It’s frankly astonishing that Doctor Who has never done a story based around Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison before. For a time-travel show that makes visiting historical figures it’s bread and butter, the two pioneers of modern day technology are surely rife with potential for a rollicking good sci-fi adventure.
Now though, their time has come, in the wonderfully titled Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the debut script of the show’s former script editor Nina Metivier. Within, Metivier conjures up an enthralling premise, as Tesla’s much-documented messages from Mars turn out to be from a bunch of alien scorpion scavengers known as the Skithra. The result is a fun little runaround, albeit one that perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the aforementioned title’s promise of ‘terror’. This matters little though in the grand scheme of things, as Metivier keeps the ball rolling to ensure the episode is every bit as thrilling as the more scarier Doctor Who episodes.
In fact, for an episode that kicks off and never pauses for breath, it’s very basic in terms of story and scope. But this plays mostly to it’s advantage, as it gives both Tesla (Goran Visnjic) and Edison (Robert Glenister) much in the way of character development, piling on the personality as well as the textbook facts that both youngsters and adults watching will want to learn. Both Visnjic and Glenister are excellent in their respective roles, particularly the former, who brings a wonderful understated sadness to the role of the underdog scientist.
Great as they are though, the story is ultimately quite ‘cut and paste’. Whereas other Doctor Who stories featuring real-life historical figures have woven those individuals and their experiences into the DNA of the plot (Charles Dickens in a real-life Christmas ghost story, Agatha Christie in a classic murder mystery setting, etc.), here the story never quite manages to make Tesla or Edison’s presence feel organic – it is merely a story in which generic aliens want an inventor to fix their ship so they can scavenges the universe and they just happen to choose Nikola Tesla.
It is this which sadly leaves the episode lacking that extra spark – what we get here is a perfectly enjoyable romp, but Tesla could easily be swapped out for a generic fictional inventor or any other inventor from history, give or take a few dramatic beats here and there. That said, the episode does a great job at educating us on the man himself and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The usual Doctor Who ingredients are present and correct here too, with some excellent visual effects work on display here, particularly in the thrilling Skithra chase through the streets during the climactic finale. Anjli Mohindra is an excellent addition to the ever-growing ranks of alien villains too, cutting an imposing and monstrous image as the alien Queen (even if she is wearing a car tire as part of her costume), whilst Jodie Whittaker once again puts in a commanding performance – her scenes of verbal sparring with Queen Skithra are superb, full of gravitas and excellent comic timing.
As a whole, the episode is perfectly serviceable and delivers the fun in abundance. Some dodgy edits in the first half and the minor story issues aside, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is excellent tea-time telly, boasting excellent production values, effects work and a wonderful guest cast who lend the whole breezy shebang the right amount of pathos.
Much like it’s real-life guest star, it’s educational, inventive and just a little bit mad.