Contains spoilers for the episode
Before we get to the subject of this week’s latest episode of Doctor Who, indulge me for a moment in a little preamble.
Back in the 1930s, Lord Reith’s founding principals for the British Broadcasting Corporation were that it should seek to inform, educate, and entertain. This ethos was still very much in place in 1963 and therefore deeply instilled in the original Doctor Who production team. Amid the action and adventure, and the science fiction and fantasy, the programme also sought to teach children about Romans and Aztecs, about who Marco Polo was and what happened at the Battle of Culloden.
Sadly the popularity of Daleks and Cybermen meant that historicals soon fell out of favour, but they were still sufficiently part of the programme’s DNA that when Russell T Davies rebooted the show in 2005 it included episodes in which the Doctor and his companion met real life figures from the past such as Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Madame de Pompadour, William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie but these were usually played for larger-than-life comedy. Steven Moffat included encounters with Winston Churchill and Vincent van Gogh, but after that the sub-genre faded away again with the exception of the out-of-context comedy appearance by Egyptian queen Nefertiti in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” – which was, perhaps significantly, penned by Chris Chibnall.
That’s the same Chibnall who is now himself showrunner, and who is once again looking to the show’s roots to inspire its re-energised future. And that means a revival for the historical in the form of this week’s episode “Rosa” which lands the Doctor and her new team back in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama where a certain seamstress is about to send shockwaves through history by simply refusing to follow the rules about where to sit and stand on a bus. Except this being Doctor Who, there is someone (or something) from out of time seeking to change the outcome of this crucial flashpoint.
However, it’s here we hit upon the fundamental problem of the historical episode: we know how this has got to turn out. Human history as it is recorded cannot be changed (or if it is then it has to be restored at some later point, as Moffat was fond of doing.) This means that even a basic awareness of the events in question defuses a lot of the basic tension of a story for the viewer. It’s one big reason why the historicals ended up being phased out of Doctor Who in the first place and were similarly a problem for contemporary 1960s shows such as The Time Tunnel which found even in its pilot episode that the Titanic really did have to sink at the end. Similarly, the Doctor may have done all he could to show van Gogh that his work would be valued in the future, but that still could not stave off the tragedy of his early death.
If a historically-set story is going to have any worth, then, it must give us some fresh insight and understanding into the period. Outlander (ironically a show inspired by author Diana Gabaldon watching the Troughton historical serial “The Highlanders” which introduced long standing companion Jamie McCrimmon played by Fraser Hines – hence her hero’s name of Jamie Fraser) does this very well. It successfully brings to life the reality of Scottish Clan life in the 1700s, and examines in detail the machinations that led to disaster and defeat at the hands of the British. Another example is the recent Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman, which effectively demonstrates the deplorable racism of the 1970s which also laying out strong links leading directly to today’s lingering endemic racial problems despite decades of progress.
“Rosa” favours the former approach and also attempts the latter, but is inevitably restricted by both budget and running time in what it can achieve. Director Mark Tonderai maximises further location shooting in South Africa dressed with period signage and classic automobiles to effectively recreate the American Deep South of the 50s. Meanwhile the culture of the period is conveyed through three memorable early scenes. The prologue establishes the humiliation and dehumanisation of segregation and sets up a world that is as bizarre, twisted and incomprehensible to modern viewers as any alien science fiction planet conjured from the imagination. A confrontation in which Ryan (Tosin Cole) is struck for daring to address a white woman on the street is followed by a tense moment when a racist cop bursts into the team’s motel room expecting to find Ryan and Yas (Mandip Gill) in a motel which allows ‘whites only’ by law. These sequences really do underline the menace and danger of the situation: you genuinely feel that one misstep and not even the Doctor will be able to talk her way out of being the victim of a racist mob riot, or the policeman pulling his firearm and shooting everyone dead. However the family viewing slot the show occupies means that it inevitably has to shy away from any overt violence or the more unbroadcastable offensive language, which gives the drama a slightly sanitised feel.
After these early scenes, however, the plot intervenes and the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her team are able to go about their business remarkably unmolested. The villain of the week turns out to be a time traveller from the future called Krasko (Josh Bowman), patently a white supremacist himself but more of the superficially charming, subsequently sneering type than the flat-out snarling bigots of the period. Krasko comes across more as a troublemaker than a real threat, especially when it’s revealed that he has been fitted with a neural inhibitor (shades of Gan in Blakes 7!) which means he can’t actually harm anyone. He’s reduced to using impish tricks to subvert the course of history and is remarkably easily dispatched – no wonder fans have linked him to the classic character of the Meddlesome Monk from 1960s story “The Time Meddler”. It doesn’t help that the performance is one of the least convincing that I’ve seen among the show’s guest cast in recent seasons.
Once again, despite the pre-series publicity that this was going to be a back to basics run of standalone episodes without callbacks to past continuity, it turns out that Krasko’s still-vague background owes a considerable debt to Moffat’s tenure. He uses Time Agent technology introduced by Captain Jack Harkness in 2005’s “The Empty Child”, and is described as a former resident of the Stormcage prison facility that also hosted River Song for a spell. All told he feels like he’s been recycled from leftover parts purely in order to fill a hole in this week’s plot, a reason for the Doctor to get involved but otherwise essentially superfluous to the real matters of importance in 1955.
As it turns out, much of the second half of the episode consists of the Doctor and her team researching what they need to know about Rosa Parks to ensure things go as they should. For some reason it appears that the Tardis possesses no research capability to enable them to look anything up, so they have make do with local bus timetables instead. It means everyone is kept busy, with even a decent amount of material for Yas this week which includes a moment that hints at a possible romantic interest with Ryan. He himself continues to get the best of the screen time allotted to the regular supporting cast, and the moment of awe he experiences in Rosa Parks’ parlour is a highlight of the show – only slightly undermined by the fact that just a few hours ago he thought that Rosa had just been a bus driver. Graham (Bradley Walsh) continues to get a good amount of the comedy moments, but it’s his steadfast insistence of calling Ryan his grandson which reveals the character’s innate integrity and personal bravery considering it’s done openly on the streets of a society that would consider any such relationship to be profoundly unnatural and offensive. Meanwhile Ryan’s real grandparent Grace continues to be a potent presence as an unofficial fifth companion, in the way that her spirit is invoked several times in dialogue.
The purpose of the team’s research and involvement is to ensure that the recorded events of December 1, 1955 go off absolutely according to plan: or to put it another way, it’s to educate viewers who don’t know about Rosa Parks and what she did that day. And at points it really does feel like one of those drama documentaries that the BBC produces in association with the Open University: important, informative, earnest and well-intentioned, but still something of a civics lesson and lecture. This focus on the detail of the night in question rather risks crowding out the overall importance of what is happening. While the chaos theory of history suggests that the squashing of a butterfly a million years ago could change the course of evolution, there’s also the idea that the tide of history reaches a certain strength and force that some things become inevitable – so would Rosa having to stand (or sit) on another bus on another day have truly unravelled all the civil rights progress that followed? Or would it have happened anyway, albeit in a very slightly altered way? The script fails to really explain why it’s so important that the precise minutiae of the moment has to be adhered to; in fact it doesn’t really explain how this inciting incident leads directly to the massive reform that follows.
The answer to the first bit is simply that the show cannot change something that viewers have or might learn at school or read in a book – it’s that basic problem with ‘historicals’ again. As for the latter, the show attempts to address this with an awkward epilogue with the Doctor giving her pals a PowerPoint presentation about what happens next, but that’s rather perfunctory and too late in the episode for it to fully have the required effect. That said, it did produce the one moment which genuinely brought a tear to my eye – archive footage of the real life Rosa Parks receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1996. That was truly, in a word, awesome.
As the fictional Rosa, Vinette Robinson gives a classy, elegant portrayal of a most classy and elegant lady without making her impossibly perfect. Importantly, when it comes to the pivotal moment of the episode (and of history), the show doesn’t attempt to rob Rosa of agency by way of making her actions the result of an idea or (even worse!) any active encouragement by the Doctor. It would have been a travesty to have done so. However the script does find a clever way of making the Tardis team important passive participants in what happens rather against their will – they inadvertently have to become part of the problem rather than the solution – and the stricken looks on the faces of the Doctor, Graham and Yas as they force themselves to remain seated as Rosa is confronted on the bus and arrested is an intensely haunting and emotional moment.
In the end, it’s hard to be too critical of “Rosa” because the show is wearing its heart on its sleeve and is so forthrightly passionate about a matter of real fundamental importance that transcends mere television fiction. If it clunks here and there – the music’s intrusive ‘US patriotic’ elegiac trumpets and rather obvious closing title song; a too-direct and on-the-nose scene between Ryan and Yas as they hid behind rubbish dumpsters felt like a sermon direct from the scriptwriters, author Malorie Blackman and Chibnall himself but was remarkably hard-hitting nonetheless – then its overall good intentions surely mean that it can be forgiven much. However, nagging at my mind is the thought that the show has tackled the subject of racism in the past – through the characters of Martha and Bill, for example, and using stories structured around science fiction allegories – and done so with more subtlety and nuance than going at it full-on with a sledgehammer as it does here.
But then again, given the times we live in and the current occupant of the White House, perhaps it really is time to set aside such cautious, nervous subtlety in exchange for that mighty sledgehammer after all. In which case, there are few better shows around than Doctor Who to swing it.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 6.55pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.