THE THIRTEENTH DOCTOR REVISITED | Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

As part of our Thirteenth Doctor retrospective, we take a look at Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, which sees the Time Lord encounter two influential inventors and the sinister, scorpion-like Skithra in Gilded Age New York!


The Doctor

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Haley McGee as Dorothy Skerrit – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

This is a really strong showing for Jodie Whittaker‘s Thirteenth Doctor. Pairing this particular incarnation of the Time Lord off with a historical figure like Nikola Tesla is an inspired move, with writer Nina Metivier using the parallels between the two characters to fuel the story. The way the two bond over being inventors, feeling out of place and being targeted by forces of evil is just delightful, and it’s a real shame Tesla can’t just hop aboard the TARDIS and join the Doctor on her adventures.

The big standout scene for Whittaker, though, has got to be her confrontation with the Queen Skithra at the end of the story. It’s great to see her once again tap into the character’s darker side, snarling at her enemy and telling her she’ll be forgotten once she dies. That brief moment when the Queen taunts her about dead planets is similarly excellently played by Whittaker, with the Doctor’s bravado crumbling as she remembers what the Master did to Gallifrey in Spyfall, before resurfacing as seething anger when she sends the scuttling scorpion to her death. Good stuff all round.


Team TARDIS

Mandip Gill as Yaz – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

While the Doctor is given some really good moments in this story, the companions feel a little sidelined here, overshadowed by the focus on Nikola Tesla. Mandip Gill‘s Yaz is undeniably the best served by Nina Metivier‘s script, paired off with Tesla at the start of the story and Edison towards the end, and really getting to show off her character’s inquisitiveness, determination and, above all, empathy. It’s nice that she really cares about what happens to Tesla, and the final scene where she accepts that, while he won’t be famous in his lifetime, he’ll be remembered for years to come, is a perfectly bittersweet way to end the episode. It’s great how the Doctor assigns her to interrogation and crowd control duties, really making use of her police training. I only wish she had been able to deal with the Queen Skithra a little more on her own before the Doctor showed up; that would have made this a really good showing for her character.

Ryan and Graham don’t get as much screentime in this one, but what’s there is alright. Graham gets some excellent lines (‘Oi, AC/DC!’), while Ryan’s oft-forgotten dyspraxia is at least touched upon during the train chase sequence, when he panics at having to jump between carriages. There’s also a nice scene between Ryan and Dorothy, where they bond over being in the lives of a crazy, enigmatic genius, though I can’t help thinking it would have been better to swap Ryan out for Yaz given her growing infatuation with the Doctor. Also, Ryan is training to be a mechanic! Y’know, someone who tinkers about with tools and machines… just like Tesla does? Not drawing on those parallels feels like a missed opportunity.


AC/DC

Goran Visnjic as Nikola Tesla – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

In this episode we meet not one but two famous historical figures, as Doctor Who finally tackles the infamous rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Tesla is portrayed by Goran Visnjic in one of the finest guest performances not only in this series, but in the show in general, perfectly capturing his tormented, lonely genius. He shares some truly lovely scenes with Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor as the two bond over their love of inventing and ponder feeling out of place in a society that doesn’t accept them. It’s great how biographical details of Tesla’s life and works actually contribute to the plot, rather than being window dressing: the Niagara Generator, Wardenclyffe, the message from Mars and even his prototype ‘death ray’ are all embedded into the storyline rather than included as throwaway historical facts.

Robert Glenister plays Thomas Edison, imbuing the character with a delightful prickliness, which makes for some great confrontations between him and the Doctor. While the episode is named after Nikola Tesla, Edison gets a pretty large amount of screentime, and arguably has a more active role than the titular character as the story reaches its climax, helping Yaz to save the lives of nearby civilians as the Skithra invade.

One slight disappointment is that, while Metivier takes pains to portray Edison in a nuanced way, highlighting both his successes and his shortcomings, Tesla is portrayed as an out-and-out hero, with the story playing up the tragedy of his life without delving into some of his less savoury moments. It’s a shame, because the episode is clearly going out of its way to educate its audience, and yet it chooses to omit key parts of Tesla’s character. I suppose there’s only so much you can cover in 50 minutes, but I’d rather Metivier had made Tesla (y’know, who the whole episode is meant to be about) the more well-rounded character, rather than Edison.


Scary Scorpions

Anjli Mohindra as Queen Skithra – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

The villains for this one are the Skithra: giant scorpion-like aliens who can shapeshift and fire bolts of energy from their tails. They’re a pretty cool race- one of the best in Whittaker’s era, I think- with a great design and an interesting MO. I love how well they fit into the story; they reflect both Tesla in that they’re clearly intelligent scientists, repurposing technology to their own ends, and Edison, in that they choose to use others to do their dirty work. It’s interesting how they’re used to hold up a mirror to Edison; just like him

While they come off great on the page, the Skithra are also brought to life really well on screen. The CGI used for the Queen’s minions is excellent, and the scene where they chase Yaz and Edison through New York has a real sense of energy as a result, with the Skithra skittering about, crashing into things and one another as they pursue their prey. I only wish they had been given a little more to do in their scorpion forms than chase the gang about, as they spend most of the episode disguised as humans.

The Queen herself is live action, played by Anjli Mohindra in a really impressive prosthetic and costume. While Nida Manzoor‘s direction never really affords us more than a close-up of the character, the way costume designer Ray Holman incorporates things like a melted tyre and chains into her outfit is really cool, emphasising her scavenging tendencies. Meanwhile, Mohindra’s performance is suitably sinister, and the character shares some great scenes with Whittaker’s Doctor, particularly in the final act.


The Big Apple

Bradley Walsh as Graham, Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Tosin Cole as Ryan – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

This story takes place in New York City and at Niagara Falls, and the team behind the scenes do an excellent job at bringing both of those places to life. The episode opens with a glorious shot of Tesla making a speech in front of Niagara Falls- one of the standout images in the entire thing, and particularly impressive given it’s all CGI trickery. Meanwhile, the New York scenes are filmed on a backlot and look really great, at no moment betraying the fact that they weren’t actually filmed in the Big Apple (or indeed even a real city at all!).


Music and Direction

This is a really strong episode in terms of both music and direction. Segun Akinola provides a wonderful score with a number of standout tracks, from the creepy discordance of the Skithra’s theme to the mix of hopeful and melancholy in Tesla’s theme.

Nida Manzoor makes her Doctor Who directorial debut here… and what a debut this is! Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is packed with energy, with frenetically-directed chases along trains and through the streets of New York, as well as several impressive showdowns between our heroes and the Skithra, on their ship, in Edison’s lab and at Wardenclyffe. What’s more, Manzoor’s introduction of the Queen Skithra is phenomenal, building up tension and then giving us a load of fast-paced jump cuts as she hisses and snarls, really setting her up as a formidable villain. Despite one or two odd choices (the cut between the Niagara Generator and the train to New York leaves us wondering how the hell the Doctor, Tesla and Dorothy managed to escape their pursuers so easily!), this is a very flashily directed story.


Final Thoughts

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a competent and informative historical with strong performances from all involved and an interesting, well-executed villain. While it lacks the emotional dimension of some of Whittaker’s other historical episodes, it makes up for this in breathless action sequences and a real sense of fun, which is a nice change from the more introspective, contemplative tone of the likes of Rosa, Demons of the Punjab and The Witchfinders. Overall, this isn’t an episode that will set the world on fire, but it’s enjoyable, educational and, above all else, a solid fifty minutes of entertainment.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: