I'm one of the many viewers who grew apprehensive upon hearing that Doctor Who would be doing an episode about Rosa Parks this year. Different people have been worried about this particular story for different reasons. On the one hand, a Rosa Parks episode could fail to do justice to its subject, making it seem as if a black woman's fight for civil rights only succeeded thanks to the actions of a white woman from the future. On the other hand, it might alienate conservative audiences (especially American viewers) by leaning too heavily on present-day politics and demonizing all white Americans as racists. The episode's premise forces it to walk a precarious tightrope between two extremes.
So, does “Rosa” succeed in this objective?
For the most part, yes. Which is actually part of the problem.
This story had some compelling moments. But ultimately, Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman (author of the Naughts & Crosses book series) set themselves too great a challenge in crafting “Rosa”, and made a number of crucial mistakes along the way. I'll unpack both their successes and their failures in this review.
The Quick, Spoiler-Free Verdict
“Rosa” sets up a promising storyline for the TARDIS team, with an thought-provoking ethical quandary, and gives them some strong moments of growth, camaraderie, and humor. Unfortunately, thanks to a badly-written villain, weak supporting characters, and the constraints of its politically-charged premise, it fails to stick the landing. Watch it for the great performances from the main cast, but don't expect great things from it.
Content and Themes
“Rosa” does not shy away from the cruelty African-Americans faced in 1950's Alabama. Characters of color, including main characters, receive shocking treatment at the hands of white supporting characters (though there's little actual violence and no blood to speak of). The issue of the Doctor's gender change continues to be peripheral, only acknowledged by brief, humorous lines here and there.
Spoilers begin here.
What I Didn't Like
The timing of this episode is a mistake right from the start. If a Rosa Parks episode had to be included in the Thirteenth Doctor's inaugural season from the start, then it should have been saved for later in the season, after the new status quo was better established and fans had sufficiently warmed to the changes. Instead, Thirteen's surprisingly good debut is followed immediately by an episode which can't help but be divisive and controversial. Plus, we as the audience are still getting to know Thirteen, and because of the massive challenges of this story, so much time and effort has to be devoted to getting Rosa Parks right that the Doctor herself has to take a backseat. Not a good premise for the first Series 11 episode in which we actually have all the ingredients of Doctor Who back in place–the Doctor, the companions, and the TARDIS. For many of the viewers who have tuned into the show for the first time this season, this will be their first actual “trip” in the TARDIS, as it were. “Rosa” fails to give an accurate representation of the wonder, the adventure, and the fun which the show's journeys through time and space usually entail. Within minutes of the TARDIS landing, Ryan is savagely slapped across the face for approaching a white woman. Regular viewers will feel like they've been slapped as well. Given that this moment comes seconds after Yaz cheerfully gushes about going back in time, it's as if the writers are telling the audience, “Oh, you thought this was going to be a fun little time-travel adventure?” WHACK! “Think again!”
Is there a place for moments of such raw historical accuracy in Doctor Who? Maybe. But including them as early as Episode 3 of Series 11 was a mistake.
The supporting characters are a mixed bag this time around. For the most part, they're not that great. I get it; it's difficult for actors to portray racists. But does that mean they can't bring at least a modicum of nuance to the role? All the white characters we see here are viscerally disgusted by black people. Not a single one shows even the slightest hint of regret or indecision. I can't say for sure that this is inaccurate to the setting and time period, but viewed purely from a storytelling perspective, it's a flaw. And as a result of this error, few of the actors playing minor roles seem convincing. (The hit-or-miss American accents don't help, of course.) They're playing caricatures rather than characters. There's never a good reason for racism, but there's always a reason–whether it's upbringing, culture, or a psychological quirk. The motivations of the racists we see depicted here are never even addressed.
Which brings us to the worst element of “Rosa”–its villain. There is no excuse for the absolutely rotten writing behind the character of Krasko. When he was first introduced, I thought he might turn out to be somewhat interesting, especially when it was revealed that he'd spent time in Stormcage and that he possessed a vortex manipulator. I surmised that there was more to his motives than simple racism. But no. Against all odds, the time-traveling criminal from space in the future was actually a white supremacist who would have been right at home in the 1950's Deep South. I can picture human supremacists in the 51st century, taking issue with our alliances with aliens, but white supremacists? It defies logic. Naturally, we get no explanation of Krasko's motives. To make matters worse, he's eliminated far too quickly and easily before the momentous final scene. I'm fairly certain he'll crop up again, but that doesn't change the fact that he needed more development in this story.
Krasko's anti-climactic elimination ties in with a problem we've seen in every episode so far this season: the too-obvious plot devices used to resolve stories. There is no subtlety whatsoever to the scene in which the Doctor explains to Ryan how to use the time displacement weapon. It also makes zero sense; why would she tell him that? And why wasn't she angry when Ryan effectively killed Krasko? Again, I know he'll probably survive, but the Doctor doesn't know that, and it's reasonable to assume that if he's someplace on prehistoric Earth–or earlier, when there was no Earth–he's not going to make it. This should have earned Ryan a stern talking-to, at the very least.
While the Doctor gets some great scenes this week, she ultimately comes across as too passive. She's the odd one out in this story. She's not a person of color like Ryan or Yaz, nor does she possess the same personal investment in Ryan's well-being that Graham has. And the writers couldn't let her get too involved in events for fear of compromising the historical fidelity of Rosa's character arc, so she wasn't allowed to have any powerful moments like the Ninth Doctor got with Charles Dickens or the Eleventh Doctor had with Vincent van Gogh. For the most part, the Doctor has no personal stakes in this episode aside from a generic concern for the integrity of the timeline and worry for the safety of her friends. This makes her feel like a supporting character in her own show–something which happens all too often to female leads of TV series. I don't want to see the Thirteenth Doctor go the way of Supergirl or Emma Swan. She does get an interesting character moment when she has to participate in the wrong done to Rosa so that history can stay on track, but it's too brief for the viewer to gain a clear impression of how it affects her, and it's undercut by the jarring inclusion of a pop song for its soundtrack. (This is supposed to be Doctor Who, not the CW.)
Also, about Graham's little Grace anecdote–if I were dying of cancer, and I told my nurse that I was a bus driver, and she immediately expressed the hope (even jokingly) that I wasn't like the bus driver who got Rosa Parks arrested, I'd fire her, not fall in love with her. I'm a big fan of Grace, but honestly, that was ridiculous.
What I Liked
Despite the Thirteenth Doctor's weaker character arc in this episode, she still had some entertaining moments with the rest of the team. Her name-dropping of famous people is always hilarious, and her writing on the walls was a nice nod to the Twelfth Doctor's mannerisms. Plus, her Capaldi-esque expression of displeasure when Graham put his hand on her shoulder cracked me up. That hotel scene alone was worth the price of admission.
I'm liking the companions more and more every week. Graham the snarky-bus-driver-grand-dad-turned-time-and-space-traveler is easily one of my favorite additions to the TARDIS roster in recent years. Ryan's wide-eyed excitement at meeting his heroes restores some of the joy and wonder which is dispelled by the story's darker moments. Yaz, too, brings a welcome warmth and optimism to all her scenes. She's probably the least-developed member of the team so far, but even so, she's a great character.
The occasional glitches in her accent notwithstanding, Vinette Robinson delivers a strong performance as Rosa Parks. She plays the character as a somewhat weary and reluctant civil rights activist rather than an invincible, over-confident superwoman. That's not to say that the strength of Parks' convictions is downplayed, however (and the myth of her keeping her seat simply because she was tired is debunked). I would have appreciated some more focus on Parks' Christian faith, but at least her church gets a couple of mentions. Her pastor, the one and only Martin Luther King, features briefly and gets a satisfying portrayal. These supporting characters, at least, were not disappointing.
It's becoming increasingly clear that Chris Chibnall told a big fat lie when he said there would be no series arc this year. While “Rosa” doesn't build on either the Stenza or the Timeless Child plotlines (apparently), it does introduce some new threads in the form of Krasko's undetermined fate and the mysterious initials “G.F.B.” on the time criminal's briefcase. It feels as if Chibnall is constructing his own expansive chapter in the mythology of the Whoniverse, just as Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat did during their tenures as showrunner. Granted, it remains to be seen how successfully all these elements will come together in the series finale, but the sense that we are building towards something does help to maintain viewer interest. And I've heard that Chibnall has a five-year plan in mind for the show (perhaps culminating in some kind of 60th anniversary event in 2023?), so perhaps he's building a foundation for stories which will extend beyond this season.
Watching this episode was somewhat like watching people playing a video game. A game with cartoonishly-villainous NPCs, in which the boss is quickly and easily vanquished long before the players can actually battle him. (I'm not a gamer, but I know the vernacular well enough to use it in analogies.) Everything was programmed and predetermined, and therefore not engrossing. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, “Rosa” stays firmly on the tightrope for the most part without falling into one or the other disagreeable extreme, but as a result, it feels far too tame. There was no space for having any fun with history here, since these events were decidedly not fun, and since it would have been disrespectful to actually manipulate Rosa Parks' timeline. Plus, the audience knows this going in, which only makes things worse.
Is “Rosa” the first sign of Doctor Who's downfall? I don't think so. It's simply a failed experiment in social commentary. The same could be said of Series 10's “Oxygen”, which started as a gripping sci-fi-horror story but devolved into an anti-capitalist polemic, or Series 5's “The Beast Below”, a messy and disjointed parable on the failings of democratic government. Even Series 8's “Kill the Moon”, which promotes a conservative ideology about the sanctity of life, is not one of the show's finest hours. Doctor Who can do politics well, especially when using monsters like the Daleks and the Cybermen as subtle but effective analogues for real-world issues. It's when that subtlety is abandoned that problems creep in. Social and/or political themes, however commendable they may be, are not an excuse for poor writing. The sooner the creative teams behind Doctor Who and other franchises learn that lesson, the better it will be for everyone.
Next Time: Arachnids in the UK
I'm really looking forward to this one. I expect it will be a good old-fashioned “aliens on present day Earth” episode, in the vein of the Tenth Doctor era. Plus, it sounds like we'll get further exploration of Yaz's background. I've no idea whether the story will be good or not, of course, but it looks fun so far.