Were I of a cynical mind, I might suggest that the show is in dire straits when a great man of history story that proclaims the future to belong to a white guy and suggests that it’s good to be a billionaire stands out as a relative highlight of the season. Except we all know that the show is in embarrassing shape, with a showrunner who continues to struggle with the notion of aboutness in narrative. Why take an episode whose sins all fall under the heading of “basically the same shit the program does in all its celebrity historicals” and complain about that when it breaks a five episode streak of the show breaking down in far more fundamental ways?
All of which is to say that “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is pretty good, which is to say that it has the basics down in a way nothing since “It Takes You Away” has really come close to. There’s a refreshing sense of conceptual unity—the conflict between Tesla and Edison, where Tesla is a visionary inventor and Edison a more cynically pragmatic and business-oriented sort, is mirrored by the technological scavenger villains. There’s a sense of actually getting the guns on the mantleplace to go off—Wardenclyffe is introduced early on, then becomes a cool location for a last stand. Tesla’s message from Mars (a real historical detail) is brought up, then made use of. And the basic ideas are just fun. Tesla is an obvious choice of historical figures for Doctor Who to do—an opportunity to do a big steampunk romp that matches well with Whittaker’s more “get her hands dirty working on stuff” character, at least when they remember to have that be a trait.
There are oddities, but most of them aren’t the fault of this script. Even in the hands of a competent writer, three companions turns out to simply be too many to make work in a fifty minute episode when you also have to introduce a bespoke world. Nobody is well-served here, and it mostly feels like you could give different scenes to different people with no real substantive changes to the episode. The cast is unwieldy and everyone is suffering from it. There’s also a bizarre lack of consistency to the Doctor’s characterization as her pacifism goes out the window in order to have her revel in the potential destruction of an alien race. Guns remain bad, but giant lightning-shooting towers are great. But this is largely a good change to the character, whose passivity and lack of willingness to confront evil has been a major problem. Sure, it’s weird to see copyright infringement be the hill upon which she’ll kill, but the fact remains that this is Whittaker’s most (forgive me) electrifying villain confrontation yet.
In the end, though, the cynicism is inescapable. This is a daft celebrity historical romp. It’s the best story of the season to date, but that just means that this is a season where the daft historical romps are the standout highlights. That’s bad and depressing. And it’s ultimately not as though the ambient context of semi-competent drudgery actually improves this. I mean, I’ll probably get a better Eruditorum post out of it than anything around it, but this is still little more than a competently done iteration of what is usually one of Doctor Who’s most tediously obligatory subgenres. (It’s notable that Moffat quietly junked the format during the Capaldi era.) That’s worth celebrating, but it really shouldn’t be.