In the tried and trusted tradition of New Who, Season 12 has given us a present day story, followed by a future story, and now we have a past story. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is written by Nina Métivier, a writer new to Doctor Who, who has won a BAFTA for her work on the teenage drama Dixi for CBBC. Showrunner Chris Chibnall’s trend of selecting new writers for Doctor Who from different arenas of drama can be a 2-edged sword; sometimes even the most impressive dramatists just don’t get the format of the series. However, I’m pleased to say that this is not the case here. Although this story contains much which is fresh and new, it is at its heart an old-school pseudo-historical, bearing much in common thematically with The Unquiet Dead and other stories stretching much further back into the history of Doctor Who.
The story uses as its backdrop the well-documented rivalry between the scientists Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison at the time when electricity was starting to be utilised in an industrial and household capacity. Tesla is played here by Croatian-American actor Goran Višnjić, best known for playing Dr. Luka Kovač in the long-running US hospital drama E.R. and is portrayed as a brilliant mind but something of a dreamer. His rival, Thomas Edison, is played by Robert Glennister who previously appeared in Doctor Who 37 years ago, as Salateen in The Fifth Doctor’s swansong The Caves of Androzani. He is played as a ruthless businessman with very little scientific acumen but a great talent for claiming the glory for other people’s inventions. This is the popular 21st century view of these two inventors, though how close it comes to the truth is anyone’s guess (though Edison did steal the idea for the incandescent filament electric lamp from Sunderland-born inventor Joseph Swan, becoming the less impressively named electric light bulb).
It’s not all inventing though, not by a long chalk; before you know what’s what, a mysterious green orb has turned up in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory, followed by a zombie-like fellow with a purloined Silurian gun, followed by the Doctor and friends. It’s one of those stories where the TARDIS crew turn up part-way through an adventure, having been tracking unexpected energy readings – so no dull opening console room scenes. That’s not a criticism of the Jodie Whittaker era by the way; console room scenes are always boring, apart from The Edge of Destruction… or maybe including The Edge of Destruction – 57 years on and the jury’s still out on that one. I digress. It’s also one of those stories where the companions get to wear period outfits, which I always like to see in a story. It’s just a shame that, after a promising sartorial diversion in Spyfall, the Doctor is just wandering around 1903 in her standard outfit. Would it have been so bad to put Jodie in a period costume? Now that the Doctor is a woman, they really need to stop looking at the concept of her – dare I say it? – wearing a skirt as a sign of weakness. She doesn’t have to dress like a bloke to be a strong character.
After a while it turns out that it’s all down to the Skithra, a race of giant scorpion creatures, the leader of whom is played by Anjli Mohindra, best known to Doctor Who fans as The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Rani (not ‘The’ Rani, thank goodness). They’re a bunch of alien scavengers who go about the place cribbing technology from all and sundry and they’re after Tesla for his technical knowhow. I thought it was a refreshing change to see the Doctor up against a foe that is basically a bit shabby after endless years all-powerful, well-equipped intergalactic empires. They look pretty impressive too, scuttling around the place with a computer generated energy that was sadly lacking in last week’s Dregs. Mohindra’s make-up harks back to some of the more fondly-remembered new series monsters too; in fact, the Skithra are so conceptually and visually akin to The Runaway Bride’s Racnoss that I’m surprised there wasn’t at least a passing comment. I mean, if they deemed it worthy of a mention that the Sea Devils were related to the Silurians back in the day, they could certainly have chucked a mention in here.
The story splits the companions up again, which is always a good thing with such a large TARDIS crew, and pairs Yaz up with Tesla for part of the story. This is good because it gives Mandip Gill a chance to show off her considerable acting chops, which often get brushed aside when there are too few lines for too many companions. Bradley Walsh gets all of the best gags again (or maybe it’s just the way he tells ‘em) and his scene giving short shrift to Thomas Edison, whom he sees as just another self-important ‘boss’, is just brilliant. It’s good to see that, via Graham, the series is making a return to the working class ethos that Russell T. Davies introduced when he brought back Doctor Who in 2005. It’s a very well acted story in general, with a cast of characters that is small, but not so empty feeling as some of the episodes in Series 11.
I really enjoyed Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and on top of Spyfall, this has restored my faith in the forthcoming series. I’ve no idea if it had a lot of money spent on it, but it certainly feels like it did. The period New York settings are excellent and work a lot better than similar ones that were used in earlier episodes and the costumes and props were subtle, understated and convincing. The post-2005 series has an uneasy track record with these kind of pseudo-historicals and they tend to be either brilliant or simply awful; fortunately, this one falls into the former category. There was nothing in this story that added towards the ‘arc’ but there didn’t need to be; Doctor Who’s audience is smart enough to know that we’re building to something without having it rammed down our throats every week. This is a good, old-fashioned, rip-roarin’ Doctor Who adventure story and I have to admit that most weeks when I tune in, that’s all I’m really after.