Doctor Who: 11.03 Rosa
Simple, beautiful and very timely; that's the best way I can describe the latest episode of Doctor Who, an episode that saw the Doctor and her companions arrive in 1955 Alabama and the start of the civil rights movement in the actions of Rosa Parks (played eloquently by guest star Vinette Robinson).
I wonder how timeless this episode will feel in years to come (I suspect it will) but in the current climate there was something hugely powerful about the look on racism in display in this time period. The initial joys of time travel quickly faded away for Graham, Yaz and Ryan most of all. From the slap for daring to pick up a white woman's fallen glove to being refused service, Ryan saw the full impact of persecution just for his skin colour.
Tosin Cole was superb this episode, forcing down that quiet rage as he was abused, at one point hunted down by a policeman and forced to hide behind a bin with Yaz and then resigning himself to sit in the coloured section at the back of the bus while his friends sat up front. Through his eyes we saw the full horror of persecution and racism. But Cole also continue of to bring passion to the role; the moment he realised he was talking to both Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in the same room was incredibly heartwarming.
There was just as good material for Mandip Gill to get into, finally getting moments to shine after standing in a bit of the shadow for Ryan, Graham and the Doctor for the first two episodes. She too faced a white, racist America; refused service for being a 'Mexican' and then forced to hide with Ryan from the police officer, Yaz also experienced what it was like to experience hate. The scene as they hid behind the bin and Ryan talked of being picked up by the police more than his white friends and Yaz being referred to as a 'Packi' on the job showed that society hasn't moved on enough from this period. It was also something that was not a straightforward journey either; unlike Ryan she was allowed a 'white seat' on the bus, making for a confusing, challenging experience.
This was a raw and often uncomfortable experience but a valuable one too. One of Doctor Who's original mission statements back in the 60s was to educate its young audience and this was certainly an education experience; co-writers Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall exposing the origins of the civil rights movement in an extremely tumultuous time period. In many ways it almost felt like a pure historical and was all the better for it.
Thanks to Mark Tonderai's taught direction (the south African filming location really brought the heat and look of 50s Alabama to life) and the emotive performances of all involved, this was deeply engaging material throughout. Not only did Cole and Gill really get their teeth into the companion's experiences, there was also great banter between Jodie Whittaker's Doctor and Bradley Walsh's Graham ("I'm not Banksy, or am I?) coupled with their deeply uncomfortable reactions to the situation they were witnessing. The Doctor's "We have to not help her" as they relealised they had to stay and watch Rosa's arrest in the episode's climax was powerful stuff that didn't shy away from the subject material even once.
And Robinson brought both heart and gravitas to the title character, bringing to screen a woman that was brave enough to take action when no one else would and helped change the world as a result. Racism is unfortunately far from dead, but thanks to her, things are very different and in the current climate it's hugely important to have stories like this that educate on the past and reinforce the changes still needed.
The side plot with future criminal Krasko (Josh Bowman) is the one aspect of Rosa that perhaps didn't work quite as well. Bowman did what he could with the role and it was nice to see Whittaker engage in a slightly more cunning, fierce side to the Doctor to outwit him, even if she did seem more unsure of herself. However, what Krasko's presence did bring to the episode was the agency of the Doctor and her companions to ensure history was maintained and stop his actions to prevent the incident on the bus from ever happening. All the characters were served well - Yaz using her police skills to deduce the timeline of events, Ryan to follow and protect Rosa, Graham to ensure the bus ran on time and with the right driver and of course the Doctor to outwit Krasko, even if it was Ryan that ultimately defeated him. Krasko also served of course to remind the audience that even in the distant future there will still be racism and it needs to be fought against.
There was a surprising amount of tension in that final act as the TARDIS team tried to stay ahead and put all the pieces in order to ensure the bus ran and there were enough passengers for Rosa to be ordered to give up her seat and arrested. It was simply but elegantly executed - younger fans expecting some big alien drama might have been disappointed - and the moment it dawned on Yaz that they were part of this historical event, it took on a more deeply personal angle too. My only small criticism - why use a modern song? As beautiful as it was, it felt jarring, pulling me out of the time setting. Surely there were plenty of songs of that era that could have worked just as well?
We haven't seen much spectacle this series yet, with Chris Chibnall's brand of deep character focus continuing into this episode. But it was executed well; the future time interference plot being the only weak element, the jarring modern song and perhaps still a clunky line of Chibnall's dialogue her or there. But they were far outweighed by the strength of the material. There was a powerful social message here and a deeply emotional one too; not since perhaps 2010's Vincent And The Doctor, has a historical episodes resonated so deeply. Rosa was a rare treat, one I'm glad we all got to see...