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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?”

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New Podcast! Primitive Culture #74 – Star Trek: Voyager as a Nineties Time Capsule

Over the Christmas Break, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the wonderful Duncan Barrett and talking about Star Trek: Voyager. Duncan is a historian, and I’ve actually quoted some of his work on the blog in the past. He hosts Primitive Culture, a show wherein the hosts discuss certain historical-related items of interest in the Star Trek canon.

Duncan noticed that I had recently finished a massive rewatch of Voyager, leading me to write around 750,000 words on the show’s seven seasons. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Voyager coming up, he suggested that it might be fun to talk about the third live-action Star Trek spin-off in a bit of depth, looking at the series as a snapshot of a particular cultural moment. More than any of its sibling series, Voyager perfectly encapsulated the American experience of the nineties, tapping into the decade’s sensibilities and its anxieties.

The result was a fun (and involved) discussion, and you can listen to it below or directly via Primitive Culture‘s homepage on trek.fm.

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New Escapist Column! On Uncanny Valley of “The Witcher” Between Prestige and Tradition…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine the week before last, looking at the Netflix streaming show The Witcher.

There are a lot of interesting things about the eight episode introductory season of The Witcher, which is adapted from two books of short stories and which seems to exist largely to set the table for more impressive seasons to follow. However, what is most immediately striking about The Witcher is the way in which it exists in the uncanny valley between modern prestige television and a more traditional model of episodic storytelling, looking like a hybrid of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Game of Thrones. To be clear, this is not a bad thing.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Doctor Who: Orphan 55 (Review)

“He’s moving at thirty-seven klicks an hour.”

“That doesn’t sound like my Benni.”

Like It Takes You Away in the previous season, Orphan 55 provides a something close to a workable model for the Chibnall era as a whole. Unfortunately, Orphan 55 doesn’t quite get there.

One of the strange paradoxes of the Chibnall era is that it often seems like the guest writers have a stronger grasp on its core themes than the showrunner. After all, Demons of the Punjab was perhaps the best single argument for Chibnall’s passive and observational characterisation of the Thirteenth Doctor, a far stronger argument than that articulated in Rosa or Arachnids in the U.K. or any of the episodes with Chibnall’s name on the credits.

“Game over, Doc.”

Orphan 55 draws from an impressive array of influences across the history of Doctor Who, providing a fascinating intersection between “holiday camp gone wrong” episodes like The Macra Terror and Delta and the Bannermen and “future of Earth” episodes like The Ark in Space or The End of the World. Indeed, the positioning of Orphan 55 as the first standalone episode after the premiere is quite canny; it fills what would be the “New Earth” slot on a Russell T. Davies season. However, it offers a much grimmer prognosis. This is appropriate for a much grimmer age.

Like so much of the Chibnall era, Orphan 55 is built around the general impotence of the Doctor. The Doctor is a fictional character, and so cannot save the world. The Moffat era dealt with this question in a more abstract and metaphorical sense in episodes like Extremis, demonstrating the importance of Doctor Who as a story and the Doctor as an idea. The Chibnall era tends to respond to this challenge with dull literalism. The Thirteenth Doctor spends an inordinate amount of her run confronting systemic or societal problems with which she refuses to engage.

A green message.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s passiveness when confronted with monstrosity is one of the more horrifying aspects of the Chibnall era as a whole. In The Ghost Monument, the Doctor refused to hold Ilan to account for the horrors he inflicted on the participants in his race. In Arachnids in the U.K., Jack Robertson just walked away from liability for mass murder in his hotel. In Rosa, the Doctor stage managed the oppression of Rosa Parks, even forcing her companion to be actively complicit in systemic racism.

While the Chibnall era is clearly trying to make a larger point about how the Doctor cannot save the world because she doesn’t exist, this often becomes a bleak and depressing study of how the public imagination can no longer conjure better worlds into being. Demons of the Punjab managed to make the best argument for this approach through careful construction, tying its historical injustices to Yaz’s personal history. Orphan 55 pulls off something similar, primarily by setting the action long after the world has failed to be saved.

Shattering expectations.

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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 5, Episode 8 (“Kitsunegari”)

Last year, I was extremely privileged to get to discuss the wonderful Pusher with the sensational Tony Black on The X-Cast. For those who don’t know, Pusher is Tony’s favourite episode ever – and comfortably sits around the edge of my top ten. So no pressure.

As such, it was a delight to get to join Tony for Kitsunegari, the fifth season sequel to Pusher. Outside of the mythology, it was relatively rare for The X-Files to do direct sequels to earlier episodes – even popular ones. Kitsunegari is an entry in a very select club that includes Tooms and Orison. However, it is also an episode with which I’ve had a very complicated relationship. It often feels like a parody of a sequel to Pusher rather than an entirely earnest follow-up, and as such as always felt like it belongs to the fifth season’s broader preoccupations with monstrous progeny as a metaphor for the show’s unexpected evolution and direction. Of course, I’ve always worried that I read too much into it.

As ever, you can make up your own mind. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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New Escapist Column! On Sixties Throwback Qualities of Chris Chibnall’s “Doctor Who”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening, looking at Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, which kicked off its second season with Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II last week.

Cosmetically, Chibnall has done a lot to modernise the show – the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it’s structured. However, one of the most striking aspects of Chibnall’s era has been the way that it has drawn so heavily and so consciously from the show’s earliest days. Certain vocal segments of Chibnall’s Doctor Who complain that it is too modern and too disconnected from the show’s roots. This has always seemed a strange criticism to level at a showrunner who arguably owes as much to Terry Nation as he does to Russell T. Davies.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “The Witcher” and True Monstrosity…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last week, looking at the Netflix streaming show The Witcher.

The Witcher is an interesting show, the story of a monster hunter who drifts through a magical world that seems caught on the cusp of war. The first season is very broad and largely episodic, but it does have a clear thematic through line. The series plays with the tropes and conventions of the fantasy genre, but most pointed with the idea of monstrosity. The Witcher is the story of a man who kills monsters, but also a story about how sometimes true monstrosity comes in human form.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.