A Review of Doctor Who: ‘Rosa’ (S11E3)

An emotionally resonant powerful story that’s as timely as ever, where its strengths far outweigh its flaws.

 

What more can I say? Rosa was great, and you should definitely watch it.

This is going to be an odd statement to start with, but Doctor Who’s had an odd way of dealing with racism in the new series. Not bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but very light in its way. I look back to episodes like 2007’s The Shakespeare Code, where the Doctor’s advice to Martha is simply to “walk around like you own the place”. Or in 2017’s Thin Ice, in which the only racist person Bill comes across in Victorian London is the big bad of the week, and it’s fine because Doctor Who punches him in the face for being so racist.

I’m not saying these previous examples are poor or anything like that. Personally, I quite like the image of the Doctor being someone who is all about trying to talk things out with the evil space aliens, but whose first instinct is also to punch a racist. It’s quite fun.

But that’s what brings us back to Rosa, in a roundabout way. Because it’s about America in the fifties. It’s about Rosa Parks kick-starting the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on the bus. And when it’s about these things, light and fun isn’t something this episode can afford to be.

Therein lies Rosa’s greatest strength. It feels real. It can make for some downright uncomfortable viewing at times, but that’s the point. Even down to the language, how one of the opening scenes of the episode has someone hit Ryan and call him a “negro”. It’s not an easy watch. There are so many scenes like it but this is what America was, and there is no holding back or shying away from it.

That’s not the say the episode isn’t without fun. It still remembers it’s meant to be Doctor Who at the end of the day. Once again, the alien aspect of the episode is the weakest. But here, unlike the last two weeks, I think it gets away with it, given how the big bad is deliberately meant to be a bit rubbish. He is a time-travelling racist after all.

So, where racism in America is portrayed as very real and very frightening, the time-racist from the distant future is a joke. And I think that’s the right balance to strike.

Jodie Whittaker excels as Doctor Who this week. More so than she has done the last two episodes. I think it might be down to Malorie Blackman’s influence on the script (she co-wrote it with Chris Chibnall). Where Chibnall writes Whittaker as a brand-new Doctor, which is fair play given that she literally is, Blackman opts to give her a sense of history, and while logically it doesn’t really make sense, I don’t care. Whether it’s making Graham think that she might be Banksy or revealing that she gave Elvis Presley a mobile phone 30 years or so before they got invented. It works to give her Doctor a stronger sense of character. That, and the mobile phone gag actually plays a relevant role in the plot!

She gets a load of great moments too, whether it’s the stand-off with the big bad atop two tankers (that’s strangely more awesome than the really high-budget stand-off on the cranes she had with Tim Shaw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth), or just jumping up and down on the big bad’s time travel device like a child, or even when she subtly-not-subtly scans him with the sonic. It’s brilliant. (Looking back at this paragraph, safe bet to say that every interaction she has with the villain is fantastic.)

Are there problems? Yeah. But they are so minor and aren’t a big deal at all. So, I’m going to rush through them.

Exposition is still a bit clunky, and some scenes do still get reduced to all the companions becoming question machines for the Doctor to answer.

TARDIS interior is still pretty ugly, but I ranted enough about that last week. Thankfully we don’t spend too long in there. Though I find it really odd how, despite having the same director as last week, it appears to be shot completely differently. At the very least, they appeared to have found the light switch, so the lighting is much nicer.

The base of the TARDIS… yes, I am being serious. I know it’s not built to be level there because it’s not on flat terrain and it needs to stand up straight. But it still looks weird.

Could have done without the pop song at the end. Completely takes you out of an immensely powerful scene. Would have been a really good opportunity to let the composer, Segun Akinola, really show his stuff.

Still think three companions makes for a really crowded TARDIS crew. Any shots with all four of them are staged really awkwardly, the biggest offender being the weird diamond formation they went for in front of the motel sign. What’s especially strange is that any shot where the Doctor is with two companions or less suddenly becomes staged really well!

That’s about it, nothing else really comes to mind. And I wouldn’t say any of these problems are that important to the story being told.

The premise of having to mess with the past in order to fix it is not a particularly original one, but it works here. And for such a small but important historical event, I think they made the right call.

The performances are once again solid across the board. But I think there should be a special shout out to Vinette Robinson, who nails it as Rosa Parks. A wonderful performance that is both nuanced and fits right in with Doctor Who.

It’s not perfect, and I don’t know if I’d really consider it absolute top-tier Doctor Who. But it does a lot right – all the way to its finale, which is quite frankly an amazing, beautiful scene. It avoids being loud and overblown and is just really well done.

Also, pleasantly surprised with how reference-y the episode got. Not to the point of distraction. But given that Chibnall stated that he wanted to avoid referencing previous stories to make it easier for new folk to jump into the show. It did surprise me.

There is so much more to say, but I am fully aware that this is meant to be a spoiler free review. And unlike The Ghost Monument, which in retrospect, was fun but a bit naff, I don’t want to dedicate a spoiler section for this review. You guys don’t need that. Because at the end of the day, once you see Rosa you’ll get it. So, just go and watch it.