Welcome, one and all, to the Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and the episode with, quite possibly, the greatest title in years.
I have never been a particular fan of celebrity historicals. They are usually an excuse to fawn over an overly simplified, unproblematic version of very well known people from the past. Take Winston Churchill, for example: so, we might get that slight hint that he is driven enough to do anything he can to win the war, but ultimately, he is seen as a mainly unproblematic hero with an understandable obsession with winning. In Victory of the Daleks, we are told to celebrate an already well loved “hero” from Britain’s past in a manner which feels, quite frankly, jingoistic.
But it’s not quite felt like that in the Chibnall era. All of the historical characters have felt like a genuine attempt to explore relatively unknown characters in an sympathetic light. So, true, we still get a relatively black and white depiction of them, and problematic elements brushed aside, but it feels slightly different.* Possibly just because these are less well explored characters, not people we are used to being celebrated. Possibly because these are underdogs, people not celebrated to the same extent in their own time (Vincent would also come into this). Whatever the reason, they don’t feel so bad, it feels like there’s a purpose behind their appearance in the show beyond the TARDIS crew wanting to tick off their bucket list.
Tesla himself was amazing. Brilliant but hopeless in equal measure, the platonic affection between him and his assistant a nice, subtle nod to his asexuality. Goran Višnjić’s acting was superb and delightful and I loved the way he played off the Doctor.
There have been plenty of comparisons with Vincent and the Doctor, and with good reason, but, for all its strengths, I always felt that episode was weighed down by the sentimentality. Here, they get it just right. So, we know he died penniless and without the recognition he deserved: he gets his speech, he, in fact, gets his autonomy and chooses to fight on for the future. It was a lovely moment.
The villains of the piece were well pitched. It can be difficult to get it right in these sorts of episodes. The point of the story, obviously, is Tesla. Get it wrong and you either end up with the aliens feeling tagged in or they overwhelm the historical. True, one day, it might be fun to get a genuine historical without the science fiction elements (we could have had a lot of fun with Edison as the villain…. okay, maybe not), but I can understand why that tends to be avoided. So, here we get something that feels right. The villain’s reveal was slow, there was a sense of mystery followed by a dramatic reveal. When we finally meet the Skithra, the effects were gorgeous and Anjli Mohindra’s performance as the Skithra’s queen was marvellous.
If we are going to be critical here, while the scavenger race, without creative skill, piecing together technology and people without having the knowledge and skills themselves was a nice touch and a suitable comparison with Thomas Edison, the threat itself was a little generic. The Doctor’s resolution did at least feel well pieced together – using tech, science and the local celebrity genius in a way that didn’t just feel like a “wave the sonic and fix everything” solution. That said, it still suffered a little from the show’s general need to cancel out alien threats as soon as they are uncovered, something that continues to feel unavoidable in single part stories. But actually, this week’s caper did that far better than most.
Whittaker continues to go from strength to strength, and the three-part TARDIS crew is, this season, being well used as a way of drawing out all the various elements of the plot without the need to introduce too many additional characters (this being, possibly, how they’ve managed to keep the show both fast paced without feeling rushed.
And it seems that most people are enjoying the show. Beyond the small, highly vocal minority that we’ve grown used to in fandom (whose presence seemed to appear out of nowhere to many of us back in 2010, so loud they were on Twitter, but really have been around for as long as fandom itself), it’s been delightful to see how many people have been praising it. I’ll always flick around mentions of the show on Twitter, and the vast majority of people have been happy after every episode. There was a little more vocal objections about the speech at the end of Orphan 55, but that was a speech designed to provoke a reaction, so I suppose that’s to be expected.
As it is, I’m very happy. Doctor Who going from strength to strength and some very exciting things emerging on the horizon.
*For a discussion on the potential problematic nature of Tesla’s character, Digital Spy published this commentaryhttps://apple.news/AJAceoH0xSwC-KXRQirIJ-A.