Monday, May 20, 2024

Tesla’s Terror is the Viewer’s Insightful Historical Ride

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Last week’s “Orphan 55″ left much to be desired but “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is here to compensate with some good old historical fun. Episode 4 feels lighter than previous episodes while still retaining its Thirteenth Doctor era feel. We’re introduced to deeper implications and writer Nina Metivier invites us to learn more about Tesla and his work’s effects on our present.

Other people’s brilliance

The episode’s main conflict is driven by the Skithra, a scorpion-like scavenger species. The Skithra steal technology from other races and want Tesla to use this technology and help them conquer others. So the idea behind this new entry into the Whoniverse is simple: they’re unimaginative parasites exploiting the creativity of others. It is quite ironic then that the design of the Skithra, or at least that of the Queen reminded me so much of the Racnoss that at first I really thought it was that species returning. But similarities with previous monsters aside, the Skithra are interesting both visually and thematically.

Their Queen is played by Anjli Mohindra, who’s almost unrecognizable under the prosthetics. Mohindra previously appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures as Rani Chandra and I loved her character there so I was looking forward to seeing what she could do in a different role. There’s usually not much substance to big bads like the Queen here but Mohindra clearly had fun with the role and her taunting of the Doctor made for an excellent scene.

The Skithra’s way of stealing ideas is, of course, paralleled with Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister), who serves as a foil and rival to Tesla. He represents many of the same ideas as the Skithra, although his motivation is the same as Tesla’s, progress, and he ultimately helps the Doctor and company defeat the aliens. Edison’s portrayal in this episode is more complex than what it might seem at first glance. His flaws are pointed out by both the Doctor and Graham and we’re meant to see the problems in his mentality and how he treats ideas. At the same time, he’s humanized through how much he’s affected by the death of his employees and he does help save the day.

It’s great to see not only a somewhat nuanced portrayal of historical figures but also a thematic connection between history and whatever alien threat is involved. So-called pure historicals are now extinct in Doctor Who so even when we visit the past there are sci-fi elements involved. This works best when the sci-fi works to enhance the historical story or vice-versa, which is what happens in “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” even if on a low-key level. Through the Skithra and the clash between Tesla and Edison, we get a story about the importance of creativity and personal integrity.

The present is theirs, I work for the future

Historical episodes were originally conceived as a way to teach the viewers about, well, history. Although the pure historical stories of the Hartnell era are gone, truly good episodes that feature famous figures still teach us something. Apart from the integration of a sci-fi storyline, good historical episodes shine a light on a piece of history. This time it’s Nikola Tesla in the limelight and, to a much lesser extent, Thomas Edison. As the Doctor explains who Tesla is to her companions, we also learn about him. More importantly, Doctor Who can make us and hopefully can make children curious about the events featured. For example, Tesla really did believe he was contacted by aliens. But even beyond that, it’s so good to see DW feature lesser-known but deserving figures of history.

Tesla himself is played by Goran Višnjić of ER and Timeless fame and it’s the best imaginable casting choice. His performance is captivating from the first scene onwards and he bounces off Whittaker’s Doctor really well. Tesla is the perfect person for the Doctor to geek out with and the Thirteenth Doctor is possibly the best regeneration to do that. This episode made me wish we could see more of Višnjić as Tesla or that we could have seen more sides of him here but even what we do get is a joy to watch.

It’s especially good to see a Croatian-American actor in the role of a Serbian-American inventor, who was born in what is modern-day Croatia. National identity was a complicated thing in 19th century Europe and even more so in the Austrian Empire but in any case, Tesla was an immigrant in the US and the episode does include some of the hate he might have faced. “You don’t belong in America”, shouts an angry protestor, and it’s easy to see how this moment in the episode set in 1903 could be relevant in 2020. Unlike many of Thirteen’s episodes, “Night of Terror” doesn’t go into detail on this political issue here but the moment is still there.

Part of me expected this immigration aspect to come up again but then again, perhaps it’s best it was left at that. As with last week, Doctor Who can be a bit on the nose and lose all substance in the process. Sure, the episode could have acknowledged that the reason that the fam and many others are much more familiar with Edison than Tesla might have something to do with the latter’s “alien” status. “Night of Terror” already dealt with one major theme and even criticized capitalism in the process, though, so I’ll take what I can get and appreciate Višnjić in the role.

Normal would be boring

Another guest star I haven’t mentioned yet is Haley McGee as Dorothy Skerritt, Tesla’s friend and supporter. Though she doesn’t get too much screentime, her scene with Ryan is exactly the kind of quiet yet meaningful moment that we needed. As they think about the Doctor and Tesla the comparison is inevitable and gives us an insight into Dorothy’s character as well as being a good Ryan moment. Graham gets to give Thomas Edison a piece of his mind and once again Yaz gets a slightly more active role than her fellow companions. As the one who stays behind with Tesla, she gets to be the one to understand his tragedy. It is through Yaz that we see what a shame it is that Tesla’s genius was never properly appreciated in his lifetime – and arguably still isn’t today. Unlike with something like “Vincent and the Doctor”, though, the point here isn’t to let him know how he’ll be remembered. The point in “Night of Terror” is to persevere and believe against all odds. At least, that’s one of the points the episode makes.

Like I said earlier, the Thirteenth Doctor is delightful to watch with both Tesla and the Queen of the Skithra. It really pays off to have such talented guest stars in scenes with Whittaker as we can see more of what she can do. And speaking of, a whole new side of the Thirteenth Doctor is beginning to show this season. This is not new for this episode but rather a careful continuation of the path “Spyfall” set for her. We’ve seen previous Doctors become merciless after the one chance they gave an enemy was refused, of course we have. Yet there’s something quiet but powerful in how Jodie Whittaker reacts when asked “have you ever seen a dead planet” and when she dooms the Skithra. She’s far from becoming too dark but there’s an edge there, one that was almost entirely absent from her more carefree series 11. Though the Timeless Child and Gallifrey plotlines are absent from the episode, we’re still building up to the season finale just by following the Doctor down this path.

All in all then “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is a welcome change after the disappointment of last week. It’s far from being as action-packed and consequential as “Spyfall” was but a breather is needed as we approach midseason. The Judoon are returning next episode and soon the Cybermen are also coming so this fun standalone is much appreciated in the meantime.

Images courtesy of the BBC

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