The present is theirs. I work for the future. And the future is mine.
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is, immediately, one of the best five episodes of the Chibnall era – which perhaps says altogether more about Doctor Who of late in general than it does about this episode in particular.
The trouble with reviewing Chibnall’s Doctor Who – or, one of the issues I’m starting to have, anyway – is that I’m never quite sure how much to approach a given story in terms of what’s going on around it. Does Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror demand to be read in isolation, or should it be contextualised by the rest of series 12?
The answer, I suppose, is surely ‘both’, but I can’t help but feel the latter places a certain unfair weight on the story. As ever, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a dismal episode for Yaz; the occasional flash of charm aside, poor Mandip Gill is given such utterly thankless, banal lines I continue to feel sorry for her. (“It’s sensing it’s surroundings, like a scanner” has to be one of the more egregious bits of Chibnall-era hand-holding exposition: for all that the series emphasises scientific thinking and curiosity in its current iteration, there’s an odd unwillingness to trust in its audience’s ability to understand a concept the first go around.)
I’m not wholly sure, though, how much Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror deserves critique for that. Clearly, it’s an endemic problem – the issue is with Doctor Who as a whole right now, not this episode in and of itself alone. Any other year, it likely wouldn’t even warrant a mention; it doesn’t matter particularly that Rose is a little underserved in The Long Game, because Dalek and Father’s Day fall on either side of it. There are a few episodes in Series 9 where I wish Jenna Coleman was given a little more to do, but I’m more or less inclined to forgive them given quite how good Face the Raven and Hell Bent are for Clara. If Spyfall or Orphan 55 had found more space for Yaz, then it wouldn’t matter quite so much that she’s sidelined here – but they don’t, so it does.
Yaz isn’t the only issue you could highlight, of course; generally speaking, few of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’s problems are uniquely its own. Perhaps, I suppose, it’s time to stop drawing attention to them. (Or, you know, less so – you can probably take it as read that Yaz is underserved by an episode, so it doesn’t always need to be mentioned, but if she’s still side lined in Fugitive of the Judoon, it probably warrants a mention.) Still, though, at a certain point I think there’s a need to forgive Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, or any given episode really, for being part of Series 12, and just take them on their own strengths.
And, freed of the obligation to be a good episode of series 12, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror ends up being… well, basically quite enjoyable actually.
Tesla, of course, is self-evidently a good idea for a Doctor Who celebrity historical – “brilliant Victorian inventor”, after all, is exactly what the Doctor is half the time. If you’re inclined to position the celebrity historical as a way to interrogate your lead characters, it’d hard to think of a character better than the archetypical eccentric inventor. He’s particularly a good fit for this iteration of the Doctor, who is (nominally speaking) an inventor herself – and, although they didn’t touch on it, Tesla’s slightly idiosyncratic view of women might’ve been an interesting thing to draw on as well.
And he’s great here! It’s a depiction that really works – in no small part to the strength of Goran Visnjic’s performance, who absolutely nails the charisma needed to centre the episode. It really makes a huge difference to the rest of the cast, too, in giving them someone to actually play off – this is perhaps one of Jodie Whittaker’s best performances in the role (not entirely surprisingly; she’s always at her best when paired with a strong guest star). There’s a moment or two where it looked like it might start to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace. I’d love to see Whittaker given something like that, actually.
Perhaps my only qualm, though, is the way the episode tries to position Tesla as a great man forgotten by history. Bluntly, no, he’s not. Not as well known as Shakespeare or Churchill or Rosa Parks, no, but hardly someone whose achievements haven’t been celebrated. Sure, The Current War didn’t make much of an impact, and I suppose The Prestige – where Tesla was played by David Bowie! – is probably one of Christopher Nolan’s less famous films, comparatively speaking, but they’re very much just the tip of the iceberg in terms of pop culture depictions of Tesla. Even in his own lifetime, he didn’t cut an especially anonymous figure: TIME magazine celebrated his 75th birthday by putting his face on the cover and had a huge party in his honour. Einstein was there! Vincent van Gogh he was not, is my point.
Granted, there’s rarely much merit to picking apart these stories in terms of their historical accuracy – Rosa aside, that’s just not really what they’re for. (Which does I think create more of a need to pick Rosa apart, but that’s another matter.) I’m not even especially bothered by the way they elided some of Tesla’s more reactionary views; after all, if that’s the line of critique you’re making, the queue surely starts with Churchill.
There’s something a little off, though, about the narrative this episode tries to build around him. Because that’s just not true of Tesla! There’s a value to doing stories about great achievements forgotten by history – the Rosalind Franklin, Mary Anning types, for example, or even Ada Lovelace, who was much more than just Byron’s daughter even if Chibnall doesn’t realise it – but I’m not sure that “the white man who deserved to be a billionaire” fits this particular story.
Everything else, of course, is basically entertaining. It’s the sort of episode that I almost want to review in bullet point form, admittedly, covering individual clunky lines and particular highlights one by one – but they all largely balance each other out, anyway. The direction is a little flat at times, yes, but this TARDIS has genuinely never looked better (an impressive feat, considering the design). The Skithra are actually quite fun – I love how clumsy they are – and Anjli Mohindra is clearly having the time of her life, even if scorpion aliens maybe don’t quite cohere with the themes of the rest of the episode. In any case, both Nina Metivier and Nida Manzoor are surely due a return. (It’s a very alliterative episode I’ve realised, isn’t it? Nina Metivier, Nida Manzoor, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. That’s a nice little coincidence.)
Still, though. It’s taken me a while to write this one (I’ve backdated the post, shh), in part because… well, it’s unfair to say nothing is going on in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Indeed, for a genuinely quite compelling read on the themes, ideas and contradictions of the episode, I’d point you to this article here, on a website that’s routinely doing the most interesting Doctor Who analysis around.
Nonetheless, though, there’s something a little frustrating about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Setting aside the fact that it has surely the best episode title we’ve seen in a long time, it’s hard not to think that at any other point in the past decade this would’ve felt average at best – something akin to Fear Her or The Curse of the Black Spot. Which, in fairness, isn’t necessarily indicative of much – I rewatched Robot of Sherwood recently, an episode that’s largely in the same vein, and loved every minute of it. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror certainly feels like it might age well in the same vein. (And, of course, I have little doubt that Fear Her and The Curse of the Black Spot are someone’s favourite episodes. Well, maybe not Fear Her, but someone other than Karen Gillan must love The Curse of the Black Spot.)
But if this is still the best we can hope for, if this is obviously and immediately one of the best episodes of the Chibnall era, then I can’t help but feel that Doctor Who is perhaps not at its healthiest.