An Inventive Tale?
Tripwire’s man in Los Angeles Robert Cave takes a look at the fourth episode of Doctor Who, which was on BBC1 last Sunday…
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
Writer: Nina Metivier
Director: Nida Manzoor
When I saw the title for this week’s episode, I must admit to having felt a sense of trepidation. With all his grandiose pronouncements, some actual verifiable engineering achievements and some carefully staged images Nikola Tesla is an easy man to mythologize. If anything, his failure to deliver on his most over-hyped claims only adds to his cult-status, particularly within his most fervent modern-day supporters. So, I ended up pleasantly surprised by quite how well Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror managed to explore the lives and times of this iconic and often idiosyncratic inventor while avoiding the urge to overclaim on his actual achievements.
Credit for this must go entirely to Nina Metivier, who takes a simple plot of alien scavengers, seeking to profit off the talent of and uses it as a metaphor for the ideological struggle between technology and commerce.It would have been easy to turn this struggle into a simplistic tale of goodies vs baddies personified by a rivalry between Thomas Edison and Tesla, but Metivier is more ambitious. Her Edison, played with relish by Philip Glennister, isn’t a simple cartoon capitalist. This Edison is more nuanced and interesting. Sure, he wants to turn a profit, and is the consummate businessman, but he also has moments of genuine heroism, undercut with some cynical, and strikingly effective, salesmanship. Where Yas (Mandip Gill) struggles to convince New Yorkers to get off the streets, he uses his own anti-Tesla hype to scare folk into seeking safety. It is a small moment, but it masterfully demonstrates that Edison is simply more in touch with the concerns and motivations of the man in the street.
The main antagonist here is conveniently extra-terrestrial in the form of a bunch of scavenger space scorpions called the Skithra in search of an engineer who might be able to fix some of the stuff they’ve picked up over the years. Yes, there was a certain similarity between their queen and the Queen of the Racnoss from the 2006 Christmas episode The Runaway Bride, but that didn’t bother me. Why shouldn’t space scorpions look like space spiders? They were fun and reasonably visually impressive, although the costs and constraints of their digital animation were presumably an additional reason that the denizens of New York had to clear the streets. It was also great to see Anjli Mohindra (Rani from The Sarah Jane Adventures) back in the Whooniverse again, this time as the Skithra’s sovereign.
Yes, there was a fairly big continuity blunder early on: The Doctor refers to a Silurian blaster as being “alien” technology when, as all ardent Who fans know, Silurians actually come from Earth and are not alien at all. This was one of the main plot points of Chris Chibnall’s 2010 two-parter, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, which reintroduced the Silurians to Nu Who, but as the showrunner and man with final sign-off I’m going to lay the blame for this at his door. His shoulders should be broad enough, and he can at least take credit for commissioning Metvier in the first place as well as helping her hone her script.
Goran Višnjić was brilliantly charismatic as Tesla, really selling his indefatigable self-confidence while also imbuing him with a human warmth that really sold his status in the show as a celebrity historical figure.
For audiences more familiar with the real-world Tesla, there were plenty of nice touches; his claimed detection of alien signals and his work on some kind of death ray to name just two. But what I particularly liked was that, just as in reality, most of Tesla’s most impressive-sounding inventions didn’t live up to the hype. While fully embracing the breadth of his vision for the potential of technology, it carefully avoids giving him too much credit for technology he might have imagined but did not invent and certainly did not manage to put into the hands of the masses. And it does all this without ever painting him as a victim or the object of pity.
He might not have been quite the engineer the Skithra were looking for, but he certainly had his imagination set firmly on the future.
And speaking of the future, next week the Judoon return in Fugitive of the Judoon, which, judging from the trailer, might hold some more clues to the truth behind the Timeless Child. See you then.