Doctor Who has a great track record of delving into the past and creating storylines around an array of interesting historical figures – and the latest person to get this treatment is Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, played by Goran Višnjić in this week’s episode.
Given his reputation as a rather futuristic personality – a man of ahead of his time – Tesla seems like a very natural fit for the Whoniverse and exactly the sort of figure who could take part in a great story.
Who was Nikola Tesla?
Born in modern day Croatia in 1856, Tesla is considered one of the most significant people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for his work in the US.
An inventor, he is best-known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system while another invention, the Tesla coil remains heavily used in radio technology to this day.
Did Tesla really have a rivalry with Thomas Edison?
Yes – as is shown in this week’s episode, there was something of a dispute between the period’s two great inventors.
Originally, the pair worked alongside each other on Edison’s DC system, but differing views as to the correct way forward caused a rift and resulted in them parting ways.
Edison (played in Doctor Who by Robert Glenister) used his influence to direct a media campaign against Tesla’s AC system in favour of his DC, with a decisive battle taking place at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Tesla had the last laugh, with his camp awarded the contract to electrify the Fair.
This rivalry was the subject of a recent film, The Current War – which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison and Nicholas Hoult as Tesla.
Incidentally, Hoult and Višnjić aren’t the only famous faces to have portrayed the inventor on-screen – one David Bowie played him in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige.
Did Tesla really believe in aliens?
Believe it or not Nikola Tesla really did claim to have made contact with aliens!
Showrunner Chris Chibnall spoke about this when chatting to RadioTimes.com and other media about why he thought Tesla would be a good fit for the show.
He said, “Tesla I think is absolutely one of those characters you think the Doctor would be fascinated by, and that kind of moniker he has of the man who invented the 20th century.
“But of course he wasn’t given his due for it, really. He had a lot of ideas, but also, the thing about Tesla is…a) he’s an extraordinary inventor, very interesting in that he’s a European who goes to live in America.
“But also, he claims he made contact with aliens. And if that’s not… you know, there is a night in Tesla’s life where there are huge electrical storms, rumours of flying saucers, he talks about how he’s received contact by aliens. We’re just really interpreting the facts.
“He’s an extraordinary character. So the combination of the two was absolutely irresistible. And it is a really irresistible episode with some really great monsters.”
Maybe then, this week’s episode isn’t quite so far-fetched…
Doctor Who: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror airs at 7:10pm, Sunday 19th January on BBC One