Four episodes in, and so far this season of Doctor Who feels like a major pitch back to its past. Old faces, more monsters, stark messages. It’s all good and proper Doctor Who. But a commitment to bringing back the vibe of Doctor Who also brings with it a familiar problem: episodes that feel like something you’ve seen a million times before.
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror,” right down the b-movie-esque title, feels cut from a cloth Doctor Who has practically shred to pieces since its earliest days: a pseudohistorical romp that leans heavily on the “pseudo” part of that term. Not rooted in trying to weave around the mechanics and logistics of navigating real history, it is an episode that frequently chucks the consideration of Time Travel out the window because, well, it’s 1903 and skittering scorpion scavengers from another world are trying to eat Nikola Tesla (played to charming delight by Goran Visnjic) and Thomas Edison alive.
So why waste time considering what you’re doing when you shove two gilded age inventors inside a dimensionally transcendental police box other than ask them to help you save the day from alien scorpions?
Thomas Edison, scared of alternating current but largely unfazed by a phone booth that travels space and time.
It is an essence that pervades the episode. Every time the potential for a particularly meaty or interesting idea is raised, it’s quickly discarded for a bit of monster action or tossed aside because stopping the pace of it all to even think about something just wouldn’t be fun at all. There are ideas raised here in the broad strokes – the contrast the episode makes between the ideation of Tesla and the businessmanlike approach to invention that made Edison not just his greatest rival, but infinitely more successful, or asking the question of what it means when the Doctor lifts the mask of her world of time and space, of monsters and aliens, to people of history, only to choose not to wipe their minds of it. But that is all they are: strokes, brushed broadly on the tapestry of shapeshifting junker aliens who run about swiping things, people, and even ideas off of other worlds in order to keep their waning civilisation going. If it was made in the Steven Moffat era of the show, it almost absolutely would have been written by Mark Gatiss.
Which means to say that really, it’s just sort of...fine. There’s nothing really bad about “Night of Terror” but nothing particularly outstanding about it either, quickly melding into the milieu of monster-driven historical episodes that Doctor Who has built so much of its back catalogue on the moment it slips your mind after watching. This sort of enjoyable, if familiar, romp, is something that this latest era of the show, which has been on an arc of self-reflection and reinvention of sorts, has attempted to put its own stamp on before, to varying degrees of success. In the “eh” camp there’s “Arachnids in the UK” and “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” episodes that had nothing to say other than “look, we can do that Doctor Who thing, still!”
The Doctor and Tesla get off on the wrong foot. Well, wrong stolen ray gun.
“Night of Terror” manages to avoid joining these prior attempts, thankfully, and more gracefully slots itself in alongside the likes of last season’s “Kerblam!” – which mostly managed to do a good job of balancing modern-day allegory with sci-fi shenanigans, until the very end – and “The Witchfinders,” which added to its familiar pseudohistory premise by actually engaging with the fact that the incarnation of the Doctor that tackled it was female. Of these two better attempts, this most recent episode perhaps slots itself firmly between. It doesn’t completely whiff the landing quite like “Kerblam!,” but it doesn’t really quite add much of its own thing to the proceedings like “The Witchfinders.”
What it does add, however comes quickly and only near the end – and in the context of this current season’s lingering threads, makes for a fascinating trajectory for the 13th Doctor to continue on. As the episode builds to a climax that sees the Doctor, her friends, Tesla and his assistant Dorothy, and a wary Edison hunker down at Tesla’s underfunded Wardenclyffe project, hoping to lure the Skithra Queen and her ship close enough to zap it with electricity and scare the scorpid scavengers off. When things go awry (as they’re wont to do, it is Doctor Who of course) the Doctor is drawn into an in-person confrontation with the Queen, and issues the ultimatum that the Skithra still have a chance to leave Earth unharmed, even as she needles her as a queen of shreds and patches. Incensed, the Skithra Queen promptly steps her foot in it – well, she is a scorpion lady, one of her feet – and threatens the Doctor: does she know what it’s like to see a world she loves, dead?
“No second chances. I’m that sort of a Time Lord. Err, again.
Oh, bug-lady. You picked the wrong time to ask this Time Lord that.
What follows is a subtle moment from Whittaker’s Doctor, but handled incredibly – the mask of co-operation with the Skithra falls, and the Doctor, stinging from the recent re-loss of her own home and the tragedy she saw there, immediately steels herself. She no longer wants to offer a chance to the Skithra, but defeat them entirely. Not warn them, but punish them for crossing her. The time for second chances is far from over, and this Doctor no longer feels like the sort of character even remotely willing to be reticent about that.
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” doesn’t really engage with this moment with the Doctor longer than it needs to. The Doctor tricks the Queen into returning to her ready-to-be-zapped ship, the day is saved. And, kind of depressingly, the Time Lord tells her friends that it’s basically okay that Nikola Tesla has been inside the TARDIS and faced off aliens from another world because while he’s got good ideas and that’s nice, he’s going to die penniless and with his genius largely ignored or left in the shadow of other inventors.
But the fact that it does engage, if even for a moment – building on the arc established in the premiere, iterating on this darker, less-lenient path the 13th Doctor is being pushed down – elevates it from its otherwise average finery. It took most of the runtime to get there, but finally, and appropriately for an episode about Tesla, we got a spark of energy that was greatly appreciated.
Rani’s looking a bit different...
- Fun fact for you: the Skithra Queen was played by none other than Anjli Mohindra, who’s rather familiar with the world of Doctor Who already thanks to her time as Rani Chandra on The Sarah Jane Adventures. From saving the Earth to wanting to ruin it!
- Bradly Walsh’s consistently jaunty-angled bowler hat. That’s it. That’s the musing.
- Between the Master in the season premiere and the Judoon on the way next week, there’s already been a lot of old Who love going on this season to the point that I honestly expected the Silurian blaster that kicked off the Doctor’s involvement in Tesla’s business at the start of the episode to belong to an actual Silurian. While it’s nice to see Chibnall’s era of Who, having cut itself off almost entirely from past references last season, relish in that rich history, it’s nicer to have got a “new” threat instead of an old one.
- I know the Wardenclyffe project was an actual thing, among this episode’s pseudohistory – Tesla never could truly secure funding, it eventually got shut down in 1906, and there are current efforts to turn the site into a museum celebrating his work – but the avid Destiny 2 player in me couldn’t help misthink at first and leap to the Wardcliff Coil, a Tesla-inspired mad scientist rocket launcher that deals electricity damage in a barrage of wild missiles. If only the Doctor and her team had one of those handy!