Doctor Who: Rosa

"We’re here. We’re part of the story. Part of history."

There are a lot of different kinds of stories, from adventure to horror, comedy, drama you name it. Everyone has different tastes as far as what works and what doesn’t work for them. So it follows that finding the right balance between story and personal taste is very hard for a general audience. Often something is sacrificed in the name of mass appeal, or it runs the risk of alienating a specific type of audience. Yet, without that risk, a story is usually so generic that it isn’t really exciting or fun to watch. I call it the writers' paradox.

Why do I bring this up?

Well let's start with our story of the week. The Doctor and her friends find themselves in Alabama in the 1950’s a day before Rosa Parks sets off the civil rights movement with a simple act of defiance in the face of institutionalized racism. Sitting down to write that story would be difficult, with a lot of potential pitfalls for a writer to fall into. Go too political and it could come off as preachy, too satirical and it threatens to insult the memory of an important event.

Doctor Who is a peculiar institution. In its very long history, this very kind of writers' paradox has come up on more than one occasion, with mixed results. Probably my favorite (in NuWho) is "Vincent and the Doctor," which took some liberties with history, but painted a picture (forgive the pun) with grace and dignity of a man with serious mental health issues, and gave us arguably one of the best moments in the series history (seriously, the scene in the gallery makes me tear up just thinking about it). That episode threaded the line between history and timey wimey nonsense, and pulled off a great story.

In "Rosa," the writers chose to honor history more directly, while still giving us a silly story with timey wimey nonsense. The key, once again, was staying true to the historical character – specifically, the portrayal of Rosa Parks. Here she is wonderfully captured by Vinette Robinson, who plays her as a cautious and intelligent woman whose defining characteristics are wisdom and kindness. While Rosa's presence in the story was more of a plot convenience, more importantly it was her destiny as a defining point in history that was the whole point of the episode, not saving her life, but saving her legacy.

This point of non-interference was best illustrated in that final scene, when Graham realized that he had to be one of the people that contributed to Rosa’s choice and arrest, and that there was nothing he could do to help her. It was the way the Doctor told him he couldn’t help, and the weight of that evident on all four of their faces. To save history, they had to become a part of it, even though Rosa would end up with years of hardships and indignities as a consequence of their actions.


The high of that moment was a lot like the moment in the gallery with Vincent for me, with obviously different context. Here was the Doctor not cheating and being the hero, and by saving the day she had to essentially be the bad guy, she had to be the one to participate in such blatant hatred and bigotry. It makes you think, which is always the best outcome with a story like this. It wasn’t preachy, and it did manage to thread that line between powerful and fun. It had our companions react to the fact they were time travelers, displaced from the world they knew, in exactly the right ways. From Ryan’s frustration to being black in the American south in the 1950’s, to Yaz encountering a different kind of racism that wasn’t as harsh, but just as malignant.

I think it was Graham and the Doctor feeling so uncomfortable with their roles that really hit home. As a white male liberal, I’ve always felt uncomfortable and horrible about being associated even tangentially with this kind of history. If I had been born in another time, would I have been guilty of that kind of prejudice, bigotry and hatred? I tell myself no, but I have no idea how much the world around me influences my choices.

So was this a great episode?

The alien plot was kind of meh, with a time-traveling prisoner from the future trying to rewrite history. Ryan sending that monster back in time as far as the time-displacement weapon would go was a little messed up, but at the same time satisfying. I expected the Doctor to scold him a bit more about it. Yaz still hasn’t gotten much to do, although it was nice that the Doctor utilized her police background to help. The same with Graham yet again using his job as a bus driver in a useful way, I wonder how often that will work.

So yeah, the rest of the episode was fine, not great but good. Leaving me to really judge the episode by the ending, and for me, it did elevate this episode from good to exceptional.

Bits:

Vinette Robinson (Rosa Parks) has appeared on Doctor Who before in the episode "42."

It was mentioned at the beginning of the episode that the Doctor is having trouble with the TARDIS controls. I wonder if that is going to be an ongoing issue.

Now that we've seen a much more clear image of the new TARDIS, I can confidently say I don't love it.

Quotes:

Krasko: "Blue box in the alley, is it a TARDIS?"
The Doctor: "Might be. What's it to you?"
Krasko: "Well, could be worth a lot."
The Doctor: "Nah, not that one. Second hand, huge mileage, one careless owner."

Graham: "Oi! Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing? That is vandalism, we'll have to pay for that!"
The Doctor: "Don't worry, special pen."
Graham: "No, pack it in, you ain't Banksy!"
The Doctor: "Or am I?"

Graham: "You haven’t got Elvis’ phone number?"
The Doctor: "Don’t let anyone know I lent him a mobile phone."

Yaz: "We’re here. We’re part of the story. Part of history."
Graham: "No no, I don’t want to be part of this."
The Doctor: "We have to. I’m sorry. We have to not help her."

4 out of 4 Crazy Alien Weapons in a Briefcase

J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.

11 comments:

sunbunny said...

Best of the season so far. I was SO nervous knowing they were going to do this, because I didn't want it to become the Doctor and her friends taking away this huge moment from a very real, human person who made a choice. But, thankfully, they didn't take that route. Instead it was about foiling the antagonist from taking the victory away from Mrs. Parks.

I had a couple complaints about the episode but they're pretty small, relatively speaking. I guess it had to be done for exposition for younger viewers but it annoyed me that Ryan was just walking around the segregated south at his ease. Like...shouldn't he have known to be scared, or at the very least, careful? I get the Doctor not warning him, she's spacey (in more ways than one).

And then how Ryan dealt with the bad guy was so dark. Chibs (who cowrote this ep) has the habit of making the Doctor or her companions do really dark shit and then playing it off like it was no big deal. (I'm thinking of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship).

Two issues with Krasko. First of all, HE WAS IN STORMCAGE. IT WAS THE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY TO ACKNOWLEDGE RIVER SONG AND SEASONS PAST AND THEY MISSED IT. I didn't need the Doctor going "Oh, I know Stormcage. My wife was in Stormcage!" but something would have been nice. And then, okay, maybe I'm showing my whiteness here but the idea that we're still going to have people so so racist that far in the future is just DEPRESSING AS HELL. DW's always been hopeful about humanity's future. Well, mostly. Won't we ever grow out of racism? Won't we get past it at some point? Depressing.

Further question: Will the Doctor continue walking around the past in totally anachronistic clothing? She always has before, but she's also always been a dude. Women are far more policed in their appearance. Part of me wants her to continue not giving a shit about society's expectations, part of me really wants to see her get dressed up once in a while. Doctors past have gotten dolled up on occasion so why shouldn't Thirteen? (I was just watching Thin Ice last night and the Doctor was rocking a totally Regency-appropriate look, for instance).

sunbunny said...

ALSO I can't believe you got through this entire review without relating Krasko to Spike! They both got chips in their brains that keep them from killing people! I wonder if Chibs is a Buffy fan...James Marsters was on Torchwood...

Billie Doux said...

I felt much the same -- sort of uncomfortable about what they were doing, since the racism situation feels awfully retro these days. But that scene where the big moment was coming and the Doctor said that they couldn't help Rosa actually got to me and I started to cry. It was pretty powerful. Good comparison to that big moment in the Vincent episode, J.D. -- it was much like that.

Not a perfect episode, as you said. But they did what they set out to do.

Patrick said...

I was a bit worried about this episode going into it. Politics is digging deeper and deeper into our entertainment, and it's a trend I'm not fond of. But I think they struck a pretty good balance in this one. The main weak spot was the villain, totally forgettable. Joe Random Racist from the future? He was nothing but a walking plot device(and it didn't help that his acting was weak). But thankfully there was more good than bad.

* I'm still enjoying Jodie as The Doctor. I think they handled the whole gender change thing the right way. "Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman", and on to the adventure. :) She's got an excellent sense of timing with her dialogue, and she's very likable. Still hate the outfit though.

* LOVED The Doctor hinting that she might be Banksy, that was a hoot :)

* I get that MLK was a contemporary of Rosa Parks, but he felt shoehorned into the episode as little more than a name-drop.

* For a decent chunk of the episode when they were trying to make sure history unfolded as intended, I thought they were going to make Graham drive the bus and live out what happened. Recall that line where he mentioned what Grace said to him when she learned he was a bus driver, and imagine if he actually had to BE that guy in those pivotal moments. Then again, that might have been pushing things too far.

* Elvis & Sinatra with a cellphone loaned by The Doctor. Gotta love it. :)

Lisianpeia said...

I got the feeling that the idea was for the villain to be a random white bad guy, maybe as a representation of everlasting institutionalized racism? The way Ryan dealt with him was really dark and weird. I thought there were going to be repercurssions.

I also thought Graham was going to drive the bus. But I think the ending was perfect the way it was. Having the Doctor and Graham do nothing was a great way to represent another facet of institutionalized racism (doing nothing most times is just as bad) and of highlighting their privelege.

As a white woman, my feelings while watching these scene were very similar to yours J.D. As a white woman living in Brazil in the current social political climate watching the whole episode was very emotional.

PS: Great comparison with "Vincent and the Doctor"!! I'm loving everything about this new season.

Nonei said...

I also was a bit apprehensive about them taking on such a significant moment/person, but I think it was handled very well, especially the scene on the bus at the end. Very moving.
I was a little disappointed about 2 things, but would still give the episode full marks... I wish it were a little more than "random racist white guy" being the antagonist. I'm glad though the tipping point went toward the important parts of the story.
The other thing I was disappointed in was the reactions of the other white people in the story. I know most of them either agreed w the feelings of the day or at least were afraid to disagree... but a few more shots of one or two feeling uncomfortable/helpless with the way black folks were being treated would have been appropriate, I think, and also would have reinforced the message that doing nothing is just as bad.

An Honest Fangirl said...

I think hat this was my least favorite episode so far. It just didn't really click for me. I didn't have an emotional connection, although I did like how the Doctor and companions had to sit by and just watch things happen. I also was certain that Graham was going to be the one driving the bus, even if I strongly doubt that he could go through with it.

I did enjoy all of the little moments between Yaz and Ryan, though. I like the friendship that they have. It feels real and authentic.

Also, I spent literally the whole episode trying to place where I knew the Bag Guy from. Turns out he was Daniel from the show "Revenge." I used to love that show.

mprod said...

Sorry a small thing from a long time lurker

Elvis was still a nobody in 55 and late 56 Sinatra went public about how much he hated this awful new pelvis music they didn´t even meet until late 59 early 60 when frank at least officially changed his mind and wanted elvis on his show

stilled liked the episode but as someone who are a good friend with an elvis expert that part irked somewhat

migmit said...

This was horrible. It took me more than two hours just to finish this episode, I just had to distract myself with something. And I have too much respect to "Doctor Who" and to Jodie Whittaker to fast-forward it.

It wasn't even an episode. It was a history lesson, plus a bit — or rather a huge blob — of anti-racism message. It's not a bad thing by itself; done properly it could be great, enhancing the story rather than distracting from it. Zootoopia is a nice example: it's pretty heavy on anti-racism and it's wonderful. The problem was... there wasn't anything else. At least not something good. They've got another historical figure in this episode — Dr. King — who had zero reason to be there. They've got a paper-thin villain who was disposed of quickly and easily — so quickly and easily that it makes you wonder why didn't they do the same thing earlier. They even got a long lecture at the end, with regular people discussing — not what they just personally experienced, but a piece of history that is quite far from them. And same people who were spewing information about Parks and her protest — come on, how many people (not time-travelling aliens) actually remember a day something happened if it's not a national holiday? — suddenly forget everything and feign interest while listening to the Doctor reciting historical facts.

And when for an hour I hear nothing but "racism is bad, racism is bad, racism is bad" — at some point I will snarl "Yes, I know, now shut up!" It could be saved with a good story — but there wasn't one. In fact, the time period was so... dystopian, it felt absolutely separated from us (I have no idea, maybe it was THAT bad — that's not the point).

I need something interesting. Please.

CAD said...

So - I'm not going to offer an opinion on the episode as a piece of art. I do want to share a concern I have about how the episode represents Rosa Park's decision to not give up her seat in 1955. There are pieces of story telling in the episode that indicate that Rosa Parks was part of an organized effort to initiate a bus boycott to push back Jim Crow...the meeting of at her home, the depiction of James' Blake's racist treatment of her in 1943, but I don't think if one isn't looking for those moments one will get that message. For a long time I didn't know that Rosa Parks trained as an activist at the Highlander Folk School and that she went on the bus that day with the agreed-upon intent to start the boycott. I might be projecting here, but I suspect that is a pretty common misunderstanding. Watching this episode (which, to my mind aimed higher than most television does) would not have corrected my prior ignorance of what strikes me as a really important piece of information about her activism and the civil rights movement. The "butterfly effect" aspect of the episode's plot comes close to hinging on the idea that Rosa's decision that day was due to a confluence of easily disrupted events and strong individual character. It's understandably hard to give the series regular characters some agency AND also describe how the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the collective product of organized bravery and planning, but it doing so would have really provided a service.

Darren Smith said...

I'm guessing Cibnall was a Quantum leap fan because that's what this episode felt like.Season 5 with the evil leapers