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Doctor Who: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (Review)

“Don’t worry. This ain’t our first rodeo.

“We’ve never been to a rodeo.”

“You’re not helping, Ryan.”

As with Orphan 55 last week, there is a sense that Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is pushing at the edge of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, trying to take the era’s underlying assumptions and make them work within a compelling narrative structure.

Orphan 55 attempted to write around the Thirteenth Doctor’s narrative passivity by dropping her in a plot that took place long after calamity had befallen Earth, and so cannily avoiding another story that hinged on the Doctor’s general uselessness. (Of course, it also ended with the Doctor abandoning Kane and Bella to their deaths, so mileage varies.) Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror offers an interesting spin on the era’s approach to historicals – telling a story that hinges not on building an affirming narrative from a hopeless future, but instead mourning the loss of a potential future.

Tesla recoils.

To be fair, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is still haunted by a lot of the familiar problems of the show around it. As a showrunner, Chris Chibnall is nowhere near as good with characterisation or humour as Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. More than that, the episode seems have largely been built in homage to the villainous Skithra, as a collection of spare parts and leftover pieces. Like Arachnids in the U.K., the extent to which Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is an engaging piece of television is the extent to which it feels like a flat mid-season episode from the Davies era.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a mixed bag. Indeed, it’s interesting how much Orphan 55 and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror feel like the belong in the first season of a new era, trying to figure out the basic mechanics of the new way that Doctor Who tells stories. This is something that Doctor Who should have been doing last season, and it’s frustrating to see it only really trying now.

“Elon who?”

Chris Chibnall has made a point to consciously focus his Doctor Who around a resurgence of the “historical” genre, offering a greater emphasis on the sort of “celebrity historical” codified by The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw while also trying to provide a more educational approach to the genre. Under Chibnall, the “historical” is less about the fun of meeting a famous person like Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code or Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp, and more about introducing the viewer to an important (possibly overlooked) figure or era.

Chibnall has garnered considerable praise for celebrating key historical figures and providing important historical context – allowing the gang to meet Rosa Parks in Rosa, to witness the Partition of India in Demons of the Punjab, to encounter witchhunts in The Witchfinders and to cross paths with Noor Inayat Khan in Spyfall, Part II. Again, like the stern lecture about the environment at the end of Orphan 55, this feels like a return of the show’s mandate as a public broadcaster to educate younger figures.

However, these historicals brush up against two core problems. The most significant problem is the difficulty in directly relating these historical stories to the present day. Rosa does feature a scene in which Ryan and Yaz discuss the way in which their lives are still shaped by the racism that Rosa Parks fought, but the episode also ends with an assertion that everything worked itself out because Rosa Parks has an asteroid named after her. Similarly, Spyfall, Part II was a story about fascism and social media, but which completely failed to explore any connection between the two.

The second problem is related. These stories also struggle to put a happy ending on genuinely horrific events. The witch trials depicted in The Witchfinders were a monstrous miscarriage of justice that killed countless people. Rosa is so insistent that history must unfold in a particular way that the Doctor forces her companions to become complicit and active participants in system racism. Spyfall, Part II has the Doctor assure Khan that fascism will never win thanks to her efforts – ignoring both the ascent of modern fascism and the fact that Khan died in a concentration camp.

Inventor venting.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror seems to exist in conversation with these problems, and exists largely to navigate itself around the most egregious of them in the same way that Orphan 55 seemed to exist to work around the Thirteenth Doctor’s impotence dealing with characters like Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K. and Ilan in The Ghost Monument. So, much like Orphan 55 has the Doctor arrive in the story long past the point that she might affect its outcome, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror offers a historical figure defined by both his imagination and his failure.

Nikola Tesla is by some distance the best part of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Part of this is the casting of Goran Višnjić, who adds an affable charm to the role. The casting of Višnjić seems self-aware, even beyond the continuation of the trend towards casting Nikola Tesla as something of a sex symbol following on from David Bowie in The Prestige and Nicholas Hoult in The Current War. Much like Tesla exists in the shadow of the better-known Edison, Višnjić is largely defined by his relationship to the better-known George Clooney, the actor he replaced on E.R.

Višnjić offers a performance that is consciously a stylised, avoiding a more grounded and naturalistic approach. In terms of “celebrity historical” character, Višnjić positions Tesla closer to Alan Cumming’s King James than Vinette Robinson’s Rosa Parks. Višnjić casts Tesla as a mad inventor from a science-fiction film or fantasy story, rather than as a flesh-and-blood human being. This fits well with Nina Métivier‘s script, which repeatedly suggests that Tesla was perhaps more at home in the genre trappings of Doctor Who than the reality of turn-of-the-century America.

Tesla slots himself into the rhythms and conventions of Doctor Who with remarkable ease. When he first steps on board the TARDIS, Edison reassures him, “I couldn’t figure it out either.” However, Tesla instinctively understands how the show’s logic works. “The internal dimensions transcend the external.” The episode repeatedly suggests that Tesla is one step away from becoming a Superman villain. When Yaz pitches him the idea of radar, he describes his own idea in pulpier terms. “I call it my exploring ray.” Ryan and Graham even discover a “death ray.”

It’s all about science.

One of the cannier aspects of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is the way in which it splits up the cast. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is still light on characterisation for the companions, but there is something revealing in the way that the episode pairs up Tesla and Yaz. Yaz is by the far the least well-defined of the trio, but traditionally falls into the stock “explain the technobabble” companion role as in episodes like The Tsuranga Conundrum. Pairing her up with Tesla is effective thematic shorthand, suggesting that Tesla belongs in Doctro Who. He even borrows a companion.

The skill of Višnjić’s performance and Métivier‘s script is the way in which this becomes a tragedy. The Chibnall era has repeatedly struggled with confronting the horrors of its historical focus. Rosa glossed over the fact that Black Lives Matter is still campaigning for basic civil rights in the United States more than half-a-century after Rosa Parks’ protest. Spyfall, Part II could not bring itself to actually acknowledge that Noor Inayat Khan died in a concentration camp. Even Demons of the Punjab sidestepped British responsibility for the trauma of the Partition of India.

To a certain extent, this makes sense. There is perhaps only so much that a family television show can get away with, particularly in the heightened climate of Brexit. Even outside of that, tackling these ideas directly is a risky proposition. Acknowledging that the Doctor wiped Noor Inayat Khan’s memory and left her to be murdered by Nazis would break Doctor Who. Exploring how racism is still deeply engrained in British and American culture even after the civil rights movement would mean tackling things like the xenophobia that drove Brexit.

In contrast, the failure of Nikola Tesla is much more manageable within the confines of Doctor Who, because it is a lot more abstract. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror can acknowledge the tragedy of Nikola Tesla more candidly than Spyfall, Part II could approach the tragedy of Noor Inayat Khan, because the sad story of Nikola Tesla lends itself to mythology and metaphor without crassly erasing a very real and very literal on-going struggle.

Notes from the future.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror presents Tesla as an embodiment of utopian idealism. “Nikola Tesla dreams up the twentieth century before it happens,” the Doctor boasts. Conceding that there are powerful forces stifling his creative vision, Tesla concedes, “The present is theirs. I work for the future, and the future is mine.” Tesla represents a possible future for mankind, one built on hope and optimism. Tesla offers the potential of a better future.

Indeed, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror explicitly unfolds at a point in time at which there is everything to play for. Whatever about the hazy internal time-travel logic of Doctor Who, the setting of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is presented as historical crossroads. “Guilded Age New York,” the Doctor states. “This is where the modern world begins.” There is no Empire State Building yet. There is no Time Square. At this moment in time, humanity seems positioned to choose what kind of future it wants.

Free from specific systemic historical injustices like racism or fascism, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror can position Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as avatars of two very different visions of the future. Tesla offers a romantic vision of a world most viewers will recognise. “I plan to harness these forces of nature on a scale never seen before,” he boasts in the opening scene. “A world wireless system. A way for each of us to reach beyond our immediate sphere into every corner of the Earth.” Later, Ryan asks, “Did Nikola Tesla invent wifi?”

In contrast, Edison embodies a much crasser iteration of the same ideas. When Graham takes him to task for his attempted exploitation of Tesla, Edison dismisses the accusation. “Man just didn’t understand the American sense of humour,” Edison offers by way of excuse. As he tours the TARDIS, Graham warns him, “Get the dollar signs out your eyes.” Edison is the expression of a certain vulgar form of American capitalism, which is a recurring preoccupation of the Chibnall era as demonstrated by Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K., perhaps reflecting the current President.

Enlightenment.

(There is perhaps something just a little bit cynical in the Chibnall era’s single-minded fixation on American capitalism as particularly crass, given that this is a British show and Britain is working through its own political crisis. Doctor Who has typically been able to comment on British affairs through metaphor, as in episodes like The Curse of Peladon or The Monster of Peladon. It feels a bit lazy that the Chibnall era has taken repeated swipes at American politics and culture – even in Rosa – without ever confronting British politics head-on.)

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is quite clear that Tesla loses the contest with Edison. Indeed, Tesla has arguably already lost by the time that he encounters the Doctor. In the closing moments of the episode, the Doctor very bluntly tells Yaz, “He dies penniless. History leaves him behind.” It’s heartbreaking. Indeed, the decision to follow that blunt matter-of-fact assessment of Tesla’s legacy with some of the character’s never-say-die enthusiasm makes it all the more tragic. No matter how much hope Tesla might muster, no matter how optimistic he might remain, he will still lose.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror presents this as an existential tragedy, similar to the death of the future Earth in Orphan 55. At the end of Orphan 55, the Doctor stated that the characters had just visited a potential future of the planet that may manifest if the audience could no longer imagine an alternative. All that Tesla does in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is imagine better alternatives. When Yaz asks where his plans are, he taps his temple. “All in here. Before anything else, I build it all in here.” Later, he laments his ideas “will change the world. Why can’t anyone else see that?”

Tesla doesn’t just envisage new technology. He envisages a better world. Confronted with the Skithra, he even struggles to understand why a sufficiently advanced alien species would be interested in conquest. “With your level of technology, you must understand that there is no need for violence.” He refuses to allow his ideas to be used in service of conquest and horror. “Perhaps I will achieve nothing, but if I achieve anything, it will be in the name of progress. And you are not my idea of progress.” That’s a bold stand, arguably similar to the Thirteenth Doctor’s pacifism.

Geared up.

So with Tesla, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror finds a way to reframe the historical preoccupations of the Chibnall era in more abstract and metaphorical terms, to use these historical figures to grapple with larger ideas. The tragedy of Nikola Tesla is more than just the tragedy of an immigrant inventor exploited by the system, it is also a much sadder story about how mankind allowed a more optimistic and utopian future die out because it wasn’t ruthless enough. It’s a very bleak perspective, but these are bleak times and the Chibnall era consistently plays with bleak concepts.

The idea of building a standard alien invasion plot around these dueling inventors feels peculiarly specific to the Chibnall era, which occasionally feels like the production team throwing darts at the upcoming cinematic release schedule and taking influence. It feels like The Woman Who Fell to Earth expected The Predator to be a much bigger hit than it was. Resolution offers an interesting riff on Venom. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror seems to have mistakenly banked on The Current War being a breakout hit and providing more appetite for Tesla/Edison hijinks.

Unfortunately, the episode around Tesla and Edison doesn’t work as well as the conflict between the two men. “All this killing and looting, did it never occur to you to try thinking and building something for yourself?” the Doctor challenges the Skithra, but she could just as easily be addressing the actual plot of the episode. As with a lot of the Chibnall era around it, the actual story of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror feels like it was cobbled together from whatever was leftover from the Davies era.

To be fair, there is just a lot of generic Doctor Who in here. The episode even acknowledges this by making the Skithra scavengers, who use technology stolen (and props recycled) from other races. The villains use a “Silurian blaster”, a shout out to the iconic subterranean reptiles. Inspired by true reports, the plot hinges on Tesla receiving signals from Mars, home to the Ice Warriors. For an episode nominally about an original alien threat – albeit positioned right before Prisoners of the Judoon – there is a surprising amount of nostalgia here.

Blaster from the past.

The strongest cues are lifted from the Davies era. After all, this is the kind of “celebrity historical” that was largely a trademark of the Davies era; although there are examples from the classic show, they largely absent for long stretches between The Crusade during William Hartnell’s tenure and The Mark of the Rani during Colin Baker’s era. More than that, the Skithra are designed to consciously evoke the Racnoss from The Runaway Bride, albeit based on scorpions rather than spiders. (Arachnids in the U.K. suggests that the Racnoss are surprisingly influential monsters.)

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror also affirms that the destruction of Gallifrey at the end of Spyfall, Part II has pushed the Thirteenth Doctor towards a characterisation a lot closer to the Tenth Doctor than any other incarnation. “Have you ever seen a dead planet?” the Skithra Queen taunts the Doctor. The Doctor responds, “I’ve seen more than you could possibly imagine.” Once again, the Doctor is able to play up the angst of being “the Last of the Time Lords.”

More to the point, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror makes a point to push the Thirteenth Doctor away from her passivity and towards the sort of angst violence of the Tenth Doctor. Repeatedly during the Davies era, the Tenth Doctor would effectively beg his opponents to leave Earth alone so that he would not have to do something horrible in order to stop them. After all, the Tenth Doctor drowns all the Racnoss babies in The Runaway Bride, killing an entire species as it rains down upon him.

The Skithra push the Doctor into a similar position in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, and the episode consciously frames it in such a way as to play up the sense of tragedy. “I gave you a chance,” the Doctor chides the Skithra Queen. “A chance to evolve. But you were too stupid to take it.” This very much an articulation of the Tenth Doctor’s “no second chances” edict from The Christmas Invasion. To be fair, it’s a much better characterisation than general passivity in the face of unspeakable evil.

Ladder be.

Indeed, it isn’t that big a problem that Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror borrows so completely from the Davies era in terms of its plotting and characterisation. After all, there are worse influences. If Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror has to draw from the show’s tradition of characterisation and genre, it is perhaps better that it draws from something like The Shakespeare Code rather than Timelash. There are worse approaches to take than stealing from people who are very good at what they do.

Similarly, there are a few smaller plot elements that do feel unique to the Chibnall era as a whole. In particular, the “orb” feels like a spin on a very generic idea that fits within the thematic dynamics of the show’s current iteration. “The Thassy were one of the ancient races,” the Doctor explains of the device. “Amazing storytellers.” She explains, “They built these orbs as a way to spread information. To send out among the stars, to share their legacy long after they were gone.”

This is both in keeping and in contrast with the larger thematic preoccupations of the Chibnall era. The Chibnall is largely about passivity, about the idea that communication and transition are one-way processes; that a person can observe but not interact. The Thijarians from Demons of the Punjab are a species that transitioned from causing death to simply witnessing it. Rosa made it clear that the family could witness Rosa’s struggle against system oppression, but not participate in it. The Chibnall era is largely about the power of witnessing.

The Thassy hope to share their technology through the universe, but not as a conversation and not as an ongoing process. As originally intended, the person who receives the orb becomes the witness. In some ways, this suggests that the Thassy operate in opposition to the internal logic of the Chibnall era, changing those with whom they come in contact. Indeed, it’s notable that Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror even suggests that the Thassy had a bad idea. After all, the Skithra have exploited the Thassy’s gift in service of their own horrible ambitions.

Orb of prophecy and change.

In some small way, this mirrors the climax of Chibnall’s first season. In The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, it was revealed that the villainous Tzim-Sha had been transformed through his interactions with the Doctor, becoming something far more powerful and monstrous as a result of her meddling him his affairs. Of course, it seems strange to imply that the Doctor should have allowed him to kill Karl in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, but the Chibnall era is very weirdly committed to its idea of passive non-interference.

More to the point, by the time that the orb is introduced in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, it has been “repurposed from its original intent.” In keeping with the recurring themes of the Chibnall era, along with the Thijarians in Demons of the Punjab and the Thirteenth Doctor herself, the orb has been redesigned in order to observe rather than to participate. The orb no longer shares its secrets, but instead explores and reports back on what it sees. Doctor Who has typically treated the TARDIS as a metaphor for the show, but the Chibnall era suggests the orb might be closer.

The biggest problem with Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is not that it borrows so blatantly from the Davies era or that it feels so derivative from what came before. After all, both the Davies and Moffat eras had plenty of charming episodes that recycled familiar concepts and played with familiar tropes. Doctor Who is more than fifty years old. It is amazing that there are any original ideas left at all, and unreasonable to expect that the show should avoid repurposing existing elements from its own past.

The biggest problem with Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is how lifeless it feels. Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat could both make a solid claim to being the best writers working in British television when they worked on Doctor Who, and the show sparkled with their wit and humour. The series was always playful and self-aware, but also well-characterised and energised. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror lacks the verve and vigour that defined so much of the show’s best stories.

Having a blast.

Davies and Moffat relied on familiar plot elements all the time – generic invading aliens, generic apocalyptic threats, nonsense technobabble stakes. However, they tended to acknowledge the audience’s familiarity with these tropes, counting on viewers having absorbed dozens of hours of science-fiction plotting and so having a working understanding of the conventions of the genre. This would allow the show to have a bit of fun with these familiar elements, watching dialogue and banter snake around these familiar points in interesting ways.

On a basic bare-bones plotting level, there is little to distinguish Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror from something like The Vampires of Venice or The Girl Who Died. All three are mid-season stories about a generic alien menace that arrives and threatens a community in a historical setting, with the Doctor stepping in to save the day. However, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror lacks anything as interesting as the Amy and Rory dynamic from The Vampires of Venice or as sublime as testosterone-drinking aliens and the use of The Benny Hill Show theme from The Girl Who Died.

It doesn’t help that Nida Manzoor’s action direction falls flat in places. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror asks the audience to take its stakes and characters seriously, so it is a problem when some of the episodes’ key beats – such as an early attack on a train or Tesla’s realisation that he is flying over New York – don’t land as well as they otherwise might. That said, Manzoor does excellent work with the TARDIS set in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. The Thirteenth Doctor’s TARDIS has never looked as atmospheric or as effective as it does here, using blues, purples and yellows.

That lack of verve is the problem with properly quantifying the problem with episodes like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, episodes that are functional pretty solid, but lacking the sort of vibrancy and energy that defined so much of the show’s recent history. There’s a lot to like in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, and it’s built upon a relatively sturdy framework by the standards of Doctor Who. However, that framework is missing the careful detailing and engaging craft that has defined Doctor Who for so long.

Time and spaced out.

The result is an episode that is at once perfectly serviceable and yet also underwhelming.

4 Responses

  1. This is doctor who review or an essay on Tesla?..this is facing the same problem as the show.missing the point while educating

    • Well, it’s clearly not an essay on Tesla, given the entire point of the review is that the show doesn’t actually use Tesla as a historical individual, but rather as a symbolic expression of its core themes.

      Given that this explores those themes through a discussion of the show’s approach to Tesla – rather than, say, a discussion of the inventor’s background or historical context – it’s quite transparently a Doctor Who review.

      It even says so in the title.

    • damned this review danced around flaws and struggled for paragraphs to praise the whow

  2. Overall in the Chibnall era so far, there had been a distinct lack of tension or drama. The characters are not very engaging (this may be personal preference, but personally I do not think the show is making very good use of its cast), the sci-fi concepts are not very interesting, and its main character is a cipher. It’s all been going pretty swimmingly for this boring TARDIS squad, but I could forgive that if there was a relentless pace. Something. I’d prefer it if the show would really start pushing the characters to the limits-show us what they’re made of. But if they’re not going to do that, can they at least speed things up a tad? Man, this season and the last drag in the way only the very worst of Davies’ and Moffat’s episodes did. This was a strong example of that. It was fine! But it could have been really, really good.

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