Can Doctor Who regain its spark with a historically inspired tale?
Once again back with the good Doctor… although after the disaster area that was last week’s Orphan 55, I’m not so sure that the prefix is all that accurate.
But as is traditional around these parts, I offer up some small sacrificial spoiler space, so if you’ve landed here before watching Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror, you can back out now. Go beyond the YouTube embed, and you’ll find spoilers a-plenty.
And what could be more appropriate for a story about Tesla than this 80s pop classic?
What a difference a week makes. Where last week’s episode was truly dreadful, the show rebounded with an episode that, while in some ways was very much by-the-numbers (as one commentator put it last week, “meet monster, flee monster, beat monster“), it delivered in a satisfying and consistent way, while also serving out just a little bit of history.
It also helps that almost nobody is handed the idiot ball to run with this week. Yes, the companions do have to wander around in the metaphorical dark for not knowing anything about Tesla, but that’s quite in accordance with the level of general education they’re meant to represent. The Doctor is largely back in inquisitive rather than stupid form, but for me, the crux of this story, and where it works the best is in the two historical leads.
Goran Višnjić is just excellent as Nikola Tesla, and there’s so much that could have been wrong with that portrayal even within the script. Tesla was something of a dreamer (the lines about him being bad at business are just about spot on) and he could have played him as endlessly wide-eyed, but his acting choices gave the character depth and clarity when he needed it.
Yes, it’s a slightly silly construct that the Skithra would obsess over having just him and not The Doctor, but the way Višnjić presents him makes it believable. As the viewer, you actively want him to succeed, and that’s even more poignant if you do know the history behind Tesla. I was rather hoping that the show wouldn’t go in for full revisionism here and somehow have Tesla “succeed” in the Whoniverse, and thankfully it didn’t go down that route.
Višnjić’s Tesla is beautifully counterpointed by an equally impressive performance by Robert Glenister’s Thomas Edison. Again, it’s a role that could have ended up being a moustache twirling villain — and make no mistake, the actual Edison wasn’t a saint — but instead Glenister gives his Edison just the right mix of avarice, curiosity and opportunism.
I actually laughed out loud at the audacity of Edison’s methodology to get the (very few) people off the streets of New York by blaming Tesla’s “death ray”, because it totally feels like something the real Edison would do.
Now, that’s not to say that Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror is without its faults. The primary threat isn’t just cookie-cutter, but instead appears to be something of a 12th-generation copy of the Racnoss, with just a few scorpion bits bolted on.
There was perhaps a slightly better story to be told here by making it even more explicit that the Skithra really didn’t know what they had on their ship or how to properly use it, but instead they were able to be clever with teleports, cloaking and weapons when the story needed it, and not when they didn’t.
Still, compared to Orphan 55, it’s a huge step up, and easily my favourite story of the series so far. Maybe I’m just a sucker for the new approach to historical stories?
Other smaller observations and thoughts
- Because it’s now on YouTube, my offspring insisted we watch an episode of Bluey before we watched Doctor Who on iView. So naturally, I chose the episode entitled “The Doctor”.
- The other added bonus of watching on iView rather than broadcast? No Whovians interruption mid-credits.
- While the Skithra were derivative, it was great to see Anjli Mohindra back in the Doctor Who fold.
- I will admit that the episode title didn’t give me a lot of hope. It feels rather B-Movie in its approach. Just me?
- Did the Skithra Queen die, or just flee? She was certainly shocked by Tesla’s apparatus, but it appeared to me that the ship simply runs away. What’s to stop them trying to kidnap Tesla next week once The Doctor is gone?
- Speaking of The Doctor, she was perhaps a little bit too starstruck when first meeting Tesla. I get that she would want to — she’s a curious Gallifreyan — but it’s not like her own folk would have solved Tesla’s problems millennia ago.
- The geography of New York is a bit… off. From a magically appearing train to escape onto, to a hatchway that makes its way from New York City to Long Island because… the story needed it, I guess?
- The show has shown it’s not afraid to cover off the aspect of “The Doctor is a woman now” (I’m in favour, to be clear), but I was a little surprised for a show set at the turn of the 20th Century that nobody really questioned this, or tried to dismiss The Doctor based on her gender. I mean, it would have ended very badly for them, and well deserved, but it also would have been in tune with much of thinking of that time.
- I quite liked the accent work this week, but I do wonder if actual Americans might have found it more than a bit wrong, in the same way that nearly every single Australian accent on US TV is horribly mangled.
- Wow. I made it all the way through this review with only one power-related pun. That’s less than the show managed!
And without further ado, it’s time to…
Rank the episodes of Season 12 of Doctor Who!
I guess I did rather give that result away by declaring it my favourite of the series so far. Orphan 55 still sits at the bottom of the queue, and I’m genuinely hopeful that it stays there. At least we’re back on a quality track now.
Next time: Judoon. But not on the moon this time.