So going into this week’s episode of Doctor Who, I was already excited, because who wouldn’t be excited about an episode called “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror?” From the “Topsy” episode of Bob’s Burgers to David Bowie’s enigmatic turn as Tesla in The Prestige, I’m a sucker for portrayals of Nikola Tesla. Therefore, when this episode opens with a disgruntled Nikola Tesla, desperate for funding for his inventions, must prove himself by solving an odd mystery of a man who mysteriously died of electrocution in Tesla’s workshop. Turns out, it’s sabotage! Poor misunderstood Nikola lives again in the latest Doctor Who; read on for all the details.
At this point, three things appear in Tesla’s workshop about at the same time: a green orb later identified as an Orb of Thassa, a hooded figure with glowing eyes, and the Doctor, who immediately asks: “I don’t suppose you’ve seen anything weird around here?”
After a chase on a train, the Doctor ends up guarding the Orb of Thassa with Tesla and his assistant Miss Skerritt, while Thomas Edison and his sinister agents try to destroy Tesla’s career and steal his technology. Edison, when they meet the dastardly villain in his factory (where his name is literally up in lights everywhere to show off both his fame and his lightbulbs), admits to having scammed Tesla out of money in the past when he gave his rival his first job. “Tesla just doesn’t understand the American sense of humor,” he says in one of the more cutting lines of the episode. The sneering, snakey smarm of this episode’s Edison makes him a villain you can’t help but love to hate. He even shows up at Tesla’s factory later on when he incites a crowd to protest Tesla, spreading misinformation about the safety of his inventions.
But the two rivals are forced onto the same side when the man with glowing eyes shows up to wreck Edison’s factory too. Edison’s not of much help though, since it’s Tesla (and Yaz!) who gets spirited away onto a spaceship populated by aliens from some kind of Scorpion Planet. Turns out Tesla’s claims that he is in contact with Martians isn’t as erroneous as the bigwigs who wouldn’t fund his inventions thought. Tesla accidentally got in contact with a planet of very warlike and thorny aliens who want him to build them weapons to conquer the universe. Tesla even accidentally signaled back to them, presumably with an alien version of a 1:00 AM “you up?” text. The gang and their new friends now have to use the Orb of Thassa, Tesla’s electricity, and the Doctor’s ingenuity to ward off these scorpion aliens, keeping New York from getting fried in the process.
Considering the resolution of this episode involves The Doctor and Nikola Tesla putting their heads together on an invention, there’s no way this episode wasn’t going to be a mind-blowing one. Props to the Doctor Who crew for their depiction of Gilded Age New York in this episode too: with its economic disparity and paranoia toward immigrants like Tesla, the political subtext of the story makes this yet another episode of Doctor Who with a timely warning for the future from the past. The fact that the main villain in this episode is just an alien version of Edison, traveling around the universe trying to steal the technology they need to take over, was a fun thematic parallel.
I also LOVE Tesla’s relationship with the Doctor. The poor discouraged boy is so close to giving up on inventing, but the Doctor gives him one of those inspirational speeches we love so much to keep him fighting. If I ever reach a moment in my own life where I need encouragement from the Doctor to become the famous inventor I was meant to be, I hope I have Jodie Whittaker to give me a pep talk. And when Tesla sees the Tardis: “the internal dimension…transcends the external!” The historical fiction episodes are always at their best when they give the future’s reassurance to those who were treated badly in the past, making us viewers feel a bit more okay about those poor sweeties like Tesla who didn’t get what they deserved. As Jodie Whittaker says at the end of the episode, Tesla’s life was painful, but at least he created the networked world as we know it. And as Tesla says, “they can have the past. I work for the future, and the future is mine.”
9/10 – This episode wasn’t the first story in the past decade or so to rehab Tesla’s image, especially since there’s a whole company named after Tesla now, but what this Doctor Who episode lacks in originality it makes up for with execution. From the freaky scorpion aliens to the firework show of electricity at the end, this one was a spectacle to be sure.