Dear reader episode 4 of this series and it’s a blast into the past with two rival inventors of the 20th century competing to introduce different systems of electricity. I do get a sense that this series is developing a theme looking at the impact of human endeavour on our lives. Barton’s commentary in episode 2 regarding the false sense of security we have using social media, episode 3 how we have a responsibility to use resources wisely.
This story plays out a bit like the original Microsoft versus Apple debate. But it’s not shown as an equal race of business. Edison spies on his rival and employs a team of staff generating inventions whereas Nikola Tesla is very much seen as the lone genius. But these humans are not alone. Alien Scorpions pursue Tesla using levitating orbs to gather information. Did it electrify my opinion or did it blow a fuse? (sorry! I couldn’t resist) Let’s explore the 1900’s like the Doctor and the “Fam” travel in style on the Orient Express.
Episode 4 Acknowledging one of the forgotten pioneers of electricity
The current production team certainly love their historical figures and bringing unexpected people to prominence. To be honest I am still waiting for a pure historical without aliens. It would be lovely. However, I really liked that the episode wears its heart on its sleeve. Its a love letter to Tesla named in the title of the episode. Nikola is the ambitious, stubborn inventor with down to earth secretary Dorothy Skerrit, assigned to worship his genius from afar, following in his trail. Tesla’s words open the story so we get a sense of who he is as he tries to sell his ideas at Niagara Falls. This opening story structure has similarities to the opening to “Rosa” where we see and learn about our “champion ” before the Doctor arrives on the scene.
Although the story plays out in the new world of 1900’s America the message of intolerant attitudes reminiscent of the old World has no boundaries. Ugly mindsets are resurrected to resonate with an SJW audience today. The episode makes subtle references to immigration. The message reinforced is Tesla is ‘perceived’ by an ignorant public as not deserving due to his singular ideas. “I’m an American citizen” Tesla declares defiantly to the protesting crowd. It’s said with the indignant hope and pride that all immigrants have coming to a new country and then having to go through the official hoops to stay. The irony is not lost that America is ‘the land of the free ‘a country meant for fresh chances.
The competing inventors
Persuading ER’s Goran Višnjić into Doctor Who, is an unusual coup which works, as the actor is able to really dominate the episode through a charismatic performance. The educational remit of the show has returned with a vengeance. Both writer and the lead character are fangirls of Tesla as writer Nina Metivier has the Doctor reel off facts of what Tesla can and will achieve to a clueless Tardis crew. Granted it feels like an information dump reminiscent of one of the bad traits of Jodie’s doctor from series 11 but it has its relevance to show the extraordinary contribution of the man.
As the Tardis crew themselves point out who is Tesla when history remembers only the winners. Tesla is in some respects portrayed as the idealist here dreaming of a better world. This is some way from the real human man but why let that detract from a good story. The real Tesla developed some extreme ideas with eugenics and advocated the enforced sterilisation of criminals and the mentally ill. In the spirit of loving Doctor Who I would like to believe the version of Tesla we saw portrayed was before he became disenchanted with the world.
My inventions never hurt anyone!- Nikola Tesla
Robert Glenister returned to Doctor Who after years away (the classic Caves of Androzani was his last outing) and he doesn’t disappoint. If anything, I think he gets the harder acting task to balance Edison and still make him sympathetic. Whilst both inventors by their natures are stubborn care is taken to show their different approaches to business and their work ethics. Tesla is shown in a far more benevolent way. Thomas Edison is shown as a ruthless rival. The Doctor certainly does take Edison to task about his actions even believing he is in league with the aliens.
Graham takes an immediate dislike to Edison as he recognises a callousness in his treatment of Tesla and I like all their snappy dialogue together. Robert Glenister works diligently however to show the multi-faceted hues of his man. Edison sincerely mourns the deaths of his workers but is then able to switch on the professional rivalry seamlessly to speak out against Tesla’s dangerous Wardenclyffe tower project.
For two-thirds of the episode, I really enjoyed the script. The mystery with the orb of Thassor floating and observing and the subsequent chase by the possessed “deadly assassin” moving onto the train was stylishly directed. As I mentioned in the review for episode one “Spyfall” we can see the change of pace for these episodes compared to series 11. Quite how they get from the warehouse directly to the next scene on a moving train isn’t shown but I wonder if time meant things ended up on the cutting room floor. But keep the action coming I love it!
The highs and lows of the episode
I really enjoyed the early part of the script focusing on Tesla before he meets any aliens. I did wonder if the younger audience would appreciate the depths the script went to flesh out the man. I hope so as I really enjoyed the moments of earnest exchanges between Tesla and the Doctor especially once he delightedly recognises the Doctor as a fellow inventor. Both similarly are “out of their time”. I thought Jodie acted better opposite Goran as his enthusiasm seemed to enthuse her. In some ways, the Doctor is more forceful without the companions as I notice when she is with them they react to her as a collective and it feels awkward. I’d really like to see her interact with one more closely, probably Graham and leave the other two at home. It’s unlikely to happen though as Chris Chibnall brought them all in. Jodie seems to enjoy when it’s a one to one performance with other actor and is becoming stronger as the Doctor in those scenes.
I miss the prominence of Graham this series as Bradley Walsh shined in series 11 but he seems to have developed a natural place with Ryan whilst Yas is coming out more on her own. It is a crowded team but in a clever move this episode the companions were split up investigating Edison or accompanying Tesla so this may be a way to go forward with a full Tardis as it allows for a greater scope within the script.
The format of aliens interfering in historical events is nothing new of course to Doctor Who. It’s a staple of the show format so we were introduced to the Skithra.I did like the idea of a scavenger race, not bothering to make things. Similar to Edison I guess who “borrowed” his employee’s ideas. They are of course the complete opposite of the creative Tesla. The reveal of the scorpion-like Queen of the Skithra reminded me of the Racnoss. Although there wasn’t a direct reference they have to be closely related surely? Maybe it was the eyes and the moving head tilts (played by Anjli Mohindra who was Rani from Sarah-Jane Adventures) as well as the hissing voice!
The Skithra Queen did exhibit cunning as a villain and I liked her enough although she wasn’t in the big league of villains. Being CGI the species as a whole lacked personality. Visually they looked okay running around, serviced the story but they also were a bit comic book bumping into each other. CGI always has a bit of a disconnect with me and I much prefer an actual monster.
The last third of the story is where some of the flaws appear. I didn’t mind that the Doctor decides to use Wardenclyffe tower as a solution but it all seems a bit of a rush after a leisurely build-up. This episode could have done with a bit more time to establish how the Skithra has a hive mind as a species. It seems somewhat convenient. Although quite why the Skithra wanted Tesla, in particular, could have been explained more clearly. The Skithra surely could have picked any other scientific geniuses at will if they have a cloaking device.
Despite that with the strong characterisation and direction for this story I can forgive a bit of a weak conclusion. It has charm due to its central focus on Tesla that I really like without being overly preachy.