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Recap / Doctor Who S38E4 "Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror"

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This is the face of a man who will invent a new way to play the Doctor Who theme. No, seriously.
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The one with the Timeless Doctor. And we don't mean Jodie Whittaker.

And the one with the Master's girlfriend, Rani (not that one).

This episode first aired January 19, 2020. Written by Nina Métivier.


Niagara Falls, New York, 1903. Nikola Tesla is attempting to get funding for his generator plant so he can work on his project for transmitting energy through the "aether", but is falling flat due to investor disbelief and the reputation following him around because he claims to have picked up a signal from Mars. On top of that, something's wrong at the generator, and when Tesla investigates he discovers that someone has been stealing parts from the machinery. But when he thinks his assistant Dorothy Skerrit has come along that night, he instead discovers a mysterious floating green sphere, which he pockets after Dorothy does turn up, both amazed. But then an attack comes, from someone armed with weaponry not of this Earth. Help comes in the form of the Doctor, unexpectedly, who offers Tesla and Dorothy a way out: a train back to New York, with Graham, Ryan and Yaz on board. The fam has been seeing the sights, but the Doctor picked up an odd signal from Niagara Falls. The Doctor is amazed when Tesla introduces himself, although her companions aren't as familiar with the Serbian-born inventor. She also deduces that he is lying about something. Just then, another attack comes from a cloaked figure firing a laser weapon, and a chase begins up the length of the car. When the Doctor and Tesla are confronted by the attacker, the Doctor drops part of the roof on the figure and acquires the assailant's weapon, a stolen Silurian blaster.

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Once everyone is safe, the Doctor having detached the rear of the train to lose the cloaked figure, the Doctor confronts Tesla about his lie, noting that she'd asked him if he'd seen anything weird, yet she's detecting the same energy signature she was investigating now coming from him. Tesla and Dorothy refuse to disclose it, so the Doctor and her fam decide they'll just have to stick around. In New York City, people are protesting alternating current outside Tesla's lab, believing it's more dangerous than the direct current advocated by Tesla's rival Thomas Edison. Once inside and away from the crowd, Tesla claims he's unaffected by people's protests against him before leaving the room and implicitly getting angry elsewhere. Tesla's lab turns out to have less stuff in it than expected, and the companions discuss where they've heard his name before. Eventually, the inventor returns and shows the fam the glowing sphere he picked up. The Doctor recognizes it as a "Thassa Orb", an alien data storage device sent out by one of the ancient races, but quickly deduces that it's been altered from its original purpose somehow, and not in an especially skilled fashion.

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They are interrupted by a spy of Edison taking a photograph of them before running off. Concluding that Edison has something to do with the attack on Tesla, the Doctor takes Ryan and Graham to meet Edison, who is busy stirring up the fears of the public with his claims that Tesla's alternating current is much more dangerous than his direct current. Edison shows interest in the Silurian blaster, but eventually explains how Tesla used to work for him, but left when Edison didn't pay him for his work fixing a generator. Edison also wants to know what happened to his spy, who he hasn't seen today. Yaz stays with Tesla, who explains his dream of using Wardenclyffe to project sound and images through the air; a precursor to wi-fi. While they are talking, the Thassa Orb starts to send out waves of energy, apparently scanning for something.

Back at Edison's factory, another cloaked figure uses bolts of electricity to kill the assembled workers. As the Doctor, her fam, and Edison run, they discover the attacker is using the form of Edison's spy, and once trapping it with fire, see the shadow of its true form, with a scorpion-like tail. The Doctor tries to warn Yaz, but two more attackers have taken Dorothy hostage. Tesla and Yaz offer the Thassa Orb, but the attackers reveal they want Tesla. They teleport him away, and Yaz grabs ahold and is brought along, to their ship, cloaked above New York. They meet the queen of the aliens (called the Skithra), who reveals they want Tesla to repair their technology for them, including weapons.

The Doctor brings Edison and the Fam in the TARDIS to pick up Dorothy and takes a closer look at the Orb, discovering that it has been modified as a tracking device to find Tesla. Dorothy realizes that it must be connected to Tesla's signals from Mars, and directs the Doctor to go to Tesla's lab at Wardenclyffe, cautioning everyone to keep a close eye on Edison when he sees this is where all of Tesla's current projects have been moved. Finding Tesla's readings, the Doctor rigs a teleporter to send her to the Skithra ship, showing disgust that the Skithra merely steal other people's technology instead of building anything for themselves. She teleports herself, Yaz, and Tesla back to Earth, only to receive an ultimatum from the Skithra Queen: give them Tesla, or they will attack the Earth. Tesla considers surrendering, but the Doctor has a plan, and she needs Wardenclyffe tower to make it work.

The Doctor and Tesla plan to use the tower to channel a lightning bolt to blast the Skithra ship, disabling the Queen, and thus the hive-mind of the whole Skithra group, in one stroke. While the Doctor and Tesla work on the tower, Graham and Ryan rummage through the lab for possible weapons, and Yaz and Edison try to warn the people of New York to stay off the streets as the Skithra land; they have little success until Edison starts declaring Tesla's tower is going to kill them all. As the Skithra move in on Wardenclyffe with only a TARDIS-powered force field to hold them at bay, the Doctor explains that the force field has to be brought down to allow the TARDIS to power the lightning strike. But once the field comes down, the Skithra don't advance. The Skithra Queen has decided to come for Tesla herself. The Queen mocks the Doctor for her plans failing, grabbing a piece of technology that the Doctor tried to get. Only, the piece of tech is the teleporter the Doctor used earlier, and the Doctor activates it to force the Queen back onto her ship. One lightning blast from Wardenclyffe tower later, and the Skithra are forced to retreat.

Following their experience, Edison offers Tesla a job with him again, but Tesla declines. The Doctor explains to Yaz that while Tesla will still fall into obscurity, his ideas and inventions will live on to inspire future technology. As Tesla says, "The future is mine."


Tropes:

  • Allegorical Character: The Skithra are a distillation of all of Thomas Edison's flaws, with none of his redeeming qualities. Both of them exploit inventors like Tesla for their own benefit, but unlike the merely-less-prolific Edison, the Skithra don't create anything at all.
  • Artistic Licence – History: The episode is set in 1903, though in real life Dorothy Skerrit didn't join Tesla's service until 1912.
  • Audience Surrogate: Team TARDIS are mostly clueless to Tesla's inventions and significance to the world... because otherwise, we can't learn about Tesla and all his inventions he created long before their use.
  • Bad Boss:
    • The Skithra Queen destroys one of her underlings for answering the Doctor's question in her place. She then proceeds to give the exact same answer he gave.
    • Edison said he would pay fifty thousand dollars to anyone who could make his generator work. After Tesla spends a year of hard work doing exactly that, Edison claims it was a joke or a figure of speech and refuses to pay. Tesla quits, preferring to dig ditches than to work for Edison.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When the Doctor helps Tesla and Dorothy escape from the alien shooting at them, she says she has a fast means of escape. Cut to, instead of the TARDIS, a night train: it turns out the Doctor and her "fam" have actually been in 1903 for a bit already, and the TARDIS is apparently parked in New York City.
  • Benevolent Boss: Edison is shown to care about his employees, being horrified at their deaths and being the one to point out that they all had families. He even points out one who he had dinner with the week prior, and lamenting that he'll have to inform the man's wife.
  • Berserk Button: The Queen pushes the Doctor's by asking "have you ever seen a dead planet". Thirteen looks like she wants to strangle her.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Thirteen has been established as a Doctor who'll bend over backwards to avoid killing anyone, or even allowing it to happen. But the Skithra Queen chooses the wrong time to taunt her over seeing a dead planet.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Doctor says it herself: Tesla will die penniless and in obscurity, but his ideas and inventions that are far too ahead of his time now will become the cornerstones of the most important technology in modern times.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: The Skithra Queen does it to Edison when he attempts to shoot her with his pistol.
  • Blatant Lies: After dealing with the protestors and going through a stack of angry letters, Tesla says that he doesn't care about other people's opinions of him before leaving the room, after which a noise is heard implying he got angry and either hit or threw something.
  • Blinding Camera Flash: The Doctor and Yaz use an old-fashioned camera to temporarily blind the Skithra Queen and some of her subjects when teleporting off their ship.
  • Call-Back:
    • The Silurian blaster used by the Skithra who attacks at Niagara Falls is a very similar model to those used in several Silurian appearances in the new series.
    • The Doctor's reaction to the Skithra Queen asking if she's ever seen a dead planet.
  • Changed My Jumper: The companions all get kitted out in lovely period clothing... but the Doctor can't be bothered, going around in her usual togs.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The teleporter the Doctor uses to get onto the Skithra ship is later used at the climax to force the Queen back on board and out of the Wardenclyffe lab so the plan to destroy the ship will work.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Dorothy Skerrit is rather more sensible than her boss, and is visibly dismayed when Tesla refuses to deny or ignore the story that he received a signal from Mars.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • When the Doctor introduces Tesla and Dorothy to her companions on the train, Graham quips "Welcome to the Orient Express."
    • The Doctor mentions she built her sonic screwdriver out of spoons.
    • The Skithra's ship is apparently a Venusian model.
  • Creative Sterility: None of the technology found on the Skithra ship is of their own devising. It's just a hodge-podge of gadgets and items from other sources, many of which the Skithra do not understand the workings or function of. And rather than figure it out, they kidnap Tesla to figure it all out for them. The Doctor uses this fact as an insult, suggesting that they're too stupid, lazy and preoccupied with violence to be constructive.
  • Death Ray: Searching for weapons to defend the Wardenclyffe lab with, Graham and Ryan find a prototype of one of these. It is then subverted when it fails to work during the confrontation with the Skithra.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: One of the protesters outside Tesla's lab yells at him to go home, and the Serbian-born inventor points out that he's an American citizen.
  • Enemy Mine: Tesla and Edison are forced to work together, along with the Doctor, to fight the Skithra.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Edison isn't exactly a villain in this episode, but he's definitely an antagonist to Tesla, acting as a greedy opportunist and sensationalist. However, he certainly doesn't condone murder (especially of his own employees) and wants to save the Earth same as the Doctor does.
  • Exact Words: Edison convinces several civilians to hide indoors by stating that Tesla is experimenting with his tower and that there's a chance they could all be blown up. While both statements are true, he deliberately lets them assume that correlation equals causation when in reality Tesla's experiments are trying to stop them all from being blown up. It's clear from his reaction to a later headline that this is exactly the effect Edison hoped for.
  • Foreshadowing: The Skithra attacker on the train uses what is obviously a Silurian blaster, and the one who holds Dorothy at gunpoint later is using a completely different weapon, indicating the species' status as scavengers who steal technology.
  • The Fantastic Trope of Wonderous Titles: The episode's title brings to mind old pulp fiction or a retro theme park Haunted House instead of a Doctor Who episode.
  • The Gilded Age: The Doctor says they are in this era. Strictly speaking, 1903 is a little while after the Gilded Age, which is conventionally dated from about 1865 to 1900, but close enough.
  • Good Is Not Nice:
    • With the Skithra threatening to commit genocide against Earth, the Doctor has no compunction about hitting them with the biggest lightning bolt the Wardenclyffe tower can deliver.
    • She doesn't have the time to mourn a room full of dead bodies, while Edison mourns that they had families.
  • Historical Domain Character: Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Dorothy Skerrit as well was the real-life secretary of Tesla.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • The episode got some criticism for its blanket celebration of Tesla's vision of the future, which besides all the technology also included a hardline support for eugenics, saying that the thought of marrying outside one's own race would be as foreign as marrying a murderer.
    • This is also probably one of the kinder portrayals of Edison, downplaying his business ruthlessness and ignoring how his slander of Tesla in the press was possibly one of the reasons the man died in poverty. Considering his vilification elsewhere, it's fairly balanced though.
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • Nikola Tesla really did claim to have picked up a signal from Mars.
    • Wardenclyffe Tower really was activated in 1903 (specifically on the night of the 14th of July), reportedly shooting lightning bolts into the sky. Tesla never explained what it was activated for.
  • Hive Mind: The Skithra have one focused on their queen, so killing her will bring down all of them.
  • Holographic Disguise: The Skithra agents use these to blend in to 1903 New York and look (mostly) human.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: The Skithra are a race of robbers and looters who steal technology from other cultures and create nothing themselves.
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: When the Doctor and Tesla are on the train and everyone else has gone ahead while she's holding a door shut, he realizes it's gone quiet moments before the cloaked assailant comes in through the ceiling.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Tesla has come up with all kinds of concepts that will be vital to the future, including things like radar and wi-fi, but no one takes them seriously. Notably, people outside his lab are protesting his invention of alternating current because they believe Edison's FUD campaign claiming it's deadlier than direct current, when AC is actually far more efficient over long distances.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While Edison is generally an arrogant ass through the episode, he makes the valid point that brilliant inventions are little more than novelties without someone being able to turn them into products that can actually be used.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Edison is a pompous, greedy, and arrogant git. He's also openly horrified about the deaths of his workers, laments that many of them had families, vows to personally inform one man's wife, helps to save the world, and ultimately acknowledges his rival Tesla's genius.
  • Kidnapped Scientist: The Skithra attempt to abduct Tesla because they lack the skills to repair their stolen technology themselves and have identified him as the person on early 20th century Earth who is most likely to be able to fix things.
  • The Knights Who Say "Squee!": Both the Doctor and Tesla are in awe of each other at the moment they meet. Tesla loves the architecture of the TARDIS too, correctly identifying that "The internal dimensions transcend the external."
  • Last-Second Chance: The Doctor points out to the Queen during their confrontation at the climax that she already offered her a chance to change earlier, and since she didn't take it, she's not getting any more chances.
  • Lighter and Softer: A relatively light-hearted "celebrity historical", after the previous season's historical stories all dealt with heavy sociopolitical subject matter to a greater or lesser extent.
  • Literal-Minded: When Graham assures Dorothy that it's "not our first rodeo" when preparing to defend Wardenclyffe, Ryan responds that they've never been to a rodeo.
  • Not Helping Your Case: At the beginning, Tesla's attempt to get investors falls flat when he refuses to deny a story that he intercepted a signal from Mars. His assistant Dorothy is visibly dismayed.
  • No Social Skills: The Doctor, who is in awe of meeting Tesla, greets him nicely... and then calls him a big fat liar. She doesn't mean that rudely, he's just withholding information.
  • "Psycho" Strings: The Skithra Queen's theme is a mess of discordant, jangly strings.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure: Done to a different extent with all three companions. Yaz has never heard of Nikola Tesla, while Ryan at least recognizes his name from the line of electric cars named after him. Graham admonishes them both and tries to educate them on Tesla's importance to the scientific world, but when pressed can't actually name a single one of his inventions.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Some fans complained that Goran Višnjić's accent was too slight. In fact, Tesla had lived in America for decades at the time the episode is set, and both he and the actor came from the same area. It's likely that previous portrayals in the likes of The Prestige and The Current War influenced ideas of what he should sound like.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: The Skithra have glowing red eyes, which is the main signifier of their alien nature for those disguised as humans.
  • Rivals Team Up: Archrivals Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison are forced to work together against the Skithra.
  • Running Gag: As usual, whenever a newcomer enters the TARDIS, they are completely blown away. Edison is flabbergasted, and Tesla states the Bigger on the Inside speech in scientific prose; "The internal dimensions transcend the external" (which is the same terminology Luke says when he enters Ten's TARDIS in The Sarah Jane Adventures). The Doctor is very pleased that someone speaks her language.
  • Scorpion People: The Skithra are scorpion-shaped, with an energy weapon built into their tails. Their Queen is notably more humanoid than the others.
  • Series Continuity Error: The Doctor repeatedly identifies the Silurian blaster as an an alien device. The Silurians are from Earth.
  • The Shadow Knows: When one of the human-disguised Skithra is temporarily caught in a ring of fire at Edison's lab, the shadow of its true scorpion form is cast onto the wall.
  • Shock and Awe:
    • The Skithra can throw lightning.
    • The Doctor's plan is to hit the Skithra ship with the full power of the Wardenclyffe tower, channelled into a single lightning bolt.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Initially unfamiliar with Tesla, Ryan mentions the line of electric cars named after him.
    • Graham calls Tesla and Edison AC/DC when shouting at them to stop arguing given the situation.
  • Unperson: The Doctor threatens the Skithra Queen that "no one will ever know you existed".
  • Unfazed Everyman: Tesla doesn't seem that freaked out about meeting aliens, although this is justified considering he heard the Martian signal and sent one back.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The plan to destroy the Skithra ship is explained in advance, so naturally it hits a snag when it turns out that the Queen has actually come down from the ship. The Doctor's response is not explained ahead of time, and works.
  • Villain: Exit, Stage Left: Unnoticed by the heroes, the Skithra ship manages to escape after being blasted with lightning from Tesla's tower.
  • Why Isn't It Attacking?: Asked when the Skithra stay back after breaking down the door at the Wardenclyffe lab. It's because the Queen is there and hopes to abduct Tesla before killing the others.
  • Would Hurt a Child: One of the Skithra agents asks a street urchin where Tesla is. When the boy answers the Skithra prepares to vaporize him, but Yaz snatches him away at the last moment.


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