Doctor Who: NIKOLA TESLA'S NIGHT OF TERROR Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Nikola Tesla. Shape-shifting scorpion aliens. Silurians. Two out of three ain't bad, says Tony.

If you’re going to a Doctor Who celebrity historical story, the celebrity should be front and centre, absolutely key to the story or the solution of the plot. On that basis, you have to give Nina Metivier a big tick right from the get-go, for putting Nikola Tesla at the heart of her story.

He is, first and foremost, the in-story reason why things are happening that draw the Doctor and Fam in to investigate. He’s at least half of the dramatic stake of the story, balanced as he is against the fate of every human being on the planet. And of course, his inventions are absolutely key to defeating the alien villain – hoorah! This is Doctor Who meets peak Tesla.

The story opens with a standard situation, given a Tesla twist – an electrical generating plant at Niagara Falls promises energy, promises light…but appears to be resulting instead in the deaths of people who work on it. Is there something fatally flawed about Nikola Tesla’s equipment, or is there something else afoot?

Of course there’s something else afoot, this is Doctor Who, not Scrapheap Challenge.

The episode quickly introduces us to some off-world tech (Gotta love a floating ball. Who doesn’t love a floating ball?), and then, with appealing rapidity, Tesla (Goran Višnjić) and his assistant Dorothy Skeritt (Haley McGee) are running away from a shadow-shrouded maniac with what looks suspiciously like a Silurian weapon.

Ooh, Silurians?

Ach – no Silurians. When the fleeing genius runs into the Doctor and crew, and the chase takes a train ride in suitably action movie style, it turns out the Silurian tech has been stolen, and that the floating ball, which Tesla wants to investigate alone, is giving off a lot of energy. The Doctor decides to stick close, partly we suspect to keep an eye on the ball, and partly because it’s Nikola freakin’ Tesla and she’s fangirling pretty hard and trying to stay cool about it.

From here on in, the episode’s a tad more formulaic than its opening promises. Tesla hands over the ball and the Doctor works out its technogubbinry – it ain’t from round here, and it’s basically the initial equivalent of an outer space USB-stick, full of information from a species that likes to share. But now it’s been repurposed as a data-scoop, taking in information from the planet and feeding it back – but to where?

Turns out Tesla, who pinged a signal into space and claimed he got a response from Mars, actually reached the spaceship of a species who really badly need an engineer. And now they’re here to steal him, so he can tool up their ship and go ripping great holes in the people of the galaxy.

It’s more subtle than it seems, the central dilemma at the heart of this story – if science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, but what if that one is Nikola Tesla? Or Ben Franklin? Or Alan Turing? Or, come to that, Ada Lovelace? Or Einstein? Or Hawking? Figures who actively move the needle on human development. Do they make the ethical equation more tricky for a time traveller? Do you, in sacrificing them as individuals, also sacrifice the entire future their existence and work would lead to?

Not, mind you, that there’s a lot of time for subtlety in this story – there are alien scorpions to fit in! And Thomas Edison too, mostly on the grounds that you can’t really have a realistic picture of Tesla’s life and work without Edison sticking his oar in. Their differences of approach and attitude were to dog Tesla for much of his working life, and Edison was both brilliant in his way and also a mercilessly thieving git. We love a bit of Robert Glenister, and he’ll always add something by way of character to any story you tell, and while he’s hard to capture, the script more or less delivers the complex balance of shades that was Edison, but it’s a shame in some ways he isn’t given more to do. Then again, it speaks to the fundamentals of the story that, for instance, when Edison’s introduced to the Tardis, it flabbergasts him almost as much as it does your average evolved primate, but when Tesla steps into the box, he has at least a working hypothesis of what’s going on – and that he’s right. Both have their place in history, but if it’s sheer technological imagination you’re looking for, Tesla’s your man.

It’s sheer technological imagination the Skithra are looking for. They’re the shapeshifting scorpion-people in a ship in orbit who’ve come to pick up their genius.

Here’s the thing.

Scorpion-people? Sure, why not? – the annals of Doctor Who is absolutely crammed with species that are basically something we find on Earth, but given an intelligent twist. Russell T Davies of course was a big fan of Animal-People – cat-people, vulture-people (the Shansheeth of Sarah-Jane Adventures fame), rhino-people (the Judoon, making a return in episode 5 of this series), spider-people (the Racnoss)…

Oh. Hang on. Spider-people, ruled by an empress. Scorpion-people, ruled by a queen.

The actual prosthetics for the Empress of the Racnoss, as played by Sarah Parish in The Runaway Bride, and Queen Skithra, played by Anjli Mohindra in the Tesla-fest, are quite significantly different, not least because the Racnoss has a head full of eyes and the Skithra has a couple of sting-spikes, and, peculiarly, in a Cats uncanny valley sort of way, Skithra is a biped (whereas most of her species appear to be full-on giant scorpions), but the issue is that within the episode, and especially given the way it’s shot, with Skithra’s head filling the screen much as the Racnoss Empress’s did before her, Queen Skithra falls into her own, Who-fan uncanny valley. If you’ve never seen The Runaway Bride, it’s not a thing you’ll know or care about. If you have seen it, Skithra ends up being so Racnossy you’re plagued by the fact of her being so like that species and character, but not them, and that no mention of any familial similarity is made. To young viewers, it probably couldn’t matter less (and it’s worth remembering that the programme’s key child demographic probably won’t have been alive when the Empress of the Racnoss first appeared on-screen), but to those who’ve seen her, it’s an odd decision to create a character so similar and yet not have that similarity acknowledged in any way.

The realisation of the rank and file Skithra as they chase humans about in their native forms is another strong mark for the show’s CGI in the Chibnall era. As with Arachnids In The UK (coincidentally the last time what feels like a godawful pitch-document title made it all the way to transmission without being amended for the love of the audience), the visuals of the Skithra are likely to have made a big impact on the minds of some of those watching – gone, it seems, are the days of unconvincing scuttly things on Doctor Who. And there’s plenty of fun in both the runaround element of the script, and the quiet one-to-one between the Doctor and Tesla. Definitely, this is a Doctor who works extremely well in the one-to-one format, giving historical figures a sense that they’re not alone, that they’re understood. As with James I in The Witchfinders, this Doctor is able to assure Tesla that he’s heard, and to change the dynamic of their predicament. There’s not a Doctor who wasn’t capable of that of course, but it’s emerging as a keynote to Thirteen’s personality and way of bouncing around the place. Also, there’s more of a chance for the Doctor to get her delegating head on in this episode – it’s been a factor of her way of doing things since at least Rosa, but a distinct departure from some of her ‘lone wolf’ predecessors. This is a Doctor who knows the importance of getting people involved in a time of crisis, both to save valuable time, engage their motivation in the task at hand, and let them feel a valued part of the solution. The plan to zap the living crap out of Queen Skithra is perhaps a touch more drastic than we might think we like in our Doctor, but it’s a thing that goes back through the series’ history, that ruthless streak, from the Twelfth Doctor’s stand against the Boneless, to the Tenth and the Racnoss, to Nine facing off against the last Dalek in the universe, to Seven destroying Skaro, to Five and his Silurian solution, all the way back to the Second Doctor’s determination that ‘some things must be fought,’ and even the original incarnation’s reaction to Daleks on Earth – ‘We must pit our wits against them and defeat them.’ Thirteen’s plan is to expel the bullies so they don’t get what they want, and it’s a mark of her evolution in her second series that whereas in her first, she was very much a one-plan wonder, here, when her plan backfires, she has a way of working round it and duping the bullies into doing what she wants. This is a Doctor in the process of finding new-old skills at her disposal, and it makes for great TV.

If we’re aiming for a balanced assessment of the episode, it’s true that the Skithra plans don’t make a lick of sense – they’re determined to find an above-average engineer because everything they own is falling to pieces, but they still think they’re capable of destroying all life on earth, and jump straight to that extreme by way of negotiation? There’s little of that ethical weighting we mentioned in the script, little of the ‘many vs a very special one’ dynamic, though some of it comes through the continual references to the impact that Tesla will make on the future. And it’s arguable that, as with the likes of Rosa, there’s something a bit soft and soapy, a bit too rosy of a glow to the Doctor’s whole ‘Yes, the future’s going to treat them dreadfully, but they’ll make their mark. Hey ho, shall we go?’ routine. You could also, incidentally, wonder why Edison and Tesla get to retain their memories of the Doctor, the Tardis, the sonic screwdriver etc, whereas Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan weren’t. It feels like an episode in need of a script editor in elements like that, but then consistency has never been a mark of Doctor Who. It’s in those differences brought by different script writers, who may not have seen each other’s work, that the gaps emerge, the things that fans will argue about among themselves for years to come.

That said, what we’re left with is an interesting celebrity historical with a mostly forgettable race of alien scuttly-git space pirates, which allows Tesla to be the star of his life, and which drops enough soft history into the mix to interest younger (and indeed some older) viewers and inspire further Googling of the man, his mind, his life story and the way the world might have been a whole lot different a whole lot sooner if people had had the vision to see it as he did. It’s also a pacy, Doctor-evolving story that sits well alongside the likes of Spyfall and gives a more ‘down to business’ feeling – and a greater imperative to rewatch – than many stories. The Skithra might not be especially great or memorable as monsters, but the time the Doctor met Nikola Tesla? That was pretty special.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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