“You’re a queen of scraps and patches. You’re not a ruler, you’re a parasite.”
After last week’s misfire of an episode, I was nervous for this one. But Jodie Whittaker’s era of Doctor Who has been commended for its historical episodes, a kind of episode that the show all-too-often messes up. And with an interesting premise around Nikola Tesla and America’s gilded age, this episode has a lot going for it.
This episode acts as a good example of where Doctor Who is at the moment. The writing and performances are mostly top-notch, except for a few moments. The plot is well paced and interesting, but is also unnecessarily complicated in parts. The CGI is really excellent, and the villains are really well done – but their leader remains an actor in make-up, doing a hammy performance. I don’t mean any of this as a problem, just that for all the talk of this show reinventing itself; it still feels as it did when it first made its return in 2005. A bit goofy at times, sure – but in an endearing way. It’s straddling the line between being a serious show and an hour of fun family entertainment way better than it ever did under Steven Moffatt.
Like a side mission in Assassin’s Creed, The Doctor can’t help but keep running into famous historical figures. Today’s is Nikola Tesla. I love that the show made a point of Graham chastising Yaz and Ryan for not knowing who he was, yet he himself can’t name what the man is known for. Maybe it’s an American thing, but Tesla’s story doesn’t seem to be particularly well known outside of a weird cult following. My knowledge of the guy exclusively comes from jokes in The Simpsons and David Bowie’s portrayal in The Prestige. But it turns out he is a very interesting figure, with a gift for predicting the technologies of the future. But this time he’s got himself caught up with some interstellar villains (thanks to the man’s real-life ideas and experiences with Mars).
The thing that sells this episode is Tesla himself, and the charismatic performance by Goran Višnjić. Imbuing the man with a quiet nobility and having him react to the TARDIS and otherworldly sights with a cheerful ease, Tesla becomes an actually likeable character. Maybe I’m bias, after the shitshow of supporting characters we had last week, but Tesla is one of the first guests on the show that I wish would hang around a little longer.
Historical guests on Doctor Who can be tricky. Writers sometimes make them intentionally different to how you’d expect, (Shakespeare) or bizarre caricatures (Winston Churchill and Cleopatra). But Tesla feels human, and three dimensional. There’s also a lonely tragedy to him. After all, as The Doc explains, he dies penniless and doesn’t live to see his vision come to fruition. But the episode manages to sidestep the wanky manipulative tug on the heartstrings of “Vincent and The Doctor” and makes something far less showy but much more touching.
The villains are interesting too – giant scorpions who traverse space stealing what they need. These aliens are the Todd Philips of space; unable to create anything original and instead resigned to stealing other people’s work to get what they want and reach the top. It’s all a parallel to Tesla and Edison (who also makes an appearance), and the episode raises a lot of questions around the power of creativity. Tesla creates things for himself, but gets nothing in return. Edison builds other people’s ideas, perhaps not having the creativity himself but still using the inventions of others to benefit mankind (in a capitalist way at least). The aliens just steal what they need. And when it breaks, they’re stuck. My take away is that it’s best to create something original, even if no one appreciates it at the time. And I’ll keep telling myself that, as the number of rejection emails mount up.
Another week, another confirmation that Jodie Whittaker was born for this role. I’ll stop talking about this soon, because I don’t feel like I have to keep justifying her presence anymore. The haters are still there, but they’ve thinned out. If you’re not on the Jodie hype train yet then it’s probably too late. As for the rest of us, we got to see a glimpse of serious Doc in this episode, as she mentions the many destroyed worlds she’s seen. She’s fun most of the time, but this moment feels like the mask slipping and reaffirms what I said about her jolly personality being almost like a coping mechanism for the darkness that’s inside her.
The morality is still a bit iffy though. She’s still against guns, naturally, but zapping them with millions of volts of electricity is ok? That being said, she made it clear that she gave them a choice and that this plan was a last resort – plus, the electricity didn’t seem to kill them (I don’t think). An improvement, but I’d still like to see a bit more consistency outside of her hatred of guns.
Overall it’s just a really solid episode, in every aspect. From performances to story, visuals to soundtrack. If all the elements work together then the show can be something really special. And surprisingly educational.
Next week the Judoon are back! Which should be a treat.
Reviewed by Jack