Doctor Who: Tesla Aids Rallying Doom Insects, Sentimentally
You hear that? That’s the sound of the sigh of relief I let out when I realized that this week’s episode of Doctor Who, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (what a deliciously pulpy banger of a title, by the way), was going to be a historical outing. Of my favourite stories of Chris Chibnall’s run on the show, most of them have been historically-based – Rosa, Spyfall, The Witchfinders, to name a few. There have been some great futuristic or more abjectly sci-fi outings, for sure, but, as last week’s something-to-be-desired proved, this writing room is still very much finding its feet when it comes to the great beyond of the future. But the past? Yes, the past they seem to know how to handle.
And honestly, yes, this episode is a huge step up from last week. I mean, take that pulpy title alone, which delivers in spectacular form with a one-shot comic-book pulp-fiction vibe – space scorpions run amok through New York! Edison versus Tesla in the man-on-man direct-current action of the century! Jaunty death ray hats! It’s all here, and it’s all designed to strap into the gurgling childish delight part of my reviewing brain. Is it silly? Hugely, but it’s also silly that just radiates the joy that was poured into making it, and I can’t argue with that.
But beyond that – and frankly, if you saw my Arachnids in the UK review, you could be forgiven for thinking that was enough – I actually really liked a lot of what this episode had to say. Firstly and most foremostly, let’s talk about those space scorpions, who actually turn out to be nothing but intergalactic war scavengers gathering the best they can from various planets and leaving a trail of blood in their wake as they bounce from culture to culture taking what they can. The colonialist undertones aren’t subtle, but they’re teased out in a more interesting way than last week’s burgeoning bludgening of ideas.
It’s a great way for the show to play with some throwback nods to other alien races, grounding the story in the world they’ve already established, while also exploring what war and ravagement look like scaled up from our Earthly empire-building. This is a rich, intelligent script from Nina Metivier, and, for my money, is a perfect example of how the show should use its metaphorical political commentary – woven into a story that stands beautifully alone without it, but that enriches once you apply that extra layer.
But honestly, what I liked most about this episode was Nikola Tesla himself. Played by Goran Visnijc, this could easily have just been a screechingly annoying capital-e Eccentric guest star, but the show took a surprisingly different tack with their approach: this Tesla is actually a little sad, weighted and frustrated with the struggle of being trapped in a time and a culture that just isn’t compatible with the way that he wants to live his life.
Mandeep Gill is already proving an MVP this season, and her tender treatment of the inventor in the face of his self-doubt and societal rejection give this episode a heart that I’m here for. His scenes shared with Jodie herself, the two loners trying to find connection in a world that often doesn’t understand them, are understated and soft and the kind of gentle melancholy that I love from this show at its best. I’m not sure that I’ll remember much about the scorpions crashing through New York in a week’s time, but this careful capturing of feeling like an outsider I probably will.
This episode is really a silly, pulpy slice of nonsense, into which some actual intelligence and humanity seems to have accidentally crashed; I was ready for this to be another piece of ridiculous bullshittery, but the show just managed to reign itself in and find the heart for something a little bigger and more impactful. Nikola Tesla might be all about the future, but for now, I think this show would do better to sticking to the past.
If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out the rest of my Doctor Who recaps right here and hey, how about checking out my movie blog, No But Listen? If you just stop by for these recaps, then might I draw your attention to the fact that my first book, Rape Jokes,was released in between the last couple of seasons, and, oh, just so happens to have a few five-star reviews, not that I’m counting? As ever, thank you for reading, and drop your take on this episode in the comments below!
(header image via BBC)