Doctor Who, “Rosa”
Series 11, Episode 3
Written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall
Directed by Mark Tonderai
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh
Guest Starring Vinette Robinson, Joshua Bowman, and Trevor White
Original Broadcast 21 October 2018 (49 minutes)
Everything you have heard about “Rosa,” the brilliant third episode of Doctor Who’s Series 11, is true.
This outing is as good as you have heard, and probably better. It is as important as you have been told, it is as fabulous as people have said, and it is as urgent to watch right now—as racist violence engulfs the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and too many other parts of our fractious world—as any text produced in any medium during the last five years.
It honors the memory of Rosa Parks in such heartbreaking fashion, with a frankness about her life and era, that “Rosa” will stand, for all coming time, as one of Doctor Who’s signature achievements.
So what more is there to say about an episode that nearly every professional reviewer and casual commenter proclaims an instant classic?
Plenty, it turns out, and not all of it praiseworthy.
That statement may seem to contradict this review’s opening line, but “Rosa” is a conflicted portrait of American racial terror whose problematic first half somehow perfectly sets up its sterling second half, concluding with scenes that are as visceral as they are inevitable, and that profit from their juxtaposition. “Rosa’s” final ten minutes are unnerving, indelible, miraculous. Indeed, they are nothing less than gut punches, shin kickers, and heart stoppers.
Not bad for 49 minutes of television, which, if they have not already, will launch a thousand dissertations.
“Rosa” sees the Thirteenth Doctor (the fantastic Jodie Whittaker) and her winsome group of companions—Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh)—landing in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama despite the Doctor’s attempt to return them to 2018 Sheffield, England (after finding the errant—and newly redesigned—TARDIS at the end of their previous adventure, “The Ghost Monument”).
Their arrival occurs twelve years after the episode’s 1943 prologue, in which Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) boards a Montgomery bus driven by James Blake (Trevor White), protests when Blake tells her that she must walk outside and re-enter through the back door reserved for “Negroes”—Parks points out that it makes no sense for her to do so when the “colored section” is only a few paces away—and gets left behind when Blake drives off without her (as punishment for challenging his authority as a white man with power over black lives, which scarcely matter in Montgomery’s painfully segregated community).
This incident actually happened to Parks, in almost exactly the way “Rosa” dramatizes it, and the slow burn of anger that these scenes instill—at the unfairness, idiocy, and outright insanity of Jim Crow segregation— demonstrates just how good first-time Who writer Malorie Blackman (assisted by showrunner Chris Chibnall) is.
Blackman—a noted British children’s and young-adult novelist—is, amazingly, the first black woman to contribute a script to Doctor Who in its 55-year history, which makes me wonder if Chibnall asked her to write about the experiences of one of history’s most famous black women because Blackman understands Parks’s experience in ways that Chibnall cannot, if he assumed that a black female writer can only write about black women, or if Blackman was burning to tell this story from a twenty-first-century British perspective. Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses novel series recounts an alternate, twenty-first-century Britain in which, centuries before, Africans gained technological advantage over Europeans and enslaved them. Although chattel bondage has ended by the time the first novel (Naughts & Crosses) begins, segregation continues, manifested in eerie parallels to the mid-twentieth-century American South. Blackman certainly seems a perfect choice to write “Rosa,” but coming only two weeks after Chibnall’s Series 11 premiere script, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” killed off its only black female character—Sharon D. Clarke’s marvelous Grace Sinclair-O’Brien—in a development that occasioned justifiable criticism about its handling, Blackman’s name on the episode’s teleplay raises all sorts of political concerns that “Rosa” cannot—and should not be expected to—quiet.
Yet here we are.
Are these concerns rank paranoia? Perhaps they amount to regrettable carping on my part, or an inability to revel in the beauty that is “Rosa,” even if they reflect the episode’s largest problem: in its zeal to place Rosa Parks at the center of her own story, “Rosa” elides her in key moments that only Vinette Robinson’s superb performance overcomes.
The episode’s putative villain, a vicious Time Agent named Krasko (sneeringly played by Joshua Bowman), returns to 1955 Montgomery not to kill Parks outright, but to change small events so that Rosa’s principled refusal to move to the back of a bus on 1 December 1955 never occurs (Parks is ordered to do so by driver James Blake—yes, the same man who disrespects Rosa in the episode’s opening scene, but whom she either does not recognize or does not acknowledge). Krasko’s attempt to meddle with Earth’s history draws the TARDIS’s notice, which lands in Montgomery so that the Doctor and her companions can ensure that time does not go off track.
Krasko is not a well-developed character, leaving Bowman to find what nuances he can in a man who claims to be a 79th Century criminal recently released from Stormcage Prison, the same containment facility that, during Steven Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who’s showrunner, housed Alex Kingston’s delightful River Song, one of the best characters yet seen in New Who. This connection is not the only callback to previous Who eras: Krasko travels through time using a vortex manipulator, making him the same kind of Time Agent as John Barrowman’s incomparable Captain Jack Harkness, the franchise favorite created by showrunner Russell T. Davies during Series 1. These details are more than Easter eggs or simple fan service, since Krakso’s racial hatred suggests that white supremacy survives into the far future, with Krasko telling the Doctor that he is in 1955 Montgomery because Parks’s protest and the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott are “where things started to go wrong” in the only explicit reference to his motives.
Blackman and Chibnall, therefore, deliberately underwrite Krasko’s character because, as a time-hopping fascist, he does not deserve narrative attention. Even so, too much of “Rosa” covers Krasko’s machinations to change history for the worse, with whole sections seeing him interfere with daily life in Montgomery to ensure that Blake does not drive his bus on December 1st, meaning that Parks will never stage her planned protest and, consequently, American history will unravel. Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of “Rosa” is that Krasko’s plan is so insidious that, in the final sequence, it requires the Doctor and her companions to act by not acting.
Yes, you read that right. When the appointed hour arrives, the Doctor boards the bus with Ryan, Yaz, and Graham to observe Rosa’s courage in action, only to discover that too few white passengers are present, meaning that Blake will not demand, and then try to force, Rosa to move back to accommodate these white riders. Yaz is the first to realize this fact’s extraordinary implication: the TARDIS team has become part of history despite Graham’s objection that he doesn’t wish to participate in perpetuating segregation. They must sit in silence as Blake tells Rosa to move. The Doctor—both resolute and resigned—says, “We have to not help her.” Then, in a beautifully shot scene, Rosa stands, letting the black man sitting next to her pass on his way toward the back, hesitates for only a moment, and then calmly sits down.
This concluding sequence powerfully bookends and gives depth to two earlier scenes. During the first, just after Team TARDIS arrives in Montgomery, Ryan picks up the fallen glove of a passing white woman and taps her shoulder while trying to return it, only to have her husband—named Mr. Steele (Richard Lothian)—punch him in the face. Before this situation can escalate, Rosa Parks intervenes to placate Steele, but then rebukes Ryan for his temerity by citing Emmett Till’s murder as yet one more reason why a young black man should never touch a white woman in the Jim Crow South. Team TARDIS begins fawning over the befuddled Parks, quickly forgetting that Steele’s deep voice resembles that of T’zim-Sha (Samuel Oatley), the Stenza warrior from “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” to suggest—in an easily missed detail—that threats to justice, decency, and equality are the same no matter their provenance.
The second scene finds Ryan and Yaz hiding in an alleyway while a white Montgomery police officer searches a hotel room the Doctor has rented, looking for the two “colored people” who earlier accompanied the Doctor into a local diner that refuses them service based on their complexion (even mistaking the brown-skinned Yaz, an English woman of Pakistani descent, as Mexican). The two companions discuss how, even in 2018 England, they face racial discrimination and racist assumptions about their behavior, although Yaz notes that, 53 years in the future, the United States will have a black president. Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill shine here, playing their roles with just the right mixture of suppressed anger, weary disbelief, and tentative hope. Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall know that both performers are terrific additions to Doctor Who’s cast, and so pitch this scene perfectly to each actor’s talents.
No review of “Rosa,” however, would be complete without noting how extraordinary Vinette Robinson is in the title role. Perhaps best known to casual viewers as Sergeant Sally Donovan in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock, Robinson brings Rosa to life as well as anyone else has, which is high praise indeed considering how terrifically Angela Bassett plays Parks in Julie Dash’s excellent 2002 telefilm The Rosa Parks Story. Robinson deserves to win every acting award available for her superlative work as Rosa, and if the Emmys, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs overlook her, we will again learn how little justice exists in our world.
Dash’s movie also covers more details of Rosa Parks’s life than this episode, such as the fact that Parks’s refusal to give up her seat was planned by local civil-rights leaders as the bus boycott’s launching point (the incident was not, as is widely believed, the tired Parks simply refusing to move). Her husband (Raymond Parks), attorney Fred Gray, and Martin Luther King, Jr.— played, respectively, by David Rubin, Aki Omoshaybi, and Ray Sesay—appear in only a single scene of “Rosa,” when Ryan accompanies Parks to a meeting with all three men that we, unfortunately, do not see. “Rosa,” for instance, never mentions that a teenager named Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus on 2 March 1955, nine months before Parks, but was considered an ineffective person around which to stage the boycott due to her youth and to false rumors that she was pregnant by a married man.
We cannot have everything, of course, particularly in 49 minutes of television narrative, but sidelining Krasko in favor of such historical details would make “Rosa” even better. When Parks will not give up her seat, however, the episode soars. Blake demands that Rosa stand, she demurs, and, when Blake says that he will have her arrested, Rosa—played here by Robinson with a calm, yet slightly unsure demeanor—says, as the real Parks did, “You may do that.” As Andra Day begins singing her 2015 protest anthem “Rise Up” on the soundtrack, Rosa is taken away by the police, with the thunderstruck Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham watching as she is led away with a small, defiant smile on her lips.
Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor takes her companions into space, telling them how difficult Rosa’s life was after this incident despite the fact that the Montgomery boycott succeeds in desegregating the city’s pubic-transportation system one year later, on 21 December 1956. Rosa and her husband, the Doctor reveals, lose their jobs, while the struggle in which they participate yields tangible results, but takes years of effort and bloodshed, and never truly ends. The Doctor then shows them footage of the real Parks receiving the Congressional Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in June 1999 before opening the TARDIS doors to reveal our solar system’s asteroid belt, saying that Rosa “changed the world. In fact, she changed the universe.” The Doctor points to a specific chunk of rock: “Asteroid 284996. Also known as Rosaparks.” This bit is historical reality, as well, because that asteroid actually exists, and this moment, like the episode’s entire final sequence, brings tears to the viewer’s eyes (including mine, even as I type these words).
That is extraordinary drama no matter its flaws. But do not take my word for it. Go watch “Rosa” right now. You will be moved, you will be renewed, and you will be thankful that Doctor Who remains in the stewardship of such smart, compassionate, and thoughtful people.