Welcome back, fam! This week’s episode was not a home run by any stretch, but it was miles better than last week and the highlights definitely outweighed the few flaws. Let’s head back to the turn of the 20th century for a good old fashioned alien threat mixed with an interesting time in history.
The Doctor’s opening monologue about what an exciting period in history it was really set the tone. Tesla has always been a special historical figure for me because my father was interested in him and this episode did a great job of teaching me a little more about why he was so cool without feeling like a history lesson (actual history lessons usually have fewer aliens). The plot was a fairly routine monster-of-the-week episode, which is actually just fine by me. We need some of those in a season or it just starts to feel out of control (I’m looking at you, Moffat.) It was elevated by some great performances, solid work by our companions, and classic Doctor outsmarting (I swear I will never get tired of brains beating brawn on this show).
As much as I loved the black tie outfits in Spyfall, I think I maybe loved the period costumes for Team TARDIS even more. The show historically has not always done a great job of making sure companions are dressed appropriately for the time or place they’re visiting (I’m looking at you, Amy Pond in Vampires of Venice and Martha Jones in Shakespeare Code). Seeing the beautiful variety of suits and hats made me long for more opportunities to let the costume team on this show work their magic on these three beautiful humans more often (though Yaz did look a bit like she went shopping in Missy’s wardrobe). Each choice made by the costumers perfectly suited the characters and made me so, so happy. More of this. Looks aside, the companions also did a great job in their roles. I love the consistency of Yaz being interested in and delighted by hard scientific concepts, despite not being a “proper” scientist. I’ve read we’re getting a Yaz-centric episode this season exploring her backstory and why she chose her career and I’m hoping the scientific angle is somehow addressed. Graham in his completely wonderful bowler hat (of course early 1900s Graham would wear a bowler) did an admirable job of bringing the plot back down to Earth (literally and figuratively) when it threatened to get to caught up in inventor rivalry or alien nonsense. Ryan had the least to do, besides wear the hell out of another great suit and newsboy cap. Note to writers: Please, PLEASE, give Ryan more to do. Tosin Cole is too good to just leave sitting around until it’s time to sympathize with the characters of the week who are in over their heads.
Excellent work by the guest stars this week. Absolutely stellar acting from Goran Višnjić as Tesla. I almost wish they’d gotten someone as great for Edison, but I sort of wonder if they intentionally did not or cast someone lesser known on purpose to underscore the disparity in greatness between the two figures. Intentional or not, the difference was noticeable. Višnjić’s performance is another example of casting great actors in science fiction elevating the material. The episode also had the appropriate level of reverence for Tesla and his legacy. My only gripe with this aspect of the episode was Edison’s accent. Tesla’s, I get. He was a 1st generation immigrant and his natural accent helped highlight one cause for the public’s dislike of him by comparison to Edison’s white, “true American” image. However, if you are going to make a character’s nationality an intrinsic part of him, then either hire an actor of that nationality or for God’s sake get a dialogue coach, because Thomas Edison would not say the word patent with a long “a.” It’s an incredibly minor detail, but he did it more than once and it took me right the hell out of the moment every time.
My other issue with this episode was the design of the baddies. I don’t take issue with the monsters themselves, their design, motivations, and predictable downfall were all perfectly classic for a Whovian villain. However, their appearance REALLY bothered me and not (just) because I’m an arachnophobe. How can you create a creature that looks SO MUCH like a species we’ve seen in the past and then not acknowledge it AT ALL?! Looking at it side by side, the Skithra don’t look exactly like the Racnoss from Season 3’s Christmas special “The Runaway Bride,” but it was close enough to be bothersome. The Skithra queen and the Empress of the Racnoss share a similar voice, similar creature type, similar facial features and makeup, a similar ruling structure, and even their ships were both eerily reminiscent of some aspect of the earthly creature they appeared to be based on. Either do it on purpose and make some mention of it so we know you did and we can move on or change the design. I know monster costumes aren’t cheap, but it was just distracting.
Overall though, I’m very happy. Very solid episode from a great female writer/director pair. I got a lot of what I wanted and managed to overcome a few disappointing bits to really enjoy this trip in the TARDIS. Next week features the return of the Judoon (fun fact: this race was created specifically to troll David Tennant when Whovian writers learned that his Scottish accent made it difficult for him to correctly pronounce words ending in -oon in the Doctor’s accent) and possibly also the Cybermen? And also perhaps the end of humanity? That last bit scares me the least, as well it should any fan. We’re Whovians, we’re used to it. What else ya got? Bring it, show.