Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror: Great Men and Great History

Previously

Spyfall 1: It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Spyfall 2: It’s Time She Spent Some Time Alone

Orphan 55: Climate Chaos in Cardiff


Part 1. The Inventor’s Tale

Nina Metivier’s Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is the first and maybe only episode of this series that I’m comfortable describing as ‘uncomplicatedly good’. While not without its flaws, I honestly think it’s a riot, succeeding in many fairly basic areas where the surrounding episodes stumble, resulting in a really fun, really competent story. And a large part of this success, I think, comes from how it adheres to the standard formula for the “celebrity historicals” commissioned yearly in the RTD era.

For clarity, “celebrity historical” refers to Who episodes centred around specific historically significant individuals, and though they originated in the Classic series and continued into the Moffat era in some interesting and subversive ways (from S6’s dark pantheon of side-lined villainous wartime leaders, to the Twelfth Doctor’s “Celebrity Mythologicals”) for the sake of this, I’m referring specifically to those in the RTD era (and the two in S5) that share a number of features:

The first key similarity is that these stories are totally about the historical figure. If the episodes don’t have the person’s name in the title then they’re probably a reference to their work or life, or in this case both. They star the figure, but also inevitably let them in on the fun, such that the figure is essentially part of the main cast, helping with the plot, privy to the secrets of the universe and the show.

And so, as you would expect of “Agatha Christie fights aliens,” the episodes stay goofy and self-aware; nobody shies away from the fact that this is “Doctor Who does [famous person]”. There’s even a similarity with the kind of nod-wink running gag these episodes employ: The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp both have cast feeding the writers famous ideas, Tooth and Claw has them squeezing an “I am not amused” out of Queen Vic, and Night of Terror has the fam keep comparing Tesla’s inventions to their rough approximations in the modern world despite not knowing who he is (although admittedly here it isn’t actually funny).

But despite the lighter tone, the episodes share a similar heart. There’s a focus on legacy and righting historical injustice, though this is always injustice against the person, rather than by them, because these episodes are also uniformly uncritical of the figure-in-question. More than that, aside from Tooth and Claw, they’re actively aggrandising love letters (and that’s only because Tooth and Claw is a hate letter), mostly to artists who inspired the men who wrote the episodes. The monsters only exist as thematic and aesthetic reflections of the figures and their conflicts, and in the case of the Skithra, double as objective assurances of Tesla’s greatness; that they want him and not Edison is trusted as proof that he’s the greater mind.

And so I think the reason Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror so works for me is that it returns to this proven formula from a proven era. I even get the feeling that the moments that bug me like a Silurian gun being described as alien or the Skithra not appearing at all until the second half are things that would be caught by an RTD edit, as he mentions catching similar things in The Writer’s Tale. But Metivier isn’t just copying the style and structure of a Great Earlier Time, like some Edisonian author, but rather she’s iterating on preceding ideas, in an interesting way, but one that ends up feeling to me like a bit of a half-measure.

Because while the episode oversells it a little bit, I think it is generally true that people are more aware of Edison than they are of Tesla, and while this is probably a few years late on the changing tides of public perception, the idea of taking a formula built for fawning veneration of pop-history Great Men and using it to tear down a glory thief is noble and interesting. The problem lies, then, with what remains in its place. Because the cure to the historically bankrupt celebration of individual Great Men shouldn’t be the celebration of a new, cooler group of individual Great Men.

Part 2. Elon Musk’s Night of Terra: Lousy Men and Lousy Futures

The Great Man theory, as I mentioned last week, is the widely discredited notion that the history of humanity is best understood as the history of a relatively small number of important, ‘special’ individuals and leaders whose choices and attributes changed the world, rather than that change being the result of systems and collective movements. And while I hate to drop the f-bomb on y’all, “Great Man” thinking is central to the cult of personality that is cited as one of the key components of fascism and strong-man fascist leadership.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the celebrity historicals’ tendency to venerate special individuals is evil, or fascistic. ‘Special individuals’ are more or less the basis of all our storytelling, in Doctor Who more than most, and I’m not campaigning for a complete upheaval of that (not yet, anyway). But it’s important to recognise how the focus on Great Men does, materially, effect the world we live in, even when it is a seemingly noble focus on somebody outside the normal scope of history.

More than just adopting his name as a brand, Elon Musk has found immeasurable success by modelling his image after that of Nikola Tesla, and specifically after the image of Nikola Tesla presented by this episode. He styles himself as a rugged individualist inventor, daring to think outside the box and ahead of the times, put down and overlooked by the establishment, and by doing this he has managed to cultivate an ahistorical public image as a self-made smart guy, posting memes with the plebs, as if his position as the richest person on the planet is more the result of his ‘singular brilliance’ than the fact that he has been privy to every possible advantage in life. His ability to impact the future of the world relies on this inaccurate image of history that says people like him are how things progress.

The myth of Musk’s self-made success has a tangible effect on the rest of us, who are all expected to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. If Musk can do it, and we can’t, then either we’re not really trying, or we’re just not Great enough Men, and so we deserve our failure despite the fact that, without fail, every one of these success stories involves rich parents, rigorous government support, luck, and cruelty. So as Musk draws his plans for a privatised Mars, where the rich get to escape the final sunset of planet Earth, and the poor, well they get to come along too if they enter into contracts of indentured servitude, you can see how the Musk Myth pays for itself. People are convinced that it’s just for the rich to rule over post-democracy corpo-feudal Mars, because we’re all sold the idea that they had to work really hard to “earn” enough wealth to buy a planet. Because they’re Great Men, and it’s only fair that they wield all the power. “You wouldn’t want democratic regulation to get in your way if you worked hard enough to buy a planet, would you?”

Just last episode, the Doctor decries that “there’s nearly always a ruling elite that gets to evacuate, and then signs off all responsibility for whatever they’ve left behind” referring to the burnt out remains of planet Earth, and if that’s not a succinct mission statement for SpaceX then I don’t know what is.

So, when the Doctor explains Tesla to the fam, and by extension to the audience, and she punctuates it by saying “he should have been the first billionaire by now,” we might want to question the idea that being richer than entire countries is something that any one person deserves, however smart they are. Because the implication here is that historical justice means Tesla’s ascendance to the ruling elite of the world, rather than anything changing for the “more poor people than ever before” who are recognised in one line which, in context, almost sounds like it’s supposed to be a good thing.

And I know it’s unreasonable to expect every episode to tootle the socialist agenda, or to take apart the kinds of narratives that drive the show – Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is neither the first nor the worst example of Doctor Who history pushing the Great Man model. I just think it’s a shame that a story that comes so close by calling out our broken, overly simplistic, heroicising view of Edison doesn’t manage to apply that standard more broadly.

Spending an episode restoring Tesla’s ‘rightful position’ in history is sweet (and, I feel like I need to restate, I do like this episode a lot) but the solution to our inaccurate worship of ‘individual geniuses’ isn’t just to find some humbler, politer, smarter iteration of Edison, or Musk, but to take apart that view of history altogether. By elevating Tesla to the place Edison has stood in the public mind, Metivier is righting a wrong, sure, but the emphatic emphasis on his ‘incomparable brilliance’ places reverence above an accurate view of history, fudging details and stretching comparisons to modern technology to fit Tesla into a Great Man model.

This whole brand of stories about individual people defining the history of the world, even about those hither-to unrecognised, just fail at the starting blocks because we are none of us individuals. Especially those who claim the loudest that they are. The future can be changed, but it’s never going to be by one person. Not for the better, anyways.

Part 3. The Queen of Shreds and Patches

As this is the first episode of the series with a proper, functional conclusion, I thought I’d do one here, too.

I’m a bit of a die-hard on this. On the idea of taking apart our ingrained individualist view of the world. And we’ll definitely get back to it later in the series. I talked last time about how I think the focussing of responsibility for Doctor Who with one person is a mistake, and how it’s leading to a strained, struggling production that gives us episodes like Orphan 55, and I think the ideas here apply too. I love RTD as much as the next queer British 20-something sci-fi guy, but the fact that I so instinctively relate new episodes back to his writing 10 years later, like I’ve done here, I think speaks to quite a singular view of the history of the show that overlooks all but the most obvious faces. I didn’t mention Gatiss, or Curtis, or the terrible transphobic one intentionally, but the fact that we so easily view whole eras of the show as the product of singular people seems to me like a result of the kinds of stories we tell. And I think we can tell them better.

Think of how Rosa lists trivia and facts at the expense of real history, where Demons of the Punjab focusses on social impact and the importance of the forgotten. I want more of the latter, personally. I think that’s more interesting, and more impactful, and more true. I think Great Man history is bad, and despite what we might glean from episodes like this, the Doctor often agrees, which must get pretty awkward given she’s the greatest Great Man of all. But we’ll get to that another day.

First we have to reckon with the truth of who she actually is in the first place.

NEXT TIME: Fugitive of the Judoon: The Book of Ruth

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