A view From the Bridge

Electrifying: Tesla on television

Posted on behalf of Liesbeth Venema

teslaseries_poster_medtAn eccentric genius in an impeccable suit and a level-headed young sidekick who have to use their wits to combat a time-travelling automaton and save the Earth. No, this is not the plot of the latest Doctor Who. It is Nikola Tesla and the End of the World, a fun and highly original four-episode science fiction series created by Ian Strang nominated at the 2015 Raindance film festival best British Series category (and available free to view online).

What is the greatest innovation the world has ever seen? According to physicist Sophie Clarke (played by Gillian MacGregor), the doctor in this fictional duo, it is the transmission of energy. This is a topic the real-life nineteenth-century engineer-inventor Tesla thought a great deal about, and in a way that often leaped far ahead of his time. Tesla shaped the modern world with inventions such as the alternating current system for large-scale electric power distribution, radio transmission and fluorescent light bulbs.

Several of these exist only as sketches for patents, and more than a few conspiracy theories about their intended purposes do the rounds. It doesn’t help that Tesla himself made outrageous claims such as being able to receive extraterrestial signals. He indulged in ambitious visions of human advancement and tried to build a power station — the infamous Wardenclyffe tower in New York —  that would provide the world with free wireless communication and energy by making use of the Earth’s electromagnetic field. The project was doomed, leaving Tesla penniless and with his reputation shattered. Recent years have seen a renewed interest and re-appreciation of his work. For example, a new documentary, Tower to the People, hymns the concepts and humanitarian vision behind the Wardenclyffe project.

Doubly ahead of his time

For an SF series like Strang’s, it is a stroke of genius to transport to the present a charismatic inventor decades ahead of his contemporaries and pair him up with a down-to-earth physics lecturer. The action starts when Clarke stumbles upon a detailed sketch for a wireless power transmitter with Tesla’s signature and does the only reasonable thing a clear-thinking experimental physicist would do: tries to build it.

Tesla (Paul O'Neill) and Dr Clarke (Gillian MacGregor) find their way round the London Underground.

Tesla (Paul O’Neill) and Dr Clarke (Gillian MacGregor) find their way round the London Underground.

Ian Strang

Clarke’s first test, sensibly carried out outside at a safe distance from any power cables, doesn’t go as expected. The machine’s mechanical components become unexpectedly electrified: discharge currents flow, bulbs light up, an energy beam shoots out and finally, a rift in time and space appears through which a rather dashing Tesla (Paul O’Neill) materialises.  And with him, a whole bunch of misguided conceptions about technology, humanity and social norms.

This Tesla is full of initiative and wants to see immediately what great social advances his inventions have wrought. Inevitably, modern life disappoints him. He decides the world needs to be enlightened with his ideas — which for him, means he has to enlist the support of industrialists: “Bring me to Richard Branson!”

Clarke’s answer to Tesla’s rash plans is to go to her London university to do proper tests. But her motto — “There’s value in understanding how things actually work” — falls on deaf ears. The two must, however, overcome their differences as it soon turns out something went horribly wrong. The time machine conveyed a villainous figure to the present who also intends to deploy Tesla’s inventions — but to destroy the human race. Soon, lightning bolts are striking all over London and, as a warm-up, the Bank of England is blown up.

Dr Clarke and the 'time machine'.

Dr Clarke and the ‘time machine’.

Ian Strang

Only in the fourth episode do we see this mysterious figure – and an answer to the burning question of why he has a bad French accent (no spoilers, you’ll have to see for yourself). Fortunately, by the end Tesla has learned to value Clarke’s common sense and has accepted her as his equal.

Strang has taken a great physics geek idea and run wild with it. There are some wonderful exchanges between Tesla and Clarke: in one striking scene, the mismatched duo walks back to London along a deserted path on an icy afternoon, arguing about whether or not Tesla waves are possible. Unavoidably, a few action scenes feel a bit amateurish, but a huge amount of attention has gone into details such as the original musical score by Canadian songwriter Connie Kaldor.

One quibble: though Clarke disproves many stereotypes and doesn’t overplay the geek-card, she could do with a bit more personality. Throughout she remains unreasonably unfazed. She announces that “something is wrong with the weather and I am pretty sure we have something to do with it” as if saying she may have accidentally knocked over a shelf in Ikea’s furniture showroom.

But her character will surely develop in further episodes, which I absolutely hope will be filmed. (Strang promises to do so if there is sufficient interest.) For now, we have to trust that Clarke isn’t going to sit still knowing there is an evil force lurking in the future waiting to destroy the world as we know it, using Tesla’s invention of free energy transmission. “I’d better get on that,” she assures us.

Liesbeth Venema is senior physics editor at Nature. She tweets at @LCVenema.

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.

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