This review contains no spoilers for Episode 3, but mentions plot details from the rest of Season 11 so far. Read on for our additional spoilery observations, after you’ve seen the episode.
“When today isn’t working, tomorrow is what you hope for.”
Despite jumping forwards, backwards, and sideways in time on a weekly basis, Doctor Who is always about looking to the future. As a British sci-fi show, it’s a fundamentally optimistic show that dares to posit that everything might just be alright in the end. That may seem like a rose-tinted view in some of the historical episodes, and, even with the best intentions, it might come across as a little trite at times. Happily, that’s not the case with Rosa, the most impressive hour of drama that the Jodie Whittaker era has given us so far.
After recovering her TARDIS last episode, the Doctor attempts to take tagalongs Ryan, Yaz, and Graham back home to Sheffield. On her 14th try, she lands them all in Montgomery, Alabama, towards the end of 1955. The gang meet Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) on the day before she makes history, but as it transpires, they’re not the only time travellers in town.
What’s immediately striking about Rosa – in comparison to other, rather more uncomplicated “celebrity historical” episodes produced since 2005 – is that it doesn’t just hew to the central optimistic view of time and space. Instead, by tackling racism and the civil rights era as unflinchingly as it does, the brilliant script by Malorie Blackman blazes a trail all the way back to the show’s original remit: to entertain, but also to educate, and inform.
While the Doctor has always been a crusader for social justice across the cosmos, the show itself has sometimes felt vague on the subject of racism. In the main, it’s “tinkety tonk, old fruit, and down with the Daleks”, having immediately flouted the show’s “no bug-eyed monsters” edict in the second serial to introduce the hugely popular metal baddies as Nazi analogs.
More recently, on a personal scale, it’s usually addressed and then shrugged off, as in stories like The Shakespeare Code and Thin Ice. That may be expected from a teatime show, so it feels ambitious of the show to address it head-on. There are no euphemisms or easy solutions here, and the drama is markedly more effective for it. Although there’s a sci-fi component, the show stays on target throughout. When Ryan and Yaz sit down and have a conversation about being discriminated against, it’s not about their treatment by the white people they’ve encountered in 1955, but about the same encounters they’ve had in 2018.
While Whittaker shows the same flair of righteous anger that characterised her predecessors, her more humble and personable take on the Doctor suits this story more perfectly than almost anyone else before her. There’s no white saviour narrative here and it feels, for the most part, like a very informed and mature take on a social turning point.
If there’s one thing that lets it down in that regard, it’s the new show’s old problem with British actors playing Americans. The southern accents seem a little off, even with Robinson, whose stoic and stirring performance is otherwise one of the highlights of the episode. Due to the gravity of the plot, the action takes a little time to get going, but the joke quotient is up from previous episodes and the second half really picks up on the way to the moving climactic scenes.
In the post-2005 run at least, Rosa might be the truest modernisation of what Doctor Who was originally meant to be. With nary a bug-eyed monster in sight, it’s another departure from what it has since developed into, but the unerring confidence of this new era remains utterly compelling. Beyond its good intentions, this is just good telly.
Doctor Who Season 11, Episode 3 is available on BBC iPlayer until 9th June 2019.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– The most relevant point of comparison for Rosa is, strangely, Season 5’s Vincent And The Doctor. While the acclaimed Richard Curtis-penned episode sidelined its sci-fi component to tackle a larger exploration of depression, this keeps things even more grounded, but still winds up to an incongruous pop song at its emotional climax – the song was Rise Up by Andra Day, if you want to hear it again.
– In many ways, Krasko (Josh Bowman) is the least distinctive antagonist we’ve had for a long time, but it’s crucial to give his future fascist a human face rather than an alien one. Representing the clearest tie to previous series that we’ve had so far, he’s an inmate of Stormcage, the futuristic prison where River Song was sent. Some may have wanted for a Time Agent of the kind we saw in Chibnall’s Torchwood episodes, but he’s every bit of the uncharismatic white supremacist here, and that feels like the right choice for right now.
– The more leisurely pace of Season 11 continues here, with screentime being invested in having Team TARDIS learn through exploring, rather than arriving fully informed. It’s not played as a mystery to be solved and, even though it feels slow early on, it ultimately lends to the wallop of the final scenes.
– The ingenious final stroke of making the Doctor and her companions passive, unable to stand up for Rosa for fear of disrupting history, might have felt out of place in a more high-octane episode. Airing in 2018, just one day after we saw a viral video of a Ryanair passenger hurling racial abuse at the woman sitting next to him, it feels more relevant than ever.
– Next episode’s spiders in Sheffield escapade looks more like business as usual, but around a third of the way through the series, we’ve already seen an impressive range to this new incarnation of the show. That this one managed to have some of the funniest gags of the three, while also treating the subject seriously, really speaks to the confidence with which it’s landed.
– Running gag of the week: the Doctor is not Banksy… or is she?