Despite the wincingly bad title of “Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” – bed enough to rival “Let’s Kill Hitler” and nearly enough to make me long for one of Chibnall’s dad-joke puns, this is a welcome return to the series’ core values of edutainment: a breezy historical romp which offers just enough information about real-life figures to whet the appetite for further independent study without burdening the story with too much biographical exposition.
In the early 20th century, Nikola Tesla (Goran Višnjić) struggles to gain investors for his ongoing research into alternating current technology but he does seem to have attracted the attention of something, which has a more hostile takeover in mind. Enter the Doctor and her entourage who save Tesla from alien attack only to run into Tesla’s rival Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister). Is he behind the attacks on Tesla? And who or what was behind the signals Tesla received from Mars?
Opening with a turn of the century “Dragon’s Den”, this is one of those nice episodes of “Doctor Who” which lets the story breathe a little bit before the main cast crash in. Not too long, of course, but just enough to give us a decent introduction to our historical celebrities Nikola Tesla and his loyal real-life secretary Doroth Skerrit (Haley McGee).
There’s an undercurrent (pun intended) throughout the episode which takes a dim view of business in general and Edison in particular, casting him unfavourably as a methodical exploiter of genius and Tesla as a true visionary who was cruelly treated for lacking the cynical commercial sensibilities which made America great in the first place but it’s kept where subtext belongs and the episode doesn’t set out to beat you around the head with it.
There’s a very Whovian left-turn at the half-way point when we’re introduced to the real villains of the piece as Tesla and Yaz (who’s beginning to make a habit of being inadvertently teleported into hostile alien environments) find themselves transported to the vessel of the Skithra and at the mercy of the Queen of the Skithra (Anjli Mohindra). The Skithra, apparently a scavenger race who run around the cosmos cobbling together various species’ technology, make for good monsters and their scheme is classic historical Who as they plan to plunder Earth’s past to help shape their own future.
It’s here, unfortunately, that the series’ newfound shyness about tying into its past manifests and irritates like a raspberry pip caught in between your teeth. The Skithra are so very, very similar to the Racnoss in so many obvious ways that it seems absurd for the Doctor not to even speculate on the link. In fact, she’s curiously incurious about the Skithra at all. She’s happy to namedrop half a dozen other planets and species as she rambles on but it seems oddly out of character for this most garrulous of incarnations to ignore the elephant spider in the room.
There are good performances throughout and the episode clips along quite nicely with plenty of action and cleverness. It’s something of a re-who-nion episode too, with Robert Glenister returning to the show sixteen years after his last appearance in “The Caves Of Androzani” and the Skithra Queen herself played by Anjli Mohindra, who played Rani (not the Rani) on Who’s best ever spin-off “The Sarah Jane Adventures”. Yes, the sonic screwdriver is still way too multifunctional, the fam is still one character too populous, the writing still tends towards lazy with too many witty zingers that, well, fail to zing (Graham’s AC/DC line is pure gold though) and it can’t resist a brief ‘moral of the story’ scene at the end either. Still, we’re back to being fun so all in all, it’s looking like the blandly polemic “Orphan-55” may (fingers crossed) end up being an only child.