Doctor Who: Rosa Review – “An Electrifying Piece of Historical Drama”

Broadcast Date: 21 October 2018
Writer: Malorie Blackman & Chris Chibnall

Viewers were treated to an emotionally electrifying episode of Doctor Who this weekend as the TARDIS crew meet Rosa Parks and witness the start of the Montgomery bus boycott.

*Warning: This review contains spoilers. Read at your own peril!*

Doctor Who, since its conception in 1963, has successfully included historical figures in its episodes. Whether the narrative is firmly within the historical fiction genre, as was the case during the early seasons of the show (‘Marco Polo’ or ‘The Aztecs’) or includes various science-fiction elements, commonly used by the revived series (‘The Shakespeare Code’ or ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’), the majority brilliantly combine the entertainment of the show with the educational factor on the figure and the world around them. ‘Rosa’ is an exceptional episode in this category, not being afraid to show the darkest side of human behaviour in order to educate the audience on how far society has come in just a few decades.

From the very first incident involving companion Ryan (Tosin Cole) and a very angry white man, viewers could feel the lighter nature of the previous episode completely extinguish and be replaced by an ultra-dark tone more suited to the now discontinued late-night spin-off Torchwood. Guest writer Malorie Blackman does a terrific job in the opening half of the episode to throw the TARDIS crew in at the deep end; even the cool-headed Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is at a loss for words at the barrage of racism facing her friends. Blackman is also the first black writer on the show and it is clear from the outset that viewers are experiencing the true nature of racism that a white writer may not have the ability or experience to get across.

Rosa Promo Shot1
The Doctor’s companions are forced to keep their heads down in a racist 1950s America. (BBC, 2018)

The first half of the episode is tone and structurally perfect, bar a couple of Banksy references from The Doctor that felt so out of place. But then it starts to unravel slightly when we become aware of the antagonist’s plans; who, as I suspected from the “Next Time” trailer, was indeed a time travelling agent. There was a brief moment when Krasko (Josh Bowman) was on the verge of revealing an explosive identity, only to have him be unmasked as a future… racist. Yet another villain who is seemingly wasted by Chibnall, though it could be argued that the true villains are the white people in this society. His appearance left far more questions than answers though, so maybe viewers will see him again in the future. It was a good twist to have him aim to slightly alter history so Rosa Parks didn’t have to give up her seat, as it meant The Doctor and her companions were forced to sit in agony as she was taken away by the police.

Vinette Robinson did a terrific job as Rosa Parks, initially seeming quite meek and powerless but having the inner strength required to fight back against the oppressive nature of her society. The bus scene was the best scene in the Chibnall era so far, so wonderfully acted by Robinson, Cole and Graham (Bradley Walsh) in particular, who struggled with his privilege as a white man for being unable to get involved. I actually liked the inclusion of the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day, taking the emotion up to a notch that we haven’t seen in years on the show. I’m not sure it warranted being played over the end credits though, felt like it slightly took away from the magic of that moment.

You notice that I haven’t mentioned Yaz (Mandip Gil) once in this review and that is because she is once again criminally underused, merely being involved in a will-they-won’t-they moment with Ryan and moaning that she is being confused as Mexican by the locals. The next episode sees Yaz’s family making their first appearances, but at this point of the show, Ryan’s grandmother and Graham’s wife, now deceased, has had more of a hand and influence on the show. This reminds me of how they had to balance the roles of the companions in eras such as the Peter Davison one, and sadly one companion would always play a smaller role than the others (sorry Nyssa!). The other main niggle I had was that the start and the end was terrific, yet there was a ten minute second in the middle that seemed to remove the dark racist tones and turn it into something which people could laugh at, and the less said about Martin Luther King being used as a pun by Ryan which fell as flat as a pancake, the better.

Overall, these are just minor quibbles. I had my fears before the season started that Chris Chibnall couldn’t produce a terrific episode Doctor Who but if we discount the dud of episode two, then he had done that for both of them. It was the most emotional episode in years and the reaction from fans on social media shows that it isn’t just me who feels like this way. It seems the show is in safe hands and I hope that the good run continues with episode four, titled ‘Arachnids in the UK’. I wonder what that will be about…

Star Rating: 4/5

What did you make of ‘Rosa’?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!


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