And now, for something completely different.
If “Orphan 55” was an attempt at pushing the newfound dramatic obsessions of the Chibnall era into a dramatic, audience-provoking form, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” instead aims at hitting the most traditional beats of Who with ruthless efficiency. It sounds like a comedown, but it really isn’t. See, the traditional idea with Doctor Who is that it’s a franchise with basically endless narrative possibilities, and that’s certainly not wrong: you will end up with on average maybe one episode a season just going into utterly bonkers places most shows could not throw themselves in with such gusto. But sixty years of history don’t just fracture aesthetics into a varied kaleidoscope: they also create, well, a sort of agglomeration. There is an aesthetic of Who, iconic visuals, iconic ideas, and through the slow sedimentation of stories, expectations in terms of tone and story. There’s a traditionalist aspect to Who storytelling, really, that will pop up just as much (if not more often) than the truly weird stuff. And yes, the show does tend to be at its best when it strays far away from that baggage and just does its own thing. But at the same time, the process of re-appropriating the emblems and symbols of the show is legitimately important for a new showrunner, for a new era: carving themselves up a new identity, a new niche. Taking the old tropes in for a new spin. Shifting the goalpost of mainstream, cookie-cutter Doctor Who: sometimes in a very political sense, actually, see for instance series 10, where Steven Moffat focused on having a lot of relatively small-scale, traditionalist storylines, which nevertheless felt very much important because they stirred the aesthetics and the conventions of the show leftwards, one trope at a time.
It’s all the more interesting given that the Chibnall era has so often felt almost in conflict with the tenure of previous showrunners. Not in an interpersonal way, let’s be clear here, no one’s going to suggest there is some sort of secret vendetta between lead writers; or even that the text of the episodes throws attacks at past standards. But by necessity, the Chibnall seasons have to build themselves in contrast to the six-seasons, complicated, controversial Steven Moffat era; and because they try to recapture the mainstream appeal and entertainment factor of the David Tennant ratings golden age, they also do clash with Russell T Davies, in maybe even more visible ways. A story like “Arachnids in the UK”, for instance, feels very much in the middle of an identity crisis, trying to tackle very burning, very actual politics, but doing so while indebted to a decades-old framework created by Davies. But here, there is an actual sense of the different elements, the different eras, reaching a precarious, but real balance.
Which in a way is to be expected: that is, after all, the kind of dramatic structure a lot of Who eras, as meta-structures of storytelling, rely upon. The famous “Troughton rule”, stipulating that a Doctor should stay around for three seasons, has endured not just because of actors fearing to be typecast, but also because it makes very basic sense in terms of dramatic construction. A first season to establish a new aesthetic, a second to consolidate it and push it as far as possible, and a final one to slowly move beyond it and face the necessity of a shake-up. “Spyfall” was absolutely an attempt to reverse-engineer that process, to make a big confident statement about the power and reach of the show; and that only highlighted its failures. But “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”, while not nearly as ambitious, picks up the ball and scores with an ease and grace that’s especially pleasing in an era that so often feels like it’s trying so very, very hard.
A lot of this is in the production, really – Nida Manzoor’s directorial work is fabulous, and it manages to swing from setpiece to setpiece at a breakneck, but always controlled pace, leaving plenty of room for character interactions and general mood-building. The choice to hold the TARDIS team at bay for the first five minutes, giving us an in medias res opening, feels confident and purposeful in a way other stories of the Whittaker era have struggled to achieve, no doubt helped by writer Nina Métivier’s experience as a script editor on the previous season. The guest cast is as excellent as it is memorable, especially Anji Mohindra, who delivers arguably the best bit of incredibly arch overacting in the show since David Schofield’s turn as a giant testosterone-chugging lamprey disguised as a Norse God in “The Girl who Died”. But while that kind of detail and flair certainly improves the experience, the core of the story does reside in the way it’s able to pick up on the storytelling trends of the Chibnall era and weave them into efficient, quintessentially Who plot beats. For all that it’s tempting to contrast it with “Orphan 55” – and they are indeed vastly different stories, especially in terms of production and execution quality –; both episodes does ultimately end up linked together, in this common goal of making subtext text, of crystallising the ethos of the Thirteenth Doctor.
Which of course focuses on this idea of science – the script parallels the Doctor and Tesla over and over, not only framing the Doctor as a scientist, but also trying to think about the meaning of this science, its framing and its politics.
Science is the backbone of the Whittaker era. It’s kind of its keyword. Well, that and Hope – but it’s a Hope born of science: the future evolves into something grand and beautiful on the back of technical progress, the future of humanity protected from threats by whichever technical solution the Doctor manages to improvise. It’s the era of the Doctor gazing longingly at antimatter engines and stopping the plot for forty-five seconds to explain just how cool this stuff is. It’s, importantly and very interestingly, an era that actually puts focus on historical, real-life scientists, providing background to the technology, instead of just focusing, in a very Who move, on more literary, or at least aesthetically-driven personalities. Having an episode that just takes those themes directly and has fun with them is a completely logical move – and the results are compelling, if formulated with borderline extreme bluntness.
Essentially, the episode splits the difference between a humanist science, driven by a desire to improve material conditions for everyone on the planet; and a capitalist one, leeching onto the discoveries made by better men to offer increasingly parasite-like systems of mass consumptions that, if anything else, make things worse for everyone. Edison’s involvement has some weight behind it, at this point in the Thirteenth Doctor’s run, because it feels like he’s patient zero for the epidemic of corrupt tech corporations that are going to arise in the future. He very much holds the patent for Kerb!am, for the weapon laboratories experimenting on Dalek armaments in “Resolution”, and of course, for VOR, the parallels between Barton and his empire being absolutely deliberate. It’s telling that, bar “The Witchfinders”, whose thematic focus was entirely different, this is the furthest back this TARDIS team has travelled on television: you can track the conquering, imperialistic techo-positivism of Edison through basically every posterior story, even historicals like “Demons of the Punjab” or “Rosa” (scientific racism, being, after all, very much a thing).
The alien plot ties organically into this, with the Skithra acting like a monstrous, over-the-top parody of Edison’s worst impulses. On a very basic level (they want to steal Tesla’s knowledge in order to build stuff), but also through some interesting details – for instance, the fact they literally copy the bodies of those they kill, essentially committing some necromantic plagiarism; or the fact they’re led by a Queen, which, despite Edison’s rants unintentionally coming off as praise for the United Kingdom, does feel like a twinge of anti-colonialist critique. After all, both Edison and this Queen want to leech upon the knowledge of a foreigner, an immigrant, to further the interest of a global conglomerate or empire: feeding upon the periphery and the social margins to augment the power and technological means of a conservative mainstream. Because, well, said conservative mainstream doesn’t have much of a clue all on its own – see for instance the way the episode contrasts the high and mighty title of Queen with the scenery-chewing arachnid treating completely ordinary objects as pieces of technology worth being admired: see her shoulder piece being made from an old tyre; or the fact that the Doctor and Yaz manage to escape her by using an old camera lying around in her ship, that she mistook for a weapon. Or Graham drawing direct comparisons between Edison and a former supervisor he had at the bus station: the status as a scientist matters very little in comparison to one’s affiliation to capitalist or imperialist powers.
But what of the Doctor’s own affiliations? Well, framing her as a scientist feels very much like a return to the origins of the characters, doing a new take on William Hartnell’s first Doctor – a bit of a metatextual move, in a way far less showy than Moffat’s narrative pyrotechnics, but certainly relevant here. With that lens, Tesla almost the equivalent of, say, the unseen genius apothecary Preslin from “The Massacre of Saint-Bartholomew’s Eve”, a respected equal whose council and experience the Doctor seeks and respects. As for Whittaker herself, well, you do end up with this idea of the Doctor as a lonely genius, whose singular talent is framed with a lot less mystique than in other incarnations, and much more in practical, experimental terms.
Nevertheless, intentionally or not, the framing ends up extremely different: for starters, in the 1960s, still relatively fresh off the Second World War, and absolutely still in the middle of an age of nuclear panic, there is a certain moral ambiguity inherent to the status of the scientist, a mystique, the implicit potential to cause untold destruction – it’s no coincidence that the first monsters encountered by the First Doctor are mutants feeding off radiations. Event though the commodification of science by rabid capitalism has arguably caused more damage than any nuclear bombs, in an age of climate change denial and flat earthers, the scientist has a much more enviable reputation, a heroic streak even.
The second big divergence is that the First Doctor was an extremely fallible genius – a weirdo who didn’t seem to really understand the very technology that sustained him, his TARDIS running out of fuel, or even almost exploding and threatening to kill everyone in it, in, oh, y’know, the third Who story ever made. And in a way, that’s what made him an endearing figure: this father figure, this all-powerful scientist could be intimidating, threatening even, but he was to some extent de-fanged and made gentler. It’s not too different from what this very episode does to Tesla, really – part of the reason why he is so easy to root for is because he is doomed to failed. An underdog, bullied, oppressed, incapable of realising his vision. Which, y’know, is good, ‘cause his vision, in real life, included stuff like eugenics. On the other hand, Edison is framed extremely negatively specifically because he is this “man of parts”, this doer: there is, beneath the script, almost this implication that the best, most beautiful science is the one that remains at the stage of unfinished, incomplete dream, evocative and unreachable.
But there, we hit something interesting – the Doctor is also scientist: and she is one, to boot, who absolutely does manage to reach her goals, to craft whatever she needs. For all that the episode parallels her with Tesla, she exists in the scientific and political context of 2020. She’s not chasing a dream, she knows where the story ends, the developments of science over an impossibly vast period: and because of that, while certainly not a capitalist like Edison, she nevertheless ends up focusing on an extremely practical view of science. The Thirteenth Doctor doesn’t dream about future inventions: she waltzes in to take care of specific situations throughout the timeline. She’s less of a scientist, and more of a technocrat: an authority figure trying to even things out, to maintain “fair play”, through technology and human ingenuity. On one hand, this does give some more colour to her interactions with Tesla: there is a real sense, in their rather emotional conversations, that he is the sort of Platonic Ideal of a good man for her, that he’s got something, in his innocence, that she lacks. But more largely, this also does contribute to paint a larger, and rather messy, portrait of the Chibnall era’s politics.
The most flagrant example of this arguably resides in this repeated motif, that many critics have noted, of Whittaker episodes tending to figure a very large guest cast: not just that, but also a large guest cast who end up kind of integrated, on a temporary basis at least, to the TARDIS team. Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan in “Spyfall”; the archaeologists and Aaron Sinclair in “Resolution”; the entire crew of the ship in “The Tsuranga Conundrum”; Najia Khan, Jack Robertson and Jade McIntyre in “Arachnids in the UK”; Angstrom and Epzo in “The Ghost Monument”. It’s an odd structural quirk, but it’s one that actually makes sense when it’s placed, as Métivier does, in the context of science. The Thirteenth Doctor, beyond any kind of moral consideration, is a problem-solver. Her purpose is not so much a lofty “be kind”, or “never be cruel or cowardly”, but rather to come up with a practical and concrete solution. Which does involve recruiting specialists – random guest actors with a specific set of skills that are coming to be useful in the unravelling of the week’s conundrum. The TARDIS team becomes less of a closed unit of characters, and more like a collective of like-minded minds, a platform for research and troubleshooting, lending a hand left and right. There’s a reason why Ryan and Graham both have jobs that tie them directly to that technical field, after all: one an engineer in training, the other a bus driver who, as shown in “The Ghost Monument”, does have some mechanical skills (Yaz remaining, once again, the odd one out in this team).
Which in and of itself is not a bad thing – there is an openness, a democratic quality to this. It does come with a certain lack of emphasis on the characters, less leads than part of a more general brand (Smith, Khan, Sinclair & O’Brien – Scientific Advisers – Open Mon-Sat 9-18), but that does fit well with the idea of Who as more of an educational platform, a pool of resources and concepts that the viewer can just dip in, guided by familiar and friendly faces. Really, that’s what it is for the companions: they are getting educated, their perspectives opened up, as they learn how to make a difference and contribute to this vast capital-P-Project the Doctor has: the conversation that Dorothy, Tesla’s assistant, has with Ryan, does rather showcase that, the privilege they feel they’ve been given to “work for the future”.
However, that does have limits. For starters, the most obvious one is that having an episode that ends on “the future belongs to me” just after an episode that ends on “the future is the entire human race disappearing in nuclear fire” is … well, it’s a bit of an interesting thematic move, let’s put it that way. There is a constant tension, in the Chibnall era, between on one side this invincible belief in Hope, and a conviction that things are going to be alright in the end, through the power of human action and ingenuity; and on the other this doom-laden fatalism, filled with dead planets and dusty cities. It’s a tension that “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” does acknowledge to some extent – see the threat the Queen addresses to the Doctor, asking her if she’s already seen a dead world, and generally the melancholy bonding sessions between her and Tesla. But it doesn’t really resolve it: Tesla’s struggle is doomed to eventually fail, and we can’t really see how any of what happened is going to help avoiding the impending cataclysm Chris Chibnall and Ed Hime keep promising us in hushed whispers. Which in a way, is the point: struggle is only meaningful against real odds, as “Rosa” already showed last year. But, even though this episode, through its fun tone, and, well, the fact Nikola Tesla is not black, doesn’t really end up in that awkward zone of fetishizing the suffering of minorities, it does rather partake in this fantasy of the existence of struggle being enough to change the world. Yes, sure, the Twelfth Doctor era ended with a celebration of sacrifice and struggle – but, one should note, those are successful: maybe not in the long term, but the Doctor does manage to save the people he wanted to save, and can die happy afterwards. “Orphan 55” expressed the need for a movement, for global action; something that is indeed paraphrased by Tesla’s dreams of an early internet – but the era still fails at articulating that ideal properly.
It even falls into the opposite pitfall – the technocratic nature of Thirteen and her crew, after all, very much mirrors certain tenets of modern centrism. The Emmanuel Macron, Jo Swinson kind you saw at work in “Kerblam!”: because really, leaving the task of “changing and saving” the world to an elite of scientists isn’t the most democratic of processes. This Doctor Who puts the power in the hands of an aristocracy of scientists and technicians – which is certainly a lot better than an aristocracy of capitalists: but it’s not exactly radical trust in the people as a political unit, or in the human nature. Indeed, the episode is kind of cynical that way: ordinary citizens are presented as easily-led, manipulated, xenophobic, clueless. Needing the intervention of the enlightened men of reason to preserve their safety.
Now, to be perfectly clear, this is not necessarily a criticism of the episode in and of itself. Part of the job it assigns for itself is to present and showcase the themes of this era’s text – and it’s actually extremely good at it, contradictions and all. Contradictions don’t have to be a bad thing: they’re a great source of drama, of thematic tension, and art isn’t measured by how ideologically pure it is. Indeed, you could make a very serious case that all Who is, at some level, kind of politically awkward and self-contradictory: that’s not an issue. The issue arises when this friction stops generating heat and momentum, and instead leads the story in a Gordian knot of tangled discourse – which, if nothing else, is very much not a problem “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” has. It doesn’t solve the problems of Whittaker Who, but it makes these problems look like interesting dramatic fuel, and that, actually, takes something kind of special.
Because the state of affairs we’re left with is one where series 11 was the show wondering if it had a future; while series 12 is the show wondering what kind of future we have.
Personally, I’m listening with attention.
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