Monday 13 May 2024

Story 290: Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror

In which the scientist Nikola Tesla discovers a dead man at his laboratory near Niagara Falls, just as he is trying to tempt investment in his projects. Investigating alone, he discovers that some components from one of his machines have been stolen. He then comes across a floating orb which emits a strange green light. He and assistant Dorothy Skerrit hear movement, and come across the Doctor.
A man named Brady, who had visited earlier as a potential investor, appears - only to be shot by a laser weapon.
The Doctor helps Tesla and Dorothy flee the building, taking to a train which is about to leave for New York. Graham, Ryan and Yaz are here, already in period costume for 1903. The unknown assailant is also on the train, so the Doctor is forced to unhook the carriages to escape from him. He proves to be another of the investors, but is armed with a Silurian weapon and has glowing red eyes.
He is left behind as the train carries the Doctor and her friends on to the city.
Tesla takes them to his city laboratories, but find a demonstration taking place outside. People are warning of his use of AC - alternating current - which they claim is dangerous. The mob are being incited by rumours being spread by rival inventor Thomas Edison.
The Doctor identifies the floating device as an Orb of Thassor, which has recently been altered.

She, Graham and Ryan set off to see Edison, whilst Yaz remains behind with Tesla and Dorothy.
He tells her about his Wardenclyffe project, from where he hopes to be able to broadcast electrical power wirelessly.
Edison tells the Doctor that he has no interest in stealing ideas from Tesla as he has plenty of his own. However, he has a reputation for taking other people's inventions and claiming them as his own after investing in them. Tesla had once worked for him, but left when he wasn't getting sufficient recognition.
They are attacked by the red-eyed man, whom Edison recognises as one of his employees. However, this is a non-human being capable of copying, as the real man is found dead nearby.
A fire is used to keep the being at bay, and they see him alter form into an insectoid creature.
Two other red-eyed beings arrive at Tesla's lab, and teleport Yaz and the inventor away. They find themselves in a cavernous chamber full of giant scorpion-like creatures. They are confronted by their queen, who is more humanoid in appearance, then learn that they are actually in a spaceship, hovering unseen above New York.
The Doctor retrieves the TARDIS, with Edison in tow. They travel to Tesla's lab where Dorothy tells them what has happened.
On the ship, the queen explains that her people are the Skithra. She adapted to Orb to seek out Tesla and gather information about the time period as she needs his help. She wishes him to improve the vessel and its weaponry.

Recalling Tesla's claim that he once picked up a radio signal from Mars, the Doctor decides that everyone should travel to Wardenclyffe once their friends are rescued. 
She uses the TARDIS to scan for the spaceship, and is then able to transport herself onto the vessel - appearing just as the Skithra were about to kill Yaz to force Tesla's compliance.
The Doctor quickly discovers that the Skithra are technological parasites. They have no real technology of their own - simply stealing that of other races, which they then use to plunder other civilisations.
They escape back to Earth, but come under attack by the giant scorpion creatures.
The Doctor realises that Wardenclyffe could be used to beam an energy bolt at the spaceship, crippling it, so all make their way there.
The Skithra lay siege. The energy beam is activated after the Doctor manages to force the aliens back onto their ship. Damaged, it leaves Earth orbit.
Impressed by his work, Edison tries to get Tesla to rejoin him - but is turned down. The Doctor informs her companions that history won't change. Tesla will still die penniless and almost forgotten - until being recognised after his death.

Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror was written by Nina Metivier, and was first broadcast on Sunday 19th January 2020. To date, this has been the writer's only contribution to the series. She had been a script editor in the previous series, working on The Woman Who Fell To Earth and It Takes You Away.
It's the first of this year's Celebrity-Historicals, featuring as it does the inventors Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943) and Thomas Alva Edison (1847 - 1931).
The Tesla we have here is only partly historically accurate, though Metivier has obviously done her homework). He did die penniless, having made a fortune but spent it on further researches, but he was never a forgotten figure. He featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1931, to mark his 75th birthday, for instance.
He did think that he might have picked up radio signals form another world - but it was the media who claimed this to be Mars specifically. (It's believed that he was actually picking up Marconi's radio broadcast experiments). He wasn't obsessed with radio transmission as much as with the tuning of radio signals.
The scientist is seen as an innovator who sees the world differently to anyone else and who dreams up new inventions to tackle new challenges. He naturally bonds with the Doctor, seeing her as a kindred spirit. 

He's positioned in opposition to both the Skithra and with Edison, who are both portrayed as scavengers in different ways. The aliens have no technology of their own, and this is very much shown to be a bad thing. They steal what they need and are incapable of even fixing what they have.
Edison was an inventor in his own right, but he has gained a reputation as a man who sometimes exploited the ideas of those whom he got to work for him, or that he simply refined the work of earlier inventors. Tesla is seen as a lone wolf inventor - an individualist - whilst Edison heads a factory / production-line set-up. This was one of his strengths, though it's not treated as such here.
Reference is made to the "War of the Currents". This actually took place in the latter years of the 19th Century and was pretty much resolved by 1903. Tesla had championed alternating current, whilst Edison have favoured DC - direct current. There were stories spread that AC caused earthquakes and other horrors. Edison actually electrocuted an elephant to prove AC dangerous.
However, prior to the events of this episode, Edison had already been usurped as senior shareholder in his own electricity production company, with the new controlling board wishing to look at both AC and DC.
The episode is helped by overseas filming, with the New York street set at the Nu Boyana Film Studio in Sofia, Bulgaria being used. This had previously featured in The Return of Dr Mysterio.

Goran Visnjic was extremely pleased to be cast as Tesla, as he was one of his boyhood heroes. Visnjic came to fame playing Dr Luka Kovac in US medical drama E.R. He has since featured in genre shows Timeless and The Boys.
Playing Edison is Robert Glenister - returning to the series after a 36 year gap as he had previously played Salateen in The Caves of Androzani. That had been only his second ever TV appearance - the first being sitcom Sink or Swim in which he played Peter Davison's brother. He had been a regular in Hustle in the interim, amongst many other roles.
Under a lot of make-up and prosthetics as the Skithra Queen is Anjli Mohindra - Rani Chandra in The Sarah Jane Adventures and partner of new Master, Sacha Dhawan. (The pair featured on the sofa together for The Collection - Season 8 Blu-ray box set). She has played several roles for Big Finish audios, as well as voicing the ruling Mechonoid in the Daleks! animated series.
Dorothy is played by Haley McGee. She has appeared in Canadian period detective drama Murdoch Mysteries - a series which has also featured Tesla and Edison.
The principal red-eyed man is played by Paul Kasey - regular monster performer since 2005 who has now taken on the creature choreographer role once held by Ailsa Berk for the new RTD2 episodes, as well as featuring in recent Star Wars productions.

Overall, a huge improvement on the previous week, with a more conventional pseudo-historical story. Great cast and good monsters. The Skithra are well designed and really ought to be brought back.
Things you might like to know:
  • There is a subtle reconfiguring of the companions here. Yaz begins to mirror the Doctor, becoming more of an independent character, whilst Ryan compares notes with Dorothy - both saying how their lives totally changed when they met their respective scientist friends. In Ryan's case he's thinking about his old life - prefiguring his departure at the end of the year.
  • The date is never mentioned on screen, but can be worked out as 1903 from JP Morgan's decision not to invest with Tesla, and the completion of the Wardenclyffe project, begun in 1902.
  • Dorothy Skerritt (with two t's) was one of three secretaries who worked for Tesla - but did not join him until 1912, nine years after the events of this episode.
  • Paul Kasey's character, Harold Green, is named for a real figure - Harold Brown.
  • We are told of a tunnel linking Tesla's New York lab with Wardenclyffe, which is in Long Island. That's some 70 miles, so highly unlikely.
  • The disguised Skithra saboteur uses a Silurian weapon. Which is odd, as we see them capable of firing energy bolts from their hands.
  • In the last decade of his life, Edison became increasingly obsessed with spiritualist matters, and looked into creating a form of "spirit phone" that might communicate with the dead.
  • Despite having guest starred in the SJA story - Day of the Clown - which introduced Rani Chandra, Bradley Walsh failed to recognise Mohindra in costume.
  • The Skithra spaceship is said to be Venusian. We've never seen them in the series, but the Third Doctor often made reference to them.
  • An early draft was simply titled "Tesla" and a scene recorded but then deleted saw Edison save Dorothy using one of Tesla's inventions.
  • Other actors who have portrayed Tesla include Nicholas Hoult, Ethan Hawke, John C Reilly and David Bowie.
  • Edison has been played by Spencer Tracy and Benedict Cumberpatch (with Mickey Rooney playing the young inventor).

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