To answer the question that's likely at the forefront of your mind if you read my review of last week's Doctor Who episode “Orphan 55”, yes, this episode is better. Much better.
I'm actually surprised Doctor Who has never tackled Nikola Tesla before. Quite possibly it has, in some spinoff media, but off the top of my head, I can't think of any stories that featured him. The man is a fascinating and somewhat bizarre figure whose exploits verge on the science fictional even without adding any aliens. (The “death ray” that features in this story? Yeah, that was actually a thing.) Pairing the Doctor with Tesla is a great idea, and fortunately, this story does the concept justice despite some minor hiccups.
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
“Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror” breaks the trend of the Thirteenth Doctor's era by not underestimating the intelligence of its audience. This is something of a double-edged sword, since the episode occasionally gets bogged down in its own science. However, aside from minor pacing issues, this is a very solid historical tale that does justice to all its characters and builds to a satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.
What I Didn't Like
As I mentioned in the previous section, this episode isn't afraid to get sciencey. It takes its time to ensure that all of its twists make sense within the context of Tesla's very orderly, science-driven world. In that sense, it almost feels like a “pure historical” Doctor Who episode whenever the monster of the week isn't on screen. In and of itself, that's a good thing, but it occasionally makes the story drag a little. However, I still have to give writer Nina Metivier props for doing her research and not having the Doctor defeat the Skithra with a wave of the sonic screwdriver. (Well, technically, she sort of did, but it wasn't really that simple.)
Politics are fortunately far less prevalent this week, but there's still an anti-xenophobia moment that feels like it was shoehorned into the script to address current events. It's just a blip, though, not a lengthy rant that serves as the main focus of the story.
One continuity nitpick: when the Doctor identifies the Skithra's gun as being of Silurian origin, she refers to the Silurians as aliens. Technically, they're not aliens, as they're native to Earth. But I suppose one could assume that she didn't want to drop an “Oh, by the way, you're not the first dominant species of your planet” explanation into the middle of a tense moment. Plus, the gun must have been harvested from spacefaring Silurians.
What I Liked
Refreshingly, it seems that Metivier didn't feel obligated to pontificate about how awful the past was in writing this episode. The darkness of stories like “Rosa” is dispensed with here in favor of a more hopeful, upbeat tone. No one mistreats the Doctor because of her gender, or Ryan and Yaz because of their skin color. True, Tesla does struggle against small-minded opposition to his vision, as well as the aggressive capitalism of Thomas Edison. However, the obstacles Tesla faces are not exaggerated to a depressing extent. Also, I found Edison's portrayal in the story to be more nuanced than I might have expected. Unlike the character of…what's-his-face, Not-Trump, in “Arachnids of the UK,” Edison is not a one-dimensional mustache-twirling capitalist villain. The arguments he makes for his own methods actually make sense, even if Tesla ultimately comes across as the more admirable of the two. Plus, the similarities between Tesla and Edison are explored as well as their differences.
I've seen some criticisms of Anjli Mohindra's Skithra Queen as being too similar to the Racnoss Queen from “The Runaway Bride”, in both the character's appearance and Mohindra's performance. Those critiques aren't completely unfounded…however, I have to say that Mohindra's performance is more menacing and less over-the-top than Sarah Parish's portrayal. Plus, aside from those superficial similarities, the Skithra are actually very different and genuinely scary, albeit humorously accident-prone. (They seemed to spend more time in New York running into each other than actually attacking anyone.) There was more of a reliance on CGI this week, but fortunately, it looked good. So did the costume and makeup on the Skithra Queen. And the concept behind the Skithra was quite unique and clever as well. It was much easier to take them seriously as a threat than most of the monsters from Series 11. The rest of the effects in the episode were great too, and Segun Akinola's score was particularly good this week.
The cast of characters was stretched a little thin in this episode, but I wouldn't say that any of them actually fell by the wayside. Tesla, Edison, and Miss Skerritt were all fleshed out enough for me to care about them. Goran Visnjic in particular deserves high praise for his superb acting in the role of Nikola Tesla. He sparked off Jodie Whittaker expertly in their scenes together. I would be very happy to see his character return to Doctor Who someday. Each of the companions was used well–Ryan and Yaz both got standout moments, and Graham landed a number of hilarious one-liners, as usual (that AC/DC joke was perfect).
Despite all its flaws, “Orphan 55” did give the Doctor some great moments which built on her darker persona forged by the events of “Spyfall”. “Tesla's Night” carried on this arc extremely well. There was a great balance in this episode between the quirkier and the more intense sides of the Thirteenth Doctor. Her current incarnation's affinity for science was on full display in this story. On the other side of the spectrum, her standoff with the Skithra Queen was chilling and very much in the vein of the Tenth Doctor's darker moments. The Queen's taunt “Have you ever seen a dead planet?” was especially effective, with Jodie Whittaker bringing fantastic emotional depth to her reaction. Though this was the only reference to the series arc this week, it was powerful all the same.
I wouldn't describe “Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror” as a breakout hit for the show, which isn't good, considering that it really needs some hits to get it out of its current ratings slump. Granted, Series 13 and 14 have already been greenlit thanks to a deal with HBO, and Jodie Whittaker has confirmed in interviews that this is not her last year playing the Doctor, so the future of the show and of the current Doctor isn't exactly in danger…but the electricity (no pun intended) of the Davies and Moffat eras is still lacking, in my opinion. We need another “Midnight”, or another “Blink”. Failing that (because it's probably not possible), we need more episodes like “Spyfall”, and no more episodes like “Orphan 55”.
That said, if Series 12 keeps up the standard set by “Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror”, it will still be on the road to fixing the mistakes of Series 11. In the end, this episode ticks all the right boxes for a Doctor Who historical adventure and is very much worth watching.
Coming Up Next
Join me again tomorrow (or the next day, at the latest) for a breakdown of the trailer just released for the remaining episodes of Series 12. There do appear to be some exciting (and dark) moments in store. Plus, there are some interesting clues in the trailer which have led me to develop a theory about the series arc. Basically, I may know who the Timeless Child is, and how they will redefine the established canon of Doctor Who moving forward. I'm probably wrong, but speculation is fun…and at least we actually have something to speculate about this year.