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
Read next in the Junkyard… Arachnids in the UK
Roger – I totally agree with you that we wanted the Doctor to do more but I think it was handled unexpectedly. When the bigot cop was asking about the two companions in the hotel room, the Doctor says she doesn’t recognize anyone who matches that description. It’s basically a verbal retort that says “you’re a bigot and even though I know who you mean, I wouldn’t help you if your head was on fire”. It’s subtle, which is all the Doctor can be in this period knowing how precarious it is if she does intercede.
Is it our job to write the episode? No, and I do agree with what you said. But equally, could you imagine being deprived of this?! This level of bravery was stunning.
(But I do wish she “Capaldi’d” the cop… and the bus driver!
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I wouldn’t want to be deprived of the episode, no, but I do think the Doctor’s reactions should have been handled better, and her careful choice of words you highlight is just an example of how the writers skirt around the problem. I can’t rationalise the Doctor as the same person who fights evil throughout history and also sits back and does nothing while her companions are racially abused. Not that I think the violence displayed by Capaldi’s Doctor answers the problem either!
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Thank you both for your very well-said reviews on a modern-Who episode that recaptures the same Whoniversally moral commentary that began with Marco Polo, The Aztecs and The Reign Of Terror.
Jodie, like Hartnell in The Aztecs, has to get tough on all the cautionary realism of visiting an era of human history as pivotal as Rosa Parks’. All her cast-members equally throw their best into all this methodical drama, with Ryan meeting Dr. Martin Luther King and still having trouble warming up to Graham fueled satisfyingly by Tosin.
I enjoyed the classic Star Trek for how it moralized either breaking rules or taking chances when it was clear enough that the price for non-interference was too unbearable. But with the newer Trek series, particularly Voyager and Enterprise, it was more about following rules…or else! So when I got round to seeing the 60s’ exclusive-history stories in the classic Who, after enjoying the flexible SF ingredients for pseudo-historical adventures like The Time Warrior and The King’s Demons, it was an intriguing reversal to how Trek progressed. So with Rosa we get an SF villainy that for all intents and purposes keeps it all the more recognizable from human perspectives. Unlike Linx or the Terileptils, Krasko is quite disturbingly someone we could meet in the real world. This will for obvious reasons set a more balanced tone for Dr. Who adventures into history than what modern Who episodes have previously made us accustomed to.
With all the formidable strengths that women in TV dramas have developed today, especially for shows like Law & Order SVU, Jodie is proving that she’s up to the challenge. She didn’t have to come to blows with Krasko even if it was easily imaginable. She firmly stood her ground with all Doctor-ish morality and anti-violence, even though she remembers Venusian aikido as revealed simplistically enough in The Ghost Monument.
Rosa is the most serious episode so far under Chibnall’s reign. So it should indeed revitalize a timeless question about Dr. Who: Where will it all go from here?
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What I can respect most about Jodie’s Doctor on this point was how she recognized that Rose’s fight against racial oppression was clearly her own. Coupled of course with how human history would naturally appreciate it. Knowing that Rose would be fine afterward and becoming a historical hero made the difficulty for the Doctor and all her companions doing nothing reasonably acceptable. Krasko was the one that demanded more serious intervention and maybe the Doctor, given the Doctors’ often enigmatic insights with their companions (certainly the 7th Doctor with Ace), sensed that Ryan would stop Krasko. It could be called manipulation. But if the Doctor could clearly trust Ryan to handle it all on his own in a point of history with so much racism, as blindly lucky as that may seem, is a testament to how synchronously special the Doctor’s companions are. Seeing Ryan find somewhere safe enough to zap Krasko out of the picture without any nearby citizens, let alone any racist citizens, noticing in shock says quite a lot.
Actually it now reminds me of the 1930s vagrant that accidentally vaporized himself with McCoy’s phaser in Star Trek’s The City On The Edge Of Forever. So I think the modern Dr. Who should take all of its chance events more seriously thanks to Ryan’s now-more-disciplined bravery.
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That’s ‘Rosa’, not ‘Rose’ of course.
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Great points, and made me think in particular about how they built a story around a true historical event. The villain was a little weak (story-wise) but it was a clever way to bring to life that moment in time and give the Doctor a role.
I thought those moments where the team had to endure the bigotry, AND be a part of it (by taking up seats on the bus) were necessary. They forced us to be in those positions, both as the ones who don’t have social power, and those who do, whether they understand their white privilege or not. It was uncomfortable, but that’s the point. A lot packed in to one episode.
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You’re right John, to a certain extent I think, but I also think you might view this episode differently when you get round to catching up with more of what comes before, particularly a Capaldi episode which takes the polar opposite approach. The Doctor isn’t somebody to stand back and watch people being abused, let alone her companions, so it undermines her character. Were it anyone else standing there saying “we don’t want any trouble” then I would agree with you, but in that situation “trouble” is exactly what the Doctor would want.
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When issues of bigotry were dramatized in the classic Doctor Who, it was chiefly between humans and non-humans, with sexism of course being one exception. It may be better to address such real issues more head on now in the Whoniverse as they have for Rosa. Speaking for myself, I can prefer it if it avoids letting visits to historical icons become too fantastical.
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The problems with this episode are many but that doesn’t stop it being both enjoyable and memorable. Among the issues though, the Doctor is out of character, as Roger says. The Doctor is also forced to the sidelines and basically be a spectator because she can’t allow time to unravel, but that’s not the Doctor nor is it strictly logical when considering all of his/her other time travel visits to every single planet ever. How are any events influence-able? No matter what the event, they are “real” and any change to them (meaning, any involvement from the Doctor) could break history. But the worst element of this story is that they wrote in a dreadfully lame villain, then have him effectively murdered by Ryan who has absolutely no remorse nor does the Doctor ever seem to be put off by what he’s done. Effectively, the murder of a racist is of no consequence! ML
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