Rosa: now we’re getting somewhere!

As always, I’ve been avoiding reviews until I’ve got my own thoughts down, but I know from last week that a lot of people were looking ahead to Rosa with some trepidation. Elizabeth Sandifer, for example, wrote “And really? Rosa Parks? I have… concerns”. And Gavin Burrow trumped that with “Judging by their previous attempts at historicals, and the patronising nonsense most people seem to have swallowed about Civil Rights, it’s going to be trite and noxious simultaneously.”

Well, I thought it was very good. At least, by far the best episode of the new season so far.

No doubt there are plenty of people more woke than me who will find lots of things to complain about. But for me the bottom line is that this is the first time Season 11 has been ambitious — the first time it’s taken a risk to address real issues, and the first time it’s put itself in a position where it could fail. I always admire courage in TV and film (which is why I like Ang Lee’s flawed Hulk much more than Louis Leterrier’s more competent but less extravagant The Incredible Hulk.)

Crucial for me was the visceral effect of seeing Ryan and Yas — brought up in relatively progressive 21st-Century Britain — being absolutely slapped in the face (in Ryan’s case literally) by the uncompromisingly consistent racism of 1950s Alabama. This is something that we’ve all known about for years, but I’m prepared to bet that not many of us — at least those who are white — have felt it. Last night, I felt it. It wasn’t any one incident. It was the accumulation of one scene after another in which all these people just took it for granted that black people were inherently inferior. And not just evil people: ordinary people. People who you’d probably get on perfectly well with … if you were white. Because this wasn’t Cartoon Baddie Alabama.

And I’m sure it’s a terribly mundane point to make, but isn’t it astonishing that this was so recent? 1955 was only 63 years ago.  Only thirteen years before I was born. My mum was seventeen years old — basically an adult. And this was happening in the USA, a civilised country.

Some of you at this point are thinking “Well, duh. Does it really take a BBC sci-fi program to make you think about this?” And I’m not particularly proud to say this, but: yes. Here I am, in the Forest of Dean which is 99.9% white, living my comfortably middle-class life, mostly thinking about things like sauropod vertebrae and European cheeses. I know that there are more important things. But Doctor Who, at its best, makes me feel it. That’s something. And it’s really something for Sunday-evening kids’ program.

For the first time in a while, I feel like Doctor Who is doing something that other TV shows can’t do. (It may not be coincidence that this is the first episode of the present series not written solely by Chris Chibnall.)

Another aspect that worked well was the small scale. The Doctor and her three companions all understood the pivotal importance of this point in history, but no-one else (apart from the bad guy) did. So there was very little in the way of grand proclamations, very little in the way of special effects. Just a determination to see that this crux of history went off the way we all know it to have.

So it was a fine choice to have a low-rent baddie: Krasko, a lone-wolf time-traveller, and actual Space Racist, trying on his own recognizance to prevent the civil rights movement from breaking out on Earth. We didn’t need a galactic conspiracy for this: we just needed one small-minded man out to smash things up because he can. (At this point, I resist a strong temptation to insert a list of small-minded men smashing things up because they can. There are so many to choose from at the moment.)

And what a masterstroke it was to have the Doctor and Graham witnessing Rosa Parks’ arrest and doing nothing about it. Fiona had had what I thought was an even better idea: that with James Blake off fishing, it would fall to Graham to stand in for him, adopting his name — that he would have to be the one to have Parks arrested. I imagine that Malorie Blackman, who co-wrote the episode with Chibnall, must have considered that idea. Maybe it just felt too cold. Yet I can’t help but wish they’d gone there.

Oh, well: this is pithering. To my mind, this was the strongest episode for some time, and head and shoulders above the first two episodes of the present series. I’m still yet to be fully convinced by Jodie Whittaker — she doesn’t seem to have the weight that Eccleston, Tennant and Smith all brought to the role — but she is, at least, not a bad Doctor. I did laugh out loud at her a couple of times this week, which I’ve not done before. So, good signs.

Bottom line: I was pretty much in tears by the end, and so were Fiona and Jonno. Something went very right.

Disapointingly, the next two episodes are again going to be written by Chibnall. Let’s hope he can surprise me.



  • Rosa Review by Elizabeth Sandifer. As predicted, Elizabeth has a ton of complaints about the episode that I don’t share (“a defanged civil rights hagiography”). But well worth reading all the same.

4 responses to “Rosa: now we’re getting somewhere!

  1. ”Bottom line: I was pretty much in tears by the end… Something went very right.”

    I was with you up until that last word.

    ”And not just evil people: ordinary people. People who you’d probably get on perfectly well with… if you were white. Because this wasn’t Cartoon Baddie Alabama.”

    Yes, that. If only they’d done something like that. Perhaps the crew could have got split up at the start with the white contingent getting treated to some good ol’ Southern hospitality, while the others… Not sure how they could have hidden from the travellers where and when they were, but something like that.

    As per usual, this blithely ignores structural racism and makes the whole thing a matter of individual malevolence. Cartoon Baddie Southern Policeman. The bus driver’s even willing to give up his day off for a chance to be racist. And as for the Space Racist… his motive was racism, which turned out to be because he was a racist. Risible. He’s a plot function masquerading as a character. He might as well be called The Antagonist.

    (The actual Parks asked her arresting officer “Why do you push us around?” To which he replied “I don’t know, but the law’s the law.” We got crappy muzak.)

    And by a remarkable coincidence Civil Rights turns out to have been a matter of individual conscience. Are we seriously supposed to believe that had Rosa Parks walked home, Civil Rights would never have happened? Southern segregation didn’t end because of the particular number of people happened to get on one bus on one particular night, it ended by coordinated resistance. Parks was a figurehead of Civil Rights. But it pushed with its body. If her action hadn’t immediately been followed by a bus boycott (with an estimated 90% participation rate), not a single one of us would know her name today. This story ends at the start.

    There’s something inherently conservative about stories which Restore Time’s True Path; as it can’t be avoided it’s best played into. The time travellers have to ensure something happens which they really, really don’t want to see. And the final scene might have worked if they’d played into that more. Nobody wants to just sit back and watch this. Everybody has to.

    The only actual plus I can think of is that the continuing existence of racism was mentioned. (True, only passingly . And with dialogue off enough to curdle milk, but we’re talking about the politics of the thing here.) And even that had to be in the gradualist context of “we’ve made so much progress”. Seriously, did nobody look out of the window while they were making this? All I’m seeing is storm clouds.
    There are all sorts of problems with the film ’Selma’, which very much had an agenda while very much pretending not to. But it would be a much better dramatic introduction to Civil Rights. And it has a Mahalia Jackson song, rather than the rubbish they ended this with.
    Pedantic PS: You may underestimate the closeness. The Civil Rights era is normally thought to have come to an end with the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Not presuming to know your age, but that’s after I was born.

  2. This episode was “triple eh” for me. Multiple issues:

    – Complete suspension of disbelief on the Krasko plot. He can’t hurt them, why can’t them wack him on the head and tie him to a post? You can’t even say the Doctor doesn’t want to, Ryan ends up essentially killing him or sentencing him to life, and she doesn’t bat an eyelash.

    – The way the racism is depicted. This is *not* what ordinary racism looks like, I must disagree with you. This is very aggressive, personal-battle racism. Some of these people should have been more annoyed than angry, but anger is all you get all along.

    – The bin scene is very on the nose. Do we really need to have everything spelled out for us this way?

    – Still suffers from a notable lack of tension. Heck even the scene when they are being shot has a strange scene transition that undercuts any sense of danger.

    Definitely not a terrible episode, but worse than the two others for me. Really nice subject matter though, I think that’s the one thing that worked well in this episode, even if the execution is not the best, it still works on some level.

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