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Doctor Who - On Rosa (A Review)

Doctor Who - On Rosa (A Review)

 (c) BBC 2018

(c) BBC 2018

New Doctor, new horizons. Why write a review of one single episode now? Because it was special…

Whatever minor reservations I have, it was impossible not to be moved by this episode. As an account of a turning point in human history, it worked. Perhaps it was a little bit on-the-nose in places, a little cautious and low-key in others, but there were beautifully judged elements threaded throughout. By “on-the-nose,” I mean some of the dialogue was a little bit too deliberately instructive and didactic, a little non-naturalistic – but how else are you going to do it? You could feel the scriptwriters sometimes quantifying and tip-toeing around how to talk about this most sensitive of subjects – but those sequences were carried by some thoughtful, perceptive and detailed performances. Vinette Robinson’s Rosa was, by turns prickly, necessarily guarded and warm, while the regular TARDIS crew are gelling nicely. However, it was Tosin Cole’s Ryan who dealt with a lot of the culture shock that must come with time travel to a destination like this.

The intro scene where Ryan gets slapped and later, when he and Yaz (Mandip Gill) are behind the bins were hard to watch, and not only because I was watching it with my thirteen-year old daughter (who, for those of you who don’t know, is mixed race AKA biracial. The two people I love most in the world are black, she and her mother). Sometimes, I’m privy to conversations like that in my own home.

That contemporaneous feeling – of visitors from the future observing that things have both changed and how much they’ve stayed the same – was the episode’s most powerful implicit statement, moreso than any of the overt character conversations that commented upon and carried the plot forward. That was this episode’s subtlest yet most potent tool, which I wish we’d had more of, uncomfortable though it might be, because it’s a metaphor for a kind of privilege, including in this case true foresight – commentary from the future. “You can’t change history, not one line,” said William Hartnell’s first Doctor once. But there’s a sense of hope here that we can learn from it (even if these days I sometimes have a hard time believing that), and that’s the true currency of this episode.

Because, in this here and now, Rosa Parks lived it, while Ryan and Yaz don’t have to – except to an extent they do, and maybe that wasn’t dwelt upon enough. At least, I hope future episodes return to this theme, because I can’t see how they won’t now that it’s been so directly addressed, given how fully Mr. Chibnall has already committed to this fully empathetic way of reshaping Doctor Who.

I mean - this is what Doctor Who is (or can be) for. It gives you different perspectives. At its best, it opens you, willingly or unwillingly and always unexpectedly to considering previously unconsidered angles and new possibilities. So even though future racist Krasko was sent deep into the past (where I hope he gets eaten by a dinosaur, and I wish we’d seen that) I felt like it wasn’t enough. I really wanted to know more about his psychology and how that kind of abjectly moronic, blinkered and self-obsessed thinking persists into the far future. Yes, he’s overtly coded as a criminal, (albeit a good-looking, attractive one) - but the ideology of deliberate, close-minded tribalism, of racism has got to be overtaken, because it’s the biggest impediment I can think of to the survival of our species. It’s a waste of time, yet it takes up all of our time. That character was an opportunity to peel back the uselessness and futility of racism a little more, and though Ryan’s dispatch of him was nice touch (oh yeah, he listened to the Doctor this time), for me it didn’t feel as if it went far enough. It felt like a potential plot hole or a dangling thread that I hope future episodes return to. In that sense, I wondered if the episode wouldn’t have been more effective as a pure historical, with maybe a local bigot as a villain. As it is, I’m struggling slightly with the idea that racism isn’t or can’t be made to be so irrelevant and pointless that it still exists in the far future, that we can’t educate ourselves and it out of existence - but then, I guess human beings might always retain their potential for cruelty, for evil and stupidity. The nature and institutions of oppression change, societal mores change, but maybe human beings fundamentally don’t - the only thing we can actually modify is our communal knowledge and ability to choose wisely. Co-operation is wisdom. Looking out for the good of the many is wisdom, and the highest of all human ideals, because it looks after everybody - the whole human tribe.

All that said, Krasko was a good evocation of the casual, banal, everyday vacuity of the racist mind – how it uses spite and insularity and confuses them with strength, how it steals respect in the pursuit of a goal that fundamentally debases what humans are best at and that got us where we are – the spirit of co-operation. So, these aren’t flaws in execution necessarily, just my hopes for more explorations of these themes.

“You can’t change history, not one line.” It was absolutely right that the Doctor’s fight centered on allowing Rosa Parks her own agency, the TARDIS crew as witnesses to history rather than unseen agents of change.

The Doctor and her companions’ positions of privilege, as time travellers, translates into one where for once, the social rules of the time and the place they find themselves are in are inescapable, so that the Doctor and Graham are unable to be anything other than complicit in the world they find themselves in. Good, because up until that point, Ryan was the character most forced to deal with those repulsive local rules. Daleks are one metaphor for racism, but the most frightening monsters that exist were on that bus, and Rosa Parks alone stood up to them. That is a celebration of a kind, and I was glad the wrap-up scene on the TARDIS did a little extra work there in showing how long it took that act of bravery to be fully honoured and acknowledged.

Change is hard. It can take lifetimes and massive self-sacrifice. We know that from books and school, sometimes from someone we know who has lived it, but it’s never visceral unless the story is retold well, and kudos to Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall for doing that.

Stray Notes

·      Personally, I could’ve done without Andra Day’s Rise Up on the soundtrack as Rosa exited the bus, but I know this got a lot of viewers blubbing, and my daughter recognised it, so there’s that. I’ll credit Robinson’s performance with the lump in my throat rather than the aural signpost. I’d have preferred a powerful silence, or one of Segun Akinola’s subtle string refrains. As a composer, I’m really appreciating his moodier, atmospheric take on the incidental music.

·      As a storyteller, I often wonder how you can hook a reader or viewer who might be more out of tune with a sense of empathy towards other human beings (or animals) and if I was to listen only to my own righteous, everyday anger, I feel as if I’d be a lesser communicator. Viewer or reader loyalty is a privilege and their sympathy isn’t a given.

When I was writing Doctor Who (for Titan Comics’ Tenth Doctor Adventures among others), I often pondered dropping the Doctor into a racially-charged environment. While race and identity is an ever-present theme in my stuff, I could never find the right angle for a “historical” script without it seeming too explicit, too crass, so I’m full of admiration for Blackman and Chibnall’s approach and solution of how to place both the Doctor (as the white characters) in the centre of things, registering their emotions and making them allies, but not making it about them. Lovely too to hear Yaz and Ryan, even after experiencing segregated 50s America, expressing optimism and hope for the future. We need it now, more than ever.

·      Brilliant to see this TARDIS crew coming together, all teamwork and trust (and fourteen offscreen adventures in, if we’re to take those other previous landings as unseen stories). Really enjoying Jodie Whittaker’s take on the Time Lord. Bradley Walsh’s Graham is bloody wonderful.

·      As a piece of mainstream SF entertainment from the show I love best in the world, it was peerless. Maybe only Star Trek, in episodes like DS9’s Far Beyond the Stars have dealt with similar.

·      Will Krasko make a comeback? How far back in time did he go – enough to still do damage by influencing impressionable Cro-Magnons? Is he responsible for our kind helping to wipe out Neanderthals?

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Nick Abadzis