This week’s episode of Doctor Who brought us smack bang into the middle of one of the most infamous historical feuds, between rival inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. You could say it was a story of current affairs. And if you think this is just going to be an excuse for me to make lots of electricity-related puns, then guilty as charged.
As far back as Doctor Who‘s very first season in 1963, there was a push by the show’s production team to try and adhere to the traditional Reithian values of informing and educating the audience, which means that there was always a push to make the forays into Earth’s history relate to major events and figures. Although they were mostly ‘pure’ historicals (i.e. no sci-fi elements) to begin with, they tended to become some of the lowest-rated stories, and after 1967’s ‘The Highlanders’, they were dropped altogether, in favour of the far more popular adventures featuring bug-eyed monsters and behind-the-sofa thrills and chills.
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Any excursions into the past tended to be far less educational, and would instead use eras more as a backdrop, with super creeps and scary monsters being the main focus. The notion of the ‘celebrity historical’ became a new category for the show, and it’s been a key part of the series since Doctor Who‘s return in 2005. Since then, we’ve seen the likes of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill, and Vincent Van Gogh, to name but a few examples. Last year’s appearance of Rosa Parks was a particularly powerful tale, yet was also oddly contentious amongst some viewers who felt the makers were pushing a certain agenda which they found personally objectionable.
This time round, however, it was a tussle against nasty scorpion creatures from outer space in the 1900s, so unless those elements of the audience felt there was a strong anti-alien arachnid message they disagreed with on moral grounds, then it should have theoretically been a much happier experience for them overall. A pity, then, that it wasn’t as strong a story as ‘Rosa‘, and – like last week’s episode, ‘Orphan 55‘ – felt a little bit of a rehash of things we’d seen before, which is a real shame, especially as some of them were done much better previously.
One thing this modern iteration of Doctor Who has generally managed to do so well is shaking off a lot of the reputation it had for being cheap and low budget. No wobbly cardboard sets or creatures made from bubble wrap in evidence here, guvnor. However, occasionally things fall a little short, despite all the advances in tech over the last few decades, and here we got a lot of dodgy-looking CGI scorpions, as well as a Queen (Anjli Mohindra, slathered under a whole lot of less-than-convincing prosthetics) who bore very little resemblance to them. It all felt a bit like a low-rent do-over of the Racnoss, those spider-like monsters from 2006’s Christmas special, ‘The Runaway Bride’.
It’s a particular shame for Mohindra, who does her utmost to give her best diabolical alien baddie performance, but it sadly pales in comparison to Sarah Parish’s Empress of the Racnoss. Mohindra is a more than capable actress, having distinguished herself in shows like Cucumber, Bodyguard, and as Rani Chandra in Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. In this case, however, it seems she perhaps wasn’t the best pick for the role, and would have been better off in a part where she didn’t have to try and act against a load of latex which seemed to be hampering her from getting the most out of the character.
A former producer of Doctor Who once described the series as being like The Morecambe & Wise Show, as everyone who was anyone was queuing up to have a turn in the series. It seems to still be the case even now, with this latest run alone having welcomed Lenny Henry and Sacha Dhawan. This week, we had Robert Glenister and Goran Višnjić, both of whom are no strangers to the genre. Glenister – best known as Ash Morgan in the superlative BBC caper drama Hustle – appeared in Doctor Who back in 1984 in a dual role of a military commander and his android replica; Višnjić appeared in short-lived NBC time travel drama Timeless.
Both actors aquit themselves admirably here – Glenister’s occasionally shaky accent notwithstanding – and manage to convey the fierce competitiveness between Edison (Glenister) and Tesla (Višnjić), as well as the grudging respect the two men have for each other. Given that both characters are exposed to scientific concepts and principles far ahead of their time in this episode – not just the notion of life on other planets, but also the TARDIS, amongst others – it seems rather odd that the Doctor chooses not to wipe any of their memories of this adventure, given what happened just a fortnight ago.
In ‘Spyfall’ (Part 2), she had no compunction about forcibly erasing any knowledge of recent events held by historical characters Ada Lovelace or Noor Inayat Khan, yet leaves both Edison and Tesla’s recollections intact, which is surely far more dangerous in comparison. It seems to be a glaring inconsistency, especially when it happened in an episode which aired two weeks earlier, yet there seems to be no rationale for why the Doctor chose to do it then, but not here. In fact, it seems especially cruel in Inayat Khan’s case, as she had any knowledge of the Allies’ eventual victory in World War II taken from her, and died before she could see the end of the conflict.
Other things rankled in this episode, like Edison and Yaz (Mandip Gill) running far slower than a pursuing horde of Skithra, who would have easily caught them if they weren’t so utterly inept and apparently lacking in any form of traction, causing them to career around and crash into each other like cosmic klutzes. It would also be nice to see Yaz being used as something other than an exposition machine, as all she seems to be doing lately is spouting out one explanation or simplification for the home audience after another. It’s a shame, as Gill is undoubtedly charming, but seems to be continually underused.
In conclusion then, a tale which was neither shocking nor electrifying. More of a terrible shame than terror.