Tuesday 21 January 2020

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 12x04 - Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

Doctor Who 12x04 - Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

If there's one thing this current era of Doctor Who will be remembered for (aside from the obvious of course), it'll be its return to the show's historical roots. Before the days of Daleks and Cybermen, Doctor Who was perceived as a time-travelling show which would educate as well as entertain. Chris Chibnall's time as show runner has already seen the Doctor meet the likes of Rosa Parks, King James I, Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan - and now that continues on in the fantastically named Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror. Written by Nina Metivier and directed by Nida Manzoor, series 12 episode four puts a new spin on the Serbian-American scientist and his struggle for recognition during his lifetime.

Nikola TeslaThe Doctor

In 1903 as Nikola Tesla fails to find investors for his wireless transmission system, he discovers a strange floating orb of alien origin. Shortly afterward a hooded figure attacks both he and his assistant Dorothy Skerritt, leading to an encounter with the Doctor and a hasty retreat back to New York.

As the Doctor tries to work out the strange variation in technology used by Tesla's attacker, an evil force sets their sights on the troubled inventor. As Tesla's competitor Thomas Edison also becomes involved in the conflict, it's going to take Tesla's greatest invention to save the day.

Thomas EdisonThe Queen Skithra

Nikola Tesla is a name that has become quite well known in modern times, however if you were to ask someone what he invented fewer would probably be able to give you an answer. Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror doesn't shy away from this unfortunate truth, and in fact aims more than anything to give Tesla the recognition he deserves but was sadly denied during his lifetime. The approach is strikingly similar to that of Richard Curtis' Vincent and the Doctor from 2010, but undoubtedly (to both its benefit and detriment) without the same level of emotion channeled into it. What Night of Terror does do well though is highlight just how history is often written by the winners, but how time can seek to change that. The episode certainly doesn't shy away from its rather scathing depiction of Edison - an inventor certainly far more acknowledged throughout the world but equally criticised for potentially stealing a number of inventions he didn't necessarily come out with. Thankfully the episode isn't too single-minded to treat it as a case of black and white, but it isn't coy about making Edison the ruthless businessman to Tesla's gentle-hearted inventor either. The fundamentals are here, giving any viewer the perfect springboard to go off and research the two men to draw their own conclusions. If Doctor Who has managed to do just that, then it's done it's job.

But while it's the lesser-known specifics of these figures that make the story so interesting, it's just as much the actors themselves that make it work. Tesla and Edison are played by Goran Višnjić and Robert Glenister respectively, both of whom turn in excellent performances that exemplify their characters' main traits. Whereas Višnjić portrays a brilliant but obviously troubled Tesla, Glenister's Edison is a man whose firm attitude is also hiding a number of insecurities. Also appearing in this episode is Haley McGee as Dorothy Skerritt, who despite being largely under-utilised carries an unwavering loyalty and faith in Tesla that no one else seems to have. What's interesting about this episode in comparison to the second part of Spyfall is that it ends without any of these characters' memories being erased. Though it certainly makes Spyfall's controversial decision all the more questionable, at least in regards to Tesla it feels as though there was perhaps already enough tragedy in his story. The Doctor explains that he will eventually die penniless, and only in the future will he be remembered for the visionary that he once was.

The Doctor and TeslaDorothy Skerritt

Sadly too many companions continues to be problem though, which this episode especially not really offering any of the three mainstays anything substantial to do. Ryan quips, Graham has some (albeit humorous) exchanges with Edison and Yaz is captured (again). Yaz's involvement is becoming especially concerning in these episodes, as the situations often feel written for other characters but then changed to Yaz either to give her something to do or have a better way for the Doctor to come and save the day. Thankfully however the Doctor is on top form here, repeatedly having those "I am the Doctor" moments she was repeatedly criticised for lacking in the previous series. The prominence of more traditional evil in this series is finally providing those moments of conflict, which together with the 13th Doctor's already established "time travelling historian" feel are quickly turning her into a much more "complete" feeling incarnation.

The final link in the story are Skithra, a race of scorpion-like aliens who feel remarkably similar to the Racnoss of 2006's The Runaway Bride. In fact given the similarities both in facial appearance and Anjli Mohindra (Rani of The Sarah Jane Adventures fame no less)'s mannerisms as the Queen Skithra it felt like a missed opportunity to not tie the two arachnid races together somehow. Mohindra is brilliant ("Have you ever seen a dead planet?") but the race as a whole does feel somewhat lacking. The scavenger aspect is a very clever angle to play given the context, but we don't get to see enough of them in scorpion form to leave a lasting impression. What is there is mostly realised in CGI crowd shots, which try to give a sense of scale but don't have that same up-close horror that the Dregs had previously in Orphan 55. The Skithra feel like they could have been a lot more, but lacked an originality that then in turn wasn't used to their advantage.

The Doctor and CompanionsThe Skithra

Though sadly not the "Nikola Tesla meets the Cybermen" episode I was hoping for (a wasted opportunity if you ask me), Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror proves itself as the strongest offering this series so far. Though there is nothing necessarily mould-breaking about the episode, it remains a thoroughly entertaining piece of television that effortlessly combines all the elements Doctor Who has built itself on over the years. Even with a continuing underutilisation of the main cast, Višnjić's performance as Tesla more than makes up it. Next week some familiar faces return to the screen in their first prominent appearance since 2007, as some unfortunate soul has become a Fugitive of the Judoon.

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