibnall’s wish to bring back some of the educational elements back into play during his reign as showrunner, here it’s down to the companions to fill in the blanks with various questions about Tesla’s projects and their modern-day counterparts. If you weren’t sure who the man was beforehand, Doctor Who will be more than happy to fill the blanks. I’m thankful it doesn’t feel too heavy-handed either. Some of last series’ historical episodes began to feel preachy- and to some extent boring; here many of the inventions are delivered through the use of Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) one-liners.
For all its instructive purpose, the episode falters in a narrative sense. After discovering Tesla is wanted by a hive-mind of scorpion-like aliens named ‘Skithra’ who dwell in a broken-down invisible ship hundreds of feet above the city, the episode introduces none other than Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister). Edison is treated with contempt from the get-go as a ruthless businessman who has lost the spark of creativity and now secludes himself within the world of business. Glenister snarls and holds his nose up to Višnjić’s Tesla at every possible opportunity – this is far from a glamorous portrayal and is more in keeping with the recent notions of him being a money-hungry mogul.
The Doctor transports herself, Tesla and Yaz onto the Skithra’s ship where they meet the Queen played by Sarah Jane Adventures alum Anji Mohindra. When the Queen herself was first glimpsed in the show’s trailers, fans alike expressed joy at the return of The Racnoss, previously seen in ‘The Runaway Bride’ due to their similarities in appearance and performance. Yet whilst a single line to explain such similarities, even something like being a sister species (like Raxacoricofallapatorius is to Clom), would stop the feeling of unease yet it appears as though this is too much. It’s an odd choice too, considering that Mohidra’s performance includes the exaggerated movements and snarls that Sarah Parish did all those years ago. The two are almost identical and it’s only the cluster of CGI scorpions that separates them.
After finding out the Queen wants Tesla to fix her ship (or else!), The Doctor and co. refuse and instead think of a plan to thwart the oncoming barrage of (incredibly slow moving and clumsy) aliens. It’s here where more historical facts come in handy, as Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower becomes a beacon for energy that the heroes can use to… kill the queen and therefore her entire fleet. This is another strange problem I have with the episode. The Doctor fleetingly insists that Ryan puts down a Silurian (namedrop) blaster at the start of the episode, yet her plan involves the destruction of the aliens altogether. There’s not even a traditional scene of The Doctor offering to bargain with the creatures. Just scene after scene of exposition and historical facts that’s beginning to summarise Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor unfortunately.
Now that we’ve caught a glimpse of what Whittaker can do in the role thanks to ‘Spyfall: Part Two’, I feel like the current material she’s given wastes her talent. So far the majority of her dialogue is spoken through the wide-eyed naivety of a child, and in situations of danger and fear this performance often comes across as misplaced and jarring. The Doctor should be making mistakes on purpose to ensure that those around her are listening, not because she’s clumsily forgotten something. Luckily Višnjić’s Nikola Tesla picks up much of the slack; he even has enough time to fit in a nice ‘it’s bigger on the inside’ moment when entering the TARDIS for the first time. Tesla is one of the show’s most well-rounded characters, which is disappointing considering he’s a one-episode guest star.
As the Skithra track down Tesla, The Doctor does some jiggery-pokery as Yaz and Edison are caught in the streets amidst an attack. Director Nida Manzoor does what she can to keep the following chase sequence exciting, but having two of the slowest characters on-screen ever take part in a chase sequence is never going to be thrilling enough. At least Edison gets a few lucky shots in with his pistol. The Scooby-Doo-esque ‘split up’ routine offers a nice change of pace towards the climax, and could be a useful route for such a large TARDIS team to take in the future. Ryan and Graham ready Tesla’s, um… death ray at the lab entrance in order to stop the beasties breaking through, whilst the inventor and Doctor ready the Wardenclyffe Tower for its first use as a giant bug-zapper.
It’s shocks all around though when the Queen bursts through into the lab, and through some reverse psychology is transported back to her ship where she can be blown up safely. If you pause logic for a moment and refuse to question why the Queen didn’t just come back if she can teleport at will you’ll likely be satisfied with the episode’s rushed conclusion, but I’m not sure I was. It makes me think to previous showrunners and how they dealt with a traditional narrative with five less minutes than the episodes have now. Thinking back on the current run I don’t think the complexity of the episodes is the problem, but in fact the pacing and sheer amount of characters to have involved with the action.
‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’ offers up some neat fan service for historians but fuddles around with a haphazard alien plot that often feels half-baked. Višnjić’s performance as Tesla perhaps deserved a better adventure to suit his talents. The broader problems across Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who continue to bug me throughout however, and I find myself yet to be satisfied by anything the season has conjured up thus far. Perhaps the return of some familiar faces next week with the Judoon will cheer me up? I guess we’ll just have to find out.