Director Nida Manzoor and writer Nina Metivier created “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror,” only the third Doctor Who story both written and directed by women (with the other two being “Enlightenment” and “The Witchfinders”). That is an achievement that cannot be understated, and is proof of Chibnall’s desire to move the program forward. Sadly, the representation behind the scenes is one of few memorable aspects in a story that feels largely nostalgic and traditional.
Doctor Who (Series 12)
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”
Nida Manzoor (director), Nina Metivier (writer)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
January 20, 2020
Each week, I find myself harping on how much this season feels like it draws from the Russel T. Davies era, and this week was no exception. This episode, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and company (Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, and Bradley Walsh) faced off against the Skithra, an alien race who bear a striking resemblance to the Racnoss, a Tenth Doctor villain from “The Runaway Bride.” Even one line could have made this more palatable, about how their races were related. But in a season seemingly dedicated to bringing back classic villains, it feels particularly pointless to not just call them the Racnoss. Neither Metivier or Manzoor would’ve had to change anything about the story, while adding a layer of direct continuity to another era of the show, and thematic continuity to the rest of Series 12.
Guest actors Goran Višnjić and Robert Glenister star as Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. They give great performances and are the heart of the episode. The story clearly favors Tesla, but allows Edison to make his case for himself. The two play well off each other, for both comedic and dramatic effect, as well as allowing the story to move smoothly between multiple settings and break up the main cast. Višnjić steals the show as Tesla, and his slight eccentricities help make the predictable story entertaining. As someone fairly uneducated about the two, this story works as a good elementary introduction to the subject. Coming from a comics history background, I immediately saw a parallel between their relationship and common readings of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby rivalry, as much as their relationship can be called a rivalry.
The Doctor mentions wistfully that Tesla “could’ve been a billionaire” while catching her companions up on his biography. This feels strangely out of character for her, an alien who’s never cared about money, as well as politically gross in 2020. She could wish Tesla had been more well-known and successful, even economically, but this line feels particularly out of place in a show that so desperately wants to be progressive. Višnjić’s Tesla does get many funny and poignant lines about the difficulties of being an immigrant and the American Dream. Still, Tesla and Edison’s presence creates connections in both plot and theme to earlier this season, with the premiere story also highlighting multiple figures in the history of engineering and technology.
Even more out of character, The Doctor attacks Edison and the Skithra throughout for stealing ideas and technology from others. Yes, the Doctor looks forward and eccentrically invents genius gadgets, but aesthetically and ideologically she is infinitely closer to the Skithra. The Skithra haphazardly scrounge and steal from countless other races and civilizations. Their queen even wears a tire as some strange form of armor, or jewelry, or who knows what (the implication being she doesn’t understand its original purpose). Similarly, the TARDIS’s police box exterior comes out of context from another era and has no meaning today, except the eccentricity of its owner. Even further, the Doctor herself stole the TARDIS and admittedly doesn’t know how to control it. Hell, Doctor Who as an art form exists purely by stealing from other stories and traditions. The show haphazardly mashes up and remixes multiple genres and fictional and nonfictional stories and characters to create new stories. Tesla proudly states that he looks forward and lives in the future, but this is a story of the past in more than just setting.
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is better than the average Series 11 story, but lacks the punch of something like “Rosa” or “Demons of the Punjab.” We are almost halfway through the season, and halfway through Whittaker’s tenure if she stays the traditional three seasons. I’m beginning to worry about when the next, challenging story will be, or if Whittaker’s Doctor or her companions will get any real character arcs. This season shows Chibnall and his team reflecting on the messiness of Series 11, and the three stories we’ve had so far are more visually and narratively polished than most of Series 11. But none are particularly memorable; it feels like Chibnall desperately wants to be making Doctor Who circa 2007, and I don’t see that changing next week with the return of the Judoon. I want to see some 2020 Doctor Who.