Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

Story No. 317 The engineer
Production Code Series 12, Episode 4
Dates January 22, 2020

With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Nina Metivier Directed by Nida Manzoor
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens

Synopsis: In 1903, the Doctor and Nikola Tesla face off against the Skithra.


The Invention of Everything Else by Jason A. Miller 11/5/20

History is written by the winning side. Unfortunately, Nikola Tesla did not wind up on the winning side. This episode, a celebrity pseudo-historical, is a well-meaning effort to give him a posthumous victory.

Only the third Doctor Who episode both written and directed by women -- well, it's only 57 years since the series started production, but, as I say, these things take time -- Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror begins on the run. Tesla is the star in the opening scenes, and it's a full five minutes into the broadcast before the Doctor arrives, in mid-rescue. It's an interesting choice to open the episode from Tesla's POV -- an inversion of how we opened Rosa, last year's celebrity historical. The Doctor is thrilled to have met this "total genius"... only her companions have no idea who Tesla is.

The year is presumably 1901, the year that J.P. Morgan stopped funding Tesla's Wardenclyffe tower (Wikipedia says the episode is 1903, but that's never mentioned on-screen, and the year doesn't really matter). In the New York City, where we arrive by steam locomotive rather than by TARDIS, Thomas Edison is still railing against Tesla's AC current, while simultaneously dispatching spies to Tesla's lab. The Statue of Liberty is visible in the skyline as we pan down to a street protest in front of Tesla's building, one more example of lively directing from Nida Manzoor.

The episode introduces us to big names, and, with one exception, all those names play a huge part in the life of New York City (my birthplace and current residence) even today, 119 (or 117) years later. J.P. Morgan? His banking empire still exists, via Chase Bank branches on pretty much every Manhattan street corner. Thomas Edison? His power company still exists, as Con(solidated) Ed(ison), whose high electric bills are the bane of every resident of the five boroughs. Although the episode's camera work appears to set Tesla's NYC lab in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the historical Tesla in 1901 (or '03) would have had his offices on Houston Street (pronounced how-ston), still a very important street in the cultural life of NYC (naturally... that's where my office is). The Statue of Liberty, incorrectly shown to be green during the NYC skyline pan? Still there; it opened copper-colored, which is how it welcomed my two grandfathers to America, in 1888 and 1903 respectively, and didn't turn green until somewhere between 1910 and '20.

(Take it from this native New Yorker, don't go to Doctor Who for your American historical facts.)

In fact, the only personage in the episode who doesn't portray a still-active part of NYC's cultural life is Nikola Telsa himself. I pay my electric to Edison, but Tesla only has one street corner named for him -- not a street, just a corner, the corner where he spent his days feeding pigeons as a broke old man. There's a fading 1977-vintage plaque on the West 34th Street side of the New Yorker Hotel (just off 8th Avenue), marking the spot where he died four decades after this episode (and he died on the 33rd floor, because Tesla was, among many other things, an astronaut).

Tesla is, in the episode, much as he was in real life, an impractical dreamer and an earnest soul, played here by Goran Visnjic (Alex Kingston's former co-star on E.R.) with something of the genial verve that propelled Johnny Depp through Tim Burton's Ed Wood movie. None of Tesla'ss ideas are going to pan out, but he's really enthusiastic about them. Edison (Robert Glenister, known to Classic Series fans as Salateen, a delicious double-role in The Caves of Androzani) is older, jaded, a more cartoonish villain. We know he's a Bad Guy because of this riposte to Graham: "That's a British accent, isn't it? Now there's a country who's never understood business." But the script allows Graham to one-up Edison, using his blue-collar bus-driver wisdom to unravel Edison's real interest in Tesla, and Bradley Walsh even turns towards the camera with a satisfied smile after he's put the inventor in his place.

One misstep in the writing is that, after revealing the Doctor as Tesla's biggest fanboy, the script contrives to separate the two. At the halfway point in the episode, Tesla and, arbitrarily, Yaz, are abducted by a humanoid scorpion queen (Anji Mohindra, last seen as Rani, which also means "queen", on The Sarah Jane Adventures), who needs Nikola's genius to service her stolen war machines. The Doctor, meanwhile, winds up with Edison as a temporary companion, allowing him into the TARDIS and travelling with him to eastern Long Island to the Wardenclyffe tower. The brief exterior shot of Wardenclyffe, as it looked in 1901 (or '03), makes me want to weep over the world that we've lost: the building still stands, but the tower was demolished over a century ago, and when I grew up on Long Island in the '80s, the town of Shoreham was more infamous for its nuclear power plant than for its long-ago Tesla connection.

Conceptually, Tesla's Night is a beast-of-the-week story, a pseudo-historical with silly monsters of the kind seen in Season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, while retelling The Current Wars in a 50-minute time slot. The plot also mirrors Spyfall Part Two, with alien powers tracking mankind's greatest inventors. The climactic battle at the Wardenclyffe tower is similar to the end of Spyfall, and is also somewhat similar to the end of The Woman Who Feel to Earth (or to Logopolis, which was also referenced in Spyfall). Unlike Spyfall, this doesn't further the Series 12 story arc; it's not a Chibnall script. As with Orphan 55, the destruction of Gallifrey is referenced only in another pained Jodie Whittaker reaction shot.

Setting aside the scorpion-invasion plot, a fairly transparent McGuffin to get Tesla aboard the TARDIS, the moral heart of the story is debate between Tesla and Edison. Tesla won the current battle posthumously, even while Edison won the popular-culture war. Visnjic and Glenister get some good scenes together. Tesla verbally denigrates Edison as a "man of parts" rather than a "man of ideas". They're both right, but Edison died rich and Tesla died penniless. However, it's Tesla who figures out how the TARDIS works, while Edison can't. They come to a somewhat wary rapprochement, as each one is involved in the battle against the scorpion queen, and their final parting from one another is, honestly, rather touching. Credit Manzoor with some of the best guest-casting we've seen in the new series, even while the extras' NYC accents in the Tesla-lab protest scenes are abysmally silly.

There's also an interesting Top 40 undercurrent (pardon the pun) to the story. Each of these guys had a rock band featuring their name. Edison Lighthouse (though not named for Thomas) was #1 in the UK the month that Spearhead from Space brought Doctor Who into the world of color; Tesla was the name of a kickin' early '90s metal band. Elon Musk took the name Tesla for his car design, and my ex-girlfriend Sara named her first child Tesla. Graham, of course, refers to the two men jointly as AC/DC. And that's the way to do it. Stronger together. After all, AC/DC the band was better than either Edison Lighthouse or Tesla.

On the whole, I enjoyed watching Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror. But it's not an all-time great, although it could have been. The best '60s historicals and pseudo-historicals are remembered for their dialogue, and for their moral dilemmas (The Aztecs, The Massacre) or for their colorful and dynamic adversaries (The Time Meddler). The scorpion queen here is fun to watch chewing the scenery, but, I prefer more cerebral monsters (Monarch in Four to Doomsday) than over-the-top ranting ones (The Idiot's Lantern, anyone?). The script has several nice little moments: Tesla's heart-to-heart with Yaz, the Doctor's eulogy to Tesla's sad later years, the cataloging of Tesla's greatest achievements and more curious failures (his death-ray). It's good Tesla fanfic, with some snappy repartee but lacking the creativity or clever twists that characterize an all-time great.

The storyline does serve to give Tesla one final fictional hurrah, and grants Wardencylffe tower the world-saving lightning bolt it never managed to produce while it still stood. But, while Tesla gave the world hydroelectric power and the AC current (or as the Doctor puts it, "the twentieth century"), Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror is neither shocking nor particularly electric.