Doctor Who: A delightful take on Nikola Tesla powers season 12’s fourth episode

Goran Visnijic as Nikola Tesla, Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Tosin Cole as Ryan, Mandip Gill as Yaz, Bradley Walsh as Graham - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America
Goran Visnijic as Nikola Tesla, Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Tosin Cole as Ryan, Mandip Gill as Yaz, Bradley Walsh as Graham - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America /

Doctor Who sends Team TARDIS back to the past, where a chance meeting with Nikola Tesla more than overshadows the fact that the monsters of the week are deeply gross and weird.

One of the most unexpected things about the Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who is that its strengths haven’t exactly been centered in the sorts of episodes he put forth when he was merely a writer on the series.

There, much of his work, was centered around futuristic or alien-heavy plots in episodes like season 5’s “The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood” two-parter and season 7’s “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” But now that Chibnall is holding the reigns of production, his strongest installments have been something entirely different – historical, period pieces.

Part of that may have been due to the fact that season 11 largely featured standalone episodes, and period settings naturally lend themselves to stories with distinct beginning and endpoints. But the trend has definitely continued into season 12 with “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”, a story that involves aliens attempting to kidnap the famous inventor but that is mostly an educational hour focused on a complex man that history ignored for too long.

Timeless alum Goran Visnjic is an utter delight as Nikola Tesla, and is so good in fact that I am willing to acknowledge that someone else besides David Bowie ever even inhabited the role. (The Prestige forever, y’all.) The episode largely follows Tesla around and just sort of takes in everyone’s response to him – everything from fangirl awe (the Doctor herself) to fear and suspicion of his futurist views (most of his contemporaries).

Tesla and Thirteen make a charming pair – which is good because they spent a lot of time together this week. “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is as much an educational hour as it is a period adventure, as the Doctor spends a tremendous amount of time spouting off Tesla facts at rapid speed and educating her companions about the things he’s accomplished. (Or that his work will give rise to, long after he’s gone.)

The best moments between them generally involve their sympathies as people out of time – the Doctor, because that’s what she almost always is, and Tesla because his ideas are so far ahead of where the rest of his age is. He was born too early, is what the show seems to be suggesting, and given how poorly history treated him until relatively recently, that seems to be true.

Doctor Who also decides to tackle the rivalry between Tesla and fellow inventor Thomas Edison, the man whom we mentally associate with many of the ideas that actually originated with his rival. This version of Edison is largely presented a massive jerk, a greedy, capitalist copycat who unapologetically steals the the ideas of others in the name of profit. And given how often Tesla has been historically overlooked in favor of Edison, it’s a presentation that generally rings true.

The one downside of this Thirteen/Tesla bromance is that the rest of Team TARDIS doesn’t exactly have a lot to do, but at least they look great in their period costumes. (Yaz’s dress in particular is great.) But it does sort of raise the question, again, does this show have the capacity to balance the story of three separate companions along with the Doctor? Thus far, the answer really does appear to be no, despite how much we all enjoy Graham and Ryan and Yaz as a unit.

Because this is Doctor Who, there’s also the mandatory alien threat woven into the story – turns out that Tesla’s real-life attempts to communicate with Mars sort of worked in this world, summoning a race of fairly gross space scorpions whose queen steals things like tech and bright minds from other races because they aren’t producers of such things themselves.

To be fair, Queen Skithra is basically a slightly fancier version of the Racnoss queen from way back in “The Runaway Bride”, and is the sort of Doctor Who monster that’s both like 100% extra and also deeply weird. Poor Anjli Mohindra (whom hardcore Whovians will remember from The Sarah Jane Adventures) is stuck attempting to act under like fifteen feet of prosthetics and heavy face paint, and the aliens are honestly onscreen a bit too long for the role they play in this story.

That said, their presence gives us a particularly ruthless version of Thirteen, which is a nice change from her generally pacifist attitude, and her reaction to the Skithra queen’s taunt about dead planets indicates we’re going to get an interesting story about Gallifrey at some point in the future. Or, at least, we can hope so.

Next. Doctor Who season 12 episode 3 review: Orphan 55 offers a less than relaxing holiday. dark

Doctor Who continues Sunday on BBC America.