Thursday, March 26, 2020

12.4 Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

A Light Bulb Moment

The TARDIS lands in the past. The Doctor gets starstruck by an historical figure and bounces about how wonderful humans are. There are spooky men in cloaks with glowy red eyes. There is a big spaceship populated by Scorpion-Borg hybrids who want to destroy the world. Probably. The Doctor has a cunning plan. Everything is wrapped up in time for tea. 

This week's episode feels like one of those vignettes Stephen Moffat used to insert into his stories, a thirty second snippet of a completely different adventure. I have a general impression that a Doctor Who story just happened; but am not honestly sure I could tell you any of the whys and wherefores .

Nikola Tessla and Thomas Eddison fighting space scorpions in turn of the century New York. Yeah. Okay. Why not? The scorpions themselves are quite well done. I enjoyed the scene where they chased Yaz and Edison through the empty streets, running up the sides of buildings and getting tangled up in the scenery. It made me quite nostalgic for wet Sunday afternoons watching Jason and the Argonauts on BBC 2. Maybe we should have just had a really well done monster story without the historical baggage? I liked the alien space ship too, but the scorpion queen felt altogether too much like the spider from The Runaway Bride.

I must admit that, like the Doctor's moronic companions, I hardly knew who Nikola Tessla was. Olden days science dude: had a rivalry with Edison, particularly over electric currents. Going by this story he was an "inventor" in the pulp science fiction sense: great ideas pop into his mind. He keeps on nearly inventing things which would come true further down the line, but he gives them cool steampunk names, so his idea for radar would have been called an "exploring ray" and his idea for X-Rays would have been called "shadow photography". He even nearly invented the internet, insofar as his Wardenclyff tower would have wirelessly transmitted audio and possibly visual images all round the world. It isn't quite clear if "conceiving a machine which would let anyone in the world access all the knowledge in the world remotely" is the same as "inventing" it. I am not quote sure what it would have meant to "invent the internet" 40 years before the existence of anything which could be called a computer. 

Against this stands wicked Thomas Edison, who actually gets things done. Edison makes things and creates things and markets things, but he doesn't have his own ideas. He creates factories where dozens of scientists conduct experiments, and isn't respectful of other people's intellectual property. 

There is one good exchange between the two men, in which Edison states his point of view very clearly:

"Anyone can have ideas. I make them happen. All those men, all those inventions, I turn them from a sketch into real things people can buy. That's how you change the world. You're too blind to see that my factory is the best idea either one of us ever had. "

"And you are too narrow-minded to grasp the genius of my work, and that is why you will never achieve real greatness. You're not a man of vision, you're a man of... parts."

But the viewer's sympathy, and the Doctor's is with Tesla. It is better to be a dreamer who has singular ideas than a technician who gets things made. 

I suppose we are supposed to see a connection between the scorpion-borgs, who travel around the universe stealing other people's technology, and Edison, who steals other people's ideas. The idea of turning Tesla's wireless electricity transmitter into a giant zap-gun to blast the scorpion-borg out of the solar system is fairly cool; but there is an overwhelming sense that the baddies were conceived of as a hive mind to make this plot-device work.

Scorpions and death rays in Old New York is quite fun; but "quite fun" doesn't carry the day. It feels very much as if there was an envelope somewhere with "aliens steal earth's greatest scientist" written on the back and "twist: in the Olden Days!!" underneath. I've been watching a lot of Old Who, and Old Who is full of hoary old cliches stitched together. But Old Who (for the first eighteen years, at least) was sustained by charismatic front-men who you couldn't take your eyes off. Jodie Whittaker is not Tom Baker. She is barely even Sylvester McCoy.


Edison is played by Robert Glenister, who played an officer named Salateen in Caves of Androzani. He was Peter Davison's brother and flatmate in a long-forgotten situation comedy.

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Gavin Burrows said...

“I suppose we are supposed to see a connection between the scorpion-borgs, who travel around the universe stealing other people's technology, and Edison, who steals other people's ideas.”

I kept thinking “Are we supposed to assume that the aliens are extreme versions of Edison, a handy plot device to show him the error of his ways and how he needs Teslas in his life? Or are we supposed to assume Edison and Tesla will see the necessity of working together, then realise their skills are actually complementary and live happily ever after?”

After a while I realised this was like thinking “what is Boris Johnson on about this time?”

Mike Taylor said...

And yet I did enjoy this one. At least, seeing it so soon after Orphan 55, it felt like a breath of fresh air, abeit one with a lot of missed opportunities.