Robert Glenister

Doctor Who S12 E4 “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

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. Read the rest of this entry »