History is a foreign country’ they say ‘they do things differently there’. Well, this adventure takes the Doctor’s friends to both a different time AND a different country, and they certainly do things differently in 1950’s Alabama. Here’s your spoiler warning because we’re reviewing the third episode of series 11, Rosa.
An Anticipated Episode
This episode had a lot riding on it right from the moment that rumours first surfaced that the subject of Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) might be tackled by the series. Rosa’s historic refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger is an important moment in the history of the USA, forming a large part of the beginnings of the civil rights movement. It’s understandable that many would be apprehensive going in – Could the writers tackle this sensitive subject with the right amount of care? And do so while also crafting a compelling story that wasn’t dry?
Thankfully the answer is ‘yes’ on both counts. Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall have given us an episode that is respectful to the historical events. Our regulars do not drive history, they only as preserve it. Importantly, the Doctor and her companions do not inspire Rosa’s protest. It is her idea, her demonstration and her bid for equality. The episode also is still a gripping drama, and therefore entertainment and not a bland history lesson.
The episode didn’t focus too heavily on its science fiction elements, and that was one of its strengths. The plot was simple: evil, racist time travelling criminal, wants to ‘nudge’ history to correct what he perceives as ‘where it went wrong’. So “your kind won’t get above themselves” as he chillingly says to Ryan. The role of the TARDIS team is to counteract his ‘nudging’ and keep history on course.
This provides the framework for the most compelling elements of the episode. Seeing how the team, particularly Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill), are affected by the environment they find themselves in, how they react to situations and people of the time. Some genuinely tense moments leaves the audience on the edge of their seats and holding their breath waiting to find out what would happen next. The first appeared very early in the episode with a painful slap to Ryan for merely picking up a woman’s glove. It was a shocking moment and made clear the episode’s intentions to tackle the racism of the era more directly and realistically than Doctor Who had ever before.
A Return to Doctor Who’s 1960s Educational Remit?
It’s no secret that the show’s origins in 1963 were as a programme that was meant to educate as well as entertain and this episode firmly embraces that origin. Back when William Hartnell manned the TARDIS, the whole 6 part stories could be set in the past without science fiction elements other than the arrival of the TARDIS team. There is a science fiction element to this plot but the fact that it is a future human villain and not some alien monster hones the focus on the regular cast, and their interactions with the era makes it more compelling. The episode retains its educational premise while limiting the need for lecture. No doubt that many people will come away from the episode learning and yearning to find out more about this period of American history than they did before. What better praise for the episode could there be.
Thankfully we finally got some development for Yaz (Mandip Gill) in this episode. She had been woefully underserved in the previous two, but here all the companions get their moments. In Yaz’s case, through her interactions with Rosa, we start to see what drives her and within the TARDIS team itself. Some nice moments between her and Ryan could even be the seeds of a romantic relationship. She’s still the least served companion, but at least this time she didn’t feel like a third wheel. With two upcoming episodes that feature her family, hopefully, she’ll take centre stage and catch up on character development.
Graham had a lovely moment remembering Grace in this episode. When describing his deceased wife’s enthusiasm for Rosa Parks the words catch in his throat as he recalls a particular t-shirt she used to wear. Its a lovely bit of subtle acting by Bradley Walsh.
Ryan has to deal with a lot in this episode and seeing him struggle with the racist environment he finds himself in is both painful and fascinating. There was a stressed restraint on his face every time he encountered another bigoted comment and had to resist lashing out. The show is moving the regular human characters into an authentic, visceral and subtle, bold new direction for the programme, and I for one love it.
This episode felt like a proper ensemble cast more than any programme so far, and as such, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) did not dominate. She does get a few nice moments (is she Banksy? Her confrontations will Kresko (Josh Bowman), and a few other) but there is nothing that moves her character forward. Not that that’s a big negative, the focus, understandably, was very much on the companions this episode.
Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks was fantastic. She played a wonderfully warm and engaging character who holds the audience’s attention in every scene, even when she was just holding a stare. I’m certainly no expert on Alabama accents, so you’ll have to ask someone else how genuine it was but there was never a point when it sounded fake or overly put on to my, admittedly British, ears (unlike some of the bit parts in the episode)
Josh Bowman’s Krasko is a trickier one to analyse. In many ways, he is very one dimensional, and we didn’t see that much from him. It wasn’t needed for the story. It left the room to explore the much more interesting aspects of the time period. Josh did a fine enough job with what he had, presenting a smarmy and arrogant character that while not developed very far, didn’t feel like a caricature either. The plot left open the possibility for his return, but the character would require more development and screen time for a sequel but here his role was sufficient for the purpose.
There was quite the mix of styles of music in this week’s episode but they mostly all worked together nicely. The programme opened with a bit of gospel style singing as we witnessed Rosa facing discrimination on a bus at the hands of James Blake played to perfection by Trevor White. It was a nice thematic link to the place and people this story would be about. Then we were into a bit of 50s rock and roll as the Tardis materialised, again, nicely evoking the era. The incidental music for most of the episode felt more like a blend of Akinola’s stuff from the last few episodes with a hint of Murray Gold’s styling, it was slightly less electronic and had marginally more melody which worked nicely.
But the piece of music most will have picked up on is at the end. Using the track “Rise Up” by Andrea day over the scene of Rosa being arrested on the bus added a powerful punch as impactful music can do. The song has become the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement which adds extra thematic weight to its use here. What might bother some is the song’s continuation over the end credits but to have gone from that touching end to the deep base, and action vibes of the theme tune would have jarred, so it was the right call. Where it works less well is when it also continued over the ‘next-time’ trailer, but that’s hardly the episode’s fault.
This was a very well handled exploration of a tough topic and period of history, that will hopefully lead to more people seeking to learn more. For one of the first time in Doctor Who it really explored how companions can be emotionally affected by what they encounter in the past. If future historically-set episodes repeat this skilful treatment, then we are in good hands.
What did you think of the episode? Let us know in the comments.