I love a good celebrity historical episode of Doctor Who. There’s just something that’s inherently fun about seeing the Doctor meet some famous person from history and have an adventure with them. Some of the best celebrity historicals are when Doctor Who answers some previously-unanswered question about that historical figure’s life – in The Unicorn and the Wasp, the show posits an answer to the question of why Agatha Christie went missing for a week, only to reappear with no memory of those days. So, when it was revealed that we’d be getting an episode about Nikola Tesla – who infamously claimed to have seen UFOs at one point in his life – it seemed like the show was setting us up for a really fun romp between the Doctor and Tesla that might answer the question of what, exactly, Tesla saw – which sounds really interesting. And with a title as bonkers as Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, it seemed as though we’d be getting an episode every bit as fun as its premise would suggest. So, was the episode interesting and fun? Was it good? Answer: yes. It is an immensely fun episode. (This review contains spoilers for Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.)
Season 12, Episode 4: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (written by Nina Metivier, directed by Nida Manzoor)
It is 1903 and on the edge of Niagara Falls, something is wrong at Nikola Tesla’s (Goran Višnjić) generator plant, where someone – or something – is sabotaging the maverick inventor’s work. Has Tesla really received a message from Mars? And where does his great rival Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister) fit into these events? The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) must join forces with one of history’s greatest minds to save both him and planet Earth.
Goran Višnjić is the star of this episode. He does for Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror what Tony Curran did for Vincent and the Doctor – turning an otherwise ordinary episode into something special by delivering a remarkable and empathetic performance as an oft-overlooked historical figure. The episode pretends to be about the Doctor and Tesla teaming up to stop an alien invasion, but it’s really about Tesla – his genius, his legacy, and his relationships with himself and others. There is a sort of melancholy to the whole episode – after all, Tesla is a man whose genius was largely lost to history in terms of the general public’s knowledge. Tesla died penniless and having failed to make a lasting impact on the world in his lifetime; it was only after his death that other people took the ideas behind his inventions and turned them into the game-changers he always hoped they would be. And the episode doesn’t let the audience forget this.
Višnjić captures this melancholy perfectly as we see him struggling with his public perception (most noticeably in a scene where some protestors claim that he, being an immigrant, doesn’t belong in America. We see him struggle against his rival, Thomas Edison (played equally brilliantly by Robert Glenister), and how that rivalry has taken a toll on Tesla’s confidence in himself. We see his relationship with his assistant, Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee), and how the two of them bring out the best in each other. We even get some really beautiful scenes between Tesla and the Doctor – two inventors filled with melancholy about their situations. These scenes play as beautifully as the scenes between the 11th Doctor and Vincent Van Gogh do in Vincent and the Doctor and they form the heart of the episode.
But lest you think this episode is too sad, Višnjić also brings a sense of wonder to the role. Tesla is a man who loves the art of invention and you can see it in Višnjić’s face. There’s a scene were Tesla enters the TARDIS, and he’s just amazed at what he’s seeing. His scenes with the Doctor are filled with an equal amount of melancholy and wonder as he finds himself opposite a mind every bit as impressive and creative as his own. His love of invention is all the more pronounced when held in contrast with Edison’s more business-oriented mind – and the inclusion of the more well-known Edison as a partial antagonist/partial protagonist is one of the episode’s smarter moves. While these two men were often bitter rivals, they weren’t as different as history might paint them and there is something nice about seeing them come together to defeat the threat. All in all, a lesser actor would likely not have managed the balancing act but Višnjić really breathes life into Tesla throughout the whole episode and much of the story works because his performance is so good.
Now, to be fair, the actual episode surrounding Višnjić’s performance is also very good – a credit to writer Nina Metivier’s script. I’ve already discussed how impressive I felt her depiction of Tesla was, but the actual plot of the story is also a delight. Framed as a mystery involving odd happenings at one of Tesla’s power plant, the story quickly becomes a race against time as the Doctor and Tesla have to stop an alien threat from destroying the Earth in order to get their hands on Tesla. Someone has died at Tesla’s power plant and during his investigation of the death, Tesla finds himself under attack from an alien menace. This is where the Doctor (who has been totally absent from the first five minutes of the episode) enters, quickly saving Tesla and Dorothy and getting them to his office in New York City.
From there, all of our characters quickly split up to investigate the various threads of the mystery, looking to figure out who’s behind this mysterious orb Tesla found in his factory and what they want. It’s here where our companions get their biggest chances to shine – most notably Yaz. As the Doctor, Graham, and Ryan go to investigate Edison’s role in this mystery, Yaz is left behind with Tesla and Dorothy. These scenes are really nice ones and it’s a joy to see Yaz actually having a meaningful interaction with, and actually helping, Tesla throughout the episode. The scenes between The Doctor, Ryan, Graham, and Edison are equally great and the two storylines eventually converge in a second act that careens its way to a pretty thrilling climax. All in all, it’s a very well-executed, well-paced mystery that’s a lot of fun to watch. I don’t want to spoil it any further, as half the fun is in not knowing what is happening. Needless to say, the episode is a really fun romp with some excellent dialogue and character beats.
It’s not all perfection, though; there are two problems, in particular, I had with the episode. The first is that the episode’s villains, the Skithra, are fairly underdeveloped – though not as poorly fleshed out as villains from season 11 were. Here, they’re nothing more than two-dimensional aliens who steal technology from the worlds they invade. There’s nothing particularly special about them – save for Anjli Mohindra’s delightfully campy performance as the Queen Skithra. Now, to be fair, this doesn’t really hamper the episode too much. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror isn’t really about the Skithra or what they want; it’s about Nikola Tesla and his relationship with himself, his ideas, and his rival, and in that sense, the episode excels at telling the story it’s trying to tell. Nobody remembers the alien threat from Vincent and the Doctor, but the episode is still considered a good one, and the same will be the case here – and that’s totally fine.
The bigger problem I had, though, came in some of the episode’s direction. On the whole, Nida Manzoor did an excellent job with the episode. The action sequences are well-staged (for the most part), all of the effects work is solid, the episode’s pacing and editing feel good. The problem is the episode’s lighting; it’s just too dark sometimes. There’s an action sequence on a train in the episode’s first fifteen minutes, and it’s an exciting one. But you can hardly see what’s actually happening because it’s not lit brightly enough to make out the action. The same is true in the scenes set on the Skithra’s spaceship; the design looks cool, but it’s so shrouded in darkness that you can’t really get a sense of it or of what’s happening. And, sure, perhaps that’s on purpose; I mean, the episode is set in 1903 and electricity was still in its early stages of implementation. So, I suppose the dimmer lighting might have been intentional. But it doesn’t necessarily make for a pleasant viewing experience. This is a problem a lot of TV shows seem to be having lately; the kind of lighting that works in feature films doesn’t always work on TV due to the extreme variations in TV quality and setup. So, if the viewer can’t make out what’s going on because you’ve chosen to use dimmer lighting, you’ve still failed at the number one goal of lighting: making sure the action can be seen and understood.
All of that said, those problems didn’t deter my enjoyment of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror much. The episode proved to be immensely enjoyable. It’s a super fun romp with a celebrity historical. It features a superb performance from Goran Višnjić as Tesla, some great screenwriting, some good action scenes, and a story that neatly ties together all of the thematic ideas with an empathetic exploration of a single night of Tesla’s life. Sure, the villains aren’t the most interesting and the lighting is sometimes too dark, but most of the episode works really well and it’s hard not to find yourself captivated by the performances and the writing. This is some of Whittaker’s best work as the Doctor to date and the episode ranks as one of my favorites of her tenure thus far.
4.5 out of 5 wands.