This review contains spoilers.
When it was revealed that the third episode of this year’s Doctor Who run would feature the story of Rosa Parks, you could hear the collective clenching from the other side of the internet. After all, there were so many ways in which this could go horribly, horribly wrong. More than any historical figure the Doctor has met on their travels, Parks is such an important figure to so many people, and her fight such an emotive one.
In tackling events and subjects such as these, there are two major pitfalls that need to be avoided: First, the history needs to be handled with appropriate respect and reverence, and Parks not robbed of her agency. It’s all too easy to imagine a story written with the best of intentions which culminates in the Doctor having a hearts-to-heart with Rosa which inspires her to take a stand, and to do so would rob Parks’ actions of their meaning. The second pitfall is that it needs to do all of that while still working as a Doctor Who story.
The good news is that ‘Rosa’ absolutely does justice to the events that took place on that evening in 1955. To set the scene, we get a prologue of sorts as we witness Parks’ first encounter with James Blake in 1943, and it quickly becomes apparent that there’s very little sugarcoating for kids here – racial slurs are bandied around, and Blake’s actions are shockingly violent and aggressive from the outset. It’s uncomfortable viewing, and deliberately so – which should perhaps come as no surprise given that the episode was co-written by former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, whose Noughts And Crosses series of novels is set in a dystopian future fuelled by racism.
Rosa is played by Vinette Robinson, who manages to embody Parks with apparent ease. Though her accent is a little inconsistent at times, Robinson exudes both a quiet strength and a weariness at the continued injustices thrown her way. There’s a fire in her when she meets the TARDIS team, as she tells them in no uncertain terms to leave Montgomery or face the consequences.
Alarm bells may ring when the Doctor detects artron energy surrounding Parks – the notion of Rosa Parks having travelled in time is one that would rightly make this episode the subject of much scorn and derision – but for the most part the Doctor and her friends don’t have any direct influence on Rosa. They’re running around in the background, undoing the meddling and making sure that history runs its course. It’s a fine line to walk, having the Doctor and friends going to great pains to engineer the situation on the bus, but Blackman and Chris Chibnall make sure that the time travellers are silent observers to the pivotal events.
Which brings us to the one scene everyone will remember this episode by in years to come. I recently rewatched David Tennant’s swansong ‘The End Of Time’, and the most heartbreaking moment isn’t the Doctor whining a teary farewell in the TARDIS – it’s the four knocks from Wilf, trapped in the radiation chamber. In that moment we see the inevitable tragedy that’s about to happen, our characters trapped in events that they – and we – are powerless to stop.
It’s the same here; the Doctor realising they have to stay on the bus and be present for Parks’ protest and arrest hits the team – and the audience – square in the stomach. Bradley Walsh has been somewhat inconsistent as Graham, but when he’s good he’s fantastic – and his protestations that “I don’t want to be a part of this!” are gut-wrenching. It’s then down to Vinette Robinson to deliver the killer blow, which she does – and it’s every bit as powerful as it needs to be, set to the strains of Andra Day’s ‘Rise Up’. As the episode ends, it is unlikely that there is anyone watching who will forget the story of Rosa Parks.
So, how does ‘Rosa’ fare as a Doctor Who story? It’s at this point that we need to talk about the nature of Doctor Who as a series. A key part of the show’s original 1963 remit was that it would be as educational as it was fantastical; and as such the Doctor and his friends would regularly encounter real-life historical figures and situations with no concession towards science fiction other than the TARDIS itself.
Of the eight stories that comprised the first season (as they were referred to by the production team of the time) of Doctor Who, three were pure historicals – focusing on Marco Polo, the Aztecs and the French Revolution. Indeed, three of the four episodes that made up the very first serial revolved around cavemen and the discovery of fire. This idea continued through the first few years of the show, until it was phased out in favour of the heavier sci-fi and monster-led installments. Between early 1967 and today, there’s been exactly one ‘pure historical’ story – 1982’s ‘Black Orchid’.
However, Chris Chibnall has spoken repeatedly about his desire to return the educational focus to Doctor Who, and while ‘Rosa’ isn’t quite devoid of sci-fi elements, it’s arguably the closest the post-2005 series has come to the old historical format by a comfortable margin. For all the nerves around the episode’s subject matter, it’s here that the episode is most likely to prove divisive; in deviating so far from the style that we’re used to, viewers tuning in specifically for a slice of sci-fi adventure are going to be left sorely disappointed.
Simply put, the plot involving Krasko (Joshua Bowman) is almost insultingly flimsy. Tooled up with a vortex manipulator like a cut-price Captain Jack, Krasko’s meddling is so low-key and mundane that, rather than being a menace, he never rises above the level of minor nuisance, subjecting the TARDIS crew to minor inconvenience at every turn. With his technology taken away and it established that he can’t harm or kill anyone, no amount of dialogue from the regulars telling us how clever Krasko is can stop him from being one of the most impotent villains the series has produced.
All of which wouldn’t be so bad if the character had any discernible personality or charisma to add to proceedings. Flimsy motivations are papered over with a fan-pleasing continuity reference (The Stormcage being the prison where River Song was locked up), and Joshua Bowman’s lines are so workmanlike that it’s little wonder the Doctor is apathetic enough to let him walk free after their last confrontation. The fact that he’s dispatched with such ease by Ryan ends up being annoying not because it’s an anti-climax but because the manner of his departure suggests we may end up having to see him again.
Ultimately, the Krasko storyline feels like an afterthought. It’s as though the Rosa Parks story was written with great care and attention as a purely historical tale, and then at the last minute someone got cold feet and threw in a bit of sci-fi. Perhaps a better tack to take would have been to have the Doctor’s arrival and initial interaction with Parks threatening history, Back To The Future-style. That way the Doctor and friends would still have needed to set things back on the right course, but in a way that focused on the core team rather than needing to shoehorn in a ‘baddy’.
Because really, these events didn’t need outside assistance to contain a sense of menace. ‘Rosa’ is unflinching in its depiction of the casual – and not-so-casual – racism prevalent in 1950s America. With one or two notable exceptions, Doctor Who’s handling of racism has, until now, been largely allegorical – see the xenophobia of the Daleks, or the slavery inflicted upon the Ood. But here it’s starkly painted. Violence is inflicted upon characters for the colour of their skin, authority figures are the enemy and we hear words that would have no place in pretty much any other Doctor Who episode.
For many, this will seem jarring and uncomfortable – and it’s supposed to be. Because for many others, the events and behaviours in this story will be upsettingly familiar – you only need to look at the footage captured this week of a passenger hurling racial abuse at a woman in her 70s aboard a plane to realise how much progress there is still to be made, and how important it is that we don’t shy away from tackling these issues.
It should be said that, for all of the discomfort and real-world evil in this episode, it’s not a complete gloomfest. The four regulars all possess real comic chops, and there’s some real laughs to be found in the darkness – the Doctor hinting at being Banksy and Ryan repeatedly calling Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King by their full names being two of the best examples of this. Put simply, the characters bring the lightness with them – there’s even a hint at a potential romance between Ryan and Yas.
‘Rosa’ is not a typical Doctor Who episode. The subject matter is heavy, the pace is slower than usual – presumably to allow the full horror of the setting to sink in – and the sci-fi elements are sorely lacking. But as a one-off it’s a powerful piece of drama, and one which is sure to have families talking to one another about it long after the end credits have rolled.
Read Pete’s spoiler-filled review of the previous episode, The Ghost Monument, here.