Doctor Who
Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

The Doctor has seen and experienced much as she’s wandered around this universe, but nothing impresses her more than creative genius. In all her centuries, she’s crossed paths with some of history’s greatest figures, but she’s never as starstruck as when she meets a brilliant mind. Military leaders or royalty almost never wow her, but she fully geeks out whenever she encounters a playwright, painter, or inventor.

“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Horror” introduces her to one of mankind’s greatest. TimelessGoran Višnjić stars as the Serbian-American innovator, whose bold ideas about power and communication helped shape the 20th century. He’s perhaps best known for his contributions to alternating current, which made him an enemy of the far more popular Thomas Edison (played here by Robert Glenister). It’s Tesla’s brilliance that makes him a target here, as the Doctor and her crew race to rescue him from an alien menace.

After the revelation that last week’s baddies were really — gasp! — twisted human evolutions, “Night of Horror” returns to much sillier fare, introducing an absolutely ridiculous race of scorpion aliens. They’re called the Skithra, and they look like a cross between the Racnoss Empress of the Tenth Doctor episode “The Runaway Bride” and the very silly CGI of Dwayne Johnson’s scorpion king in The Mummy Returns. And I, for one, am extremely into it: Sure, I appreciate a good dramatic conflict with real-world stakes, but I’m also a sucker for insane interstellar scorpions who can shoot lasers from their tails and want to kidnap Nikola Tesla so he can help them conquer the galaxy. Inject that nonsense directly into my veins!!!

And so the Doctor sets out to a) figure out exactly why the Skithra want Tesla and b) try to stop it. The result is a delightful little adventure, complete with train chases, creepy vampire-like disguises, alien ships, and lots of technobabble as the Doctor and Tesla excitedly shout at each other about electrical currents. Like any good historical episode, it also serves as an excellent introduction to Tesla’s life and how the history books have largely overlooked his achievements, especially his doomed Wardenclyffe Tower. Much of the story focuses on the contrasts between Tesla and Edison, portraying Tesla as the dreamy genius and Edison as the more practical capitalist with no real ideas of his own. (Tesla’s also joined by his assistant Dorothy Skerritt, played by Haley McGee.)

Tesla, Dorothy, Edison, Yaz, Ryan, Graham, and the Doctor… The TARDIS may be bigger on the inside, but it can still feel cramped. There are already three companions, and every episode so far this season has added multiple new faces. That’s a lot of characters for the show to juggle, and while I love a big, ambitious family story, I also miss some of the smaller, more character-driven episodes of seasons past. I hope at some point we get an installment with just the Doctor and Yaz (or Ryan, or Graham), just to explore these characters a little deeper and really give them an individual time in the spotlight.

And ultimately, this is a Doctor-Tesla story, with the others taking a background role. Višnjić lends sympathy and eccentricity to the quirky inventor, and the Doctor and Tesla find a strange recognition in each other: two dazzling minds dreaming of the stars, whose peers can’t quite recognize their brilliance. And Jodie Whittaker also gets some of her best material yet; she doesn’t exactly go full Timelord Victorious, but there’s a quiet rage and coldness when she confronts the Skithra queen. “When you die, there will be nothing left behind — just a trail of blood and other people’s brilliance,” she spits. “No one will even know you existed.” So far, this season has teased new layers and challenges for the Doctor, from the return of the Master to the devastation of Gallifrey. Here’s hoping the next episodes keep diving deeper.

TARDIS log notes:

  • The companions get to play dress-up and don some era-appropriate duds, but I love that the Doctor is just running around 1903 New York in her usual capri pants and long jacket.
  • Segun Akinola’s music has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the Whittaker era. As a composer, he expertly marries sci-fi sounds with sweeping melodies that feel right at home in Gilded Age New York, and his scores can make even the silliest Who plots feel a little bit grander.
  • Next week, we’ll see the return of a familiar foe: everyone’s favorite belligerent rhinoceros soldiers, the Judoon.

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