Doctor Who Review: Rosa

doctor who review rosa malorie blackman chris chibnall rosa parks vinette robinson mark tonderai

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.

doctor who review rosa parks vinette robinson malorie blackman mark tonderai jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill

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.

doctor who review rosa parks jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor vinette robinson bus boycotts montgomery malorie blackman mark tonderai

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.



Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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BBC One to adapt Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses

Noughts and Crosses Malorie Blackman Noughts and Crosses Levi David Addai and Matthew Graham Vivian Oparah bbc one tv adaptation

If you’ve never read it, you absolutely must; Noughts and Crosses is a rather nuanced and thoughtful YA story about racism and prejudice, with a very clever ‘twist’; the society depicted is one wherein black ‘Crosses’ are the ruling classes, who previously enslaved the white ‘Noughts’, who are now second class citizens. This allows for a subtle, clever representation of racism, with several strongly drawn characters, and an emotionally compelling plot. The book was met with particular acclaim, and has been the subject of a radio adaptation in 2012, as well as a play toured by the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring Richard Madden and Ony Uhiara in 2008.

Now, then, it’s going to be a television series. While there isn’t yet word on the length of the series, or exactly when it will air, the two writers in charge of the adaptation have been announced: Levi David Addai and Matthew Graham. Levi David Addai is an accomplished playwright, having written plays such as I Have A Dream and Oxford Street, as well as being nominated for an Olivier award in 2009 and winning the Alfred Fagon award in 2011. His most prominent television credit is E4’s Youngers, but a look at his CV reveals several drama awards and nominations across the years. Matthew Graham is similar accomplished, known for Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, and episodes of Doctor Who under both David Tennant and Matt Smith; interestingly, it was also recently revealed that Graham was tapped to write for a Star Wars television show, and worked closely with George Lucas for several months.

Some very exciting news here, as the BBC will be adapting Malorie Blackman’s rather fantastic YA novel for television. Very exciting!

(Haven’t heard any news about this since then. I know Vivian Oparah wanted to be in it, that’d be pretty neat.)

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100 Books in a Year: The Noughts & Crosses Series

100 books in a year reading challenge summer marathon books novels september 2015 2016

So, I was talking to my English teacher a while ago (read: she was talking to the class, and I was there) and she mentioned that every year she tries to read one hundred books. This started because of a competition with another girl a few years ago. (The girl won.) I, in my infinite arrogance, decided that I could probably make a decent stab at that if I put my mind to it.

And thus, I shall. From the 12th September 2015 to the 12th September 2016, I intend to read 100 books. Just to make it a little harder on myself, though, they have to be books I’ve never read before.

#4 – Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman – 4/5

This is something I’d been meaning to get around to reading for quite a while, but I never actually did. I am glad that I have read it, though, because it is a really rather excellent book.

I was reading the book’s wikipedia page recently, to remind myself of a few details – it’s been a couple of weeks since I actually read it – and it bothered me somewhat that Noughts and Crosses was described as a dystopian novel. Because it’s not, not really. It’s far subtler, and far cleverer than that; everything in that novel has been informed by a real life event. One that always stuck in my mind was a couple of lines of dialogue about the colour of plasters, and how they were only made in varying shades of brown. It’s not something I’d ever really thought about.

So, yes. This is an excellent book – it’s a subtle, clever representation of racism, with several strongly drawn characters, and an emotionally compelling plot. (And oh my god that ending. I found that genuinely shocking, in a way I’ve not found a book shocking for quite a few years now.)

Perhaps the one thing that doesn’t work quite so well is the more “mature” teenagery aspects, like the sex scene. It never quite came across as particularly natural, and it was made somewhat more uncomfortable given that just a few hundred pages earlier the characters had been about twelve years old. But, you know, that’s a minor fault, and it probably doesn’t really warrant me knocking a whole point off – it was an arbitrary choice (I’d given it 5/5 at first) motivated mainly by the fact I felt the later books were better, and giving them both 5/5 didn’t really reflect that. Swings and roundabouts, really.

#5 – Knife Edge – Malorie Blackman – 5/5

I wasn’t sure if I should read this one, to be honest, because I sort of felt like I should avoid series’ of books whilst on this 100 Books in a Year kick, to go for greater diversity and variety whatnot – but, frankly, I was going to have to read this book as soon as I finished the last one. They are, as I said, excellent books.

This one was a very dark book. I want to liken it to The Empire Strikes Back or The Temple of Doom to this quadrilogy, but frankly, it’s darker. One of the main characters, Sephy, is consumed with grief (that letter, man. It did a number on me. I refused to accept it) and the other, Jude, is entirely mad.

Actually, no, that’s a rather simplistic way of viewing it. Jude is a brilliant character – a very layered and complex one, who’s driven to violence after a lifetime of oppression. You can’t help but feel sympathy for him, at first – and, in a strange way, there’s a level of sympathy for him even as his actions become more and more heinous, but it’s one that’s mediated by horror at his actions.

Gotta hand it to Malorie Blackman – she is really, really excellent at characterisation, and character development. She’s an author that all writers could learn something from, I reckon.

#6 – Checkmate – Malorie Blackman – 5/5

There’s a great use of a non linear structure to this one. Lots of flashbacks to different points in the lives of characters (across about a ten year period) to gradually show the unfolding story of how Jude manipulates Sephy’s daughter, Callie Rose, into becoming a suicide bomber.

It’s a fairly dark story, even by typical YA standards, and given that it was published on the day of the 7/7 bombings, I can imagine it caused quite a stir. But it’s really well handled throughout, showing the subtle progression of Callie, as she transitions from a fairly normal child, to someone much more bitter and angry at the world, corrupted by her uncle, Jude.

Checkmate also works as a rather effective conclusion to this trilogy – which is good, given that that’s how it was intended! All of the major plot threads are resolved (I knew I was right about that damn letter!) and there’s a sense of closure and resolution to the story. Society isn’t fixed – there’s question as to whether or not it will ever be – but this family might finally be able to find some happiness.

Which was a rather nice note to end on.

#7 – Double Cross – Malorie Blackman – 4/5

Apart from the fact that it wasn’t the end, not exactly.

Of all the books, this one felt closest in tone to the original novel, most likely because the two main character perspectives were teenagers again. It ended up with the same flaw as the original, then – the sex references always felt out of place to me.

But! It had all the same strengths as the original novel too. Strongly drawn characters, authentic and interesting conflict, a compelling plot. You know, all of those fun things. It was also in a style that I’m quite fond of – an individual is driven to great lengths to take down something much larger than he is. Makes for interesting stories, methinks.

Another great book, then, in a great series of books, from a really rather excellent author. It’s books like these that make me really glad I decided to do this, because before imposing this slightly ridiculous challenge on myself, I’d have been rather unlikely to get around to reading these for quite a few more years.

I’ve slowed down considerably since when I started this challenge; I managed to read the first 7 books in 6 days, finishing Double Cross on the 18th September. It was a couple of weeks before I managed to start my next book, which I’m still in the middle of. Technically, this means I’m behind schedule, but I know I’ll be able to pick it up later in the year.

Books Read: 7
Days since start: 25
Days until finish: 340
Currently reading: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.

Click here to see my progress reports and updates on this whole reading malarkey. Have any suggestions for books I should read? Get in touch!

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