REVIEWED: SERIES 12 (EPISODE 4) | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC iPLAYER
[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]
One notable trend in Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker’s first series of Doctor Who was that the historical episodes were the best ones, due in part to a new approach; in the Russell T Davies-led series, trips to the past tended to be about big-name figures like Dickens and Shakespeare, and the Steven Moffat years used historical settings as backdrops for genre pastiche or big story arcs, but the approach of Chibnall’s team has been to shine a light on lesser known figures or moments in time, allowing for some fascinating and fresh stories. Series 12 has expanded on this trend, first with quick trips to visit Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan in Spyfall, and now with this run’s first full-blown historical.
Nikola Tesla is a perfect choice of subject for this approach; many of us, like Graham, couldn’t name a single one of his inventions; like Yaz and Ryan, haven’t heard of him at all; or like this reviewer, think of him as a guy who looks a lot like David Bowie and teleports cats around. In fact, he was a great visionary of his time, whose greatest invention – alternating current – is ubiquitous in our lives today. Written by Who newcomer Nina Metivier and showing off our favourite episode title in a long while, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror sets out to highlight those achievements, alongside a very typically Who adventure in which the Doctor and co. find Tesla pursued from Niagara to New York by alien scorpions in need of his engineering skills.
At the centre of it is Goran Višnjić’s nuanced portrayal of the Serbian inventor as a man bursting with ideas and imagination but constrained by the rejection he faces from American society – there’s a topical subtext in Metivier’s script about America’s treatment of immigrants, making its point without any clunky lectures like last week’s. This rejection Tesla feels is pulled in contrasting directions by the two characters the episode puts him in comparison with: Thomas Edison, portrayed by Robert Glenister as an arrogant businessman leeching profit from the ideas of others – the truth behind the American Dream which Tesla had previously been optimistic about – and the Doctor, in whom he sees a kindred spirit and is given hope; a sweet, uplifting counterpoint, though at points the subtlety of Višnjić’s performance serves to highlight Jodie Whittaker’s occasional tendency to overact.
Throughout this, there’s a growing threat from the deadly Skithra, who want Tesla for themselves and don’t care how many others get hurt in the process. It’s not actually their true scorpion-like forms that make for the standout monsters of the episode, but the human disguises they project, seriously creepy with their red eyes, distorted features, and electricity-like powers – keeping the episode on visual theme. The actual scorpion creatures have a nicely monstrous image, and allow for an action-packed finale, though are let down by their queen, who is too noticeably a human in a silly suit (even if that human is the excellent Anjli Mohindra). Director Nida Manzoor, who like Metivier is making her Who debut, fills the action scenes with pace and tension, and gives the episode an effective sepia-toned period look, with the filming at Nu Boyana studios in Bulgaria elevating the New York street scenes far past what would have been achievable on a dressed-up bit of Cardiff.
Metivier pulls all the strands of the story together deftly, making sure to mirror Tesla’s personal struggles with the sci-fi story, culminating in the powerful scene of him ready to give himself up to the Skithra, the only people he feels respect his skills, before he’s talked out of it by the Doctor. The narrative also gives each of the companions something useful to do, which other episodes have shown isn’t always easy when there’s three of them. There are a couple of moments that don’t quite make sense but could have been fixed with a little script tweak – the sudden appearance of the TARDIS in New York when we thought it was left at Niagara, and the Doctor’s enthusiasm to blast a giant electricity cannon at the aliens, having two episodes ago declared herself a pacifist – but on the whole, this is the most confident and satisfying story of Series 12 so far.
Extra points for the most phallic ‘death ray’ ever designed; we’d have loved to have seen the props team trying to hold it together when handing that thing to Bradley Walsh.