“Nikola Tesla – you’re going to change the world. But first, you’re gonna save it.”
After last week’s uncoordinated mess of an episode, it was rather a relief to come back to what’s admittedly become a formulaic story for Doctor Who since 2005 – the ep centred around a well-known historical figure. Since The Unquiet Dead, these have been a staple of the show; but often the story ends up playing second fiddle to the fannish exaltation of whichever historical figure is on centre stage.
This ep’s historical figure actually isn’t all that well-known – which was sort of the point of the story. Nikola Tesla is one of history’s great also-rans, a bona fide genius whose ideas were (mostly) never in the right place at the right time. A great inventor during a period crazed for great inventors, he largely failed in his endeavours due to a lack of the business acumen so clearly embodied in his fiercest competitor, Thomas Alva Edison, who went on to be far better remembered.
Tesla was often wrong in his thinking – he scoffed at Hertz’s discovery of radio waves, which he (incorrectly) believed lacked the range for true wireless communication, and he found Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity unbelievable in its assertion that space could curve. Many of his ideas were unworkable, despite the hundreds of patents he filed during his lifetime.
But even if they wouldn’t have worked, Tesla’s ideas were revolutionary in their thinking, and many of them (wi-fi being an obvious example) weren’t considered viable or even useful until long after his death. He has that in common with the far more feted Leonardo da Vinci, who similarly ‘invented’ things that weren’t made to work until many years later; the helicopter, for example.
But da Vinci had another string to his bow, and was remembered as an artist long before scholars rediscovered his inventive streak. Tesla sadly went largely unremembered until recently, rediscoverd by steampunk authors like Tim Powers, who imagined what things might have been like had Tesla’s wild ideas come to fruition. In the last twenty years or so, Tesla has been ubiquitous in sci fi, his inventions central to TV series Warehouse 13, and popping up incarnated by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige. And let’s not forget that, unremembered he may be, but he bequeathed us the power system that’s now standard throughout the world – alternating current.
There really was a “war of the currents” at the end of the 19th century, as Edison’s Machine Works, touting their direct current solution to street lighting, engaged in fierce propaganda fighting with the Westinghouse corporation, who were offering Tesla’s AC solution instead. That war was a crucial part of this story, centred very much on the famed rivalry between the two inventors. Edison may have been more famous, but history has not looked kindly on the inventor of the electric lightbulb. With some justification – the less than flattering depiction here, of a mercenary capitalist who took advantage of his best-known invention to exploit the ideas of others, was broadly correct.
As you can probably tell, this historical episode has long been a particular fascination of mine, so Nina Metivier’s script was already onto a winner as far as I was concerned. But it could have dropped the ball if it had dealt with the subject badly. Thankfully it didn’t – this may not have been the show’s finest exploration of a historical figure (that honour surely goes to Vincent and the Doctor), but it was a solid, entertaining Who story that, while formulaic, satisfied throughout.
Goran Višnjić made for a charismatic central figure as Tesla – while he’s well-known, this was actually the first thing I’ve ever seen him in, and his reputation as a solid character actor is clearly deserved. Given a lot to work with here, he made the most of a well-written part, faithfully depicting a driven man with little space in his life for anything besides his ideas. The hair and makeup were faithful to the real man, but the overall effect for me, not having really seen Višnjić before, was to make me think of mid-80s Kevin Kline – as he looked in The Pirates of Penzance and A Fish Called Wanda.
Outside of his work, historians know little about Tesla’s personal life, so there was plenty of licence to imagine his feelings, such as the nicely underplayed undercurrent of romance with Dorothy Skerritt, his real-life secretary (well played by Haley McGee).
But no story centring on Tesla would be complete without the appearance of Thomas Edison. For many years, the famed rivalry between the two men was one of the few well-known things about Tesla, and his antagonism towards his uber-capitalist rival was well-deserved. He did indeed start out in America, after emigrating from Europe, working for Edison at his Machine Works. Despite the two men only meeting a handful of times, Edison’s mercenary exploitation of others’ ideas made a victim of Tesla too, and that story about the reneged-upon promise of financial reward is apparently true. It was even reported that Edison really did quip, as shown here, that Tesla didn’t “understand our American humor”.
It’s debatable whether Edison was really as bad a guy, and Tesla, as good a guy, as shown here; but this ep took a pretty broadbrush view of history. Relishing the villainous role written for him was Robert Glenister as the avaricious inventor, displaying an impeccable American accent. Long time Who fans probably remember Glenister from all the way back in 1984’s classic Caves of Androzani, surely Peter Davison’s finest hour; but before that he’d already worked with the future Fifth Doctor, playing the itinerant little brother to Davison’s more responsible sibling in early 80s sitcom Sink or Swim. Edison being the nominal (human) villain, it was far more of a scenery-chewing part than Tesla, but Glenister and Višnjić sparked well off each other in their well-written scenes together.
Some licence had to be taken with history to make the story work though. The “war of the currents”, here seen to be in full swing, was in fact pretty much over by the time Tesla reported his discovery of “transmissions from Mars” in 1900. But both were crucial to the story being told, the former to establish Tesla’s rivalry with Edison, the latter to feed in to the story’s real villains, the alien Skithra. So I can forgive a certain amount of liberties being taken with real history for artistic licence.
Just as Richard Curtis’ script for Vincent and the Doctor drew an obvious parallel between its alien creature and Vincent van Gogh, the aliens were well-conceived as a mirror not of Tesla, but of the rapacious Edison. We’ve seen magpie aliens with stolen tech in this show (and many others) before; the Skithra, while well-enough realised visually, are not likely to feature on any future lists of unforgettable Who aliens.
But they served the story well here, although as many of my friends have already noticed, the make up for the Skithra Queen looked almost identical (bar the colour) to The Empress of the Racnoss way back in 2006’s The Runaway Bride. More interestingly, buried under that makeup and making a deserved meal of the part, was another Who alumnus – Anjli Mohindra, previously known as The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Rani Chandra was unrecognisable but plainly having the time of her life as a colourful baddie.
The balance between the sci fi tale and the historical portrayal of Tesla was about right. Even Vincent and the Doctor treats its sci fi story as rather an afterthought, but the one here was relevant to the story, with its electricity spewing aliens and their need for a genius engineer. All right, it was far from an original story, but it served its subjects well and had more meat on it than, say, last season’s pointless time-travelling racist in the otherwise excellent Rosa.
Metivier’s script also did very well by the regulars, all of whom got an equal share in the limelight. The Doctor, as ever, was called on to be rapturous about the Historical Figure of the Week – but it was nicely subverted with the “big fat liar” exchange initially. It wasn’t a particularly demanding script for Jodie Whittaker, but she was on especially charming form throughout. Mind you, after her emphasis a couple of weeks ago on mindwiping the two historical figures she met then, it looked very inconsistent that she wouldn’t have done the same to the characters here; particularly Edison, whose eyes were veritably gleaming with the prospect of more money when he was rather ill-advisedly allowed inside the TARDIS.
There was also what may have been a subtle callback to the little mentioned ongoing arc about the destruction of Gallifrey, as the Skithra Queen hissed, “have you ever seen a dead planet?” Whittaker played this one very well, her face ashen as she replied, “mor than you can possibly imagine”. Obviously there have been plenty of dead planets in the show’s history, but with that vista of a devastated Gallifrey so recent and fresh in our minds, it felt like it could only be a reference to that. I like this ‘softly, softly’ approach to this season’s arc, which has a subtlety I hadn’t previously associated with Chris Chibnall.
The three companions might not all have had an equal share in resolving the plot, but all were given good scenes and memorable dialogue. Ryan got to lift the spirits of the disconsolate Miss Skerritt with some well-written lines about the wonder of travelling in the TARDIS that almost seemed to echo a scene in 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen; while Yaz was teamed up with Tesla himself, serving as a defiant motivator for the surprised inventor. Graham, meanwhile, may have mostly been the comic relief (I loved the “cut it out, AC/DC” line), but Bradley Walsh didn’t disappoint with that stern speech to Edison about the kind of man he was.
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror may not have been the stuff of classic Doctor Who stories; it may, in fact, have been rather formulaic and average. But it was ‘average done well’ (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and was never less than enjoyable without reaching the heights of excellence displayed in Rosa or Demons of the Punjab. This was a fun romp, centred on one of my favourite historical episodes, that did its central figure proud.