Doctor Who: 11-03 “Rosa” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Doctor Who is no stranger to dropping viewers into the wonders, secrets and dangers of the past. As it should be, considering the goal to educate while entertaining was the original remit way back when at the show’s origins in 1963, when the initial dream team of Lambert, Newman, Hussein, Derbyshire et. al first came together to begin the legacy. Despite the very first season of the show involving cavemen, Marco Polo and the French Revolution, pure historical stories have been on the wane ever since, usurped by the gradual heavier science fiction elements introduced, and Peter Davison’s Black Orchid in 1982 became the last of its kind. That’s not to say the revived series hasn’t tackled historical figures and events, because it most certainly has, taking in Dickens to Christie through to Pompeii and ancient Scottish highland tribes. Yet there’s never been such caution held in advance to a story of real history as much as the third episode of Series 11, Rosa.
There’s a reverence to the story and legacy of Rosa Parks and the movement surrounding here that demands an amount of tact and careful maturity more than a story about a famous volcano would, not least due to the fact that Rosa’s influence and struggle is still felt by and related to throughout the world today. So the task ahead of writing duo for this story, former Children’s Laurette author Malorie Blackman and showrunner Chris Chibnall was no small one. Thankfully, there never needed to be any doubt at how this would be handled, as there is a level of respect dealt to proceedings that is more than worthy, and very little of reality is buttered up or hidden.
For this is one of those special Doctor Who stories where- yes, there may be a villain- the actual antagonist(s) are much closer to home and more uncomfortable to take. After her fourteenth attempt at returning the gang back to Sheffield (glad to see she still can’t control the TARDIS, poor taste gender jokes from certain corners of the internet be damned) and landing in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, The Doctor detects traces of artron energy that most certainly shouldn’t be here. On the trail to find its source, the crew fall afoul of the real villains within five minutes, as Ryan is subjected to a shocking slap by a white man for a simple kind gesture attempting to return a lost glove. It’s a gut punch of a moment right from the off, and sets out the stall for the uncomfortable events to come.
The technical baddie of Rosa is Krasko, a former Stormcage (wahey for continuity!) prisoner who is in no uncertain terms an ugly individual. He’s got all the swagger of an anti-Captain Jack, even with some Jack-esque “cheap and nasty time travel” on his wrist (comforting to have some classic Doctor lines from Thirteen!), but he’s dispatched with rather easily, as he should be. He’s disposable, but it’s meant to be that way- Krasko is little more than a vessel for showing how racism should be dealt with, defeated and brushed aside, no matter the threat. It’s largely irrelevant anyway, when a goosebump-inducing scene of The Doctor’s friends being shot harsh, disgusted glances by fellow humans or an intense showdown with a police officer in a motel are far more effective at getting across injustice and villainy than any greasy haired jacket wearing rogue could ever.
It’s by playing as close as home to possible that makes Rosa so effecting, with little wonder that one of the strongest scenes of the story (and the series so far) being a simple one of Ryan and Yaz chatting behind a dumpster hiding from police. What they might say dialogue wise may be simplistic, but it rings so true because their personal experience isn’t some fantastical event that’s gone on, it’s real world trauma and unfair treatment that echoes the world of today. It’s also the first time that Yaz (finally!) gets to really blossom, as she reveals how she positive and strong-willed she is towards it all. Being called a Mexican lady when she couldn’t be further from the fact really highlights the ridiculousness of racism, as does her debating what section she has to sit on the first time the gang sit on the bus. Watching Yaz with Rosa late on put a big smile on my face, as she tells Rosa that she’s police- and wants to be in charge.
Ryan’s journey is one of great emotional strife and pay-off, with he as the black member of the team is subjected to the worst treatment. There’s a real sense of maturity in him as the story progresses, the real turmoil of wanting to fight back after the first incident replaced with him becoming involved in the civil rights movement briefly and allowing him to assure Rosa that it does get better, even if it never gets perfect. It’s wonderful to see Ryan get to fanboy over Rosa and Martin Luther King after his troubles, as it is equally cathartic to see him be proud and excited of seeing off Krasko. He might still be impulsive, but the signs of growth in Ryan are there.
While plotting out a plan to keep Rosa safe and let history run its course, we get a terrific TARDIS team investigation with everyone getting to play their part, and the feeling of a family is starting to come together slowly. No less is this evident than in Graham, who goes through almost as much heartache as The Doctor’s other friends, especially given the spectre of former wife Grace who would no doubt have loved to be present. Despite his struggle Graham is key throughout, his bus driver expertise being a big help and his pride stepping in when he can to protect his grandson despite the confused looks he receives from Alabama residents is just superb, while the scene of he and Ryan fishing to annoy bus driver James Blake back to work is hilarious. The Doctor too develops well here, with her firm determined assertiveness as she doesn’t back down against Krasko, hinting at something more angry bubbling underneath, as does her confident verbal slight of hand in telling the policeman that she doesn’t recognize anyone of that description in response to a racial slur. There’s time too for more of those “Doctor knows, or actually is this famous person” moments, this time having given a phone to Elvis and possibly being Banksy.
Rosa herself is played by Vinette Robinson, who plays Rosa with quiet, righteous steel to her, who will no doubt inspire those young enough not to know the real Rosa Parks or her story. Vitally, Rosa never robs her of her own agency, meaning the episode leads to a centerpiece that is one of the most moving scenes Doctor Who has ever done, as The Doctor and friends have to do the one thing that Team TARDIS in the past usually do the opposite of- not interfering, and letting events play out. Between Graham’s heartbreaking reaction at not wanting to be involved to The Doctor’s expression of quiet anguish, the scene plays out movingly but with heavy inspiration, whatever your feelings on the song choice alongside. To see The Doctor- usually the causer of such chaos- take a backseat role to let Rosa Parks take the first step of a legacy by her own strength, is perfect.
Rosa feels like it has come at just the right time in Series 11, to remind new viewers and old alike that the show can be as powerful and educational as it is. While you yourself may know Rosa’s story a little, or maybe even inside out, younger viewers will likely know none of it at all, and episodes like this are important to remind us how the real world can still be, that the fight continues (see: the Ryanair debacle this past week). This is the uglier, more dangerous side of The Doctor’s travels, because it isn’t about demons or alien monsters, its humanity being its own worst enemy, and it’s crucial to those watching to be reminded that injustices can be overcome with teamwork and resilience. And when this silly old show can still create impactful stories like this, it will always be worth it.