I’m not normally a fan of Doctor Who episodes set in the past. Not because I find history boring, I just often don’t think they’re done very well. The show’s had a bit of a habit romanticising past eras to the point in which they become a tad superficial and distorted. I get that Doctor Who is a mad-cap fantasy science fiction show crammed full of whimsy and daftness, but must they always feel the need to reduce problematic characters from history so they are presented as nothing more than lovable buffoons full of charm and grace? (I’m looking at you, Winston Churchill.) Do complex and controversial eras always have to be reduced to cartoonish lands packed full of thrills and merrymaking?
Following the release of Rosa, it turns out that no, Doctor Who is more than capable of telling a story set in the past that depicts a bygone era in a manner that’s honest, educational, brutal and fascinating. A passionate and angry tale more than willing to explore recent American history with a candid lens. Considering this aired during a period in which entitled bigots are emboldened by a neo-Nazi President forever waxing lyrical about a so-called bygone area isn’t as great as he claims, Rosa couldn’t have come out at a more crucial time.
This is an episode bubbling with anger. Right from the opening scene, we are made to watch Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) abused and manhandled by a bus driver after she choses to use the “whites only” entrance. Shortly thereafter, we witness Ryan (Tosin Cole) physically assaulted by an American citizen in the streets, who then proceeds to hurl racist abuse at him. Ryan and Yaz are kicked out of restaurants, forced to climb through hotel windows, and made to hide behind bins while a slur-spitting cop searches for them. Long gone are the days in which the Doctor arrogantly tells her black companions to “walk around like you own the place”. This week, Doctor Who is giving us an authentic and discomforting look at recent history; a scrab-ridden depiction that’s far from whimsical or dandy.
All of this makes for a much different perspective than what we’re familiar with, penned by someone capable of viewing history as a terrifying and dangerous place. This is down to the fact that episode co-writer, Malorie Blackman, is the first black person to write for the series in its 55-year history. Malorie’s vision as history being anything but a nostalgic joy ride provides viewers with a profound shift in approach to that of many previous historical stories, offering audiences a refreshing new take on the historical episode. This proves just how vital it is to employee storytellers from a diverse range of backgrounds if you want new types of stories to be told. Expanding beyond simply hiring writers primarily from white, middle-class backgrounds is so important for storytelling in general, as is showcased here. After all, it’s how we get invigorating content that differs from what we’ve had before.
Blackman delivers an episode rife with hefty portions of educational material that’s masterfully incorporated into the primary plot. The events surrounding Parks’ pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott of December 1st 1955 aren’t going quite as history planned. Someone’s meddling with time, and it’s up to the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and team TARDIS to figure out how. Time is shifting out of sync. In order to detect the points in which events are unravelling, the Doctor and co must scrutinise daily events with a fine tooth comb. Factual information is woven into the fabrics of what’s essentially a sci-fi lite thriller, serving as a mechanism that translates cold, hard, historical data into engaging television. Rosa manages to resurrect Sydney Newman’s vision of making Doctor Who educational, all within the confines of a thoroughly engaging 50-minutes of television.
The antagonist, Krasko (Joshua Bowman), is the right type of villain for this story too. He’s subtle enough to not undermine a story containing such sensitive subject matters. He’s quiet and reserved, keeping to the shadows without camping it up or descending into your standard bog-eyed monster of the week. Krasko is very much an abominable threat, only he’s one that lies in the shadows. He’s a villain incapable of murder due to his neural implants, yet one working to rewrite history so that centuries of oppression and suffering can overwrite the civil rights movement. He’s vile yet reserved, the exact kind of monster we need at the heart of this script.
Krasko’s presence underlines a bittersweet point that’s made throughout Rosa; that while we can change the world one step at a time, the bigots and bullies never truly go away. There’s often a tendency when examining the societal horrors of yesteryear to scoff at past behaviours while simultaneously patting ourselves on the back for not being as blatantly terrible anymore. The idea that racism is a thing of the past that people don’t do anymore is a dangerous notion that prevents society from addressing its own present-day bigotry. We don’t get that kind of approach here. Instead, we are reminded that racism still lives on, and will continue to live on in some form or another as the years move forward. While Rosa tells us that things can and will improve provided the world continues to fight for civil liberty, it’s an endless battle that must be fought with stamina if we are to keep the bullies at bay. Krasko’s existence as a white supremacist from the far future is a reminder that bigots will live on in some form; the world just has to keep on making sure they don’t win.
The theme of bigotry as an ever-present societal disease that can only be tempered through resilience is reflected through a rather wonderful scene between Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Ryan. While the pair hide from a police officer, they talk about their own experiences at the hands of racism. During their exchange, Ryan expresses despair, believing the racism of his world serves as evidence that the civil rights movement was fought in vain. Yaz’s mode of thinking is to consider the changes that have come into play following the civil rights movement; acknowledging the end of mainstream segregation as well as the expansion of opportunities for minorities. She doesn’t consider present day earth to be a utopia, however she’s able to recognise what fighting for civil liberties can achieve, not to mention the importance it continues to play in the modern world.
Rosa can be tough to watch at times. This is primarily down to its honesty and willingness to force viewers to confront considerably unsettling topics. That’s not to say there isn’t any humour in here of course. There’s some pretty great gags threaded throughout. One scene in particular shows Ryan and Graham (Bradley Walsh) infiltrating James Blake’s (Trevor White) fishing holiday in a bid to force him to return to work. Watching as Ryan purposely distresses him serves as a nice slice of comeback for such an abhorrent soul. Another delightful scene includes an overly delighted Ryan trying to come to terms with the thought that Martin Luther King Jr. has both just shook his hand and paid respects to his nan. Ryan is perhaps the highlight of this episode. Tosin Cole delivers a terrific performance of a young man clearly out of his depth. There’s a sweetness and righteous anger to Cole’s performance that tugs at the heartstrings throughout.
There’s some fabulous character moments throughout for that matter. A lovely friendship is beginning to form between Ryan and Yaz. Their shared experience with being on the receiving end of prejudice as well as old school acquaintances two unlikely souls reconnecting. I also love how Graham and Ryan are starting to connect over Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and her admiration toward Rosa Parks. These are the sorts of character dynamics I was dying for last week; protagonist progression that complements the story while helping to move it along.
We’re also getting to see the 13th Doctor take shape! Finally, here she is. Brave, fearless without a weapon, as cocky as they come, incensed by injustice and bristling with energy. Some will likely take issue at how passive she is during various parts of this episode, though I think her passivity is used deliberately throughout the script. Much how the episode reminds viewers not to look back on past racism and congratulating themselves for “not being like that anymore”, we are likewise invited to consider the horrors of apathy. This is perhaps best showcased during the final scenes, in which the Doctor and co are forced to partake as bystanders in the Montgomery bus boycott. Although their reasons for acting as bystanders plays a part in restoring the civil right movement, the story refuses to frame the Doctor, Yaz’s, Ryan’s or Graham’s actions as heroic, opting instead to focus on the bravery of Parks while our protagonists are forced to look on in helpless horror as history unfolds.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a massive fan of this episode. Rosa is a phenomenal piece of work. Its solid narrative, unique perspective and honest interpretation of recent history delivers my favourite historical Doctor Who story to date. A rough and blunt slice of storytelling that excels the historical sub-genre to new heights. Even if the rest of the Chibnall era crashes and burns from this moment on, the fact he commissioned a story as bold and revolutionary as this one makes it all the more worthwhile in my books.