Montgomery, Alabama, 1955. We all know who we’re going to meet this week as Doctor Who stares racism right in the face.
Directed by Mark Tonderai
Written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall
Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor
Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien
Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair
Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan
Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks
Joshua Bowman as Krasko
Trevor White as James Blake
Richard Lothian as Mr Steele
Jessica Claire Preddy as Waitress
Gareth Marks as Police Officer Mason
David Rubin as Raymond Parks
Ray Sesay as Martin Luther King
Aki Omoshaybi as Fred Gray
David Dukas as Elias Griffin Jr
Morgan Deare as Arthur
The TARDIS is up to its usual tricks taking the Doctor and her companions to wherever they’re needed rather than where they wanted to go. This time it’s Montgomery, Alabama, the day before Rosa Parks’ famous arrest, and there’s another time traveller in town.
Oh and two of the team aren’t white.
“It’s not like Rosa Parks wiped out racism across the board.”
Apparently nobody can hear any of the crew talking out loud, in public, on a bus, in many places, about their plan to protect events.
The real low point for me though is the event we all knew the episode was leading itself up to, which is shattered under a number of heavy-handed production decisions that took me right out of my engagement in it. Where I might have cried, I got irritated that they spoiled it.
Originality: Someone’s trying to interfere with a key point in history and our unprepared heroes have to stop it and it’s a modern multicultural group in the extremely racist history of America… I don’t feel like there’s anything new here. Quantum Leap certainly springs to mind, although the active interference in the past wasn’t usually present in that series. It’s a nice take on it, but it’s nothing new. 3/6.
Effects: Really minimal effects required for this story. What’s present is solid, but there’s nothing jaw-dropping here. 5/6.
Acting: It’s tempting to say some of the white characters are over-acted, but the more I’ve found out about the 1950’s in the southern United States the more I’ve realised that maybe they’re not. Hard though it is for this reviewer – a white Englishman – to believe, apparently people actually were that overt and that open about racism. Because it was actually enforced by law, and that’s a hard thing to get my head around. So it’s probably not over-acted, the anger and outrage and the pain of it. I know it’s an old trope but Ryan and Yaz experiencing that kind of discrimination first-hand and realising how far things had come in the time they grew up gives us a powerful scene, well played and no doubt drawing upon the actors’ own experiences because there’s no way they grew up in the UK without experiencing exactly what their characters described. We like to think we’re past this (especially this reviewer, who is white and English and grew up being told that racism wasn’t a thing here anymore), but we’re not either. 5/6.
Production: I’m no expert on 1950s America, but everything looks like I’d expect it to. There’s some overly-dramatic framing at times, with our intrepid foursome standing in improbable square formations placed just so within the camera’s field of view, but really the problem for me was the choice of that pivotal event and how it was portrayed. There was too much awareness of how significant it was, and the music threw me completely out of it. Also, sadly, after last episode’s dramatic reveal the TARDIS interior set now looks like it’s made of plastic instead of rock salt. There is, however, some beautiful lighting and colour work, a trend continuing from the previous episode. 3/6.
Story: It’s a fairly straightforward story, kind of a hybrid between Doctor Who and Quantum Leap and it’s neatly packaged and nicely paced. Perhaps a bit too neatly. What we get is a simple time travellers protect history by allowing something unjust to happen right in front of them story, but it works because we get to hear characters from our time talking about how things change, and coming face to face with the reality of where things were, and because it recognises that although we might like to think we’re not racist anymore, it’s still going on. 5/6.
Emotional Response: I got really tense. Really tense. Unfortunately it didn’t quite pay off when my criticism of the production around the pivotal moment kicked in. 4/6.
Overall: I think it’s an excellent episode. Glancing over my Twitter feed I see several people hailing it as the best Doctor Who episode they’ve ever seen. I’m not sure about that, I think they spoiled what might have been the best episode with some emotion-shattering production choices, but I do think this is excellent, and I also know that the total score is not going to fully reflect how good this episode is if you’re just trying to boil it down to a single number. 5/6.
In total, “Rosa” receives 30/42, with the proviso that the majority of the episode is way better than that.