Science, at last! Doctor Who normally steers clear of real physicists and inventors from history. Not surprising, really. Science and invention need a lot of research and much authentic hardware on show. Scriptwriters are evidently more comfortable depicting cultural icons (Shakespeare, Dickens, Van Gogh, Agatha Christie) and rulers (Elizabeth I, Victoria, Nixon, Nero, Churchill and Hitler). Of course, the Doctor is always the scientist in the room. All others pale in her or his presence. And there’s the small matter of her/him not being seen to influence scientific progress.
Long ago in the 1970s, Tom Baker’s Doctor joked about having climbed a tree and dropping an apple on Isaac Newton’s head. Lo, gravity! In the 80s, Colin Baker’s incarnation kept “Father of Railways” George Stephenson on track against the Luddites. Such examples are few in Who. Pleasingly, series 12 is going where no Who has gone before. Spyfall involved the pioneers of computing, and only two episodes later we’re presented with the rivalry between inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.
Nina Metivier (a relatively new writer who script-edited for series 11 and won a Bafta for her CBBC series Dixi) delivers a carefully honed script – instantly getting the meter of modern Doctor Who. She deals with her characters fairly: the visionary genius and thwarted ambition of Tesla; and the bald avarice and business acumen of Edison, who isn’t quite as despicable as he first seems. He’s shown to care when his workforce is massacred. In the quieter moments, the meeting of minds, the enmity and empathy between these two and the Doctor are a delight. (How I long for an adventure with Alan Turing!)
The casting is spot-on. Goran Visnjic, a Hollywood actor of Croatian birth (best known as Dr Luka Kovac in ER), stalks the screen as the saturnine, idealistic immigrant Tesla. The Canadian Haley McGee is sparky as his secretary/devotee – go on then, companion – Dorothy Skerritt (another real person). Equally commanding and charismatic, despite Edison’s ruthlessness, is Robert Glenister.
Probably best known for the BBC One series Hustle and Spooks, aeons ago Glenister played Major Salateen in Doctor Who classic The Caves of Androzani – Peter Davison’s swansong as the fifth Doctor. (On 12 January 1984, an appalling 36 years ago, I was on the studio floor at BBC TV Centre watching Glenister act out Salateen’s dramatic death by gunfire. Take after take. A fabulous memory.) It’s a relief that this trio are not, at the end, recipients of the Time Lord’s cavalier “memory wipe”, which Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan suffered in Spyfall.
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror has so much going for it. That tart and tarty title. Strong performances from a fine guest cast. Immaculate set dressing. A balance of action and contemplative lulls. A lengthy scene-setting sequence at Niagara Falls; four-and-a-half minutes elapse before Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor blunders in comically in the manner of Matt Smith’s version. The evocation of New York (actually a set in Bulgaria) is reasonably persuasive; not as teeming or filthy as one imagines. Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower project on Long Island is excellently re-created. And there’s an easy-to-follow plot in which the men and women of science unite to fend off an alien threat…
It’s not all rosy. That alien threat is a tad underwhelming. Yes, there has to be hokum, and the giant scorpions are well realised via CGI, but they are also patently absurd, hilariously inept when chasing Edison and Yaz through the streets. The Queen of the Skithra is a gorgeous/hideous make-up job on the mush of Anjli Mohindra (an alumna of The Sarah Jane Adventures and memorable as train bomber Nadia in Bodyguard). This sovereign scorpion is too reminiscent of the Empress of the Racnoss from The Runaway Bride. It’s amusing when she turns up unexpectedly on terra firma at Wardenclyffe, but is mostly a bit of a bore in the lower drawer of Who baddies, her galactic scavenging and threats of obliteration lacking originality.
It’s lovely to see Tesla and Edison stepping into the Tardis and marvelling at its transcendental dimensions. I can’t help thinking they’d have been more staggered by the previous and infinitely superior Tardis control room designed by Michael Pickwoad. Such is the speed of the emergency that none of the historical figures has chance to question the Doctor and her party in detail about their origins. To realise that they are from the future and learn what history will say about them.
Perhaps kindly, Metivier resists the temptation to do a Vincent and the Doctor on Tesla and bring him to now for a glimpse of his legacy. Her achievement above all is to honour and venerate Tesla, without entirely besmirching Edison, and to bring into public view a great thinker who would die penniless but, with his “world wireless system”, foresaw the worldwide web. “I work for the future and the future is mine.” He exits on a high and we experience pathos not bathos.
Let this be a trend, then. More scientists from the past, please, with tarty episode titles. I’m thinking: Rosalind Franklin’s Helix of Fear, Alan Turing’s Enigma of Doom, Marie Curie’s Curious Incident of the Doc in the Night-time…
Spyfall – Part One ★★★★
Orphan 35 ★★★