After a few failed trips, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) finally gets her companions, Yaz Khan (Mandip Gill), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) back to Shef—oh wait, they’re in 1950s Alabama. And there’s trouble afoot.
Because it looks like someone is trying to change history, conspiring to make sure Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) doesn’t make her stand (by staying sat down). In his review of Rosa, James Lomond said:
“This was a carefully crafted script, lovingly delivered by the production team and cast. It wasn’t perfect – the villain could have been fleshed out more fully, but my quibbles are minor.”
And what did the rest of the DWC collective think of the episode…?
It’s a curious thing, the butterfly effect. By and large, Doctor Who doesn’t do subtle, and even when it has a go they have to hit us over the head with the methodology. Still, it’s an effective way of doing things. A shift change here, a broken window there, and before anyone realises what’s happening years of progress are out of the window and segregation and institutional racism are alive and well in 2018.
We didn’t go there, quite, but you might be forgiven for finding the results a bit heavy handed. Has Doctor Who shifted once more into sledgehammer and nut territory? How else would you do it? There is no nice way to tell this story to its intended audience without talking about the way things are now, and no way to do so with the intended audience (kids) unless you are fairly transparent about it, and for all Malorie Blackman’s good intentions, while there are white people in charge, this is always going to come across as virtue signalling.
Was Rosa a stone that Doctor Who ought to have left unturned? Perhaps not. But make no mistake: it’s a throwback that is set to alienate a part of the fanbase as much for its style as for its content. This is as close to a straight historical as we’ve had in years, and that’s going to upset people. There are no monsters in the cupboard: merely an unpleasant man who could just as easily have stepped out of the house down the road as he could have warped in from the 49th Century. There is not a whiff of culture shock about Krasko and that makes him dangerously close to home – and it is this, I am convinced, that is likely to fuel much of the inevitable resentment that we’re seeing online from people who “aren’t racist, but”. The fact is, he’s much of a muchness: greater sins are committed by the people of Montgomery, and Krasko is bland and unrecognisable because he doesn’t need to be anything else. He’s not the villain. The villain is us, and all of us.
Oh my lord, it was amazingly good. I loved this, and I was one of those people in the “Don’t want a gender change” camp, and was prepared to hate the thing out of the box. This was light years ahead of the first two episodes in quality. I mean holy cow, this was great.
The pacing was good, characters well done, loved the use of music here. I was totally mesmerized.
I loved the “what about me?” aspect of Yasmin in this situation. Ryan’s extreme glee at meeting Martin Luther King, and Graham’s wanting to get off the bus were all good. The companions were well served here, which hasn’t been a big thing. Graham’s my favourite so far, mostly because of his background development.
Some of the comments on the official Doctor Who Facebook page are awesome. The one about someone’s mother having been there at the time and making them cry… Someone’s kid wanting to talk to their history teacher got me. I know those aren’t my comments, but I like that it’s being so well received.
One thing, if Doctor Who of the last 10 years has taught me anything, it’s to expect bits to pop up again later. Now I know Chibnall has said these are all stand alone, but… I can’t help but think Krasko might pop up again later.
But most of all, as an American, Doctor Who seems to have gotten Americans right. A long way from Morton Dill, eh?
Modern Doctor Who rarely does historicals with something to say; Shakespeare, Churchill, Dickens, and even Agatha Christie were all celebrities around which an entertaining story could be built, playing on their established public image. However, from the moment of Ryan’s slap, it was clear that Rosa was going to be different; both moving and shocking in its presentation of the segregated South (while remaining in the bounds of what was appropriate for a Sunday teatime slot) it presented the ugly truth of racism, in reality rather than allegory, with both its historical significance and present day relevance made explicitly clear.
Naturally, this had the potential to play incredibly badly, but in the hands of Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, Rosa Parks’ motivations remained her own and she was not galvanised to act by either the Doctor, her friends, or the necessarily paper-thin villainy. And he needed to be that thin; a nasty piece of work with ugly motivations, but not part of any grander scheme (that said, we are left to ponder the initials on his suitcase and quite where he got hold of all his time technology).
For their part, the TARDIS regulars were all well served; Yas gainfully employed and showing a genuine thrill at the wonder of time travel, and Ryan revelling in getting to meet not one but two icons of the nascent US Civil Rights movement. Whittaker’s Doctor seems to have settled rather, and I loved the fact that she is having trouble steering the TARDIS. The flashes of steel during her confrontations with Krasko added to the lighter notes and entertaining physical comedy. For me though, the moment that really sticks was Graham’s utter revulsion at having to be part of the problem – one of the white people on the bus – in order to ensure that time stayed on track.
Again, a necessarily linear plot and I would not wish for the show to tackle a big issue every week, but this was a cracker of an episode – the first I have chosen to re-watch again on the evening of broadcast. It has been derided as preachy, notably by the Radio Times, but I think there are occasions when Doctor Who needs to remember its roots and to inform as well as entertain, and it did so here with aplomb.
Well, worth watching – as opposed to well worth watching. Not bad, but it totally lacked pace, it was very flat, and the motivation of that bloke in John Travolta’s Grease gear was hardly convincing (and not properly explored either). An uneasy mix of drama-doc and science fiction.
I was expecting it to be much preachier and to have to recover from being beaten about the head by its message. Rosa Parks was respectfully and seriously portrayed (and that was a superb performance, too, from Vinette Robinson). Good to see Dr King’s cameo – though neither he nor Rosa Parks would have approved of the divisiveness of some modern takes on racism, where people are labelled and categorised as being members of one particular interest group, which is then set up in aggressive opposition to everyone else. (King and Parks embraced unity and fraternity. King was no Malcolm X.) King and Parks present something of a dilemma to the hard left – not that this was a hard left programme – in that they are anti-racist (good) but that their motivation was their Christianity (bad). I was expecting the episode to airbrush out Parks’ Christianity (Christianity is unacceptable to our zeitgeist) but I was wrong and it was there, however muted. We also had the first time in 55 years that the possible religiosity of a companion was acknowledged (though I’m not sure how Yaz would manage to observe her faith’s practices in the TARDIS).
The story would have worked well as a straight historical. As with Vincent and the Doctor, the science-fiction threat wasn’t really needed – though Vincent and the Doctor was much, much better than this. I suspect modern audiences wouldn’t take to straight historicals, either. (The script badly needed another draft, too; it jumped about all over the place.)
Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor is effective. We still have only three episodes to go on, but in some ways hers is a curiously muted performance. This Doctor is first among equals; she does not have the massive (and sometimes almost overbearing) personality of her predecessors; she does not dominate every scene in the way that, say, Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee did. My wife is a head of English at a comprehensive school and the new series is much discussed in the staff room. A view that emerged from there is that one model of leadership is collaborative rather than authoritarian, and this approach is perhaps more common with female leaders than with male. Perhaps that’s the new Doctor’s style.
And yet… and yet…
As with the first two episodes, it looks wonderful. The production values are marvellous. But single camera drama is put together in the cutting room and the editor and director are primarily responsible for the pace and the escalation of tension. And they just didn’t manage it. There was no pace at all. When Doctor Who was shot on multiple cameras in the video studio, the pace and the escalation of tension and menace came primarily from the actors: it was an actors’ programme, not a technicians’ one. Today, it looks great – but we’ve lost something.
Black and white video drama shot on 405 line screens may not look as funky as colour HD. But compare this episode with something like The Aztecs and there’s no doubt which is better.
So far, I’m finding the current series more reminiscent of The Sarah Jane Adventures than recent series of Doctor Who, although it was sometimes said of the spin off that it was more in keeping with the parent show of the classic era than its post-2005 revival.
It’s certainly quite easy to imagine Sarah and her young pals in this week’s set up, ensuring history took its correct course and learning about significant acts of defiance.
The spirit of the early Hartnell years was again in evidence with the TARDIS defying the Doctor’s attempts to get his fellow travellers home. I’m enjoying the performances of all the leads but hoping Yasmin will have more to do soon (next week looks promising on that score).
The villain’s background and motives were presented only sketchily, though I found the understated depiction of the character a welcome change from the previous era, which would surely have seen a high profile guest actor milking every line for all it was worth and exchanging arch dialogue with the Doctor in the key confrontation scenes.
As it was, I thought Jodie Whittaker played confrontation very well. This was never going to be a landmark episode for the Doctor, with the attention quite rightly focused on Rosa. And thankfully the writers were wise enough not to have this legend of the civil rights movement taking her inspiration from the Doctor, or have scenes of her being chased by monsters.
Viewers hoping for a slice of sci-fi action may have been disappointed, but it did strike me as a nice demonstration of Doctor Who‘s versatility that the climax of the story featured someone being escorted off a bus.
I don’t really know what to make of this one. On one hand, the drama at its heart is an important story that should be known by a wider audience; on the other, it lacked something. And I’ve been trying to figure out what that “something” is.
Perhaps it’s an actual villain – oh sure, there will be plenty of people who say “the villain is racism”. Yep, got that, but I’d still prefer someone or something that wasn’t… well, so much of a disappointment. (While we’re here, why did he have that case, hidden by a perception filter, positioned so centrally in an empty warehouse? What was that all about?!)
I’d have preferred it if it weren’t immediately obvious that Krasko would be defeated by Ryan pressing a button on that time-shift device thing too. As soon as the Doctor snatched it from Tosin’s character, “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PLOT POINT” flashed up on screen.
I had hopes that the scene in which the Doctor and Krasko face up to one another atop those tanks would be interesting too. It tried to be That Scene in School Reunion, but fell utterly flat. “Don’t threaten me”, the Doctor says – and we’re waiting for something more… and it just doesn’t come. There’s no weight there. (She also claims to be a fan of Rosa’s, except she knows next to nothing about her; in fact, it seems that strand was merely there to give Yaz something to do. Fortunately, Mandip Gill is excellent, despite being wasted in all three episodes so far.)
Perhaps the missing element was the Doctor, because Jodie still isn’t the Time Lord. She’s almost a co-pilot in the narrative, except there’s no one really driving the whole thing. Walsh had the stand-out moment, in which Graham realises he has to be involved in this horrible part of history. Vinette Robinson was also superb; a very underrated talent.
Perhaps it was that the whole thing was actually pretty messy – albeit with a decent ending. The pace was off, but not as drastically as The Ghost Monument. A lot was heavy-handed, with none of the lightness of touch or beauty evident in, for instance, Vincent and the Doctor.
And that’s it. That’s what’s missing. The Doctor Who magic. Rosa was good, but it wasn’t good Doctor Who.
More than any other story in the last 50-odd years of Doctor Who, Rosa fulfils Sydney Newman’s brief for the show to have high educational content. And, as a piece of drama with high educational content it did very well.
The key facts of Rosa Parks’ life are laid out, we get to meet Doctor Martin Luther King and we are shown how horribly racist society could be in those days. It was disappointing that the villain of the piece, Krasko, was never fleshed out. Was he like the Meddling Monk just having a bit of mischief with Earth history, or was there something more sinister going on? We were approaching the 40 minute mark before we learnt his motive – he was a racist from the future (and how chilling is it that even when we’ve advanced so far as a species that we’ve discovered time travel, racism is still a thing?). Furthermore, the TARDIS crew were never under any real threat. Their appearance wasn’t even questioned – they were able to walk around in their 21st Century clothes with no one batting an eyelid. All this makes sense if we view this episode for what it is. It takes the tropes of the classic schools programming from the ’70s and ’80s and uses it in Doctor Who. The adventure isn’t important, the motivations of non-historical figures (the TARDIS crew and Krasko) are irrelevant. We are watching to learn about Rosa Parks and the impact she had on American society (History, key stage 1). The rest is window dressing, the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Along with the many plaudits Rosa will no doubt receive, I’d like to point out just two of the places where Malorie Blackman’s writing shines (I suppose Chris Chibnall gets some credit as well as joint writer!).
First, and most obvious is the building of Rosa as a credible character. Popular history focusses on the refusal to move seats on the bus, and talks about a tipping point, linking though a whole range of future events and the connection to Martin Luther King. Of course, Rosa Parks wasn’t created just at that moment, and a lifetime’s prejudice helped determine her character and behaviour at that point. By beginning the episode with an earlier incident on a bus, then skipping forward 12 years, we get some sense of how many straws had to be collected before the final straw tipped the balance with Rosa. Coupled with the raw prejudice dished out to Ryan and Yaz in their few hours in Montgomery and we get the smallest of inklings into how Rosa got to be the woman on the bus.
Not of historical impact, but it’s worth considering the presence of Grace throughout this story. The writing took forward a character who still impacts Graham and Ryan and yet never appears in the story. She’s clearly defined and provides a very natural way for Graham to understand who Rosa was, as well as a way for Ryan to deal with meeting Martin Luther King. Even though not present, Grace is a continuing presence in the series, and the writing needs commending for that skill.
I’ll leave it to others to admire the drama and bemoan the amount of exposition and simply drawn villain!
At last a storyline that one can believe… mainly because most of it was real history. Cape Town makes a perfect ‘setting’ for the Fifties and the setting goes a long way to make you believe you could be there. I have never experienced racism of this nature, but an American friend sadly said that it felt true to what his grandparents told him, if not understated a little.
But what of Who? Well not a lot. Very little time to experience the new TARDIS, a lacklustre enemy in that his raison d’etre could not be believed, nice touches to Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator and River Song’s Stormcage, but both used without any backstory to get us to credibility to Krasko. Will we see him in the future? I sincerely hope not.
The plot did give a chance for different companions to play different roles in it and each did well. Jodie had a few good lines as well. There was pleasingly no attempt to seriously change real history and Jodie’s line “we’ve one day out of a tipping point in Earth history and I don’t want anything disrupting that” reminded me of the First Doctor in 1964’s The Aztecs saying “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”
The ending was powerful and will hopefully get kids, and their parents, to look up the real Rosa Louise McCauley Parks and understand the fight that the Civil Rights Movement actually had. As the real Rosa Parks said, “I was a person with dignity and self-respect, and I should not set my sights lower than anybody else just because I was black”. The episode encapsulated that.
Final Verdict – episode three – best of the bunch so far but saved only by history and the setting.
Invariably gut-wrenching and beautiful, Malorie Blackman’s Rosa was a real triumph; she’s done an outstanding job with her careful but compelling retelling of Rosa Park’s story. (I hope we see more of Blackman on Doctor Who!)
Last week, I was disappointed with an episode (The Ghost Monument) that seemed to be nothing more than boring, clumsy filler. Fortunately, there were none of those issues with this week’s episode – all of its elements came together splendidly. The racism that the characters witnessed in Montgomery is direct and thought-provoking; the group dynamics were compelling and Krasko, a new “Time Meddler” of sorts, has the potential to be a very interesting returning character – he especially reminded me of today’s reactionaries (e.g. the “Proud Boys” or Richard Spencer).
By immersing the viewer in the events of Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 – the violence, injustice and awkwardness of segregation, the private rendezvous with civil rights hero, Dr. King, and Rosa’s poignant defiance – I think one couldn’t help but feel they were on that bus too watching history be made. Rosa was the kind of ‘historical’ that would have made Sydney Newman a very proud producer.
A hard-hitting episode, but one generally well-received, with obvious criticisms for the Bad Guy Of The Week. This was Series 11’s first historical, and didn’t mess things up in a way a few were worried about. All in all, Rosa has gone down as the best episode of the season so far.
Next week: Creepy crawlies in Sheffield!