Rosa

Posted in Episode by - October 22, 2018
Rosa

Aired 21 October 2018
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

When Doctor Who launched in 1963, its original mandate was to entertain and educate in near equal measure with early adventures featuring Marco Polo, the Aztecs, and the French Revolution with no science fiction elements other than the TARDIS arriving in these locations to fuel the narratives. However, with the First Doctor’s regeneration into the Second, ‘The Highlanders’ marked the final pure historical that was produced on a regular basis. In fact, except for 1982’s ‘Black Orchid,’ no other pure historical has featured on screen since despite appearances from the likes of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, William Churchill, and many more. With the announcement that the Thirteenth Doctor would be crossing paths with Rosa Parks in the segregated 1955 Montgomery, Alabama with science fiction kept to a minimum, however, there was naturally consternation about just how such a prominent figure from recent history who quite literally helped to change the trajectory of an entire country and world would be deferentially handled without tarnishing her legacy.

Sadly, the little science fiction that makes it into ‘Rosa’ significantly lets down a brilliant and brutally honest human story and feels shoehorned in rather than organically developing the plot in any meaningful fashion. For all of the previous discussions about fixed points in time and the sanctity of preserving the web of time at all costs, seeing that play out in such a familiar and intimate context is a suitably haunting notion as the Doctor and her companions must use all of their wits and resources to first find an anachronistic artron energy source and to then have to keep fighting to prevent history from being ever so slightly nudged off course from the sidelines. There’s immense potential with this setup, and imagining a story where one of the TARDIS team inadvertently changes something so monumental practically writes itself, but the introduction of Krasko as the villain intent on subtly changing the sequence of events simply falls flat on every level. Even with a vortex manipulator and temporal displacement weapon, he never amounts to a credible threat, and the revelation that he quite explicitly cannot kill anybody and the fact that he leaves incredibly advanced technology simply sitting in the middle of a room even if behind a perception filter makes him easily one of the most ineffective villains Doctor Who has ever produced. There is something to be said about his motivations to stop Rosa from taking her seat in history being purely racist as the story grimly predicts that such thoughts will exist far into the future, but even the delivery of his racist sentiments feels somewhat underwhelming after the story tries to build up intrigue behind the one-dimensional Krasko without acknowledging that the civil rights movement was already a wave in motion that was absolutely kickstarted and brought to prevalence with Rosa’s action but not started afresh there.

Fortunately, the story related to Montgomery, Alabama, and its long-lasting effects is far more successful and resonant, and at times ‘Rosa’ delivers some of the most poignant moments the franchise has ever produced on screen. This is a tale that is wise enough not to suggest that racism was strictly an American issue of the past, and though the constant labels of segregation throughout this setting provide obligatory distress for this very diverse team, the discussion that Yaz and Ryan have about their own experiences with racism in their own time as they hide away in an alley provides an incredibly moving look at how far the world has come and how far it still has to go. Doctor Who has never been afraid to tackle racism and xenophobia, but with all allegory stripped away and frank and unrelentingly cruel racism on display, this is perhaps the most grounded and real storyline ever offered, and it unquestionably delivers its intended impact and then some.

Of course, ‘Rosa’ would be nothing without Rosa Parks herself, and Vinette Robinson captures the essence of this American hero with a quiet resolve and fortitude that expertly hints at just how she has carried on in such unfair times while the fight continues to build within her. Occasional minor blips in the accent are absolutely forgivable here, and Robinson exudes a sense of pride and humility in equal measure that make her brief journey on screen utterly believable and engrossing. This is without a doubt the story of this early run of episodes that has best featured all four core cast members so far, and as they split and try to undo Krasko’s actions designed to keep Rosa off of James Blake’s bus for their fateful encounter, the ultimate resolution in which they find themselves forced to be present and powerless to help in order to ensure history runs its course is profoundly powerful and is sure to haunt all of them for some time. With Graham commenting throughout the story how much Grace was inspired by these events, his proclamation that he does not want to be involved in this destined event is all the more heartbreaking, and Bradley Walsh delivers an incredible amount of emotion in just a few brief seconds when the realization hits him that he cannot leave the bus, mirrored by Jodie Whittaker’s grim staring forward as the evil of history unfolds right behind her.

‘Rosa’ very much treads into atypical territory for Doctor Who, dealing pointedly with a very topical issue without metaphor while deferentially portraying a crucial modern historical event. Wisely avoiding the pitfall of having the Doctor and her friends inspire Rosa’s choice and instead forcing them to ensure it can still be made, it’s only the villain and his science fiction elements that significantly weaken an otherwise mesmerizing and deliberately-paced affair that delves into the discomfort of its source material with aplomb.

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