Doctor Who: Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

"Shall we begin?"
-Nikola Tesla

The Doctor and fam embark on season 12's first celebrity historical. It gets a little fannish, but not regarding the Doctor.

It's a curious phenomenon, that thing that occasionally happens where you watch an hour of television and can see that they went one script revision too far. By which I mean, this script was clearly much harsher on Edison in earlier drafts, and the residual bits of that sit a little uneasily in the final product.

This week's episode wants to tell us all about Nikola Tesla. Specifically, that Tesla was a now largely forgotten genius who had the idea for everything first, and has been unfairly overshadowed in the official history by Thomas Edison who was a greedy jerk who set up a factory of people who invented things for him so he could get wealthy off of the cleverness of others. The truth is a little more nuanced and complicated than that, but that's what this episode wants to tell us, and it does it in an entertaining way.

This dynamic is echoed in the aliens, where we have Tesla clearly meant to be echoed in both the Thassors who created the green orb to share all the knowledge with everybody in the universe just out of awesomeness as well as the Doctor. Tesla is even given his own companion in the form of Mrs. Skeritt, and the episode goes out of its way to explicitly connect her relationship to Tesla with Ryan's relationship with the Doctor. On the other hand there are the Skithra who never create or invent anything for themselves and just steal everybody else's stuff to claim for their own.

Nobody panic, but I think that the script might have tipped its hand as to which inventor the author likes better.

So, Tesla builds things in his ideas first for the joy of creating, while Edison fills his sweatshop inventor factory with big light up signs of his own name. Tesla wants to invent things to improve life for everyone, while Edison wants to use others' inventions to make himself money. And the real giveaway – Tesla immediately understands the concept of the TARDIS being dimensionally transcendental and the Doctor praises him for it while Edison sits back and glowers.

But, for all of that, Edison doesn't get treated as badly as the episode could treat him if it really wanted to follow the metaphor through. He does get the people off the street to safety, even if he does it in the jerkiest way possible. He's given that line about having to tell his deceased employee's wife that her husband is dead in a moment that just screams 'later draft addition to make him seem nicer.'

I don't want to be too harsh to the script, because what we have here is a nicely paced and quite clever first Doctor Who script from Series 11 script editor Nina Metivier. The most admirable thing about it is that she avoids the first timer temptation to over-explain plot developments as they happen. The clearest case I can point to to illustrate what I mean is when the Doctor has used the handy teleport tube thing to pop up to the Skithra ship to rescue Tesla and Yaz. We're told before she goes that she'll have to wait for the tube to recharge before she can use it to bring them all back to safety, which is a nice little bit of plot mechanics to raise the stakes.

What we're not told is how the Doctor will know when the tube is recharged. So when we're shown the Doctor discreetly checking out the device later, noting that the color has changed, and then leaping onto Yaz and Tesla to teleport away, we're being trusted to follow along and understand what that visual cue means without having it explicitly spelled out for us. It's very tempting in the scripting stage to give the Doctor a quick line in that moment before teleporting away to spell out exactly what's just happened to the viewers as if to say, 'see how cleverly I set up the resolution to this problem?', and she repeatedly resists the urge to do so over the course of the episode. There are plenty of more experienced screenwriters who struggle with trusting the viewers to not need everything explained to them.

This is a little bit of a double edged sword, as overexplaining plot details in the dialogue can also be a bit of insurance against moments in the direction that aren't clear. Quite early on, Tesla and Mrs. Skeritt are attacked first by Mr. Brady, then by the Skithra in human disguise. The action in that sequence is quite muddy and I had to rewind it a few times to make sure I understood what was happening. It could have been cleaned up by simply having the second attacker come in from a different direction, just as the Doctor had done a moment earlier, but instead we have a confused moment of a couple of different bodies on the floor, and a couple of different attackers coming down the same staircase. An unclear moment in the script can be 'fixed' with clear direction, and vice versa, but if both script and direction are a little unclear at the same moment you end up with a confused action beat, and there were a few of those across this episode.

I don't want to be too critical, however, of first time Who director Nida Manzoor either, as overall she really did do a very nice job. These moments are simply a case of a new writer and a new director both still working through the exigencies of Doctor Who and not entirely gelling 100% of the time. I look forward to seeing more from both of them in the future. In Nida Manzoor's case, that's next week – she also directed the upcoming Judoon episode, although I don't know which episode she did first.

So, all in all a fun episode that had a lot of clever plotting, but which occasionally gazed a little too fondly at Tesla, making him sometimes feel like 'martyred genius-saint' instead of 'actual human being.'  But then, maybe Tesla deserves a little fawning after being more or less forgotten by history outside of, as Graham noted, being that guy the car company is named after who invented... something.



Bits:

-- Apparently Goran Visnjic used to be on ER. I never actually watched that, so I might have missed out on some nuances of his performance.

-- Robert Glenister was, as everyone is probably already aware, in Fifth Doctor swansong 'The Caves of Androzani.'  This makes him about as close to Doctor Who royalty as you're going to get. He still has great eyes

-- Something that was muddy in the script – why were the Skithra getting parts at Tesla's workshop before the green sphere had found Tesla, who was after all theoretically what they were actually looking for? The stolen parts were what led to his employee being killed, which happened well before we saw the orb find Tesla. Actually, now I think about it, was that what killed the guy? Was that body one of the human identities the Skithra were using, like with Edison's employee later? Maybe the script shouldn't have trusted me to follow along unaided after all...

-- Graham looked great in his bowler hat. Actually, all three companions' hat game was on point this week.

-- I appreciated that they remembered Ryan's dyspraxia when he was jumping between train cars. I also liked that they acknowledged it without saying it out loud.

-- The public fight between AC and DC was real and was actually a bit understated here. It got kind of ugly. That said, Edison absolutely did not ever electrocute an elephant. That was done by other parties and filmed on a camera that Edison had patented, but he wasn't involved. Her name was Topsy.

-- The Skithra queen didn't look much like her subjects. Now I think of it, why is feudalism so popular with alien species?

-- It didn't ring true that the Skithra queen tried to tempt Tesla to come with her by playing on his desire to achieve greatness. Everywhere else she's portrayed as a thug who smashes things to get what she wants, yet for that one moment she's a Faustian temptress.

-- Really clever twist on the title of the episode. I assumed it was a reference to him being scared one night, but it was really about him being libeled by the paper after he risked his life to save everyone.

-- David Bowie played Nikola Tesla in the movie The Prestige.



Quotes:

Mrs. Skeritt: "Is she always this impertinent?"
Graham/Yaz/Ryan: "Yes."

Ryan: "Always wanted to visit New York. See Times Square."
The Doctor: "Yeah, bit early for that."
Graham: "Empire State Building?"
The Doctor: "Not yet."
Yaz: "Central Park?"
The Doctor: "Yeah. Now that has been around for ages."

Tesla: "That instrument detects energy? Is… Is it your own design?"
The Doctor: "I made it. Mainly out of spoons."

Edison: "That’s a British accent, isn’t it?"
Graham: "Yes?"
Edison: "Now there’s a country who’s never understood business."

Yaz: "I suggest we don’t surrender to the giant alien scorpion."

The Doctor: "You do realize it’s killing Edison they want you and not him?"

Graham: "Don’t worry, this ain’t our first rodeo."
Ryan: "We’ve never been to a rodeo."
Graham: "You’re not helping, Ryan."



A solid first effort from both writer and director. I'm eager to see where they both go from here.

Eight out of thirteen Doctors.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

6 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I'm a couple episodes behind and haven't seen this one yet, but it sounds adorable.

Mikey Heinrich said...

It's good stuff. I was probably too hard on it in the review, seeing as it's a first effort from both writer and director. (First effort on Doctor Who - they've both done other things before.)

Also, how cool is it that the show is getting more women into the production side. Verity Lambert would be pleased.

sunbunny said...

This isn't Goran Visnjic's first time around time travel. He costarred in Timeless, which every should watch it was VASTLY underrated.

Nonei said...

I really enjoyed this one. I was slightly annoyed at the end when we got yet another lecture assuming we had no clue who Tesla was.
But still enjoyed it quite a lot.
I've known who Tesla was since I played Command and Conquer Red Alert (old build/research/defend your base PC game, you could play as the US or Russia) the Russians had "Tesla coils" you could get for power so of course I had to look him up!

Hardcore Hurricane said...

Goran Visnjic's also starred with Halle Berry in Extant. He is an understated actor that really gets into his characters. Now that I think about it ER, Timeless and Extant were all NBC. Am I right?

sunbunny said...

He was also the baddie in Practical Magic! I really like him.