13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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NIKOLA TESLA'S NIGHT OF TERROR
Man, this is a tough one. Overall, we find historicals as a genre deeply tedious, especially when the Doctor spends most of them fangirling or fanboying over the historical victim, er, character the episode's about. Nevertheless, we fully acknowledge that that's just a personal thing: it's a perfectly reasonable setting for a Doctor Who episode, so we're not going to ding them for it. It does, however, make it difficult for us to tell if the episode is any good. With Nikola Tesla, we may well be completely wrong about this, but as far as we can judge, people who like that sort of thing might well think this was not too bad. Ish. But don't quote us.
Nikola Tesla is a no-brainer for Doctor Who, and we're surprised no scriptwriter's snaffled him up before. After all, like the Doctor he's one of the cool kids when it comes to science. Crackly globe thingy! Mysterious superweapon! Mad-scientist tower! What's not to like?
If you've never had the fun of touching a plasma globe yourself (it's nifty) and in fact were under the hazy impression that the episode was going to be something to do with a car, no worries, because just as we were expecting there are infodumps out the wazoo. It's the Chibnall era and that means No Viewer Left Uneducated. It'd be nice if they managed to weave the Improving Historical Facts subtly into the narrative rather than spewing them out in undigested chunks, but hey ho, you weren't really expecting that and neither were we.
In between the Facts, they do a workmanlike job of making Tesla a sympathetic and tragic figure. Put differently, of course, they're determined to skate over Tesla's complexity and shove him squarely in the hero's corner. We know they only have fifty minutes, but it's still a little bemusing that they decide to play up Tesla's positive aspects by contrasting him with a practically moustachio-twirling Thomas Edison. Edison was certainly no charmer, but frankly, neither was Tesla, who was amongst other character failings a keen eugenicist. Autres temps, autres moeurs, and we're not going to rake him over the coals for being a man of his time, especially as we’ve often criticised Doctor Who for bringing modern judgment to history. But we're not going to slap a halo on him either, and it's a shame they do. If you insist on educating your audience, it's nice not to lie to them.
Even in an educational Who, you still have to have some alien-type stuff. Some of it is actually quite nice: the space scorpions on the buildings elicited a genuine shiver from us, as did the ship full of 'em. However, it also has some serious drawbacks. A tiny child could see that the Scorpion Queen is basically a cut and pasted Racnoss Empress. And that's not all. An alien race half-inching other people's technology then kidnapping an engineer to help them run it is the exact plot of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Samaritan Snare. Oops. And on top of all that, the Scorpion Queen is hiding-behind-the-sofa-for-all-the-wrong reasons awful. Just appallingly, cringingly bad.
It might help, too, if they could make up their minds about exactly what the Skithra are meant to be. They bang on about them being a hive mind, yet have two of them running into each other onto the street. Um, no. And on the ship, one of them interrupts the Queen. Maybe the intern should have looked up hive mind on Wikipedia.
Wouldn't it have been nice if they'd done something clever and timey-wimey instead with some of Tesla's really quite interesting ideas and snipped the scorpions out altogether? Yes, obviously, and for more than the reasons we've already mentioned. There are some really nice performances here, but that doesn't change the fact that this episode is seriously overstuffed with characters.
What's the reason for having companions? Blah blah bring a human perspective and have someone to ask the dumb questions, yes, but it's more than that. In ye olde days of the classic series, splitting up the companion and the Doctor allowed for a plot and a subplot to happen. That was really important in the days of four or more episodes, but now things are very different. When it comes to Doctor Who, Chibnall seems only to be able to think in very small pieces, and as a result we're seeing a lot of single-episode stories. When a story has to get through itself in under an hour, there's very little room for a subplot. There's scarcely even room for a companion at all. Add two more companions and three local characters and you can safely bet none of them are up all night learning their vast array of lines. Now add an alien and it's a wonder any of them get a word in edgeways. It's just too much.
Which is a pity, because there's some good character stuff in here. Edison might be bizarrely evil, but as you'd expect Robert Glenister, back in Who after his appearance in The Caves Of Androzani at the other end of his career, kills it, helping to inject a bit of depth into the panto villain. Mandip Gill also continues to knock our socks off. As usual she has far too little to do, but we love the way she brings warmth and intelligence to the script crumbs she's given. Graham, Ryan and Dorothy are great but, other than a nice conversation between Ryan and Dorothy about being a sidekick, are superfluous. Above all, Goran from ER does a fabulous job with Tesla as a dreamy, impractical genius. The parallels between him and the Doctor aren't exactly subtle, but the nuances of his performance make them work.
And the Doctor? We like her here more than we have done for quite a while. The gabbling and gasping is toned down a bit and she has a believable gravitas for once. And while she still uses the sonic screwdriver way too often, we also actually see her at times thinking her way through the situation. What a relief.
Look, this historical stuff is never going to be our jam. And even without that it has some serious flaws. However, even we can see that it also has some things going for it, especially in the character department, and in the main it's a nice flowy watch. We've seen a lot worse, and not that long ago either. We'll take it.
IT'S FIVE O'CLOCK SOMEWHERE
"Night Of Terror" is alliterative and all, but the vast majority of the episode is set during the day!
The companions look adorbs in their outfits, which only makes the Doctor's costume look even more ridiculous. And how stupid is it that nobody bats an eye at what she's wearing? No hat alone would have caused a scandal, and the amount of leg she's showing would have had carriages crashing into each other on the street.
How, exactly, do the Doctor et al get to the train? It's as if Chibnall simply can't be arsed with trifling little matters like stringing a credible story together. You can't just cut wildly from one scene to the next and hope the audience doesn't notice that you couldn't think up a reason for how they got there.
What's with calling the Silurian gun "alien technology", Doctor? Considering that they were here first, it's about as alien as an ammonite.