As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a massive issue with the past few series of Doctor Who and I will probably ramble on about it to anyone who would care to listen. I hated Moffat’s writing style, thought his overarching plots were far too based in tantalising fan-fiction concept to actually deliver anything of proper meaning in the execution and really disliked a whole load of the standalone stories. I had many problems with the series when I watched the past few series and a lot of people were confused at why I still watched despite how much I hated it.
Doctor Who is a series of highs and lows, over 50 years old and growing ever older. In a show designed such as this, change is inevitable and for every badly written story, there’s just as likely to be a good one around the corner.
The answer to why I kept watching Doctor Who was that I was hoping for an episode that would bring me back
I wanted an episode I could fall in love with again. Though there were a few shining golden moments in Moffat’s run, each victory seemed washed away in a tide of mediocrity and terrible choices. That wasn’t the Doctor Who I wanted, to be saddled with just being ‘okay’ and riding the tailcoats of the show’s expected legacy.
What I wanted from Doctor Who for the longest time was an episode that was clever. I wanted an episode with great pacing, great acting and a compelling premise. I wanted an episode that had heart and didn’t waste my time with easy ‘everything’s solved’ answers.
As it turned out, that episode I wanted was Rosa.
Rosa starts with the Tardis landing late in 1955, a mere day away from the moment Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The Doctor and her companions can’t take a moment to enjoy this small moment of history though, as a lone stranger seeks to change the past and disrupt Rosa’s heroic stand, or rather, sit. It’s up to the Doctor, as always, to ensure history goes as planned, working to help give steam to the civil right’s movement.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Rosa is not perfect. I don’t think any form of entertainment is but there are a few issues in the episode. To sadly spoil the main conflict, Ryan shoots our main antagonist in the face with a time displacement laser, dealing with the threat easily but resulting in a choice that really feels against the spirit of Doctor Who. It’s better that Ryan is the one doing it, as he’s more prone to fighting back than the Doctor, but it’s still an element of contention for me. Also, considering the episode’s namesake and subject matter, the portrayal of racism is lathered on thick so any discussion of this episode sadly bringing an enjoyable story into the clutches of a lot of politics. As such, the episode, both message and the displayed racism, might come off as heavy handed to some viewers.
However, that’s as bad as my critique can really be because, in all honesty, I loved Rosa.
Rosa is, quite frankly, an incredible episode.
It’s mainly so good because of two main factors. The first of which is simple: it’s a clever concept. The idea of a person going back in time to change the past has been done before but it’s the exact rules of the engagement which makes our hero’s struggle so appealing. Our main villain, Krasko, is a prisoner from the distant future , finally released after serving his time for his horrible crimes. Due to his horrendous actions, he has a chip in-bedded in his head which stops him from actively killing anyone, a fact revealed to us in a tense exchange between him and the Doctor. As such, the conflict of the episode isn’t a literal one, but the two factions trying to out-think each other and play against the setting to alter the events that lead to Rosa Parks sitting on the bus where she will inevitably change history. It feels like its a lot smarter than your average ‘visiting the past’ episode of Doctor Who and its a strength that makes the episode stand out well amongst its contemporaries.
The second factor is probably the very reason why this episode was even written at all: it’s clever and mature. Malorie Blackman, the writer of this episode, is known for her fictional works confronting the issue of racism, such as her series: ‘Noughts and Crosses’. I’ve never read the series, personally, but it’s a clear example of why she was brought on for the episode and I’m really happy that she was. There’s a habit in historical shows, especially historical children shows, to skim over the less ‘PC’ aspects of our world and try to paint the past as an accepting time or try to lazily cover up and not address the elephants in the room.
Rosa does not pull such punches. In the first five minutes into the episode, we have a great scene that has Ryan getting hit in the face by a white man for trying to be a nice guy in a moment that’s, yes, a little contrived, but also really hammers home how big racism was in the US at this point, to say nothing of the way the same attitude is taken today by some people.
The cast in this episode shine through all the better from this approach. Ryan and Yaz get some great development and their scene in the alleyway is one of the best moments of the episodes. Graham continues to be my current favourite companion, his role as Ryan’s ‘granddad’ completely re-contexualising his relationship with Ryan due to their close relationship even without blood relations and in a time where confessing so could see Graham suffer the same fate as his step-grandchild.
This is the kind of drama I’ve wanted to see from Doctor Who and the type of episode I’ve been waiting for. The commentary is heavy-handed, perhaps, but the episode has an unflinching focus when confronting the issue at hand. Krasko isn’t exactly a villain as legendary as the Daleks but Josh Bowman ensures that the character holds a level of menace throughout the episode, from his stalking of Rosa to his numerous confrontations with the Doctor. He also stands as a symbol to all that racism is: hate. Krasko is a man so angry and violent towards the world that he would rather change the past and alter the world around him, than change himself in a world that has outgrown his way of life.
Most importantly, Rosa shows its maturity is by not pandering to the laziest theme of recent Who: that there is always a right answer to a situation and sacrifices don’t exist. In the series prior to this, the Doctor has always stood on a moral high-ground and all of his actions, or the actions of his companions, held true to the notion that if you do what’s right, everything will go right. Tense situations with impossible choices boil down to being true of heart and facing no imminent consequences, which does not make for good TV or good writing. Some would argue that this approach is ‘writing for kids’; I would argue only that such an approach is sheer laziness.
The final scenes of Rosa are perfect in this regard, with the Doctor realising that their group, particularly Graham, will have to stay on the bus in order for Rosa to be asked to move by the Bus Driver. Graham is ashamed, clearly upset, and tells the Doctor he doesn’t want to be on this side of history. Despite this, the Doctor has the group remain to ensure history occurs as intended. Because, at the end of the day, doing the right thing is never clear cut. Life isn’t easy and if anything, that’s the main takeaway from the episode. The Doctor finishes the story explaining Rosa’s trials in life and how nothing was easy for her, but she kept fighting anyway. It might seem a dis-service to the episode to harp on this, but it’s something that still sticks in my mind when thinking about the episode.
Sacrifice is an important part of being a good person and an important part of Doctor Who. It was the one thing Moffat was truly missing from his run. Every sacrifice was either not permenant or didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, which is lazy writing at its core. People may comment that sitting on a bus isn’t exactly the same in dramatic stakes as killing a character, but its a step towards the emotional and mature complexity of the Doctor Who I remember, and one I’m willing to praise as much as I can.
Also, last comments: The acting was brilliant from the main stars and guest stars, Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks being the highlight, I really liked some of the direction in this episode and the new title sequences as well as the various references scattered around here and there in the script showed a better respect for the show’s history and move it forwards more than the last Christmas special could ever hoped to.
My stance on Rosa might seem a little biased, and it’s true, I’m probably riding a high from just how much I enjoyed the experience, but I still won’t deny Rosa is still a good episode and definitely worth your time, especially if you’re looking for a more emotional resolution and a greater appreciation for moral complexity in your children’s sci-fi show.
Now if you excuse me, I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next episode where it looks like giant spiders will be attacking Sheffield. What fun!