Why “Rosa” is the Best Doctor Who Episode in Years

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December 1, 1955
Our freedom movement came alive
And because of Sister Rosa you know
We don’t ride on the back of the bus no more

— The Neville Brothers, “Sister Rosa”

This post will contain spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled watch the episode first –or, if you don’t mind, proceed.

Let’s get this out of the way. I absolutely love Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. She brings incredible energy and charm to the show and provides a sense of wonder to even the most mundane aspects of the show that makes it all seem fresh again. That freshness is also helped by having a new cast of companions. I think the presence of new producers and a new composer really add to that freshness as well.

Considering how much Doctor who has traveled through time and space, it is surprising how little the Doctor has to fix a timeline. In the case of season 11’s Doctor, not only must the Doctor and her companions have to protect time, but have to battle one the most worst monster of all, racism.

I grew up watching Twilight Zone and Star Trek: science-fiction message heavy shows. Early Who episodes were time travelling history lessons, such as “The Aztecs.” And sometimes, like in “Pompeii” we are presented with fixed moments in time, where Donna and the Doctor can not interfere with the historical significance that Pompeii’s citizens must die. Martha Jones had a few brushes with racism during the David Tennant run. The Twelfth Doctor touched on racism in “Thin Ice” but it was not the core of the story.

The opening teaser is of an actual incident in 1943 where she was forced off the bus for the first time for refusing to use the back entrance for coloreds and taking a seat. In those days you paid in the front and had to get back off and enter through the back of the bus if you were Black.

The TARDIS is acting up, as it typically does. It does seem to take the Doctor and companions where they are needed, though. In this case, it brings them back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. The Doctor discovers a heavy presence of artron energy in the vicinity that should not be there so she decides to investigate.

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“I’m getting pretty sick of seeing that sign.” says companion Ryan Sinclair.

When they disembark, Ryan Sinclair passes by a White couple and the woman drops her glove, doing the polite thing he picks it up and offers it to her while tapping her shoulder. He is rebuked by a slap by her husband. Rosa Parks who is passing by intervenes and diffuses the situation. Note that it is Rosa who is able to diffuse it.

It turns out that the source of the energy is another time traveler named Krasko armed with a vortex manipulator — poor man’s TARDIS, inaccurate at best. He is a former prisoner of Stormcage prison who is embedded with a neural inhibitor that presents him from physically harming, let alone killing, anyone. But he is determined to prevent Rosa Parks from making her historic act of defiance against segregation. According to Krasko her defiance is where it all goes wrong for him.

For years, I had been screaming in frustration and annoyance at my television set because of the Moffet effect of manic running around and staccato dialogues from the Doctor that is often drowned out by Murray Gold’s score. In this episode, we slow down and let the events of history speak for itself. We let storytelling actually take place. And each of the companions are not only there along for the gee whiz ride, they each contribute something and become part of the story. In the final moments of the episode, being part of that history can hurt as it turns out that the Doctor and her companions must stay on the bus so that the bus can be full and that not enough White passengers have seats. The Doctor says here that “We must not help her.” And at this point Rosa Parks, not the Doctor, is the hero of this episode.

Much of this episode is difficult to watch. It’s not the maniacal escapism of previous Doctor Who episodes. It takes on racism head on and in a way that is surprising in its unflinching approach to the subject. The simple act of just gathering at a restaurant to plan what to do is dangerous as they get side-eyes from other people and a waitress tells them, “We don’t serve Negroes.”

We have some notable performances from the entire cast and a bit of character development too. Earlier this season, Graham (Bradley Walsh) is introduced as Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandfather, but Ryan just calls him his grandmother’s second husband. But you get the feeling that sharing this adventure together brings them closer. Ryan and Yaz (Mandip Gill) seems to be showing some affection for each other too.

The standout performance goes to Vinette Robinson’s portrayal of Rosa Parks. She is almost regal in her strong and determined performance.

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A character moment between Ryan and Rosa occurs after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. at Rosa Parks’ home. Afterward, she asks if he got what he wanted. “I didn’t know what I wanted, but yeah. Meeting you guys. Listening to you all talk, I can’t believe it. It will get better. Not perfect…but better. It’s worth the fight. Thank you, from me and my nan. ” She responds, “I haven’t done anything.”

Yaz has a moment where Ryan talks about being stopped more by police than his mates. Yaz, who is police herself says not by her. “Tell me, you don’t get hassle,” he says. “Of course I do. “Of course I do, especially on the job. I get called a ‘Paki’ when I’m sorting out a domestic or a terrorist on the way home from the mosque. But they don’t win, those people. I can be a police officer now, because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me — for us. And in 53 years they’ll have a Black president as leader. Who knows what will happen 50 years after that? That’s proper change.”

Graham has many little moments and one is when he recounts first meeting Ryan’s grandmother who said, you better not be like James Blake (the bus driver who threw Rosa Parks off the bus 1943 and called the police on her in 1955). “And I had to ask her who she was and she said she gave bus drivers a bad name. She had a t-shirt that said, ‘The Spirit of Rosa,’ I wish she were here.” Towards the end of the episode in feeling that they had accomplished their mission he gets ready to get off the bus, but to his horror he realizes he has to stay and be one of those White people to be on the bus so that there are not enough seats. “Don’t get off, Graham. If we get off there will be enough empty seats for White passengers and Rosa won’t be asked to move.” His simple look and line of “No, no. I don’t want to be part of this story,” conveys a heart about to break.

I must take a moment to really compliment the use of music in this episode. The licensed stuff like the gospel piece in the teaser and the use of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” during Rosa Park’s protest moment may be considered cliché. Yet it’s a trope that works for me. But it is also the subtle fanfare by the new series composer, Segun Akinola that stands out. His Rosa theme is evocative of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” with a touch of James Horner.

The episode is not a perfect episode. Being British production, the actors portraying Southern Whites are probably British themselves as sometimes accents just seem off. Krasko seems like a plot device villain just to set up the episode, but it could also be possible that he may be something more later on in the season as his defeat does allow him to possibly return.

Science-fiction can entertain, make you think, make you uncomfortable, afraid, and sometimes it can tell a message while doing all these things. Doctor Who’s Rosa does that well. And as Ryan said to Rosa Parks, “Thank you.”

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