Doctor Who (Modern): S11E03 “Rosa”

Series 11
Directed by Mark Tonderai
Written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall

Last episode was a bit of a come down from the premiere, but now we finally have the (newly redesigned) TARDIS back.  Granted it’s not likely one that the Doctor has any control of since her stated intention was to return her three new companions home and the setting of this episode is not present day.  The episode’s name “Rosa” immediately conjures thoughts of “Rose”, the debut episode of NuWho which took its name from the new companion, yet to the best of my knowledge, there’s no thematic link.  Instead, the titular Rosa is Rosa Parks, noted American civil rights activist.  It’s an odd decision for the show which otherwise has been seemingly so conscious in its naming to make two so confusingly similar in name (already Google has struggled a bit with the distinction and I don’t look forward to future confusion), but maybe the episode will end with Rosa Parks becoming the fourth companion of The Doctor.

After a (poorly shot between the odd scoring choices and over-the-top acting) short scene of Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson of Sherlock) being thrown off a bus in 1943 for entering through the wrong door of the bus.  After fourteen failed attempts to get them home, the TARDIS has landed in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and it’s clear that the TARDIS is unstuck in time.  I brought up last time the three-companion format brought back memories of the First Doctor era and I guessed that this would be the case, but it looks like there’s a good chance this season we are moving back to the format of the first two Doctors where they did not have any control over where the TARDIS headed.  While the show pulling from its past has been a constant throughout the show, I have to say that I’m a bit surprised that after the negative response to the First Doctor influenced Twelfth Doctor, that they are heading back again to that era, this time for its format.

Doctor Who as a show has historically shied away from real life depictions of racism.  It hasn’t avoided it completely, but generally it sticks to alien races when it wants to make a point about the issue.  Even with Martha Jones (played by Frema Agyeman of Iranian-Ghanaian descent) as the constant sole companion in the third series and Bill Potts (played by Pearl Mackie of half-West Indian descent), the show mostly dodged the obvious issues that would be brought up by the fact that in black people have not been treated well in most points of British history (or as this episode points out at one point, continuing into the present day) and would have led to her character being singled out.  The companions would bring it up occasionally, but it would never become a major issue.  Yet, this episode right off the bat does not shy away from the fact that two of the companions are minorities in the very Deep South at the height of the civil rights movement (the recent murder of Emmett Till is discussed).  Ryan is slapped for going up to and trying to get the attention of a white man, they get refused service at a restaurant, and they are forced to sneak in and about a motel.  Thankfully in the first case Rosa Parks is able to defuse the situation.

The only reason they even choose this time period to stop off in is because the TARDIS detects traces of artron energy in the area (what the TARDIS runs on) and so the Doctor decides to check it out.  The energy is coming from Rosa Parks and a man (played by Joshua Bowman of REVENGE! in all his toothpick chewing glory) shows an inordinate amount of interest in both her and the TARDIS.  The Doctor offers to let Ryan and Yas sit this out but inspired by Rosa Parks, they chose not to since she doesn’t sit things out.  It’s not the first time The Doctor has extended such an offer and in fact she has been quite insistent in the past during certain dangerous situations, but this is perhaps the first time I remember the companions’ decision being one so tied to identity and not simply curiosity, boldness, stubbornness, or simply wanting to help the Doctor.

The man, Krasko,  threatens the Doctor, telling her to leave and recognizing her ship as a TARDIS.  He was released from Stormcage Containment Facility with a neural restrictor preventing him from killing (he was responsible for the deaths of 2,000).  He views Rosa Parks as where things started to go wrong and says doesn’t want Ryan’s “kind to get above themselves” and the Stormcage-Stormfront parallels seem pretty obvious.  Possessing a vortex manipulator (which were first shown used by Jack Harkness in “The Empty Child”), he plans to make small changes to history, just enough to I guess Make America Great Again.  The line isn’t spoken, but the undercurrent is there.

Ryan continues to come off as a bit slow, also doesn’t know who Rosa Parks is despite having been in a class named after her in school, but he does get some development here though as he just spends time with Rosa Parks and her husband and learns from them. Perhaps the most interesting part is what they do with Yas who gets mistaken for a Mexican and while generally discriminated against just as bad, actually winds up being allowed to ride the bus in the front. The last bit I’ll admit seems to be a stretch by the show’s writers, not because they don’t recognize where she comes from (or don’t just guess Indian), but that they permit her in the front of the bus there, a contrivance that feels added merely to let them make a point about her being split between worlds and for the final twist.

Throughout the whole episode I kept hoping “please don’t make this show the inspiration for one of the great moments in African-American civil rights history” and as the TARDIS crew and Krasko compete with each other to try and make it happen (in a delightful fashion) that thought hovered over me. Yet, it was a great and cruel twist of fate that instead the three of them (minus Ryan) are ultimately part of the cause in a superficially negative way, as they are the three who force Rosa Parks to give up her seat.

Doctor Who doesn’t do subtle so when it comes to Doctor Who tackling racism, especially minus any metaphors, it shouldn’t really be expected.  And sure enough, this episode is far from that with numerous glorified speeches and history lessons.  That being said, it’s also a far more compelling episode than those that came before that takes on issues the show has been unwilling to tackle head on before.  It’s also the best use yet of all three companions, making them all feel integrated to the story and having traits about them define their character’s behavior.  The feel of Series 11 is starting to come together and hopefully they can build off this next week.

Grade: B+

Stray Observations

– Other things you shouldn’t expect from Doctor Who, respectable American accents let alone Southern ones.
– This is the first episode not solely written by showrunner Chris Chibnall with Malorie Blackman, the author of the Noughts and Crosses YA series, co-writing.  Considering he’s listed as sole writer of the next two episodes, it’s going to be our one chance for a while to see another voice contributing.
– The Doctor has lent Elvis a mobile who has apparently shared it with Frank Sinatra.  For some reason this just felt unlikely.
– The Doctor implies she may be Banksy, but while I can’t say her tone was convincing, I also don’t want to believe it is true.
– She also still hasn’t gotten used to being called ma’am which I find amusing since it works on the multiple levels of the obvious (only the third full episode as a female doctor) and the less (in that phrase being one I’ve heard from those not used to the formality or the fact that it is usually applied to older women which implies that they have reached a certain age).
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The TARDIS crew reflects on Rosa Parks’s life while gazing upon an asteroid named for her.

Next Up: Doctor Who Classic coverage will return on 11/5 with “The Krotons” at 10 AM but before that, we have the next episode with the Thirteenth Doctor next Sunday, 10/28, with “Arachnids in the UK”.