Doctor Who took a trip back in time for a ‘Celebrity Historical’ tonight, as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends met revolutionary inventor/engineer Nikola Tesla (played by ER’s Goran Višnjić) and his rival Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister), with the gang coming up against the wicked Queen Skithra (Anjli Mohindra) and her army of alien scorpions!
But aside from the real historical figures, the whole thing was, of course, pure fiction… or was it?
Join us as we delve into Tesla’s (alleged) real-life alien encounters, ponder how a Silurian blaster ended up in outer space and wonder why the Doctor’s new habit of brainwashing icons of history doesn’t seem to have stuck…
Who was the real Nikola Tesla?
Born July 1856, Tesla was a was a Serbian-American inventor and engineer – he’s best known, as is touched on in this episode, for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.
Tesla conducted a range of experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and early X-ray imaging. He also built a wireless-controlled boat, one of the first ever exhibited.
After his Wardenclyffe project (more on that below) failed to secure funding, Tesla experimented with a series of inventions through the 1910s and 1920s, with varying degrees of success, but died in January 1943, having spent most of his money.
His work fell into relative obscurity following his death, though there was a resurgence of interest in Tesla in the 1990s and he has been portrayed on-screen by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed 2006 film The Prestige and by Nicholas Hoult in 2017 film The Current War – which, like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, explores his rivalry with Thomas Edison.
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.
Did Tesla really hear a message from Mars?
Doctor Who’s Tesla is convinced he’s received communications from the Red Planet, and while he’s mistaken – no Ice Warriors, here – it’s later revealed that he’d been (unwittingly) communicating with the scorpion-like Skithra.
The real Tesla did in fact spend much of his life trying to find a way to communicate with Mars. In 1899, he believed that he succeeded, hearing some rhythmic sounds on a radio receiver and becoming convinced they were extraterrestrial in nature.
Just misplaced hope? Possibly, though following Tesla’s death, all of his possessions were apparently seized by the US government to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Conspiracy theorists remain convinced that they were looking to cover up proof of alien life…
“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,” Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall has said. “We’re just really interpreting the facts.”
(Tesla also claimed to have invented a “Death Ray”, which also turns up in Doctor Who this week, even if it’s not all that effective.)
What was Wardenclyffe? Did Tesla really invent wi-fi?
Wardenclyffe Tower, also known as the Tesla Tower, was a wireless transmission station designed and built by Tesla in Shoreham, New York in the early 1900s.
Tesla intended to use the tower to transmit messages and even facsimile images – across the Atlantic to England and to ships at sea – but his attempts to implement wireless power were opposed by the project’s chief financier JP Morgan (as seen in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror).
Tesla never found another backer and the project was abandoned in 1906, never becoming operational. By 1917, Tesla was in debt and the tower was demolished for scrap. But there’s something of a happy ending here – a campaign to save the Wardenclyffe site succeeded in purchasing the property in 2013, with plans to build a museum dedicated to Tesla, and in 2018 the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Who was Dorothy Skerrit?
Played in Doctor Who by Haley McGee, Skerrit – like Tesla and Edison – was a real historical figure, serving as Tesla’s loyal secretary.
She was first employed by Tesla in 1912, working alongside another secretary Muriel Arbus, and stayed with him for a decade, until 1922. She is believed to have witnessed many demonstrations at Tesla’s laboratory at 8 West 40th Street and to have paid frequent visits to the New York Public Library to do research for the inventor.
Though Tesla was prone to getting caught up in his work and was often considered antisocial, Skerrit spoke fondly of her employer, saying that “his genial smile and nobility of bearing always denoted the gentlemanly characteristics that were so ingrained in his soul”.
Was that a Silurian blaster?
Yes, the gun being used by the Skithra in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror was in fact a Silurian blaster and not just an old prop being reused under a new guise.
The weapon was one of a number of artefacts pilfered by the Skithra from other races… though how exactly they got their hands on it is another matter.
All the other gadgets and gizmos aboard the Skithra ship had (presumably) been stolen from other alien species, but the Silurians are famously not aliens, but a race of reptilian humanoids who lived on Earth before humans, later going into deep hibernation to avoid an oncoming catastrophe that they believed would destroy the Earth.
So did the Skithra previously visit prehistoric Earth and encounter the Silurians then, or did they arrive on our planet at some later date and encounter a rejuvenated Silurian colony?
Another possible explanation is that the two races crossed paths out in space – after all, 2012 episode Dinosaurs on a Spaceship establishes that the Silurians will eventually venture out into the galaxy. Sure, that story is set in 2367, long after the events of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, but possibly the Skithra have some primitive time-travel tech in amongst their haul?
Wasn’t Anjli Mohindra in Doctor Who before?
Technically no, though she’s certainly been part of the Whoniverse – the Queen Skithra actress previously played series regular Rani Chandra on Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures from 2008 until that show’s end in 2011.
Though this is her first bona-fide Doctor Who appearance, looking totally unrecognisable under layers of impressive prosthetics, she previously appeared alongside David Tennant and Matt Smith on SJA, with her guest stint here opposite Jodie Whittaker marking out Mohindra as one of the rare few to have starred with three different Doctors.
Since The Sarah Jane Adventures, Mohindra has gone on to appear in Cucumber (2015), Bancroft (2017), Bodyguard (2018) and Wild Bill (2019). She will next be seen in BBC One’s thriller series Vigil, appearing opposite Suranne Jones, Shaun Evans, Rose Leslie and Martin Compston.
Wasn’t Robert Glenister in Doctor Who before?
Yes! Glenister, who portrays Thomas Edison – the DC to Tesla’s AC – in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, previously appeared in classic Doctor Who 36 years ago, playing both the character Salateen and his android double in 1984’s The Caves of Androzani.
Caves was Peter Davison’s final outing as the fifth Doctor and is widely regarded by Who fans as his best story, and indeed one of the finest stories in all of Doctor Who. Glenister’s casting in the tale saw him reunite with old colleague Davison, with whom he’d appeared in the 1980-82 BBC sitcom Sink or Swim. (Sink or Swim ran for three series and was actually filmed alongside Davison’s first two years on Doctor Who, which imposed constraints on the recording schedules.)
“I did Doctor Who 30 years ago, and people still come up to me [about it],” Glenister told Digital Spy in 2016. “I played a robot. I’d love to do it again [but] I don’t want to play a robot!
In 2012, meanwhile, he told Radio Times, “I still get people outside the stage door with that picture of me looking about 12 and I am appalled at myself every time I see it. I looked like a complete berk and wish I never had to see it again.”
Hopefully in future fans will present him with pictures of Edison to sign…
Why didn’t the Doctor wipe Tesla and Edison’s memories?
Now this one’s a real puzzler…
Back in Spyfall – Part Two, the Doctor (rather uncharacteristically, it has to be said) opts to use her telepathic abilities to erase all memory of recent events from the minds of two historical figures, Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan.
“I want that knowledge [of the future],” Ada protests, “Please don’t take it away!” but the Doctor responds, “Oh, Ada. You don’t need a preview. You’ll figure it out before anyone. The first to see the potential in things like that, to work out what could be what they can really do.”
Fair enough, but surely the same rules apply to both Tesla and Edison? Why did the Doctor allow these two men of science to retain knowledge of technology far beyond that of their own civilisation?
That she doesn’t mind-wipe these two makes the fact that she did do it to Ada and Noor feel even stranger in retrospect. The Doctor has never felt the need to fiddle with the memories of historical figures in the past, and it’s clearly not a habit she’s looking to continue going forward, so why do it to Ada and Noor?
When has the Doctor seen a “dead planet”?
Asked if she’s ever seen “a dead planet”, the Doctor responds, “I’ve seen more than you can possibly imagine.”
The obvious reference here is a nod back to her home planet of Gallifrey, which she recently discovered had been laid waste by the Master, but it also serves as a reminder of the previous episode Orphan 55, which revealed the titular ‘orphan’ planet to be a future version of Earth, devastated by nuclear war.
But these are far from the only ‘dead planets’ that the Time Lord has encountered on her travels. In fact, the Doctor’s very first televised journey to an alien world (broadcast 21st December 1963) saw the TARDIS land on the Daleks’ home of Skaro, again ravaged by radiation, in an episode actually called ‘The Dead Planet‘.
Everything is connected…
Doctor Who continues next Sunday at 7:10pm on BBC One