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.
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.
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.