Photo: James Pardon (BBC America)
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“High-speed inventing is one of my specialisms.”

One scene I often return to when trying to figure out what separates Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor from previous incarnations is the sequence in her debut episode where she constructs her own sonic screwdriver out of spare parts and old spoons. Though pretty much all versions of the Doctor have had a knack for inventing, it’s a quality that’s been central to the 13th Doctor right from the very beginning. So while it’s kind of remarkable that it’s taken this long for Doctor Who to deliver an adventure featuring beloved cult science figure Nikola Tesla (Goran Višnjić), it feels right that the show held out to pair him with a Doctor who vibes on his particular frequency. The Doctor’s fandom for a famous historical figure has seldom felt so earned.

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Compared to the form-breaking historical adventures “Rosa” and “Demons Of The Punjab,” “Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” is a much more standard take on the Doctor Who celebrity historical. Yet writer Nina Metivier hits that familiar template out of the park with a thoughtful, exhilarating, educational romp that speaks to the present as much as to the past. Tesla may have “dreamed up the 20th century before it happened,” but as the episode hilariously lampshades, he’s still much more likely to be known by name than by reputation. Ryan asks if he’s connected to the car, while Graham smugly asserts that Tesla was an inventor before realizing he can’t actually name anything he invented. “Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” aims to correct that blindspot by cramming in as many details about Tesla’s life and work as possible—from his contributions to alternating current to his work on X-ray imaging to his early dreams for something akin to wifi (or at least wireless communication).

Metivier anchors her episode around a particularly quirky historical detail: Tesla really did discover signals he thought might have come from another planet. They were probably messages from another experimenter in wireless transmission, but Metivier imagines that Tesla inadvertently opened communications with a cloaked alien ship hovering over New York City in 1903. The (stolen) ship belongs to the Skithra, a scorpion-like alien race who pilfer other species’ technology rather than inventing their own. Befitting that modus operandi, they want to abduct Tesla and force him to serve as their chief engineer. But when the Doctor pisses off the Skithra Queen (Anjli Mohindra, looking a whole lot like the Racnoss Empress from “The Runaway Bride”), the whole Earth winds up in the crosshairs.

Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)

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There are a couple fascinating character beats for the Doctor in this episode, one of which is notably dark. After visiting the future Earth of “Orphan 55” and especially after seeing Gallifrey destroyed in “Spyfall, Part Two,” it’s clearly a gut punch when the Skithra Queen asks if the Doctor has ever seen a dead planet. Perhaps because of that, “Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” presents the Doctor at her most ruthless. After the Skithra turn down her initial offer to retreat, the Doctor coldly notes, “When you die they’ll be nothing left behind. Just a trail of blood and other people’s brilliance. No one will even know you existed.” No second chances, indeed!

As a monster-of-the-week, the Skithra mostly succeed at hitting the sweet spot between campy and terrifying, although I do think they get just a tad too much screentime for the fairly standard role they end up playing. I would’ve happily exchanged some of the evil alien monologuing for more time spent on the lovely dynamic between Ryan and Tesla’s real-life secretary Dorothy Skerrit (Haley McGee), who share a mutual understanding of the life-changing experience of being the companion to a genius. Still, it’s a thrill to watch the Chibnall era deliver its best-ever action sequence as the scorpion creatures chase Yaz and Robert Glenister’s Thomas Edison (oh yeah, he’s here too!) through the streets of Gilded Age New York City.

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Beneath the rollicking sci-fi fun—which culminates with a standoff at Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower—“Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” offers appreciable thematic depth to its exploration of science, fame, rivalry, and futurism. In many ways, the episode positions the Skithra as a parallel for Edison. He’s also someone who ruthlessly steals ideas from others instead of putting his own genius to good work. There’s pointed dramatic irony in the fact that the companions know so much more about Edison than they do about Tesla. In the end, however, “Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” comes up with a more nuanced thesis than just “Tesla good, Edison bad.”

Though he largely comes across as a bully, Edison gets a crucial humanizing moment when he’s genuinely devastated to discover that dozens of his employees have been murdered. Later, his knack for scaremongering propaganda is ultimately the thing that allows him and Yaz to clear the streets and save dozens of lives before the Skithra attack. There’s even some truth to Edison’s claim that his “invention factory” is the greatest idea that either he or Tesla ever came up with, at least from a business perspective. “Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” presents Edison as an antagonist but not quite a villain. Fittingly, his comeuppance is having to live with the knowledge that the Skithra wanted Tesla’s mind and not his.

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Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)

Ultimately, however, this episode belongs to Telsa, and Višnjić immediately joins Vinette Robinson’s Rosa Parks, Tony Curran’s Vincent van Gogh, and Simon Callow’s Charles Dickens as one of the finest historical guest appearances Doctor Who has ever delivered. He downplays the heavy accent that actors often give the Serbian inventor (Višnjić himself was born in Croatia), and lends Tesla the dreamy, mild-mannered energy of someone who doesn’t quite seem to live on our plane of existence. Telsa doesn’t even bother to write down his ideas because it’s easier to just hold them all in his mind

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Tesla’s eclectic mind is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. He has trouble working with others, which Yaz identifies as a flaw (“Just because you’re a genius doesn’t mean you have to figure everything out on your own”). He also has a terrible head for business and self-preservation, which is what will eventually leave him to die penniless—an endpoint that even his adventure with the Doctor can’t change. Yet as the episode frames it, the eventual vindication of Tesla’s forward thinking-ideas is perhaps the ultimate win for a man more concerned with building the future than living in the present.

Tesla is clearly a major parallel for the Doctor. Not only are they both oddball inventors, they both know what it’s like to be outsiders. The Doctor is a Time Lord who’s chosen Earth as her adoptive home while Tesla is a Serbian-American whose immigrant status is often held against him by the public. (This episode offers a timely reminder of the lengthy history of America’s anti-immigrant sentiment.) For as glorious as their brains are, they can also be a burden too. As the episode explores in one of its lovely, character-centric scenes, the Doctor and Tesla share a sense of isolation and loneliness. When no one else sees the world the way you do, you constantly feel out of place, even when you’re surrounded by friends.

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Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)

From its impeccable period costuming to its thrilling alien threat, “Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” is an incredibly fun hour of Doctor Who. But it also has the kind of quiet poignancy that so often characterizes the best episodes of the series. The Doctor and Tesla both advocate for the importance of progress for progress’ sake, but the episode doesn’t deny the reality that business and war are often the motivators for our biggest scientific steps forward. For every species like the Thassa—who sent out orbs hoping to pass on their knowledge to others—there’s a group like the Skithra, who want to harness technology for their own self-serving ends. It’s a grim reality, and one that only makes the dreamers all that much more important.

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Stray observations

  • Tesla Corner: Though it got mixed reviews, I really enjoyed the 2019 film The Current War, which features Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison, Michael Shannon as his rival George Westinghouse, and Nicholas Hoult as Tesla. Of course, David Bowie’s performance in The Prestige will probably always remain our most iconic onscreen depiction of Tesla.
  • Graham gets some nice moments of working class pride as he calls out Edison for being the kind of boss who cruelly exploits his most talented workers. His “Oi, AC/DC!” is also a great line.
  • One of the episode’s best surprises is the reveal that Yaz’s dress is actually a pair of billowy pants.
  • Though the Skithra prosthetics makes her unrecognizable, Anjli Mohindra previously starred as Rani Chandra on The Sarah Jane Adventures. Robert Glenister, meanwhile, previously appeared in the 1984 Classic Who story “The Caves Of Androzani.”
  • If you’re interested in doing some rewatching, next week’s episode features the return of the Judoon, the rhino-headed military police force first introduced way back in the season three premiere, “Smith And Jones.”

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