Doctor Who Drops Us in the Middle of the Edison/Tesla Rivalry in “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”

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After taking a brief break from historical name dropping in “Orphan 55,” Doctor Who is back in Earth’s past with “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror,” spending time with Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

 

Emmet Asher-Perrin had to have brain surgery last week, so for those who follow their Doctor Who coverage, the next few weeks will be a slightly different format. There are no recaps here—instead, you get to follow along as Emmet and their husband, Sylas K Barrett, discuss what they thought about the episode!

Emmet: Ohh, this episode is written by a woman.

Sylas: Hurray!

Emmet: That’s the dude from Practical Magic who tries to kill Nicole Kidman.

Sylas: He looks so much like the actual Nikola Tesla it’s impressive. As is that hairstyle. [A short amount of googling later] And the actor is Croatian, which is appropriate because Tesla was from modern-day Croatia.

Emmet: Oh that’s really cool.

Sylas: Yaz’s pants dress is amazing. That whole outfit is gorgeous and she makes it look so good.

Emmet: Oh wow, it’s pants! I bet they have pockets, too. I love that Yaz was so practical and was like, ‘give me something I can run in.’

Screenshot: BBC

Sylas: She’s been with the Doctor long enough, she knows what she’s in for. But you know, they kind of are dropping the ball with Yaz so far this season. Like, she’s competent and doing things, but she’s not getting as much interesting interaction with the people they meet or as much time to put her personal stamp on things.

Emmet: Yeah. I really like what they’re doing with Ryan this season, and he and Graham have about equal focus in the episodes, but Yaz just kind of seems tired. Like she’s a bit fed up with things. And you know, she’s the one who was told in the first episode that she’ll lose her job if she stays away too much longer. So they may be building up to something, possibly in the season finale. I hope so, because otherwise they’re really not doing Yaz justice.

Sylas: Yeah there’s been some weird character things that they’ve dropped both in this episode, and in the last one, I thought. Like the whole thing with Bella and her mom in “Orphan 55” was so under explained. You can’t say a woman is willing to bomb a spa because her mom neglected her and not explore that further. Also, did you notice how the Doctor didn’t wipe Tesla and Edison’s memories like she did for Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat-Khan?

Emmet: I did! I think it’s just sloppy housekeeping. As show-runner, Chibnall should have caught it and told Nina Metivier ‘hey, this is something the Doctor is doing now.’

Sylas: It’s just so weird because it comes off weirdly sexist? Why does Inayat-Khan not get to remember the things she saw but Edison can? And Lovelace literally begs the Doctor not to take away her memories of the future, but Tesla has this beautiful speech at the end about how the future belongs to him.

Emmet: Yeah I agree. But I do like this episode a lot. The really interesting thing is this juxtaposition between Tesla and Edison. You spend the episode building up to this fight between them, we’re waiting for it. And finally we get Edison saying ‘I’m a genius because I curate and bring people’s good ideas to reality, and I bring the good inventions to the people.’ And Tesla responds ‘But you don’t have ideas, I have my own great ideas and that makes me better.’

Sylas: Right.

Emmet: But they’re both wrong, and I love that they’re both wrong. We can see that so clearly with Edison, of course. And the episode is very much on Tesla’s side, but in actuality the lone wolf genius thing is also wrong. Collaboration, and teamwork, and community is what makes the best ideas and the best work.

Sylas: Oh wow, you’re so right. I hadn’t thought of that. And it’s true, the episode thinks Tesla’s right, but Doctor Who and the spirit of Doctor Who is very much about this idea of collaboration and teamwork. Even though the Doctor is always the center figure whose genius and determination saves the day, the show continually reiterates the importance of the people around her and the people who she work with, whether it’s regular companions or episode companions.

Screenshot: BBC

Emmet: Even though the Doctor is always the man, or woman, who comes in and saves the day with her genius.

Sylas: Yeah it’s a weird balance. But Tennant’s era made a particular effort to have him be reminded of that fact from time to time, and now we have Thirteen with her whole group of companions the way some of the classic Doctors do, which brings that theme home again. It’s very reminiscent of Peter Davison’s era.

Emmet: And then the Edison angle is mirrored in the Queen of the Skithra. She gets other people to do her work for her, and scavenges all her tech. She collects other people’s and other societies inventions and tech, and literally asks the Doctor what would be the point of making things themselves when they can take them, or force others to help them. And in the end, she needs a Tesla, just like Edison does.

Sylas: Right. The only difference between them is that Edison isn’t a murder scorpion from another planet. You know, it’s interesting that they chose to do Ada Lovelace and Nikola Tesla in the same season, and so close together.

Emmet: Last season they made a big deal about how this version of the Doctor is so much more into science than any of the modern Doctors. This deep fascination has been such a through line for her character, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the season arc. We’re getting all these individual geniuses, maybe they’ll come together at the end, either literally or thematically.

Sylas: Maybe it has something to do with The Timeless Child?

Emmet: Yeah, I wonder if it will. Especially since the Master was like “the truth of our existence is bound up in this thing” and “they’ve lied to us about who we are.” I wonder if this is going to be payoff about how the myth of the founding of the Time Lords is built around a singular person called the Timeless Child, but that’s not actually true.

Sylas: Well, this fits with what we know about Time Lord culture, with all the weird patriarchal stuff we’ve seen in Classic Who, and then there’s Rassilon as this weird savior figure, which Russel T. Davis brought back into New Who in Tennant’s last episodes.

Emmet: That’s a whole other thing, because we’re not entirely certain if they’re keeping all of that Rassilon stuff. They could be—I wouldn’t hate if they were but also it would make sense if they decided not to.

Screenshot: BBC

Sylas: Which famous inventor do you think they’ll do next?

Emmet: Well, they could do Rosalind Franklin. I find it fascinating because Lovelace and Tesla are people who in the past ten to fifteen years have finally been more recognized, and getting their dues. I remember reading the book The Double Helix in junior high, and at the time I totally missed the Rosalind Franklin angle—and the way they wrote it makes it sound like she was just a really competent assistant. And then later I realized that she was the one who was doing all the real work.

Sylas: You know, at one point I thought maybe this was going to be like the Van Gogh episode, that they would prove to Tesla that someday he was going to get his recognition, even though it doesn’t come in his life time.

Emmet: But Van Gogh was dealing with depression, and that episode was about how you can’t always save a person from their own demons. But Tesla doesn’t have this problem. He’s frustrated that he can’t get his funding and whatever, but he’s confident in himself and his work. He says it. “Having an idea and creating it is the best thing I know.” He’s okay.

Sylas: That’s true. And he gets to always know that Edison was jealous of his importance to the aliens, which is more than a lot of people get. He’s lucky. And so is Dorothy Skerritt. I loved the fact that they made a point of comparing her journey in Tesla’s sphere to Ryan’s as a Doctor companion. It felt very respectful, and a reminder that Doctor Who at its best recognizes that the people who attach themselves to the Doctor, and extraordinary people in general, do it because they themselves are special and important. They aren’t lesser than.

Emmet: Yeah they don’t always get it right, but when they do it’s great.

Sylas: So overall we like the episode?

Emmet: Yeah! Some of the Skithra stuff is pretty sloppy, like how they have illusion technology but also there’s a guy in a cloak? Why do they always do that, you can’t see anything in a hood like that, it’s silly.

Sylas: What I think is silly is the whole hive-mind, if you kill the Queen, you kill all of them thing. Doctor Who has used up that trope, it needs to stop. Also there is no way that the Skithra aren’t a cousin species to the Racnoss, I refused to believe it. You can’t put Anjli Mohindra in makeup and prosthetics that similar, and have such a similar performance, and just ignore it. Give the Doctor one line about it and I’ll let it go, but it’s so weird that she doesn’t say anything.

Screenshot: BBC

Emmet: That’s fair.

Sylas: It’s just the Christmas Star all over again. But with Tesla and TARDIS-amplified lightning. But they made the costume easier and cheaper by making her humanoid somehow. She was dressed like the blacksmith from The Mandalorian, but with the Queen of the Racnoss’s face and some Klingon jewelry.

Emmet: You’re cute.

Sylas K Barrett would like to point out that, while this is not coverage of “Orphan 55,” the best character in that episode is named Sylas too, and even spells it the same way! Maybe I should dye my hair green.

Emmet Asher-Perrin would like the Master to dome back now, please.

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