Doctor Who fans like to argue about the relative quality of the Chris Chibnall era of the show, with many of the past two seasons’ future-set or contemporary stories being criticized for whatever reason. Nearly two and a half runs in, though, we can safely say that the historical episodes of this era are the most consistent. Perhaps it’s because there’s a ready-made story and setting to dive into, but – as seen in the likes of 2018’s “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” – whenever the Thirteenth Doctor travels to the past, it usually results in a solid hour of television. And, wouldn’t you know it, tonight’s “Nicola Tesla’s Night of Terror” continues that trend.
First of all, this episode marks the Who debut of writer Nina Metivier, who’ll hopefully be invited back next year given the strength of her first script. Despite her background in children’s TV, this is one of the more dramatically mature episodes of the last two seasons. With its effective character study of a genius unappreciated in his time, “Night of Terror” draws favorable comparisons to 2010’s classic “Vincent and the Doctor.” Just as that Matt Smith-starring story managed to capture Van Gogh’s one-of-a-kind artistic vision, this episode gets across Tesla’s incredible mind and strong ethics, which are brought into sharp contrast with the more opportunistic Thomas Edison.
Still, Metivier’s screenplay wouldn’t fly without the right actor as Tesla, but thankfully the casting was spot on here with Timeless‘ Goran Visnjic. Probably the best guest star of the season so far (behind Sacha Dhawan’s Master, of course), Visnjic offers a wonderfully nuanced performance as the titular inventor. Perhaps his stint on that aforementioned, and underrated, time travel show came in handy here, as he manages something that can trip up some supporting actors on Who – marrying the reality and depth of the character with the fantastical situation. In contrast, a fairer portrayal of his rival Edison wouldn’t have gone amiss, as there’s precious little sympathy supplied to the man across the hour.
Speaking of the fantastical situation, the Skithra – alien scorpion scavengers – probably won’t go down as one of the series’ greatest monsters, but they were largely handled well and their predilection for stealing tech from other species obviously created a neat mirror for Edison’s treatment of Tesla. As for the Queen Skithra, that’s an unrecognizable Anjli Mohindra hidden under all that make-up, making a welcome return to the Whoniverse after spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures ended in 2011. She clearly had a blast getting to play a villain, even if the overall execution of the Skithra has some drawbacks. There’s a lot of dissonance between the practical design of the queen and the VFX rendering of her subjects, for one. The resolution to their threat is also somewhat lacking, with the reveal that they’re of a hive mind conflicting with the individual behaviour previously depicted in moments throughout.
With the TARDIS team so large these days, every week is a battle for screentime for the four leads, with usually one or two drawing the short straw – usually Mandip Gill’s Yaz. Impressively, “Night of Terror” manages to give each of them a solid amount to do and showcase their personalities. And it seems Metivier has cracked the best way to do this: pair them up with other characters. Graham standing down the boorish Edison, Ryan’s friendship with Tesla’s assistant Miss Skerritt, Yaz being trapped on the spaceship with Tesla, etc. All of these gave the “fam” more to do than when they’re stuck by the Doctor’s side asking questions. It’s probably a worrying sign that the group work better apart than together, but, on its own merits on this occasion, the method worked.
As for the Doctor herself, this was another big tick in the episode’s favor. Playing with the typical structure of a Who story worked to its advantage as the heroine coming to the rescue five minutes in made for a great entrance, with other standout moments from her peppered throughout. Such as her arrival on the Skithra’s spaceship just in time to save the day and, most of all, her shared moment with Tesla, in which the two bond over their mutual love of creating and shared experience of feeling out of place. And for those keeping track of the wider story arc, the mention of “a dead planet” reminded us the Doc’s still mourning the (most recent) destruction of Gallifrey.
Apart from this brief callback, though, the lack of any major developments to the show’s lore, absence of much crowd-pleasing humor and biopic-like focus on a real person rather than sci-fi shenanigans is already leading some to label this one “slow” or “boring.” If it didn’t work for you then fair enough, but I found this to be an entertaining, well-made hour – mostly thanks to an intelligent script boosted by some strong acting. Oh, and some neat direction, too – shout-out to director Nida Manzoor for delivering some of the best shots in this current TARDIS set. Was it one of the finest episodes of all time? No. But was it an un-flashy yet enjoyable lower-stakes (for Who) sort of story? Definitely.
Next week, the Doctor returns to present-day England, just in time to face an invasion of her old enemies, the Judoon. Don’t miss Doctor Who episode 12×05 “Fugitive of the Judoon” on Sunday, January 26th.
Though not the sort of story to wow fans, this is another strong historical outing of the Thirteenth Doctor's era, featuring an intelligent script and a standout guest performance from Goran Visnjic.