Doctor Who – “Rosa”

Doctor Who: Series 11 – Episode 3
Written by: Chris Chibnall & Malorie Blackman
Directed by: Mark Tonderai

Synopsis: Montgomery, Alabama. 1955. The Doctor and her friends find themselves in the Deep South of America. As they encounter a seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks, they begin to wonder whether someone is attempting to change history.

Delving into the past for the first time in this series, “Rosa” maintains Chris Chibnall’s focus on realism and drama over sci-fi by providing a relatively straight-forward historical adventure that feels reminiscent of the show’s origins. Filled with plenty of historical accuracies, “Rosa” is as educational as it is entertaining, and much like Ryan in the episode, I was familiar with Rosa Parks and her role in history, but not the finer details. Having read this article on the Radio Times, I was surprised how true to the real events the episode actually was, especially with the climactic bus scene. The final act where the Doctor and her friends were racing to ensure that events unfolded as they should was just as thrilling as any chase through corridors or firefights against Daleks, evoking memories of Back to the Future and Quantum Leap in their attempts to maintain the timeline. Sometimes less is more, and I actually appreciated this more drama-led take on a historical episode.

There was no need to have monsters or aliens gurning their way through Alabama, as the people of the time represented a very real threat to our heroes. Even the time-travelling racist from the future offered a very human motivation for wanting to disrupt events, and I was glad that he wasn’t presented as some unrealistic future Nazi, or stereotype. He seemed eerily “normal” apart from his desire to maintain segregation, which goes to show how racism can breed and infect communities – it isn’t always cartoon cut-out racists. On a continuity side-note, I loved that he was from the Stormcage prison, which keen Doctor Who fans will know is the same prison where River Song was kept. I did have a couple of issues with Krasko – the first being that despite having an inhibitor that prevented him from harming living creatures, he was able to shoot his teleporter at the Doctor – if that was a loophole for him, why didn’t he just shoot Rosa. And secondly, surely sending a time-meddler (BTW, I was so hoping he was the Meddling Monk regenerated) further into the past will have even more problems – hopefully, that loose end will be addressed in future episodes.

Co-writing the episode with Chibnall is YA author, Malorie Blackman, and having the two working together definitely results in a stronger script – I particularly liked the jokes about Banksy, and the sense of tension as the Alabama police officer confronts the Doctor and Graham in the hotel room. I was struck at how alien 1950’s Alabama seemed, and how simple things that we take for granted now, such as picking up a lady’s handkerchief, could be the matter of life or death then. It was shocking, and disgusting, to see those attitudes on display in our recent history and I am glad this episode shone a light, as uncomfortable as it was, on those less picturesque moments of human history. Doctor Who has dabbled with race issues in the past, most notably when Capaldi’s Doctor punched a 19th Century racist in “Thin Ice”, but with its more ethnically diverse cast of companions, this episode really gets to grip with the subject, referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, and increased ‘Stop and Searches’ in England – clearly, while progress has been made there is still plenty more to come.

Yaz is given slightly more to do in this episode, but Ryan and Graham continue to develop strongly as characters. In the publicity for this episode, I expected Yaz to connect with Rosa and form the relationship but that role was given to Ryan instead. Tosin Cole has demonstrated himself to be a fantastic actor in this past three episodes, and the fractious relationship between Ryan and Bradley Walsh’s Graham have been really enjoyable to watch. The brief scene where they both reminisce over Grace was surprisingly powerful, and made me hope that Chibnall will reverse her sudden, and rather pointless, death in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. Looking at the preview for the next episode, it seems that we will get more background on Yaz and her family set-up, which will hopefully help develop the character beyond a potential love interest for Ryan.

This episode was probably the first time that I saw the Doctor on-screen rather than Jodie Whittaker – while I loved her portrayal in the previous two episodes, something clicked for me in this one, especially in those sequences when she stood up against Krasko. Everything in this episode flowed brilliantly, and even though the science-fiction elements were dialled down to their minimum, Chibnall and Blackman’s command of suspense and drama ensured that the episode was gripping throughout. While the episode felt more akin to an episode of Quantum Leap at time – it particularly reminded me of the JFK/Lee Harvey Oswald episode – there was enough Doctor Who DNA there to make it feel part of the series. Yet, I cannot imagine any of the previous Doctors (or creative teams) being able to pull off this story with the same level of respect for the subject matter. The closest the series has been able to manage in the past is the wonderful “Vincent and the Doctor” episode which showcased depression and celebrated the tragic life of Vincent Van Gogh.

Tackling racism, and not being afraid to show the language and attitudes of the time, is another way in which this era of Doctor Who is breaking the glass ceiling. This is progressive storytelling that educates, entertains and hopefully, much like Rosa Parks, effects some positive change in the universe somewhere. Easily one of the most emotionally powerful episodes of Doctor Who ever, I am in complete awe of the entire creative team and continue to champion this series as one of the strongest seasons yet.

Score – ★★★★ ½

Next Episode – “Arachnids in the UK”
The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan find their way back to Yorkshire – and Yaz’s family – only to find something is stirring amidst the eight-legged arachnid population of Sheffield.

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