Doctor Who – “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”

“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”
Doctor Who: Series 12 – Episode 4
Written by: Nina Metivier
Directed by: Nida Manzoor

Synopsis: 1903. Who or what is sabotaging Nikola Tesla’s generator plant at Niagara Falls? And has this maverick inventor really received a message from Mars?

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is the latest example of the ‘celebrity’ historical episodes that have been a core element of Chris Chibnall’s era, revisiting the series’ original remit to educate whilst entertaining. The episode lightly touches upon the rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, presenting Tesla as a visionary futurist who lacked Edison’s business skills to make his inventions profitable. Writer Nina Metivier addresses the tragic nature of Tesla’s life as a largely forgotten footnote in history – although recent movies such as The Current War and even the prominence of Tesla Motors have made the inventor more recognisable to a modern audience. The idea of visiting an underappreciated genius with the foresight of the future has been done in “Vincent and the Doctor”, and while Metivier’s script allows Tesla to gain some awareness of his eventual impact on the world, it lacks the same emotional punch as when the Eleventh Doctor took Van Gogh to his own exhibition.

The episode was fairly straight-forward in construction with the scorpion-like Skithra attempting to kidnap Tesla to make him improve their alien technologies. This simple plot allowed Metivier to focus more on Tesla and his role in the early 20th century, namedropping some of his inventions such as an early type of Wi-Fi. The rivalry between him and Edison is also given some focus, although it felt a bit superficial at times and made me want to check out The Current War for a more in-depth view into their relationship. The odd relationship between Tesla and his secretary, Dorothy Skerrit also felt underdeveloped and it seemed like she was mainly there to be his companion until the Doctor arrived. Once the alien threat was revealed, the character development between the supporting characters seemed to disappear and it became a standard chase romp – substituting long corridors for Gilded Age New York City streets.

The Skithra were another great addition to the Doctor Who monster bestiary, marking a notable improvement on the monsters introduced in the previous series. Long-term fans of the series might have noticed that the Queen of the Skithra resembled the Racnoss Empress from “The Runaway Bride” – perhaps they are related to each other in the same way that the Sea Devils and the Silurians share the same DNA. I loved the scorpion-esque design of the creatures – something that really came to life during the chase sequence through the streets. The camera shot as the Skithra scrambled after Yaz and Edison was fantastic and quite possibly one of the most cinematic action sequences of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era. There was also something genuinely unsettling about the shape of the Queen of the Skithra’s teeth and how they interlocked with each other. It was a great bit of make-up and costume design and I hope that they will be a returning foe – perhaps in an episode confirming a Skithra / Racnoss connection?

While less earnest and emotional than recent historical dramas such as “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” was a fun, light-hearted jaunt through the golden age of invention that recalled memories of earlier Doctor Who stories. Tesla is an intriguing historical figure and I was surprised he hadn’t appeared in a Doctor Who episode before now, especially since he is a quirky futurist much like the Doctor herself. Leaning more towards ‘entertain’ than ‘educate’ on the spectrum, this was a great example of how to blend historical fact and science-fiction together to tell an enthralling story.

Score – ★★★ ½

Next Episode: “Fugitive of the Judoon”
Ko Sho Blo! Trigger-happy space police the Judoon are targeting 21st-century Gloucester. The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham race back to Earth in order to prevent them doing too much damage to the cathedral city. But who are they looking for, and what did they do to incur the wrath of the Judoon?

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