Something unexpected happened with this episode: Doctor Who became a talking point. The third episode has just brought this series to life. The groundswell seemed to occur mainly on the internet, through Twitter, Facebook and online forums. The episode “Rosa” debuted to what seems mostly positive reviews for its portrayal of Rosa Parks, an activist in the civil rights movement and her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I did wonder if the new series would ever do a straight historical and this is probably the closest we have had. Chris Chibnall said he was going to make the series more educational and everything I’ve read since Sunday has highlighted how this episode has started conversations between young and old. It is to the credit of the skills of the writer Malorie Blackman and also Chris Chibnall that we are seeing that promise starting to occur. Whilst there are sci-fi elements in the story it is luckily kept well away from actual historical figures. When the Doctor met Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or Elizabeth the first there was always an element of suspending your disbelief as an audience member and going along with the time travel element. Consequently, the strength of the story definitely lays in showing Rosa and Montgomery itself and what I love is this story wasn’t about the Doctor being in charge and influencing Rosa or bending the rules to change an outcome. It was about ensuring events happened as they should and always had done. That the Doctor and the companions became part of the event on the bus makes me wonder were they always destined to be part of events or did the presence of Krasko create the possibility.
“Rosa” touched a lot of emotional buttons about what is a shameful piece of history as white people were shown to actively oppress black people. As a white woman, I can’t say that I truly “know” the experience of what it was like for black people in 1950’s America facing discrimination due to their skin colour. My parents faced discrimination of a different kind as immigrants from a crown colony to the UK in the 50’s/60’s. My father was repeatedly turned down hunting for work. Mum when a young woman had in more than one lodgings things, given to her by her family, stolen from her room. She was unable to say anything as she would be asked to leave. The discrimination in Montgomery was far more violent but just as blatant, just as ignorant and it makes me ashamed to think about it. I’m really glad that the programme didn’t shy away from showing the unconcealed reality of their lives When Ryan bent down to collect that lady’s glove without thinking I was scared for him. He got slapped but it could have been much worse and I just felt as tense when he got off the bus to go to Rosa’s house. It was brave for the script to also have exchanges in the diner and the hotel, to show how menacing the situation was. The scene between Yaz and Ryan by the rubbish bins brought a contemporary reference to how racial discrimination is still something ongoing and I would have liked to have heard a bit more from them both.
Talking of Yaz and Ryan I find Tosin Cole is the better actor of the two and he impressed again this week especially in the scene with Rosa and Martin Luther King. The little smile of delight as he realises he is talking to the two of them. There was also the earlier sarcasm in the diner that he doesn’t eat negros. This quote actually came from Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion boxer. In 1960’s On being told whilst at a diner “We don’t serve negroes” he said “I don’t eat them, either. Just give me a cup of coffee and a hamburger” Talking of quotes I also loved that the dialogue on the bus was historically accurate between Rosa Parks and James Blake. Therein lies part of the power of the episode as well as the song ‘Rise’ by Andra Day which is the unofficial anthem of Black Lives Matter campaign which added to the emotion. Oh my goodness Bradley Walsh is proving all the doubters wrong this series with his versatility. He blew me away this week. I loved him for the despairing look on Graham’s face which broke my heart and when the policeman came to the hotel and he pretended to be Steve Jobs, That made me laugh. He is fantastic.
Jodie did impress me this week. I liked how her performance was dialled down for most of the episode with less scatty and wisecracks and more seriousness appropriate with the subject being explored. Her interactions with Graham are the most fun though, such as when Graham is hungry, the pretence of being a couple at the motel and the ongoing gag about Banksy. She squared up to Krasko really well and it was interesting watching her pushing him enough to grab her by the neck. That felt a very Doctorish thing to do even though it surprised me. The sci-fi element was the weakest part of the plot but I liked the references to Stormcage and vortex manipulators. In between original ideas of his own Chris Chibnall aren’t wiping all references to the past which gives a sense of continuity
I can’t give it tops marks as there were a couple of scenes that I wanted more from. When Yaz said she was a policewoman and Rosa just accepted it without even questioning further. There were women police in the UK at that time and WPCs were tackling all kinds of police work and respected members of the team after a long struggle, and I think I would have liked to have seen a little bit more discussion around their differing experiences woman to woman. The other scene was in the Tardis as the Doctor explained about what happened to Rosa. That whole scene looked cramped and staged in the set. It did feel a bit of exposition for the audience and as I said previously the Doctor felt schoolmarmish, giving a lesson. It wasn’t delivered that naturally by Jodie. I also got distracted by the Tardis crystal column going up and down in a weirdly wonky in the background. I really don’t like that set.
For a programme lasting 50 minutes, it feels extraordinary that it has made the impact that it has. Humanity is capable of so much good but then parts of it revel in despicable acts and I was so pleased this episode has been made.
How a historical should be made 9 out of 10
Next time scary spiders smothering Sheffield eek!