Doctor Who #1010: Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

"Oy! AC/DC! You two might be the greatest minds of the age, but is there any chance can you stop squabbling while we try to save the planet?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jan.19 2020.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor fights a scorpion queen who wants Nikola Tesla.

REVIEW: FINALLY, the Doctor comes to Canada. That power station is on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in the Whoniverse. Not in ours, but what can you do. Most of the episode takes place in New York anyway, but hey, some of us have been waiting decades for the Time Lord to visit our land, so we'll count it. James Bond, the ball is now in your court to do the same. But otherwise, how was it?

A fairly fun celebrity historical, pitting Nikola Tesla against aliens that aren't unlike his real-life rival Thomas Edison, who also stars. The baddies are technology thieves who in this story want to kidnap Tesla so he can fix their ship (warning for Trek fans: they're no Pakleds, but they aren't SUBSTANTIALLY smarter), and well, Edison made a career of snatching patents and getting rich off the back of his workforce. I'm not sure where the episode stands on this because sometimes the Doctor says it's not important who got rich, it's the ideas that count (and our wi-fi world is Tesla's), and sometimes she seems to say it'd have been great if he had become a billionaire, which is a surprising pro-billionaire stance coming from her. It's a bit like that first speech, in which her tone really doesn't change much when she sings the praises of the Gilded Age and adds the bit about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The politics are really all over the map.

As for the aliens, the Skithra, I do wonder about their development. Red herrings are normal, and the fact one of them uses a Silurian gun might have heralded the actual return of the Sea Devils (perhaps unhappy with the beginnings of hydro-electricity). Or how about the Rutans? They too can steal human forms and have electricity powers. Alas no. I'm not even sure the Skithra make sense in this context, because their obfuscation powers are always referenced as "images", but their forms are so un-humanoid that they couldn't really hide themselves this way without bumping stuff behind them. They do look cool, though, their CG race through old New York way better than the usual standards and upping the score a touch all by its lonesome, and they have a great musical cue. But why is their queen so unlike them, a biped with a face? She really does look like the Racnoss (and see Theories on that point) without the spider body. If she's NOT bipedal - and they keep using close-ups to try and hide it - she does have the tail that comes out of nowhere. I like her design and Anjli Mohindra's performance (yes! under that make up in Rani Chandra from The Sarah Jane Adventures!), but the Racnoss should sue for copyright infringement (kind of fitting). Come to think of it, they're dispatched in a way similar to the Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion, so this isn't the most original of stories.

Nor the best put together, frankly. The jump from Niagara to train makes it look like the Doctor has access to portals (you can do this stylishly, but here it's just confusing). The camera fails to give us the right look at Tesla's lab to make the Doctor's punchline about it work. And there's a horribly fortuitous (and horribly rude) teleportation device the Doctor just happens to have in her pocket to make the plot work, which is just plain cheating. It kind of looks like Tesla's tower, but I guess that's just a coincidence. Oh, and no mind wipes at the end? Not that I want the Doctor to ever do this, but it seems to me these inventors are just as dangerous, if not more, than the two ladies who got wiped in Spyfall. I also have questions about Edison's dig about the UK never having understood business (huh?!). On the flip side, Graham says Edison is like one of his old supervisors, only caring about employees if there's money to be made, as if that were an issue in a bus depot (is it?!). The script also doesn't know what a "hive" species is, because while sure, they might leave Earth alone if they lost their leader, the queen wouldn't need to discipline her subjects if they all had the same mind. And finally, there's a confusion about whether or not the Skithra can travel through time. There's no clear evidence they can, but the Doctor specifically wonders why they would kidnap someone from 1900, as if that were mutable, and they have a Venusian ship which should make everyone run to their guidebooks to see just when the originators of the Doctor's martial arts had a civilization.

But it does carry you along with its energy, and the historical celebs are interesting. Robert Glenister (Edison) is an old Doctor Who pro, having been in The Caves of Androzani (and being in the cast of Hustle, a con man show I really liked), and Goran Višnjić (Tesla) has some time travel experience thanks to his role in Timeless. There's an intriguing moment when he and the Doctor bond over being inventors that could almost have dovetailed into a romance (if Jodie had been Tennant), and she totally has Edison's number when she says it's killing him that he WASN'T the aliens' target. The Doctor does all the Doctor stuff and tricks the Skithra admirably. She also gets to have a dark look on her face when the queen asks her if she's ever seen a dead planet. Too soon! As for the Fam, Yaz gets more to do this week, but it doesn't really reveal her character very much (and yes, I realize I don't hold the classic series to that standard, but we're living in a different time). She teases Graham cruelly, gets to hang out with Tesla and admire him, saves a little boy from being zapped, it's fine stuff, but it's material that could have been given to almost anyone. Ryan and Graham, the latter especially, are just there for the comic relief, so I can't complain too much on Yaz's behalf.

THEORIES: So COULD there be a relationship between the Skithra and the Racnoss given that they are both over-expressive arachnid matriarchal monarchies? If you remember, the Racnoss were foes of the Time Lords in the Old Times, so a very ancient race indeed. Thought destroyed, some survived, prisoners in the center of the Earth, or rather, the Earth formed around their prison. Another small Racnoss population might have survived, or cousins thereof, and over ALL THAT TIME, evolved. Since spiders and scorpions have shared ancestry on Earth, it it reasonable to think Racnoss/Skithra could also be related, splitting away from each other either before the war with the Time Lords or after. The "before" scenario is the more interesting. The Skithra have a more primitive culture than the Racnoss did, stealing technology rather than making their own, so perhaps they didn't take part, and the Time Lords left them alone. Or maybe they did, but the Time Lords took away all their gear so they wouldn't try what their cousins did. Maybe every time they tried, the Time Lords snatched their stuff away. Over time, that might create a culture and mindset that was about stealing what they needed rather than building it.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - As Ryan says of this adventure, "about average".


Anonymous said...

It was an enjoyable pot-boiler in the same way Orphan 55 definitely was not. ;P Personally, slightly bemused by the representation of Nikola Tesla is the 'visionary behind the modern wi-fi world'. With the recent slew of Tesla documentaries making ever bolder claims his visionary status, it's not unlike similar documentaries about Leonardo da Vinci before him a decade ago. The claim seems to hold about as much weight as Da Vinci being the progenitor of the tank, simply because he happened to sketch one. Wardenclyffe Tower experiment was influenced by Marconi's own advancements in radio transmissions, and ultimately Tesla sensing defeat upon the broadcast front sought to change his focus to the transmission of pure electricity through the air to remote locations, to obviate the basic requirement for interconnecting wires. Like Da Vinci's tank before him, it really affords the individual a very privileged status, neither having developed functional prototypes or solved the major design challenges necessary to commercialize it. If you were going to hold with the same basic criteria, H.G. Wells was probably the 20th Century greatest scientist. :D

Brendoon said...

"Specialism" was my favourite new word, from this episode. I thought it was made up but actually found it in the dictionary.
Here in New Zealand even Medical professionals talk about their "specialty" instead of their speciality, so naturally we ain't never heard of "Specialism" before.

LiamKav said...

Specialism suddenly started to appear on UK medical dramas a few years ago. I've asked some doctor friends and then tend to flip between specialism and specially as a phrase.

I quite enjoyed this one. An actual baddie that the Doctor got to unambiguously defeat (although I do wonder if the ship fleeing rather than exploding was a "changed in the edit" thing). My main frustration continues to be how generic the companions are. You could have had Ryan hanging out with Tesla, or Graham trying to cheer up Dorothy, and the dialogue would have only needed an extremely mild rewrite.

Brendoon said...

Thumbs up emoji...
So the Doc has at least proven educational in my case, eh!

Ashford said...

Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror was a fun one. I agree with the flaws and plot holes you pointed out, but I believe if you played this one for a friend, they would enjoy it. I like how the Doctor & Company arrive in the middle of an adventure.

Again, we have another episode where technology and communications are at hand.

Remember in The Prestige when David Bowie played Tesla?


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