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 complains about the episode that I don’t share (“a defanged civil rights hagiography”). But well worth reading all the same.