Doctor Who Review: Rosa

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All this basically kicked off the US civil rights movement. See? I’m not totally ignorant.

Going into this, there was, obviously, a lot to worry about.

This is self evidently the sort of story Doctor Who should tell. It’s the sort of history Doctor Who should engage with, the world it should take place in, the message it should impart.

That’s something I’ve been saying for a long time; that Doctor Who should have a more international reach, that it should engage with the real world, that it should be more diverse and inclusive in its ambitions and its reach. In 2018, a Doctor Who episode about Rosa Parks (and, implicitly, about racism) is exactly the sort of story it should tell.

But it’s also the sort of story that could very easily go wrong, the sort of episode where it’d be easy to make mistakes. The potential pitfalls of Doctor Who and Rosa Parks vs the Space Racist is, to put it mildly, concerning; it’s the sort of thing where “that’s a little white saviour-y” feels almost like the best you can hope for. And at that point you start to wonder if, perhaps, this is the sort of thing where it’s better not to have tried at all than to try and fail so egregiously.

Certainly, I was worried. Not massively, not at first; Malorie Blackman’s writing credit was a huge positive sign (and in hindsight, one that really wasn’t made enough of – she’s probably the most significant guest writer since Neil Gaiman, both in terms of her own vast achievements and reputation, and in terms of Doctor Who having its first ever female writer of colour) but the fact that Chris Chibnall had co-written the episode was a little concerning. And, to be honest, the closer to the time it got, the easier it seemed to imagine ways this could go wrong. Krasko worried me, the fact Graham was a bus driver was worrying me, the idea of the Doctor giving Rosa Parks a rousing speech to inspire her into action was worrying me. For all that I’d argue in theory that it’s a story worth telling, I think there’s an argument worth making that this is the sort of history that’s a little too complicated for a children’s show to handle.

The fact that it actually mostly didn’t go wrong seems, in retrospect, both fait accompli and something of a miracle. But I do think it is actually fair to say that it mostly didn’t go wrong.

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Immediately, I think, it’s worth emphasising how deft a script this is, how smart and subtle some of its choices are – it’s obviously the best episode of series 11 so far, and I suspect it’ll be able to make a genuine claim to the best episode of series 11 full stop. There’s the obvious, of course, and I’ll talk about that in a second, but it’s not just the big, climactic ending of Rosa that matters; it’s Yaz and Ryan behind the dumpster, it’s the Doctor confronting a policeman, its Graham’s pride calling Ryan his grandson. Rosa does a much, much better job than its predecessors at bringing these characters to life, and the episode is immensely better for it.

I mentioned above that one of my worries ahead of this episode was that we’d see the Doctor, or indeed her companions, inspire Rosa to take action – a speech about why she matters, how brilliant she is and the impact she has on the future, or something along those lines. Even in the moment, I was worried there’d be some stolen glance between Rosa and Ryan. That it didn’t happen is a relief, frankly; it’s somehow both the most glaring mistake the episode could have made, and indeed could very realistically have made, as well as being the sort of thing that self evidently needed to be avoided.

In turn, then, Rosa’s refusal to stand and subsequent arrest was the most powerful moment of the episode – not only in preserving her agency, in actually allowing her to make her stand (or not, as the case may be), but in making the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham simply watch, unable to help, indeed, even complicit. Everything about the moment works – from Vinette Robinson to Bradley Walsh to that music (it’s not out of place, it’s pitch perfect) – and there’s a sense that yes, actually, Doctor Who told this story and told it well, and that’s something that really, genuinely matters. On the strength of that moment alone, Rosa is going to be an episode that people cite and refer back to for a long, long time – it’s perhaps set to be the defining episode of the Chibnall era full stop, something that’ll be held in the zeitgeist for far longer that The Unquiet Dead or Victory of the Daleks might have been.

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When I rewatched this episode, though, ahead of writing this review, I did start to wonder: was I so worried about it being absolutely disastrous, and in turn so relieved that it wasn’t, that I didn’t hold Rosa to other standards I otherwise would have?

The answer, I suspect, is yes.

Rosa falls very much into the ‘great man of history’ tradition, an idea I’ve increasingly come to dislike of late – of course it does, though, being that it is a Doctor Who celebrity historical. Just look at the title; this was always going to fall under a certain type of episode. At the same time, it’s quite a… not sanitised, exactly, but comparatively safe version of history, very much in line with the prevailing Rosa Parks narrative, the accepted version of the story. I tend to go back and forth about how much that sort of thing bothers me. Jamestown, for instance, is a historical drama, and it’s probably very easy to point out flaws in terms of historical accuracy; I’m not really convinced that matters, though, because Jamestown isn’t about history, it’s about the present. The same tends to apply to Doctor Who, to my mind, with the actual factual details of history mattering less than the point the story is working too.

Here, though, I’m wavering. There was something that felt a little intellectually dishonest about Rosa, and the way it purported to be an educational piece while not actually holding true to a lot of the facts. Presenting the Montgomery bus boycotts as the result of, essentially, random chance, a series of small coincidences that lead to one woman making a spur of the moment decision that changed everything simply isn’t true; suggesting that was what happened doesn’t sit entirely well with me. The story gestures at Parks’ role in the NAACP, but I’m not quite convinced it does enough. Given how accurate a lot of the rest of the story is (right down to the dialogue), the way the story sidesteps this feels like a fairly notable exclusion.

I don’t know. It is, obviously, a very safe piece; a Rosa Parks story is an obviously ‘safer’ piece than a Martin Luther King or Malcolm X piece would have been, and I suspect a story about American racism is inherently ‘safer’ than one about British racism would’ve been. (But that’s a whole other question, really.) Part of me feels like it’s deserving of criticism for that; part of me feels like, if it is, it’s not deserving of that criticism right now from me.

If nothing else, Rosa is self-evidently the best episode of Doctor Who series 11 so far. It gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. It’s a vast improvement over The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument, both technically and creatively; it’s a vast improvement over previous historical episodes politically, if that’s the qualm I want to raise.

I really, really liked it, I’m just not sure how comfortable I am liking all of it.

9/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Ghost Monument

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Alright, anyone can focus on the negatives.

I’ve liked this less and less each time I watched it. And I’ve watched it three times now.

Something about this episode has the feel of a first draft about it; there’s a sense that the concepts within it haven’t been entirely considered, that the individual interesting moments don’t really add up to one coherent whole.

Consider what we’ve got. The final stages of a deadly space race. A planet made cruel. Our three companions on their first alien planet. Time and time again, though, The Ghost Monument proves underwhelming: there’s little sense of pace, of genuine haste and competitivity between Angstrom and Epzo; the cruelty of the planet, from the toxic atmosphere to the dangerous water, amounts to little more than an unfired Chekhov’s fun; Yaz, Ryan and Graham have, for the most part, a fairly muted reaction to leaving Earth for the first time.

It’s aggravating, of course, because so much of it feels like an easy fix – certainly, something another draft would’ve solved. Take the cruel planet, for example, a concept that never quite coalesced with a genuine sense of place. I can’t quite get past the little things, the lack of emphasis on different details – they’re in a desert, but they never take their jackets off, they never sweat, they don’t look particularly uncomfortable. They get a boat across a toxic river, but no one’s ever in danger of falling in. Every living organism is dead, they say, trees clearly visible in the background.  For all that this planet is, judging by the dialogue, meant to seem strange and spiky and dangerous by virtue of its mysteries, that never quite lands – if nothing else, “empty” feels like the default state for a desert, rather than something that screams mystery to be solved. The premise of the planet stands up to very little interrogation.

I’m loathe to attribute it to laziness, because that’s such a reductive accusation to level, but there is a certain sloppiness to proceedings in The Ghost Monument; look at that early bit of ADR, clearly inserted late in the day, to explain why the Doctor had Pythagoras’ sunglasses in the coat she bought from the charity shop just a few hours ago. In isolation, it doesn’t say much at all – only really that Bradley Walsh wanted some sunglasses and presumably no one believed Graham would own a pair of his own. But, considering The Ghost Monument as a whole, it can’t help but feel emblematic of an episode where someone took their eye off the ball.

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It’s also aggravatingly superficial as an episode. It’s dense with plot, but very short on story; there’s a lot of A to B and back and forth, but little in the way of subtext.

What’s the episode about? On paper, it’s about the team coming together for the first time – learning to work together, learning to be Doctor Who companions rather than Doctor Who guest characters. In a broader sense, that’s presumably meant to be reflected in Epzo and Angstrom gradually starting to work together – the episode, as a whole, is a rebuke to Epzo’s speech about his mother earlier on in the episode. But, well, it’s a fairly simplistic idea, isn’t it? Or, rather, its realised in a fairly simplistic way – that speech about Epzo’s mother was staggeringly unsubtle, for one thing, and as dialogue more generally it’s just a bit weak. Which is an issue with The Ghost Monument, if not series 11 as a whole so far; the dialogue has been fairly pedestrian, every other line a question, often fairly perfunctory.

Arguably more damning, though, is that Chibnall seems to be struggling to balance the cast, and give them all equal attention. It’s not really a problem if the dialogue is a little generic; after all, they’re all sci-fi characters with broadly similar aims and motivations, so up to a point Yaz, Graham and Ryan are going to have somewhat similar thoughts and reactions and opinions. At the moment, though, Yaz is suffering – the vast proportion of lines are going to Bradley Walsh, leaving her feeling seriously under-utilised. Indeed, Graham is the only one who does feel like a coherent character at the moment, practical and observant, and realised by a genuinely impressive performance. (I really, really like The Chase. I am a little sad we didn’t get some variation on “the race is on” in this episode, but you know. Maybe later.)

I’m hoping, in any case, that future episodes start to get a little more depth. I’m confident they will; if nothing else, there’s some obvious potential to Graham and Ryan as characters (“young man who has trouble processing emotions learns to come to terms with his grief because the first female Doctor Who shows him the stars” is, if nothing else, an idea that could prove fascinating) and I’d be genuinely very surprised if Yaz doesn’t get a focal episode sooner rather than later.

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I said last week that Jodie Whittaker has consistently been the best part of everything I’ve seen her in. This is still true. Part of this is that her performance elevates the material as written; it was true in, say, Trust Me, and it’s also true here.

What I want to point to particularly – because, much as I’d like to do a line by line commentary noting every time she’s great, it’s probably easier to just tell you to rewatch the episode – is a moment towards the end, just before the TARDIS arrives. It’s something that a lot of people have pointed to as a flaw on a structural level; we know, obviously, that they’re going to find the TARDIS, so the Doctor’s sudden defeatist attitude is unearned.

I’m not entirely convinced by that, though. There are some problems, certainly, associated with that moment (Angstrom and Epzo suddenly falling out of the narrative doesn’t work, though little about them does anyway) but I’m not convinced that “we know the TARDIS is coming back, so the Doctor doubting it doesn’t work” is entirely true. Or, at least, it doesn’t work in terms of making us doubt the TARDIS isn’t coming back (nor the companions), but I’m not convinced that’s what it’s meant to do.

It’s more interesting, to me at least, to consider what that suggests about the character. That level of self-doubt – and more to the point, very sudden self-doubt that the audience understands as unfounded – feels like something we’ve never actually quite seen before. It’s a take on the Doctor that emphasises a certain vulnerability and insecurity, and it’s difficult to imagine Capaldi, Smith, Tennant or Eccleston playing the scene the same way. More to the point, it casts other, more familiar Doctor-ish traits in an interesting new light – the improvisation, the keenness to make friends, all of that feels slightly different. Coupled with certain standout scenes from last week (describing Tim Shaw as “obscene”) and it’s obvious where Jodie Whittaker is going to do some of her most interesting work with the Doctor: carving out a space for subtler, quieter emotions, and in turn evoking the interiority of the part in a way we’ve not seen before. There is, of course, a boring explanation for why this is. The truer explanation, I suspect, is that that’s simply the sort of actress she is.

Ultimately, then, I’m still not entirely sure what I thought of The Ghost Monument. There’s a lot to appreciate about this story; there’s a lot that’s disappointing about it (it’s increasingly apparent just how good at his job Michael Pickwoad was, for one thing). If The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt strange and unfamiliar, The Ghost Monument was perhaps too familiar – a vision of Doctor Who that wasn’t quite ambitious enough. (Though even saying that feels too harsh, or perhaps harsh in the wrong way.)

I don’t know. Perhaps on a fourth watch I’d appreciate it more.

6/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts. Shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine. In the end. Hopefully.

There is, I think, something a little strange about this episode.

Or rather, not strange, not exactly – unfamiliar. Consciously and deliberately so. That, admittedly, isn’t entirely surprising, given that this is the first episode of Doctor Who after a huge change both in front of and behind the camera. If it wasn’t different, it’d be something of a missed opportunity.

But then it’s not just that it’s different. Consider, after all, The Eleventh Hour, which is the most obvious point of comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth. For all the changes made in that episode, from the obvious ones down, it still felt like a version of Doctor Who we were all basically familiar with. With The Woman Who Fell to Earth, there’s something that is, like I said, a little strange and unfamiliar.

Take the way this episode strips back all the usual hallmarks of the programme. No sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no theme tune or opening credits. There’s an obvious logic to it, foregrounding the characters and giving them some space to develop, essentially building the show around them – we start with Ryan’s direct address to camera, then crash the Doctor into their world. It’s neatly done, a clever way to introduce us to the new cast of characters, and immediately foregrounds this era’s priorities.

Even then, though, it’s not just as simple as a shake up in the iconography: the style is different, not just the substance. The pacing, the music, the sense of humour – it’s undeniably the same show, yes, but the subtleties to the shift in approach are vast in their impact. (The change in the sense of humour is an interesting one actually, because, if nothing else, it probably should’ve been expected; Karl’s self-validating refrain of “someone wants me” in the face of an alien hunter who wants him as a prize isn’t a million miles away from how Broadchurch used to follow cliffhangers with a long, sweeping shot of actual cliffs.) So, for all that The Woman Who Fell to Earth is easily recognisable, there’s also something just a little discomforting about it, a little strange, something that’s difficult to entirely work out.

Certainly, I found that to be the case. I enjoyed it, definitely, even outside the basic “it’s Doctor Who and I always love it” of it all – but there was something about it I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something I didn’t quite get. The second time around, though, I understood it better, and I enjoyed it more – and I’m looking forward to next week, to becoming more familiar with the grammar of this version of Doctor Who, to learning to love it.

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Worth discussing, then, is the characters – like I said above, there’s an obvious attempt to foreground them here, and they’re certainly the most interesting part of the episode.

(And, as a quick aside, I don’t think this is a particular departure from previous iterations of Doctor Who – you’re not going to catch me proselytising about bus drivers vs Impossible Girls, or whatever – but I would argue it’s a bit more overt here. If nothing else, The Woman Who Fell to Earth holds back the Doctor’s first appearance much longer than Rose or The Eleventh Hour did.)

As an introductory piece, it works. There’s obviously limitations, because in an hour you’re not going to be able to flesh everyone out – Yaz is suffering from this the most at the moment – but as a starting point, there’s clear potential. They all take to their roles well (I love Bradley Walsh and will not hear a word against him, thank you), forgiving the occasional rough patch, and they’re each endearing in their own ways; there’s also, of course, a lot to appreciate in the way the ensemble has been built, from their existing connections to one another and the diversity between them. Indeed, in terms of the latter there’s a lot to admire; this is the sort of thing Doctor Who should always be doing, and I’m glad that it’s doing it now.

What’s interesting, though, is the way they all feel built around the Doctor, not just each other. There’s plenty of subtle parallels between them together – everyone’s already commented on how the episode positions Grace as a Doctor analogue, from the YouTube video to her job to the title of the episode, but it’s similarly true of the others. We learn that Ryan wants to be a mechanic; this is one of the first episodes in a long time that emphasises the Doctor building things, with that extended sequence of her creating the new sonic screwdriver. Graham is a bus driver, so it’s not difficult to construct a parallel between that and the TARDIS. And that line about “sorting out fair play across the universe” isn’t a million miles away from Yaz sorting out the parking dispute at the beginning, is it? (Absolutely dreading the inevitable police discourse that’s going to erupt when Yaz comments on the TARDIS being a “police box” tonight, though, damn.) In any case, though, it’s easy to see how they’re all going to gel together as a group, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this ensemble forms around the Doctor.

Speaking of – as if I’d forget – there’s the Doctor. Who is, of course, wonderful. That’s not a surprise, particularly; Jodie Whittaker has pretty consistently been the best part of everything I’ve seen her in, and as expected that still holds true. She’s charming and idiosyncratic and fun, and just generally a joy to watch. There’s a couple of rough moments, true, but even then “rough moments” feels like overstating it a bit – it’s the same ‘roughness’ you see at the start of every Doctor’s tenure, during that time before the part is being written to their performance entirely. That’s the sort of thing that’s going to iron out soon enough, and when so much of it is absolutely pitch perfect, why worry?

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There are bits that don’t work in the episode as a whole, admittedly. Fewer than I thought since rewatching it – like I said, some of the differences did trip me up a bit – but a couple all the same.

I wasn’t, admittedly, entirely keen on Tim Shaw (I’m certain I’ve heard that joke before?) – I know, of course, that these episodes aren’t the ones that tend to have, or even really should have, particularly deep or interesting monsters, but even so, a character straight out of 90s Star Trek is a little lame. The teeth was an interesting quirk, certainly, but even so – I’d have liked something a little bit more visually or conceptually engaging. Not even necessarily more complex – the Autons worked because of how simple they were – but perhaps just a little bit more interesting. Speaking of Tim Shaw, actually, the final resoluation felt a little messy – from that clunky line about “sorting out fair play” to “you had no right”, it doesn’t quite work. Particularly in the case of the latter; it’s an obvious call back to Tennant’s first episode, but doesn’t quite work conceptually here. If nothing else, poor Karl lashing out at Tim Shaw after the Doctor already tricked Tim into detonating the DNA bombs (which is hardly fair play!) doesn’t really make that much of a difference – it’s not really obvious what character point “you had no right” is meant to be making, not in the same way “no second chances, I’m that sort of a man” did all those years ago.

One that I am actually less inclined to criticise the episode for is the fridging of Grace – contrary to my usual stance, since that’s typically one of my biggest bugbears when it comes to television drama. No, in this case, while it did manage to be both deeply lazy and eminently predictable, I’m thinking it’s best to hold off on criticism, at least for the time being. At the moment, I’m convinced we’ve not quite seen the last of Grace – but perhaps that’s wishful thinking, motivated only by how engaging Sharon D. Clarke’s performance was, and my own hope that Doctor Who wouldn’t make such a dull move in this episode, of all episodes. (It’s particularly disappointing, I think, coming after the Moffat era, where deconstructing fridging and providing ‘better’ narratives for the Doctor-analogue characters was something of a recurring theme; if this does turn out to be as simple as looked, then yeah, it’s very much deserving of critique.)

Ultimately, then? Sure, there’s flaws – the direction is a little choppy and underwhelming at times, some of the character beats don’t quite land, Tim Shaw is a bit naff – but in the end, they don’t matter too much. The Woman Who Fell to Earth is, if nothing else, an entertaining and engaging piece of television, and a fine start to an era that’s obviously bursting with potential.

And Jodie Whittaker really is pretty brilliant.

7/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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