To understand Rosa we need to look at the episode in the context of history. I’m not talking about the history depicted in the episode; there are other places to look for that, which will give much better information that I can. I’m talking about the way the episode is plotted and structured, and for that we need to look at the history of Doctor Who, and go right back to the beginning.
Rosa is probably as close as we are ever going to get to a Hartnell-era historical story, with the Doctor and her companions dropped into the middle of a known historical event. The fact that this is a relatively recent one is not relevant. The rules by which the writers have to play are the same. The Hartnell era had a bit of a problem with how to handle historical stories. You introduce the Doctor to an historical event, and then what? He can’t change anything, so what’s the point of him being there? Several possible solutions were found, none of which were particularly satisfactory:
- A companion tries to change things, and can’t. The Doctor and his companions are endangered and must escape from history.
- The Doctor is kept on the fringes of the action, observing from afar. The Doctor and his companions are endangered and must escape from history.
- An historical event is played for laughs. The Doctor and his companions are endangered and must escape from history.
You see the rut they got stuck in there. Then a writer by the name of Dennis Spooner found the solution for his story The Time Meddler: introduce a secondary character who is trying to change history. Now that gives the Doctor a purpose in the story, to keep things on track. It also gives the Doctor an enemy to defeat. The secondary character in The Time Meddler of course had to be another time traveller, and Rosa follows the pattern set down by Spooner 53 years ago very closely.
The source of the drama in this kind of a story is obvious. The excitement comes from seeing the villain try to change things, and the hero trying to stop him and undo the damage. If you read my article on the previous episode, you might remember how I set down the elements needed for a quest storyline, and how Chris Chibnall drops the ball. At the risk of becoming repetitive, here’s how he drops the ball this time, albeit with the help of co-writer Malorie Blackman:
So if you’re going to hang an episode on a battle of wits between a hero and a villain, then the villain needs to be interesting and a challenge for the hero. Krasko is neither of those things. There was a very enjoyable story arc in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Spike couldn’t inflict violence without feeling pain himself. Something similar happens here, but this is not an interesting development for an established character. It’s a convenience to rob the villain of any real level of threat. I love the Doctor’s refusal to use weapons, but it poses a problem for writers which is so often handled badly, and neutering the villain is an example of that. Eventually Krasko does get shot to take him out of the picture, but the deed is done by Ryan, another well-worn tactic for keeping anything gun-like out of the Doctor’s hands.
The battle of wits between Krasko and the Doctor (and her companions) works much better, with the one constantly countering the moves of the other… until it’s time to resolve the plot and shoot Krasko out of the episode. So on a plotting level it’s another clumsy effort, as we are starting to come to expect from this series, but somehow it’s not really feeling like it matters, is it. The subject dealt with here is just too significant for writerly issues to get in the way of the main thrust of the episode, which is to bring that moment when Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to our screens. This is one of the biggest issues Doctor Who has ever dealt with, if not the biggest.
Something that made me a little uneasy: Ryan and Yasmin come in for a lot of racist abuse throughout the course of the episode, and the Doctor steps back and lets it happen. Never was I more sickened by the words “we don’t want any trouble”. I can see the counter-argument hitting me right between the eyes as I type this: what can she do? There are no easy answers, and the only one I can give is this: something cleverer than what ends up on screen. I realise that’s unsatisfactory, but hey, I’m not the writer of the episode. It’s not my job to come up with solutions to a problem like this. It’s just an observation, and a valid one, I think. We are a far cry from the Doctor who rendered a man unconscious due to a racial slur against his companion, just a year ago. It is painful to watch those two fabulous companions being treated like dirt, and seeing the Doctor just stand back, let it happen, and tell them to lie low. Screw history, that’s not how the Doctor behaves. And if you really can’t write about a period of history without writing the Doctor as a woman who stands by, watches her companions being racially abused, and lets it happen, then you find a different story to tell.
Having said all that, I wouldn’t have wanted to be robbed of this story, because it’s an important one for Doctor Who to tell. Once again, the acting, direction and music lift this episode to something truly special, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone at feeling emotional at the end. When a piece of drama can stir the emotions, then it has got its point across, in style. RP
The view from across the pond:
When I discovered that there would be an episode about Rosa Parks in Doctor Who, it’s impossible to think it will be a straight-forward educational episode. Surely, it would be like meeting Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead where we are given some backstory that will have inspired Parks after an extraterrestrial encounter. But then I heard it was going to deal with one of the biggest villains of all, racism, my next fear was that this would be an attempt at a Spike Lee movie. For the record, I have nothing against Spike Lee or his movies, but Doctor Who isn’t the place for beating us over the head with a socio-political commentary. Or is it?
I confess that this season has been three for three for me. It’s not that this is a great Doctor Who story, so much as it’s a powerful story tackled with bravery and strength that takes place in the Doctor’s version of our universe. To clarify that, the story is not a strong Doctor Who story: there’s a villain who is trying to alter history in small actions and he’s trying to make it where Rosa Parks never takes that iconic bus ride. He dresses like he’s a student of the movie The Outsiders complete with toothpick hanging out of his mouth, and is about as memorable as whatsisname. The Doctor and company work solely to prevent history from being altered. Been there, done that; remember The Aztecs? The only things special about Krasko is that he’s wearing a vortex manipulator, has come from a Stormcage facility and knows what a TARDIS is. Mildly interesting, but again, nothing outstanding. So why is this one three for three?
So far, episode one taught us about accepting change, growing up and death. The second episode taught us about teamwork and how much stronger we are when we work together. Also to think through problems rather than resort to violence. Now, we learn about Rosa Parks complete with a bio to end the story. But even that wasn’t what made it. It was the socio-political thing I mentioned above. It’s when Graham said “I don’t want to be a part of this” that brought everything together. He didn’t want to be a bystander allowing a bad thing to happen even though he knew that doing so was the only way to make history happen. The crew became “part of the story” and that was hard to watch. And that’s where this episode’s greatest strength lies: in making it hard to watch. At no point was it preachy; it was shown in a way that made us uncomfortable. That was the point! The Doctor is powerless to do the one thing the Doctor is always trying to do: sorting out fair play across the galaxy.
As fans, we want the Doctor to say something; we want her to at least go into the future and tell older Rosa that they knew the outcome back then, so they couldn’t interfere. We wanted the Doctor to Capaldi that bus driver! (Yeah, I made a verb out of his name, courtesy of that utterly magnificent scene in Thin Ice). But this story is one that had to play out with the uncomfortable truth even if it killed us to watch it. So, I say kudos for being brave about telling the story and never once actively telling us what was wrong with the treatment – we are left to our own (hopefully educated) feelings about why that behavior was wrong and we have to stomach it to see how it will play out. Even the scene where Ryan and Yas are sitting by the dumpster packs a punch, though Yas’s bravery and positivity make it more palatable. Really impressive, powerful stuff.
That’s not to say it was flawless. I’m a little worried about the manipulation of Ryan, if it was, in fact, manipulation. The Doctor explains to Ryan and company how the temporal displacement unit works then throws it on the bed. When Ryan explains how he took care of Krasko, the Doctor does not react. There’s no indignation, horror or shock. Which leads me to wonder: did the Doctor do that intentionally knowing one of them would pick up the device and use it? If so, what does that say of the Doctor? Or was it just that she was caught up in the moment, too surprised to speak? Yeah, let’s hope that was the case.
Barring that, the Banksy humor was brilliant and there’s a few solid chuckles throughout the episode. Always good to drop some of that in when a story is this tense. I don’t know that this story will ever be considered a classic in Doctor Who but I do think it has an important role in television history. See, Rosa changed the game by standing up for herself and fighting for human rights. In a way, Jodie Whittaker has done something that changed the game too: she’s become the first female Doctor. While Doctor Who is just a show and Rosa stood up for what was right, both carry the weight of time. Both can help set a stage for the future. Like Krasko said: sometimes it’s just the little things that make the biggest ripples. Maybe a TV show can change the future because it was broadcast at exactly the right time, with the right cast. Maybe Chibnall and Blackman wrote an episode that changed the future.
Guess we’ll find out in the future…. ML