Doctor Who – Series 12, Ep. 4 – “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”

An old-school style episode with great guests.

Now this is more like it! After the disappointing “Orphan 55,” “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is as strong a one-off outing as we’ve seen from this era for Doctor Who. While the episode doesn’t do a deep dive into social issues or moves the overall plot too much, it still offers a thrilling ride with a strong villain and shines a light on the underappreciated genius of Nikola Tesla.

Let’s start with this episode’s titular character. Goran Višnjić does a wonderful performance as Tesla, bringing a dedication and determination with touches of frustration to the role. He plays Tesla as someone feeling that they’re trapped in the wrong time. From radar to wi-fi, his ideas were decades ahead of his time. By leaping too far ahead of what people thought was possible, we see how his visions, and lack of business sense, drive away investors and cause protests against his “dangerous” project.

An inventor who feels out of time? There’s a Doctor who can relate! Jodie Whittaker has a great chemistry with Višnjić, with her tinkerer Time Lord the perfect one to meet Tesla. In a quiet moment, they share their feelings of being “out of place,” where no one else can understand their thought processes. Tesla doesn’t even have sketches as he keeps his knowledge in his mind, something The Doctor does as well. But this isn’t just the Doctor and Tesla show. Tesla’s assistant, Dorothy Skerritt, also shares a great scene with Graham and Ryan where they bond over the desire for a life outside the ordinary.

Well, in this episode, she gets her wish! With Tesla having found an alien Orb of Thassa after being attacked by a cloaked figure, there’s certainly something otherworldly occurring. At first, Team TARDIS thinks it could be a play by Tesla’s rival, Thomas Edison, played with an exterior professionalism and coldness by Robert Glenister. While Edison isn’t behind the attack, his philosophy towards science is far more business-focused, with hundreds of patents filed to him and an assembly-line of inventors working on his projects. Although he’s certainly an antagonist to Tesla, spying on him and smearing him in the press, the episode doesn’t turn him into a cartoon villain. When the cloaked figure kills his workers, it hits Edison hard. He knows when something is bigger than himself and helps The Doctor to figure out the mystery too.

So who’s behind these attacks? The Queen of the Skithra, leader of a scorpion-esque alien race in an invisible spaceship above New York. Their ship is made of stolen parts and weapons, using the work of others to dominate and destroy. The Queen wants Tesla to be her new ship engineer, as he was clever enough to detect and respond to the signal from her ship. After some running around, including a cool sequence where Edison and Tesla both enter the TARDIS for the first time, our heroes come up with a plan to use Tesla’s experimental Wardenclyffe Tower to try and fire electrical bolts at the ship.

There’s some great action at the climax as Edison and Tesla are chased by the Skithra through the streets of old New York. But when the Queen confronts The Doctor on land, Whittaker gets to take the character to a darker place than what we’ve seen from this iteration before. The Queen had her chance to leave or evolve, as The Doctor puts it, but she refused. So now she faces the wrath of the Time Lord. The Doctor tells her, “When you die, they’ll be nothing left behind. Just a trail of blood and other people’s brilliance. No one will even know you existed.” It sends shivers down the spine. She forces the Queen to teleport back to her ship, letting the Wardenclyffe Tower zap it with lightning and forcing the Skithra to retreat.

In a quick wrap-up scene, we learn that saving the world doesn’t change Tesla’s fate of dying penniless and mostly unknown. Despite that, seeing that his inventions make a difference renews his confidence to keep working. As Tesla says, “The present is theirs. I work for the future. And the future is mine.”

Story Notes:

  • There’s a funny moment where Ryan asks who Tesla is and Graham smugly states that he’s an inventor and the cars are named after him. But Yaz takes him down a peg when she asks him to name a Tesla invention, leaving Graham stuttering.
  • The Skithra share more than a passing resemblance to Tenth Doctor spider baddies, the Racnoss. Strange that the episode doesn’t mention this.
  • This isn’t Robert Glenister’s first rodeo on Doctor Who. He previously appeared in the Fifth Doctor’s brilliant final episode, “The Caves of Androzani.”
  • We first see the Skithra’s use of other people’s work when one of them uses a Silurian blaster in the opening minutes.
  • To get them to stop arguing, Graham yells out to Tesla and Edison via their methods of electrical current: AC/DC. Fantastic.