When Doctor Who started in 1963 it alternated between two formats, the science-fiction-with-aliens variety and the historical-events-with-real-people sort told somewhat in the style of contemporary educational Ladybird books. The latter had run its course by the start of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, and while the show would still have stories set in the past and occasionally include people like HG Wells and George Stephenson, they would invariably be SciFi heavy. Arguably, thereafter only 1982s “Black Orchid” was a pure period piece. For the show’s relaunch in 2005, Russell T Davies introduced a new variant of ‘celebrity historical’ in which the Doctor was excited to meet his heroes like Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Vincent van Gogh, but that largely lapsed under Steven Moffat and it’s Chris Chibnall who has now revived the show’s interest in history with last season’s “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, followed by somewhat more fleeting supporting appearances from Lady Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Charles Babbage in this year’s “Spyfall”.
It’s hard not to think that this week’s episode started life as a more conventional, straightforward drama about the life and work of 1900s inventor and electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, and that writer Nina Metivier worked backwards from there to make it work as a Doctor Who story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach, if it is indeed the case. Unusually we open not with our regular cast, but instead with Tesla making a presentation to a group of potential investors for his latest project. It’s not until he’s discovered a bit of anachronistic alien tech and gone on the run from some very inhuman-looking would-be assassins that the Doctor ((Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) show up to save the day almost five minutes in. It’s rare for a one-off guest role to get that sort of screen time all to theirselves, and as a result Tesla is the most rounded and developed character we’ve seen in the show for a while. It’s helped hugely by the fact that Tesla is played by Goran Višnjić, an international film and television star with such deep reserves of on-screen charisma, warmth and likability that he instantly made me pine for the days when ER was on television eery week.
The episode is positively infatuated with Tesla, and after a rough start even the Doctor falls into a heavy swoon of hero worship as she comes to appreciate that Tesla’s world outlook is strikingly similar to her own. In fact Tesla is established as almost a Doctor-figure in his own right, something that is underlined by the presence of his very own ‘companion’ in the form of Dorothy Skeritt (Haley McGee), herself a genuine person from history. She gets a particularly effective quiet scene in which she trades notes with Ryan on what it’s like to stand next to a wild and eccentric genius, and how the experience can change one’s whole view on life as a result.
The love-in doesn’t extend to the other historical figure included in “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”. That’s the better known Thomas Edison who is here played by Robert Glenister, who thus becomes one of a select group of actors to have featured in both the Classic and NuWho version of Doctor Who (he was previously in the Peter Davison swan song “The Caves of Androzani” in 1984, one of the show’s all-time best serials). While Tesla is lauded as a genius, Edison is presented as a rapacious exploiter of other people’s talents, stealing their ideas and slapping his name on them before finding a way to commercialise them at the basest level in order to make mountains of cash. There’s certainly more than a nub of historical truth to that characterisation, but it does seem unfairly vitriolic toward someone whose work really did so much to shape our modern world, for better or worse – arguably much more so than Tesla, many of whose ideas and concepts fell by the wayside or proved unfeasible at the time and for decades to come. To state that his idea of ‘energy without wires’ is the precursor of WiFi and the Internet is a stretch to say the least and then only in the broadest of terms. It rather sweeps aside decades of pioneering work by others in the interim who would have been left literally sitting in the dark if not for Edison’s own business innovations. Fortunately, the episode’s somewhat skewed depiction of Edison is balanced by a magnificent performance from Glenister, and the sharpness is modulated to a degree by his very human reaction to the deaths of a number of his laboratory workers which hint at something other than the ruthless corporate businessman that the rest of the episode paints him as.
But this harsh characterisation of Edison is no accident, and indeed it’s a main theme of the episode that also underpins the core nature of this week’s alien menace. They are a race of parasitical scavengers who take technology from other races and use it to their own ends, but who lack the underlying intelligence and understanding to fix it when it goes wrong. As a result they’ve come searching for someone who can help them, and they’ve identified Tesla as the only man on Earth who fits the bill. This is a bit of a reach – the technology is patently far beyond Tesla’s understanding, genius of the period though he might be – and one of the few false notes in the episode is the alien queen failing to realise that the Doctor is a far more appropriate choice for the task than Tesla. Maybe it’s to accentuate how incredibly dim-witted these aliens are, that they can’t recognise a literal gift horse even when they see one standing in front of them. Otherwise, it’s strange that the script once again takes such an ardent dislike to these aliens given that their principle ‘crime’ is to pick up discarded technology and repurpose it – you’d think that the Doctor would be in favour of such a wide-ranging environmentally conscious recycling policy.
The aliens in question, by the way, are the Skithra. Advance trailers and publicity photos of the episode had fans speculating that they could be a reimagined version of classic monsters the Silurians (the prehistoric subterranean race is even given a red herring name check in an early discussion about one particular piece of purloined technology) but happily this proves not to be the case. Instead, the Skithra are rather too close for comfort both in appearance, concept and portrayal to a different prior Doctor Who adversary called the Racnoss, who appeared in “The Runaway Bride” – only these new aliens are based on oversized scorpions rather than spiders (perhaps because the show had already featured giant “Arachnids in the UK” just last season?) They are actually so similar that I temporarily stopped following the episode as I tried to work out whether this was an intended connection – a Silurian/Sea Devil cousins link, perhaps? – or purely a careless coincidence. I ended up presuming the latter, but if I’m honest I’m still not entirely sure. While Anjli Mohindra (formerly a regular cast member of spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures as Rani and more recently seen in a key role in Bodyguard) undeniably throws herself into the part of the queen with gusto, it still plays like an encore of Sarah Parish’s Empress of the Racnoss from 2006.
This quibble aside, the episode is well paced and rattles along like a speeding locomotive, with some particularly pleasing hi-energy incidental music from Segun Akinola adding to the mix. Director Nida Manzoor delivers an impressive visual feast using location filming in Bulgaria that looks convincingly like 1900s New York City without getting too caught up in the details, which means that for once you’re not left naggingly aware of a shortfall in the available production budget.
That said it did feel slightly as if the episode ran out of money, or time or else perhaps story inspiration toward the end, because there was a sense that someone chopped five minutes out of the climax. Everything is gearing up nicely for a big stand-off between our heroes (who are marshalled into separate teams, making a virtue for once out of the large number of companions) and the hoards of invading scorpions, when the Doctor suddenly decides that the Skithra share a hive mind and that she can win against overwhelming numbers simply by taking the queen off the board. How she determines this key feature is uncertain, especially when we had previously been shown evidence to the contrary (one of the Skithra interrupts the queen while she’s speaking and is vaporised for his insubordination.) It’s as though the story – having painted itself into a corner with thousands of scorpions flooding into the streets of New York – now needs a simple Borg-like one-button speedy resolution. And unfortunately while Tesla does get to press the button in question, by this point even he has been reduced to simply helping the Doctor implement her plan rather than playing a major part in devising it. He has to settle instead for a post-action pep talk from the Doctor to keep up the good work, and it’s interesting neither he nor Edison or Skeritt are required to have their minds wiped of the knowledge they’ve learned by hanging out with the Doctor, as happened with Ada and Noor at the end of “Spyfall”.
A slightly weak climax, then, but not to the point of doing any major harm to an episode that succeeded in being thoroughly fun and entertaining throughout, and even a little educational along the way. Unlike last week’s heavy-handed script, this story even manages to seamlessly fold in some important themes and lessons (about science, creativity, self-belief and always working to improve the future) without sounding like a sermon in the process. In many ways this is as ‘old school’ as the series has felt since the days of Russell T Davies (of whom I’m a fan, so that’s a compliment in case you were wondering) and surely an episode that fans both old and new can get behind and declare with gusto: “This is the show that I know and remember and fell in love with!”
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who S12 continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at around 7.10pm, and available thereafter on BBC iPlayer. DVD and Blu-ray versions will be released on April 20 2020.