“Did Tesla have the idea for Wi-Fi?”
Yes he did. It might sound like an unlikely exaggeration, but it’s true. If you are unfamiliar with Tesla and this episode has sparked your interest, then I would recommend joining the doubtless hoards of people heading for Wikipedia after watching this. He was a fascinating man. This is Doctor Who engaging with history at its best, finding an interesting historical figure who is almost but not quite a household name, and delving into his past with some monsters thrown in for good measure.
Writers always take some liberties with these kinds of stories though. The $50,000 promise stretched even a contested moment in history to breaking point, and painting Edison as a plagiarist with hardly any spark of genius of his own was a bit much. Edison was every bit the genius that Tesla was, and the way he set up the first ever industrial research laboratory in the world provided an incredible contribution to science, pushing things on much faster than could have been achieved by inventors working alone, and giving employment to some brilliant minds who would otherwise have been denied investment and penniless. He pushed his team hard, but they were his team, and it all started from his own early inventions putting him in the financial position to do all that. He was a visionary. But it’s only natural for a writer using a historical figure to look for the interesting aspects of their lives and make use of them, even if they are bringing to the screen something that almost certainly never happened. Fair enough. Nina Metivier made her story about unrecognised genius, about somebody looking at the achievements of others and saying… I’m having that, and then tied it in brilliantly to an alien race who achieves nothing themselves, stealing technology from other races.
On a completely unrelated note, wasn’t it great to see the Racnoss back. Wait, what? Those weren’t the Racnoss? Not even “cousins”, like the Silurians and Sea Devils? This might irritate Mike more than me, because I’m less bothered about whether a writer specifically joins the dots and makes the sort of connection we got from RTD about the Ood and the Sensorites, or leaves that up to the fans to make their minds up, although you would think the Doctor would have had a glimmer of recognition. But there are far worse inconsistencies going on from one story to the next. In Spyfall the Doctor forget the lesson she learnt from Clara about consent and did a bit of mind wiping to protect history. Here there was no mention of the impact of Edison, Tesla and his assistant retaining knowledge of aliens and the TARDIS. That’s an exact equivalent situation, two episodes later, ignored.
On the plus side, the Skithra were great monsters, especially effective in the scenes where they were crawling all over buildings. I would have liked to have seen more of that, because it was really scary. Anjli Mohindra (yes, Rani from The Sarah Jane Adventures!) was absolutely amazing as the queen. Her performance was almost as fruity as Sarah Parish’s Empress of the Racnoss, but the character called for that approach. I was reminded of the problem of the Slitheen, with the mismatch between the CGI and the close-up shots, and I wonder if the sheer amount of close-ups on Mohindra’s face indicated a problem with her full costume, or lack of funds to build the CGI tail into many shots. If it was a directorial choice then it shared the same problem as the endless close-ups of drooling teeth last week. Luckily Mohindra’s memorable performance ameliorated that.
Talking of memorable performances, Goran Višnjić and Robert Glenister were both stunningly good as Tesla and Edison. This series is certainly doing well with the guest performances, but with every amazing actor that appears, Jodie Whittaker is looking that bit worse each time in comparison. If I have to watch her getting breathless over a historical celebrity one more time I might just throw my sonic screwdriver at the screen. Talking of which, I’m starting to understand why JNT got rid of the damn thing. It’s about time Jodie stopped acting every moment of jeopardy with the sonic held at arms length like a gun. A gun made from spoons.
But this was much, much better. It was an episode that restored my faith in Doctor Who, after I was on the verge of giving up the show last week. I’m not quite sure the right message came across to the viewers, at least the message that we should take from this moment in history. Plagiarism is bad? No, we already know that. I think the true message from history was hidden away in one little line of Tesla’s when he envisaged “all of human knowledge shared freely” with his vision of a Wi-Fi enabled future. In the end it was the way Edison brought so many creative minds together in scientific cooperation that really changed the world. RP
The view from across the pond:
Despite the fact that I haven’t had a Doctor Who episode to really thrill me the way Peter Capaldi’s final season had back in 2017, I still get excited to watch Doctor Who each week. And despite the fact that last week’s episode made me feel like Doctor Who was being used as a political platform for a writer to air his grievances with anyone who would listen, I was still delighted by the opening theme and that swirling mass of colors accompanied by my favorite theme tune of all time. But as the title screen appeared, I was confused. Part of me was sick because the title was just so awful. What a rubbish title: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. On the other hand, it wasn’t written by Chris Chibnall, which was a huge plus! This was written by Nina Metivier, and while I don’t know anything about Nina, it’s still got the advantage of not being Chibnall, and that says a lot. Could such a weak title still produce a classic?
The thing about classics is that they seldom start out as classics, do they? They have to age like a fine wine. Maybe one day, this will strike us as a classic. For now I’d say, it did not start out as one, but I was actually very happy with the episode overall, and that probably had to do with the spectacular casting of Goran Višnjić as the titular Nikola Tesla. He was a delight to watch. His voice was perfect and everything about the character felt right. He almost single-handedly carried the episode for me. As if that weren’t enough, Robert Glenister as Thomas Edison was also well played and while he didn’t have the charisma that Tesla had, I enjoyed his portrayal too. And to round off a happy little trifecta of acting talent, the beautiful Anjli Mohindra (Rani, of The Sarah Jane Adventures) is cast as Queen Skithra. Sure, her movements reminded me a lot of the Queen of the Racnoss in The Runaway Bride, but that didn’t take away from her performance. And I actually noticed it was Anjli within seconds of her being on screen because, cover her up with makeup all you want, she’s got stunning eyes and the costume department failed to hide those from me! As if the acting trio weren’t enough, the scorpion-like creatures amazed me in their movements and appearance. What a great looking race! What great voices! Even Mohinda’s voice impressed me to no end. (So did her hands. And her teeth…)
Typically, I’ve been keeping a running list of all the screw-ups I see in these episodes that really take me out of the episode; something to argue over with the current regime behind Doctor Who. (I don’t even write about the kiss-of-death timeslot the show now occupies because I don’t want to give them the satisfaction!) But the only real issue I took with the episode from a technical point of view is that a laser beam could be stopped by a wooden door and that the same wooden door could be locked with the sonic screwdriver. That said to me that when Nina Metivier was doing her research on Doctor Who, she heard that the sonic is a magic wand; a sort of get-out-of-any-situation-free device. She wasn’t to know that the series has gone out of its way over the last 15 years that it’s been on to point out that the sonic doesn’t work on wood. And I find that offensive. But not enough to hate the episode, just to be irked. On a smaller list of pet peeves, I was offended that the Police Public Call Box sign inside the TARDIS was the right way around. It should have been backwards to show outside, because from the inside, there is no Police Public Call Box!
On the list of things I did like, the characters of Ryan, Graham and Yaz are still great fun. Graham and Ryan’s “rodeo” dialogue was a triumph. The scene of Telsa watching everyone go inside the TARDIS was fantastic, and lead to what I thought was going to be a missed opportunity with the interior dimensions; thankfully I was mistaken about that. I thought his dialogue about being out of place was outstanding. Ryan being afraid to jump train cars was consistent with his disability and it’s nice to know that wasn’t overlooked. And Edison’s comment about business in the UK leads to a simple but hilarious look from Graham. If anyone bothered me in this episode it was the Doctor herself and I hate saying that because I want to like the Doctor, always! But her plan to basically destroy the Queen was horrible. That’s not the Doctor. Defeat and destroy are not the same thing. OK, the Doctor fails to destroy the Queen and maybe that was her plan – to make the Queen run away – but it came off like it was a plan to kill the queen. Considering the barrage of badmouthing before the Queen is tricked back to her ship, referring to her as a parasite, I do think the plan was murder and I don’t respect that from our hero. Maybe scorpions aren’t one of her “specialisms”. I just saw Skithra as being in need of a mechanic and the Doctor doesn’t even offer to help, which just felt wrong. Maybe she knows more than we do about these creatures. But Tennant would have offered to help take her somewhere safe. I want that from my heroes. On the plus side, at least she ends on a positive note: don’t give up! Maybe this is a message to the viewers too. Don’t give up: next week will be better still!
What I walked away with was a reminder of 1982. Maybe it wasn’t something that existed in England (not 1982; I suspect that existed everywhere) but there was television show called Voyagers which lasted for one season – 20 episodes. It was very kid friendly and educational. Phineas Bogg (not to be confused with Verne’s Phineas Fogg) and 10 year old Jeffrey travel through time using a pocket watch-like time machine called The Omni. They right wrongs and then leave for the next adventure. But at the end, Jeffrey would come on screen and talk to the audience: if you want to learn more about Nikola Tesla, voyage over to your public library… etc etc. While Doctor Who is doing it in a slightly less in-your-face manner, it’s effectively the same thing. The episode ends with a history lesson about the person we were focused on. Yes, I’m glad the episode was fun, and educational, as that was the original plan behind the show, but I do wish it was a bit more Doctor Who and a little less Voyagers! Ah, well… maybe next week. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Fugitive of the Judoon