A solid blend of pacing, character, past and future.
Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has been strongly influenced by the Russell T Davies’ era and once again there were shades of early Nu Who this week in the brilliantly titled Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror. The alien threat, the scorpion-like Skithra and their queen, played by The Sarah Jane Adventures‘ Anjli Mohindra, were very Racnoss from The Runaway Bride, so much so that I was surprised the Doctor didn’t observe a connection between the two races. But sometimes wearing your influences on your sleeve isn’t a bad thing. New writer Nina Metivier brings a fun mix of historical adventure with world-ending alien threat that has been a classic trope of the series and emerges as the best episode of Jodie Whittaker’s tenure yet.
Yes, I love a lot about this episode, most notably the performances of the guest cast and the richness of the historical setting; Doctor Who does period drama well and the New York of 1903 felt vibrant and absorbing; the sight of the scorpion Skithra racing through the streets was that uncanny fusion of past and future the show can do so well. You might question perhaps, why I rate Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror so highly; there have been better episodes of Doctor Who since the show returned in 2005. But this was the first episode since Chibnall took over that really felt that it had the right balance. The pacing of the fifty-minute episode was spot on, the performances strong, the setting lovely to look at and it really tapped into the Thirteenth Doctor’s most special quality – the one that makes her unique from her predecessors. The inventor.
Naturally, it takes a story with two of America’s biggest inventors – Nicholas Tesla and rival Thomas Edison – to tap into her biggest strength. She might carry the boundless, chatty enthusiasm of Tennant’s Doctor, surely Chibnall’s biggest influence, but we saw a slightly more nuanced performance from Whittaker this week. Perhaps its the revelation of the series two-part opener weighing on her (that quite reflection scene in the TARDIS in Spyfall Part Two might have been some of her finest work as the Doctor), but this week, she seemed a more natural fit, unrestrained by the usual exposition-heavy dialogue the showrunner often affords her. This is the Doctor who built her own sonic screwdriver out of spoons, that marvels at technology even in the most opportune moments. Meeting Tesla, she finds something of a kindred spirit and its a delight to watch.
Goran Višnjić is the real star of this show as Tesla; he puts real heart into every thought, every word, bringing to life the passion of this historical figure’s life’s work. His connection with the Doctor is lovely to witness; the scene where he is prepared to give himself up to save the world and the Doctor convinces him to fight is a real highlight. He also brings moments of humour, particularly in his bickering with rival Edison and has plenty of charisma to convince Dorothy Skerritt and Yaz, the latter playing assistant to both him and Edison in a series that seems to be serving her much better than the last.
Robert Glenister, who last appeared in Doctor Who in 1984 classic The Caves of Androzani, brings plenty of arrogance as Edison, a man consumed by business and absolute ambition. But he isn’t totally unlikable either, mourning the loss of his staff during the brutal slaughter by the Skithra on his workshop. Rounding up the core guest cast of human characters is Haley McGee, who is lovingly understated in her passions for a career and fuller life; you believe in her passion for Tesla’s work and there is some nice moments as she bonds with Ryan. As for the the male companion, he continues to bounce off Graham, scoffing that his granddad has never been to a rodeo; naturally Graham has a brilliant retort (along with his ACDC comment, Bradley Walsh continues to be the man to deliver the best one-liners in the script).
Mohindra is very OTT as the Skithra Queen, playing directly as a recreation of Sarah Parish’s Racnoss Queen that you have to assume a line about the alien race connection must have been left on the cutting room floor. The alien menace isn’t subtle and nothing unique, perhaps serving as the weakest element of the episode. But the human copies in their top hats and red lightning spouting from their hands and eyes make for a formidable threat that might scare some younger viewers.
Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror is a terrifically fun episode with a charismatic guest performance from Goran Višnjić as the titular inventor and a solid back up from everyone involved. It really brings to light the Doctor’s biggest strength as an inventor and has a real blast, fusing historical and alien threats to make the most consistent, well-paced episode since Whittaker took on the mantle of the Doctor. It might not have the big, ballsy moments of Spyfall, but it shows that the current era of Doctor Who can craft a very strong episode that plays to the show’s strengths. Some issues with last week’s Orphan 55 aside, it’s proof that the show has stepped up its game with series twelve…
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