Doctor Who – ‘Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror’

Series Twelve, Episode Four

CONTAINS SPOILERS

The title character, Nikola Tesla (Goran Višnjić), is a real historical figure, who still might not be high profile, but he was an inventor whose research and ideas made a huge impact on the technological advancements of the 20th century.

It’s Niagra Falls in 1903, and Tesla is trying, unsuccessfully, to secure investment for his scientific research and inventions. He works day and night in his lab. He has an assistant,  Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee), and yes, she existed in real life too!

Anyway, on this particular night, Tesla encounters what looks like a floating, glowing green tennis ball. He and Skerritt think there must be intruders, and they are right. There are more than one in fact, and they aren’t working together. One, luckily, is the Doctor, but another is Mr. Brady, an inventor, and yet another is a figure in a black cloak and glowing red eyes who shoots at Mr. Brady and then tries to shoot everyone else.

The Doctor, Tesla and Skerritt jump onto a night train to New York, which the rest of the TARDIS team are already on. The hooded figure comes to attack them, shooting at them with a gun which shoots green death rays. Everyone escapes by jumping across to the next carriage and uncoupling the train. The Doctor says the gun is Silurian, but oddly, the hooded figure wasn’t. The Doctor says she came to this place and time as she picked up some strange readings. Graham, Ryan and Yaz haven’t heard of Tesla, but the Doctor is a fan of his. “He dreams up the 20th century before it happens”. Tesla gets on well with the Doctor too, sensing she is also something of an inventor.

They go back to Tesla’s lab, and he shows them the green ball. The Doctor says it’s an Orb of Thassa. But the Thassa were an ancient race from a distant galaxy, so she has no idea why it would be here.

A spy working for Thomas Edison is then seen taking a photograph of Tesla’s lab. Edison and Tesla are rivals, in one sense because Tesla championed alternating current while Edison championed direct current. This period in history became known as “the current war”. But it’s personal as well as favouring certain types of technology. Tesla worked for Edison’s company, again working day and night mending a generator and designing machines, and Edison promised him a large bonus if he did. However, when it came to it, Edison said it was just a joke, so Tesla quit. (Whether this incident, or something along the lines of that, actually happened in real life is… debatable. There’s lots of variations of that story. But Tesla did work for Edison’s company, the company seem to have been very impressed by him, and there were several occasions where Tesla felt that he wasn’t being paid what he had been promised, and he did quit working for the Edison company in America after just six months).

The Doctor, Ryan and Graham go to meet Edison (Robert Glenister), who has a whole team of people working on inventions in his factory. He brags about having a thousand patents in the Edison name, and when the Doctor shows him the Silurian gun, you can almost see the lightbulb (no pun intended) in his head of making something very similar and adding that to his patents. But he isn’t behind the attack on them earlier, the hooded figure who is comes in and fires red lightning at the workers in Edison’s lab. It then comes for Edison and the TARDIS team, but they manage to trap it. However, it teleports out. We discover though that it had been using the form of Harold Green, one of Edison’s workers. It had killed the real Green and was using his image as a disguise, so we can assume the same thing happened with Mr. Brady earlier in the episode.

The figures go to Tesla’s lab, and take Tesla and Yaz up to their spaceship which is in the sky (but has an invisible cloaking device). There, they meet Queen Skithra (Anjli Mohindra). She is humanoid scorpion-like alien, and the Queen of the species, which resemble robot scorpions. Everything on the ship, in fact everything the Skithra use is stolen from others. Tesla is just another useful tool for them to steal. They want him to fix their ship. Using the TARDIS, the Doctor comes on board their ship, and raises the point that why can’t the Skithra try thinking or building something of their own instead? Queen Skithra’s attitude to that is why bother when everything is there to take? Of course, the whole reason the Skithra have a problem with a ship that’s falling apart is because it was cobbled together with stolen material rather than something that they could have been thought of, designed and built for their specific needs, but it’s doubtful such a realisation would ever occur to them.

The Doctor gets Tesla and Yaz into the TARDIS and off the ship. But Queen Skithra communicates to the Doctor that they want Tesla, and if they hand him over the rest
may be spared. The Doctor refuses, so Queen Skithra says they will destory the Earth. Tesla wants to give himself up – he doesn’t feel like he is worth the whole Earth being destroyed. But the Doctor tells him that he’s going to change the world, but first he’s going to save it.

The plan is to use the TARDIS and the Wardenclyffe Tower. This was a real tower which Tesla intended to make wireless communication a possibility. In this episode, the Doctor uses the TARDIS to power the tower to blast the Skithra ship out of the sky, while Graham, Ryan, Yaz, Edison and Skerritt try to fight off the Skithra, in their scorpion forms.

Queen Skithra comes down personally, which they weren’t expecting. She still intends to destroy Earth, asking the Doctor if she’s “ever seen a dead planet?”. We know the Doctor has recently – her home planet. But they manage to teleport Queen Skithra back onto the ship, and the Skithra decide to retreat, given that the Wardenclyffe Tower is about to be used to shoot them down.

Edison offers Tesla his job back, saying that Tesla will be bankrupt within a year if he carries on alone. Tesla turns him down, thinking that he would rather do it his own way even if it fails.

Yaz is sad after the Doctor tells her how things will turn out for Tesla. He will die penniless. “History leaves him behind”. But a lot of what he does, including early attempts at wi-fi, will directly shape the 20th century.

This episode had echoes of ‘Vincent And The Doctor’, which was about Vincent van Gough. He was also someone unappreciated in his own time, but would go on to become a significant figure in history. I suppose a difference is that Vincent van Gough is very famous now, but Nikola Tesla still isn’t very well known – the TARDIS team make references to this. However, that might change. History is written by the winners of course, but sometimes what “wins” ends up writing history as well, and given that Tesla was a pioneer of so many things, and backing alternating current in the current war (which is what won in the long run), he may have more recognition. There have been a few films made about him in the last decade too.

Some of the historical events noted in this episode – such as the current war and the general rivalry between Tesla and Edison, were dramatised in the 2017 film The Current War. And an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

This episode is very, very much Team Tesla, depicting Edison as someone chiefly concerned with personal glory and making money. His reputation has fallen a bit in
recent years. For example, that Family Guy cutaway which showed him putting his name to inventions other people were working on, ending with “Look it up, Edison was a dick!”.
I don’t think this episode goes too far being anti-Edison though, at least he’s on the Doctor’s (and therefore humanity’s side). Having him in league with the Skithra
would certainly have been going too far.

I liked Graham referring to Tesla and Edison as “AC/DC” (i.e alternating current and direct current) before telling them to stop squabbling for a minute and save the planet!

The Skithra really are a scummy species, their only desire is to take what others have, being too lazy, greedy and ignorant to do anything that would require thought or effort. But they are one of the best new monsters/aliens from this era!

To be clear, I’m not criticising the show for not accurately depicting scorpions, I get that the Skithra are a just fictional alien species which resemble scorpions, I just find natural history interesting. Unlike Earth scorpions, the Skithra shoot death lasers from their stingers rather than venom. Unlike the Skithra, scorpions don’t have a eusocial structure, which is something bees, ants and termites have, in fact I think scorpions tend to be solitary. Scorpions are arachnids, so they’re related to spiders, which, intentionally or not, is something which comes through in this episode. Queen Skithra does very, very strongly resemble the spider-like Empress of the Racnoss seen in ‘The Runaway Bride’ in appearance and mannerisms. Perhaps the Skithra are related to the Racnoss?

I really enjoyed Anjli Mohindra performance as Queen Skithra, she certainly wasn’t holding back, it was very much a “go hard or go home” one. This isn’t Anjli Mohindra’s first appearance in the Doctor Who universe, she played Rani Chandra in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

I’m pleased that they let the Skithra escape, of all the new monsters introduced so far since series 11 they are the one’s I’d most like to see again!

The black cloak and hoods and red lightning attack of the Skithras in disguise reminded me a bit of the Sith in the Star Wars films.

Very random coincidence, but this episode had the Skithra with a human form and a giant scorpion form too, which reminded me of Scorpina in Power Rangers/Lamy in Super Sentai, who had a human form of a beautiful woman but when turned giant to fight the Zords/Guardian Beasts would become a hideous scorpion monster.

I suppose a problem with ‘Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror’ was that it wasn’t as interesting as it should have been. It just kind of ticked along. It gave an underrated historical figure some more recognition, and provided one of the best new monsters in a while. But despite that, it was oddly average.

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