When Doctor Who began in 1963, its original purpose was to be an educational adventure series to teach children history and science. It soon drifted away from that purpose. Over the years, it has tackled a variety of different types of stories, subjects, genres, and styles, though a focus on adventure has always remained. And during those years, some periods or individual episodes have stood out more than the others. This week’s episode is one of those.
I have loved Series 11 so far. It’s brought back a thrill for watching Doctor Who that I haven’t felt in a long time. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” and “The Ghost Monument” are both great episodes, and I stand by that. But “Rosa” blows them both away. It is, quite simply, one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever.
It’s also an episode that quite firmly returns to that original purpose to be educational. Doctor Who has often set stories in historical time periods, but “Rosa” is a kind of historical the show hasn’t done in a long time. In the first couple years, it was relatively common for stories to be what have come to be called “pure historicals”. Stories like “Marco Polo”, “The Aztecs”, and “The Reign of Terror” not only took place in historical times, but also involved no science fiction elements beyond the Doctor, his companions, and the TARDIS (and the TARDIS was only involved as a means of landing them there and taking them away at the end). There were no aliens, no other time travellers trying to change history, no fantastical elements of any kind.
By the end of William Hartnell’s time as the first Doctor, the pure historical stories were already becoming less frequent, replaced in favour of science fiction action stories. Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor only had one pure historical, his second story, “The Highlanders” in late 1966. The next pure historical wasn’t until 1982’s “Black Orchid” with Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor.
And there hasn’t been one since.
However, over the years a type of story now often referred to as a “pseudo-historical” started to appear occasionally—a story set in some period of history, but which also included science fiction elements such as changing history (like “The Time Meddler” from 1965) or aliens (“The Time Warrior” from 1973). The degree of focus given to the period can vary, but it is always at least part of the backdrop.
Since 2005, one form of historical story that has become popular is the “celebrity historical”, which not only takes place in the past, but also involves some well-known figure from that time, like Charles Dickens in “The Unquiet Dead” or Agatha Christie in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”. However, all the celebrity historicals since 2005 have also been pseudo-historicals.
“Rosa” is not a pure historical. However, it is the closest Doctor Who has come to one since “Black Orchid”. While it does have science fiction elements, they are minimal, and the historical story of Rosa Parks remains at the forefront. Obviously, however, it is a celebrity historical.
Rosa” is not an easy episode to watch. It will make you uncomfortable (at least, I hope it does). It’s designed to make you feel uncomfortable. It shows a frank and brutal depiction of Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, pulling little in the way of punches, apart from softening some of the language to keep it viewable by children. It is definitely the most real historical the show has had since 2005, possibly that it has ever had. It powerfully depicts the reality of the racism that existed at the time, while also reminding us of the racism that still exists today. It offers hope for a better future, while also reminding us that we have to remain vigilant and that change takes work. The world we live in today may be better in some ways than it once was, but it’s not perfect.
Tackling a sensitive topic like Rosa Parks and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is not an easy task for any show, but especially for a show like Doctor Who which deals frequently with time travel and manipulation, and that has a white lead character. It could easily go very wrong—easily become a “white saviour” story (a story in which a white character rescues people of colour from their plight).
Of course, as a white person myself, I am not really the most qualified to evaluate how well “Rosa” succeeds in presenting its material with sensitivity, and how well it avoids potential problems. As such, before writing this, I made a point of checking out what several black Doctor Who fans on Twitter (including
@BlackTARDIS, @ConStar24, @taigooden, and @amandarprescott) had to say. On
the whole, their responses have been very positive. The thoughts and
opinions in this review are my own, but I have tried to measure my
opinions with those of the people most affected.
It should be noted, too, that “Rosa” is written by Malorie Blackman (with a co-credit by Chris Chibnall), who is the first person of colour ever to write for Doctor Who. The fact that Doctor Who has taken so long to have a non-white writer is rather depressing, and it is perhaps appropriate that Blackman write an anti-racist story at this time, as Doctor Who struggles to break down its own systemic barriers.
There are no monsters in “Rosa”—not in the sense of horrific-looking alien creatures that are common to Doctor Who. It does have monsters in another sense though: people. People doing horrific, awful things. This includes Krasko, but is by no means limited to him. The villain in this story is racism as expressed through people like the man who slaps Ryan, the people who kick Ryan and Yaz out of the diner, the police officer, and of course, James Blake. It also includes all the white people who sit by and watch it all happen while doing nothing.
“Rosa” is not the first Doctor Who episode to be a commentary on racism; however, it is the first to tackle the topic quite so head-on. In the past, Doctor Who has tended to follow the style of much science fiction and to use allegory to present its morals. The most obvious example is the Daleks, which since their first appearance in 1963 have been a thinly veiled allegory for Nazis. They are creatures focused on racial purity and bent on eradicating anything that is unlike them. Allegory can be a powerful tool, but it only works so far. In science fiction, it runs the risk of reducing real-world marginalised groups to fantasy creatures and effectively erasing their existence. It can teach that racism is bad, but can never make it truly clear who is actually suffering from it. It also runs the risk of going over some people’s heads, no matter how blatant. (Indeed, I am continually depressed by the people who complain that Doctor Who is becoming “too political”, as if there was ever a time it wasn’t political. Doctor Who has been political since the first Dalek rolled onto screen, and it has remained political, to varying degrees, throughout its entire history.)
When it comes to racism, Doctor Who has only occasionally moved away from the realm of allegory. The seventh Doctor story, “Remembrance of the Daleks” from 1988 juxtaposed the fantasy racism of the Daleks with the real-world racism of 1960s Britain, and the backstory of the Doctor’s companion Ace alluded at a non-white friend of hers being attacked and possibly killed by racist white people. However, these non-allegorical moments were never the focus of the story. Even “Remembrance of the Daleks”, which definitely has an anti-racist message, is still mostly focused on exciting displays of two groups of Daleks fighting each other, and the Doctor outwitting both groups in the end. “Rosa” moves well beyond allegory (although there is actually one instance of allegory, which I’ll get into later).
In my reviews of the last two episodes, I’ve commented on how much more grounded in realism Series 11 is. By leaving allegory behind and tackling the topic of racism head-on, “Rosa” becomes fully grounded, and it is this grounding that makes it so terrifying. It is indeed one of the most frightening Doctor Who episodes I’ve seen in my adult life. When Ryan picked up and tried to return the glove, I knew something bad was about to happen, but even so, I wasn’t prepared for what did. Doctor Who rarely shows that kind of physical violence so when the white man hit him, I think my heart skipped a beat. And the episode never pulls back from showing us this harsh reality. These aren’t fantasy monsters shouting “Exterminate!” These are examples of real people doing the things real people did (and do). Seeing it happen so blatantly right in front of me is not pleasant, but it’s a necessary unpleasantness.
Like the previous episodes so far this year, “Rosa” is very much a character story. The strength of those characters and the performances by the actors playing them cement its reality. Rosa Parks herself is, of course, central to this. I am very impressed with how the episode balances Rosa’s story with that of the Doctor and friends, the people the show is nominally about. As I mentioned before, it could have fallen into the trap of becoming a white saviour story. But the Doctor is never made to be much of an influence on Rosa, and she certainly never gives Rosa the idea to refuse to give up her seat. The Doctor has an important role to play in the episode, of course—that of preserving the timeline—but Rosa’s personal agency is never lost. She remains very much the architect of her own life.
Vinette Robinson in the titular role delivers a fantastic multi-layered performance. She shows us a Rosa Parks who presents an image of calm and sophistication on the outside, but underneath, you can make out her weariness and frustration. I’m particularly impressed by her interactions with the Doctor. She is polite, but cautious and stark. We the viewers know the Doctor is sincere, but to Rosa, the Doctor is just a white woman. We expect villains to eventually show a certain amount of fear of the Doctor, but we don’t expect this of the good people—at least not past the point the Doctor gains their trust. It’s unsettling when the Doctor never quite manages this, achieving at best a status of “not as bad as the others”—driven home when the Doctor becomes one of the white people on the bus who sit by and do nothing when Rosa is arrested and forced to give up her seat.
Speaking of the Doctor, I feel that this episode is the first one for Jodie Whittaker which would not work with any other Doctor—and it’s only her third episode! Many Doctor Who stories (I would even venture to say most stories) would work equally well with any other Doctor taking part in it. There would be a few minor changes to account for small personality differences, but on the whole, the story would progress in mostly the same way. This tends to be the case for the first year of any new Doctor; since the writers are not yet fully familiar with how the new Doctor may turn out, they tend to write the stories for a “generic” Doctor. However, there are some stories that would change considerably with different Doctors. In this case, it’s the thirteenth Doctor’s empathy that makes this story work in a way that it simply wouldn’t with other Doctors, many of whom would be too grandstanding or simply lack empathy (maybe the fifth or eighth Doctors would work, but even there, I’m not so sure).
It’s also quite a change to see the Doctor show empathy and understanding of the situation Ryan and Yaz have been put in. Previous Doctors have glossed it over. When Martha first travels to the past and brings up the topic in “The Shakespeare Code”, the tenth Doctor just tells her to act like she owns the place and makes no effort to understand her feelings on the matter. To be fair, it’s not just the Doctor brushing the issue aside here; it’s the story itself brushing it aside, as it’s never mentioned again. Last year’s “Thin Ice” handles the matter somewhat better when Bill brings up the same topic. The Doctor initially doesn’t clue into what the issue is, but when he does, he isn’t quite so dismissive of it (he even goes on to punch a racist later). Nevertheless, he does mostly ignore it, and effects an attitude of “Oh don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” In “Rosa”, there is still a hint of the Doctor who doesn’t quite get it with the fact that she takes her companions out into 1950s Montgomery without apparently even considering what might happen (I like the subtle allusion to the Doctor’s white privilege here). However, as soon as she realises her mistake, she shows real concern for her friends’ safety. I like, too, that what we’re seeing here is not just growth in the Doctor, but also growth in the show itself. Doctor Who is starting to address its own problematic areas.
Jodie Whittaker continues to excel in the role. I love how she effortlessly moves from whimsical (“Is anyone excited? Cos I’m excited,” and the Banksy comments) to empathetic and caring (various scenes with Ryan and Yaz) to dark and angry (in her confrontations with Krasko). For the last in particular, I like how understated she plays it. Take the moment when she tells Krasko, “Don’t threaten me,” for example. Recent Doctors would have gotten rather shouty at that moment. Whittaker, however, keeps it calmer. Her response is a threat in return, but it’s also a simple statement of fact: threaten her and you will regret it; there is simply no other possible outcome.
Whittaker is also a master at conveying information and emotion with just a single facial expression. This is never more apparent than in the ending moments as Rosa is being arrested and led off the bus. Her struggle and conflict between knowing she’s doing what she has to do and wanting to intervene is palpable.
This is equally true at that moment of Graham, who is now in the worse position of being one of the white people standing that Rosa must give up her seat for. I must say, I’ve been quite in awe of Bradley Walsh over the last couple of episodes. He, too, has an incredible acting range and, like Whittaker, can bring across so much in a single look.
There are some good moments for Graham in this episode. As a white man, he ends up in the position of having to acknowledge his own privilege, his ability to navigate amongst other people that not even the Doctor cannot easily mix with. I like how he is protective of Ryan without being too overbearingly so (although I’m sure Ryan wouldn’t always agree). I also love how much relish he has in telling people that Ryan is his grandson, upsetting the order that local racists are used to and even rely on.
I continue to be glad that Grace’s death has not been forgotten or discarded. It’s still close enough to Graham and Ryan that it effects their actions. The sadness on Graham’s face when he comments that he wishes she were there is palpable—another example of how much Walsh can convey in a look.
Yasmin finally gets some development that we haven’t really seen for her since the early scenes of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. Here, she gets to take a more active role in the events and in assisting towards the outcome. She also finds herself in the awkward situation of being somewhere in the middle, facing racism but not to the same degree as Ryan. She is kicked out of the diner, but she is allowed to board the bus from the front.
This very nicely draws attention to the absurdities and over-simplifications of the racist beliefs held by the white people of 1950s Montgomery, Alabama. Their beliefs rely on the position that one group is better than another, but when they are presented with someone who lies outside that binary, they don’t know how to react. They assume she’s Mexican because that’s the only other group they’re even aware of, but even there, it disrupts the tiny world they live in.
Of course, Ryan is the unsung hero of the story. That’s not just because he’s the one who zaps away Krasko. He’s the member of the TARDIS crew who is most affected by the events around them. He’s the one who is hit and yelled at by white people, and the one who has to sit at the back of the bus. He’s also the one who has the largest personal journey (in terms of character arc in the story). He goes from knowing only vague details of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott to the one who spends the most time with Rosa and the one who gets to meet Martin Luther King. There’s also a moment near the end that’s subtle and easy to miss (I didn’t notice it on my first viewing). As Rosa is being led away by police, Ryan is at the window and he gives her a little wave, which she acknowledges with a slight nod and a hint of a smile. He gets a recognition that none of the other TARDIS crew get. It’s a simply beautiful moment.
One thing that really helps the character development of all four principal characters in this episode is that they get to spend time apart as well as in various different smaller groups. In the opening moments of “The Ghost Monument”, they are separated into two groups, but this doesn’t last very long. Otherwise, throughout the two previous stories, they have spent most of their time all together, and this has limited how much they can do individually. Here, we get to see how they behave on their own, as well as how they interact with each other. We get moments of the Doctor and Graham together, Graham and Ryan, the Doctor and Yaz, and Ryan and Yaz.
I particularly like the moments between Ryan and Yaz. There are definite hints of a developing romantic interest between the two, but the best moment is when they are hiding in the alley behind the dumpsters. This is an important character moment for both of them. It’s their opportunity to confide in each other in a way they can’t confide in the Doctor or Graham, because only they can really understand what the other has been through. It is also an important moment for viewers, as it juxtaposes the racism of Montgomery with the still-existing racism of the modern world. That this happens while a police officer is searching for them only emphasises the experiences with modern-day police that Ryan describes. One of the other problems a story like this risks is creating the impression that this is all a thing of the past, that Rosa Parks’s actions eventually led to the end of racism. Moments like this between Ryan and Yaz help ensure this impression is most definitely not created.
Krasko is also a reminder for the viewers that racism is not just a thing of the past. I’ve seen some criticisms that he is too simplistic a character. He has little development or established motivation. I will admit that it is a little unfortunate that we’ve had a couple of stories in close proximity where it has been necessary for the villain to be fairly straight-forward and undeveloped. In “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, Tim Shaw gets little development because the story needs to establish the new main cast, and a similar thing needs to happen here.
Providing Krasko with too much of a backstory and reasons why he’s a racist would be absolutely the wrong thing to do. It would run the risk of making him a sympathetic villain, which would completely destroy the point—which is that racists so rarely have a reason for their racism. They’re just racist. He also needs to be fairly generic because, ultimately, he’s a stand-in for all the openly bigoted people in today’s world. This is the one use of allegory in “Rosa” that I mentioned earlier. Krasko is the internet troll who harasses people of colour, women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalised groups. He’s the person who loudly calls for the blocking of immigrants entering his country. He’s the person who stands outside bathrooms to block transgender people from using the “wrong” one. He’s the person who votes for openly racist and sexist politicians. The fact that he comes from the far future serves as a reminder that, while things may be better in some ways in the modern world than they were in 1950s Montgomery, things are still far from perfect and that if we don’t keep working for it, things will never be perfect.
I do worry a little about where Krasko has ended up. We don’t know just how far back in time Ryan sent him. Will he end up causing more trouble then? With a little luck, he went far enough back that he gets promptly gobbled up by a passing dinosaur.
As hard-hitting and bleak as “Rosa” is, there are moments of levity. Moments like the previously mentioned occasions of the Doctor suggesting she might be Banksy (the Doctor is so totally Banksy) and Graham giving the name Steve Jobs to the police officer provide a bit of relief and remind us that there is good in the world, even if it’s sometimes hard to find. I laughed uproariously at the mention of Elvis Presley giving the cell phone to Frank Sinatra.
This episode also has some little nods to the past nicely woven in in such a way that new viewers won’t be confused, but long-time viewers can still get a little thrill out of. Krasko was imprisoned in Stormcage, which is the same prison that River Song was held in for “killing” the Doctor. He also uses a vortex manipulator to time travel, a device previously used by both River Song and Jack Harkness. “Cheap and nasty time travel,” the Doctor refers to it as, which is exactly how previous Doctors have described vortex manipulators.
In the past, I’ve not often commented on the music in Doctor Who, though I have commented on it in the last couple of episodes. This may be because I was so used to Murray Gold’s music that I barely thought about it any more. With Segun Akinola being new to the position, I’m noticing the change in style more. At any rate, I’m really impressed with Akinola’s ability to change up the style of the music to fit with the episode, more so than I think we generally got with Gold. The scores for the last two episodes were more subdued and in the background; however, this episode’s score is much more noticeable—and it works admirably for the context.
A lot of fans can react quite negatively when Doctor Who uses any pop music. Many people hated the use of pop music in some of the trailers for this series, and I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the use in this episode of Andra Day’s “Rise Up”, which not only plays over the arrest of Rosa Parks, but also over the closing credits in place of the theme tune (it’s this latter moment that seems to bother people most). To be honest, I’ve never fully understood the objections. It’s seldom music that I generally listen to on my own, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. In this case, “Rise Up” fits with the moment. I can see an argument for using a song from the time period, but given that the story is about more than just the past—it’s also about the present—it makes sense to use a current song to juxtapose the past with the present. It certainly helps to convey the emotion of the moment.
And there is a lot of emotion in that moment and throughout the whole episode. “Rosa” is not the first Doctor Who episode to move me to tears, but I can’t think of any others at the moment that have had quite as large an effect. Not only was I crying at the end, I couldn’t stop crying for quite some time after. And I cried again on second viewing, and third. It is a powerful episode—not just of Doctor Who, but of television in general. It is an educational episode, and it is an important episode. Given the overall positive reception it appears to have gotten, I have little doubt it will go down as one of the all-time classics. For me personally, it’s one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever.