UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 12 Episode 4 (Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror)
Ivan Radford | On 21, Jan 2020
“Nikola Tesla dreamed up the twentieth century before it happened!” Thats the rallying cry behind Episode 4 of Doctor Who Season 12, a solid piece of scientific adventuring that sees the show return to reassuringly familiar traditions.
It feels like a while since Doctor Who has had an old-fashioned historical episode with a cameo from a “real-life” celebrity. Chris Chibnall’s stint as showrunner has seen the series shine a spotlight on several people from history that are overlooked by the text books. This nice, progressive approach swaps your Shakespeares for your Ada Lovelaces of the world, a fitting choice for Jodie Whittaker’s run in the TARDIS, which has made a running motif out of people underestimating the Doctor because of her gender. But these have tended to be fleeting encounters rather than stories centred around them, so it’s a treat to see an episode rooted in the chronic under-appreciation of one of science’s great minds: Nikola Tesla.
We join him in 1903 on the edge of Niagara Falls, where something is wrong at his generator plant. Who or what is sabotaging his work? Has he really received a message from Mars? And where does his great rival Thomas Edison fit into these events?
The title Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror gives us a clue what to expect, and there’s a cheerfully cheesy approach to the extra-terrestrials (the Skithra) wreaking havoc – giving us everything from electrocuting zombies to an overly theatrical alien queen (played with knowing, panto-worthy enthusiasm by Anjli Mohindra). There’s a nice underlying theme of taking credit for other people’s work that ties the aliens into the overall episode’s focus, which is less on the Skithra and more on Tesla and Edison themselves.
ER hearthrob Goran Višnjić is brilliant as the idealistic Serbian genius, an outcast with an imagination to match his intelligence. Robert Glenister is also clearly having a whale of a time as Edison, pitched neatly as a savvy but callous businessman with a hint of Trump about him. Nina Metivier’s script gradually morphs into a story of respecting other people’s ideas and inventions, and not undervaluing those who might not seem important. All that and the fun of seeing Tesla run amok on a train and face off an alien invasion? This might not be Doctor Who at its most inventive, but it’s certainly at its most entertaining.
Doctor Who Season 12 is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2021.
Doctor’s notebook (spoilers)
– First thing’s first: what a brilliantly over-the-top turn from Anjli Mohindra as the Skithra queen, a camp presence who does just enough to be threatening but also to undermine the genuine creepiness of her scorpion underlings. Her going head-to-head with the Doctor is fun to watch. The eventual trick of The Doctor teleporting the queen back to her ship before hitting it with a bolt of Tesla lightning may not be hugely surprising, but is very satisfying nonetheless.
– This is another episode that gives the fam stuff to do, from Bradley Walsh trading blows with Edison to Mandip Gill doing some detective investigating to solve the mystery of what’s going on. Tosin Cole, meanwhile, has the fun of forming a connection with Tesla’s assistant Dorothy – another promising sign that the show is looking away from a possibly Ryan/Yaz hook-up.
– Director Nida Manzoor does a delightful job of bringing to life period New York, not to mention the savvy use of Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower as a weapon. Thrown in some accomplished bits of scorpion-laced action and the junkyard vibe of the Skithra ship and you have a calling card for a Doctor Who director who deserves a callback for another episode.
– Shout-out to the Silurian gun that gets a brief namecheck.