After last week’s monster of the week madness, Doctor Who S12E4 slips back in time for a historical romp featuring some of the brightest inventors of all time.
The episode opens at turn-of-the-century Niagara Falls, with Nikola Tesla (Kevin Kline, is that you? Actually, it’s Goran Visnjic, remember him from Practical Magic?) asking a crowd of patrons for financial backing to complete his next project. There are rumors of transmissions from Mars, which cause a few patrons to push off, leaving Tesla in a bad spot. His latest invention isn’t going well, either, with a person ending up dead. As he goes to fix it, he discovers a floating orb. He and his assistant, Dorothy Skerritt, are chased by a hooded figure, which causes them to run into the 13th Doctor, who’s also on the lookout for odd energy readings.
Thirteen leads Tesla and Dorothy to a night train, where Ryan, Yaz, and Graham are tucked away. Introductions are made (with the Doctor calling Tesla a liar) and then the chase begins anew with the cloaked figure. The Doctor is able to knock the figure out, steal its weapon and detach the train car so the others can make it to New York City safely. Huzzah for atmosphere and hijinks right out of the gate!
Once they arrive in the city, Tesla takes the TARDIS crew to his sparse lab, which is surrounded not only by protestors but fellow inventor Thomas Edison’s spies. Tesla remarks feeling like an outsider despite trying to push technology forward.
Nikola Tesla: Apparently I’m not like other people. It can be difficult to feel like no one else sees the world the way you do, it’s like you’re…”
The Doctor: “Out of place…”
The Doctor skips over to Edison’s lab, where the alien attacks continue, but not before the Doctor uses science to trap the attacker in a chemical-based ring of fire (all apologies to Johnny Cash). Before they can figure out what the alien wants, it disappears via a transportation device. Tesla and Yaz are captured by the same sort of transport and find themselves on a cloaked alien ship.
Dorothy and Ryan share a moment on how much their lives have changed since they met Tesla and Thirteen, respectively. It’s a quiet moment among all the action, but it sadly tells us more about Dorothy instead of Ryan. One of the major downsides to Thirteen having so many companions is that we only scratch the surface and outside of Graham cracking all the granddad jokes, it sometimes feels like we don’t really know these characters the same way we knew Martha Jones or Amy Pond. The orb turns out to be a bugging device, which has been reprogrammed to find Tesla.
The villain is finally revealed to be Queen of the Skithra (not to be confused with the Empress of Racnoss from “The Runaway Bride” although the costume design is bogglingly close) and she demands Tesla fix her broken ship while the Doctor plans to save them. Dorothy says Tesla had been intercepting these readings as part of his new project, so they head back to Wardenclyffe Tower. Thirteen finds and interprets the readout so she can locate Yaz and Tesla.
Still aboard the Skithra ship, Tesla and Yaz work out how to buy themselves time. Once the Queen returns, Tesla refuses to help but not before the Queen demands Yaz be killed.
Thirteen finds a quick and dirty way to transport herself onto the Skithra ship, which actually is stolen. The Doctor calls the Queen out on all the other species she’s stolen from instead of thinking for herself. It’s revealed the needed Tesla to engineer their repairs since he was brilliant enough to trace their signal. As the Queen anger increases, the Doctor names off other devices the Skithra have looted across time, ending with a camera (with flash) that allows them time to teleport back to Wardenclyffe and hop in the TARDIS for the final showdown.
Both Edison and Tesla marvel at the inside of the TARDIS but it’s Tesla that understands it and gets to have the “bigger on the inside” moment:
“The internal dimensions transcend the external.”
Meanwhile, the Skithra isn’t having it, and threaten to destroy the earth if they don’t give up Tesla, who is beside himself and tells the Doctor to go. Time for the typical quiet moment of reflection of one life versus all the lives. It actually works really nicely here, and you can feel the mutual respect the Doctor and Tesla have for one another. Thirteen, of course, refuses and comes up with a better plan. They decide to finish Tesla’s tower (a precursor to wifi towers) and harness the TARDIS’s power through it to defeat the Skithra. The Doctor has Edison and Yaz go through the city to get everyone indoors (which Edison does by saying Tesla’s doing something dangerous) and Graham, Ryan and Dorothy equip themselves with anything that might be used in defense.
The Skithra take to Earth but the Doctor figures if they can kill the Queen the rest of the hive will take them all out. The only hitch is the TARDIS shields will be lowered while the tower powers up, leaving them all in danger. The TARDIS fam is prepared. Everything goes to plan except for when the Queen has landed on Earth for the TARDIS crew. The Doctor rolls out the red carpet with an epic sizing down of the villain and trickily transports her back to her ship and Tesla is able to destroy the Queen, her ship and the hive. The episode ends with Tesla heading off with hope not knowing what’s ahead (financial ruin). Yaz’s reaction to this is on par with Amy wanting to show Vincent Van Gogh what he’ll be remembered for, which is touching, considering Tesla did push technology ahead and many of his inventions were precursors of what was to come.
Historicals tend to be my favorite Doctor Who flavor, and Nina Métivier’s “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” scratches the itch quite well, even if the big bad the TARDIS team is fighting feels like it’s just there to chew the scenery. It’s great fun watching rivals Tesla and Edison verbally spar with one another. It’s even more fun to watch Graham to tell them to shut it and get down the business.
Unlike other episodes, this season, Segun Akinola’s score takes more of a centerpiece and the moments when Tesla is in TARDIS feels full of wonder, and that’s what I live for. (Also, keep that blue crystal light coming in the TARDIS—it’s gorgeous and less Bed Bath and Beyond salt lamp-like.) All the TARDIS fam gets cool period costume digs but why on earth did they overlook the Doctor? I would have loved to have seen a period version the Doctor’s periwinkle coat, or hell put her in a suit. (Yaz got one.) After the costume swap of “Spyfall Parts 1 and 2,” this feels like a missed opportunity to rustle through the TARDIS closet.
Overall, this episode felt like a solid return to form, but still gave Whittaker a few more choice bitey lines to balance the wide-eyed hopefulness. (Although, could the Doctor stand up straight? It feels like Crouching Jodie, Hidden Doctor sometimes.) Best of all, the episode started and ended in medias res (which I prefer to the old hat ‘let’s wrap everything up by the TARDIS console’ ending). Next week marks the halfway point for series 12 (with no more mention of “the timeless child”) so let’s hope it stays on an even keel.
But as the Doctor said earlier in the episode:
“Changing the world takes time, you have to be patient.”