There were moments when it was a bit clunky, but Series Eleven’s first window onto history presented a rather crucial moment in the American civil rights movement without undermining Rosa Parks’ boldness or her resolve – in fact Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall were very careful to show her coming to her moment of decision quite independently of the rest of the plot – and without making the episode feel so much of a history lesson it rather missed its purpose.
And what was its purpose? This was segregation being illustrated not for an American audience, who ought to have been learning this stuff at school, but for the series’ domestic British one – and not to show how far we’ve come, but, in this modern era of exclusion and a focus on people’s differences rather than their commonalities, to show how far we still have to go. There might be a black man and a ‘Mexican’ travelling on the TARDIS this year, but sadly there was still an outcry from a certain quarter of the programme’s fandom about what an unnecessarily inclusive agenda this was promoting. Well, you don’t make progress without smashing a few status quo.
It was helpful that Rosa didn’t feature an alien intervention, although Krasko’s purpose in travelling back to 1955 served to make the episode even more relevant in 2018. Here was a white man from the future trying to undo over half a century’s worth of progress towards the establishment of equality, and that couldn’t have been more pertinent. We live at a time when it seems to be more attractive to look backwards than ahead, but Doctor Who at least showed that if you are going to become fixated on the past, there are worthwhile things to become fascinated by. We are, after all, supposed to learn from our mistakes as a species as well as individuals, and if there’s a lesson here it’s to not allow the normalisation of hatred to carry the day.
It’s a lesson that Doctor Who has always taught, and this was perhaps its purest expression.
Maybe it’s because that expression was so pure, that some of the rest of the episode felt a little heavy-handed. Blackman and Chibnall were possibly too busy dodging landmines to fill in enough landscape for the regulars to navigate. As sweet as the moment was when the Doctor discovered just how neutered the future bigot had become, that did also rather neuter the peril in the story, and the dashing around to ensure that history might be allowed to take its course felt just a little like running to stand still because of it. It was a well-chosen narrative – the time team protecting a soon-to-be-established state of affairs while most of the people they met were holding onto an old one – but it did make their actions seem rather perfunctory, and lacking in urgency. And while it was absolutely the right decision to show them only protecting the event from the changes that Krasko was seeking to make, rather than taking part in the moment itself, that did have the odd effect of making the series regulars look like bystanders. Bystanders at an historic moment – just as Ian and Barbara so often were – but bystanders nevertheless.
South Africa made a glorious double for the American south, on the other hand, and never has an episode of Doctor Who evoked or presented its location quite so effectively. Segun Akinola’s music was also a great surprise, this week forgoing some of that expensive-sounding programmed electronica for themes which exhibited a more human touch. He’s much lighter on melody than his predecessor was, but there was also a layer that sounded like nothing so much as W.G. Snuffy Walden’s appropriation of stirring American anthems.
And this week finally, finally, the regular team got an opportunity to split up and go off and have their own stories. Partly this was a relief because, beyond the obvious lecturing on history, there was less of the Doctor telling everybody what’s happening and more of them going out and getting involved in it. Bradley Walsh was especially good at making the exposition feel like genuine experience and explanation, and his righteousness when he discovered the part the team would have to play in Rosa’s moment was also well expressed. He’s proving more than his worth this year, giving a really surprising performance filled with depth and authenticity. Mandip Gill is also starting to emerge, ahead of a couple of episodes coming up in which she’ll take closer to centre stage. And Tosin Cole, who’s been almost as much the lead as Jodie Whittaker thus far, was given the best range of reactions to deliver; from his indignation at realising who in where he was, to his delight at meeting Martin Luther King – rightly included, but rightfully kept out of the story itself – Cole made Ryan feel like a regular human being caught up in something bigger than himself, and he was the audience’s touchstone in feeling the history as well as understanding it. Oh, and what a wonderful moment when he sent back to the far past the man from the future who wanted to bring the far past back to the future with him.
Whittaker was vastly improved, less shouty Tennant-lite than last week and more in line with where perhaps she might have developed after The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and giving a decent indication that she’ll find her own Doctor over the course of the rest of the series. There’s a niggling worry that maybe she’s too good an actress for the role, which generally requires less method than it does manner. Once she stops trying to play the Doctor and just starts being her, she’ll be the definite article. She’s not there yet, and she seemed to struggle with some of the episode’s more confrontational moments – it might be that she needs to further adopt Patrick Troughton’s approach to dealing with her enemies, guiling them into being outwitted rather than trying to overpower them – but the promise is there and she had some great moments of Doctor-ish unpredictability this week.
Chris Chibnall seems to be approaching Series Eleven as an opportunity to go back to 1963 and build the programme up from those original blocks once again. This year’s Doctor Who has so far been as much an edification as it has an adventure, the closest the revived series has got to Verity Lambert’s original aspiration towards sincerity, awareness and understanding. Rosa was The Aztecs with a little bit of sci-fi, and 55 years’ worth of advancement in entertainment, what Lambert’s Doctor Who might have been if it had been as much about improving people as well as educating them – and if The Daleks hadn’t come along and skewed it towards distraction. This was Doctor Who with A Message instead of just a lesson, and it imparted that message with just about enough lightness to get it across without it feeling declamatory.
And the song was a nice touch. Not just for what it represents, but because it’s another example of the series being unsatisfied with toeing its own format. Rosa was Doctor Who wanting to be something more than just Doctor Who, and if it didn’t quite succeed in being Doctor Who as well, it was nevertheless a very worthwhile extension to the programme’s limits.
DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11, EPISODE 3: ‘ROSA’ / WRITER: MALORIE BLACKMAN, CHRIS CHIBNALL / DIRECTOR: MARK TONDERAI / STARRING: JODIE WHITTAKER, BRADLEY WALSH, TOSIN COLE, MANDIP GILL, VINETTE ROBINSON, JOSHUA BOWMAN, TREVOR WHITE / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED OCTOBER 21ST)