Writers: Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall
Director: Mark Tonderai
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole
Vinette Robinson, Joshua Bowman, Trevor White
A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First UK broadcast Sunday 21 October, 6.55pm, BBC One
Running time: 50 minutes
"A pure historical," said my friend.
"Almost," I replied, "Certainly the closest we've had in the twenty-first century," I added, and might have further suggested "Since The Highlanders", but that would have opened a debate about Black Orchid for which it was not the time then, nor is it now.
Rosa didn't need jargon about fixed points or the sanctity of the web of time to tell its story; Malorie Blackman hasn't before and doesn't now. Causality was real, and fragile, and human; and the consequences for people were closer to the focus of the story than the conscience of a Time Lord, though that was by no means forgotten. There was for the first time in years a sense that circumstances had trapped the Doctor and their friends in a historical moment which couldn't be ignored, and that a series of personal obligations confined them there until wrongs were righted, or in this case ensured to happen so that a good outcome could be predicted. Everyone's psychology is in play, not only the Doctor's - Graham and Ryan and Yaz all have to cope with how their exposure to Montgomery, Alabama at the turn of December 1955 changes them. A screencap of Jodie Whittaker, neck muscles tensing as the Doctor not only fights her wish to interfere on the side of someone she admires for doing right, but also her shame at being in a privileged position in this society, has understandably been widely shared online since broadcast. Segun Akinola's score evoked the celebration of American commonality in the work of Aaron Copland while contrasting with the realities of inequality endured by the citizens of the United States.
The episode tackled historical racism more directly and more believably than any Doctor Who story since Human Nature/The Family of Blood. While Thin Ice offered a cathartic statement of disgust in the Doctor's violently punching Lord Sutcliffe after he insulted Bill, here the systematic persecution of 'coloureds' was made plain from the opening. The staging of the first encounter of Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) with James Blake (Trevor White) in 1943 (not, as I first thought, dramatic license, but a historical event) skirted a little too closely to presenting Parks's later action as some kind of feud, although this was mitigated initially through Blake's uniformed institutionalised identity, and later through Blake's conversation with Graham over pool. Blake is conservative man complacently attached to how 'the way things are' protect him at the expense of the rights of others, of a piece with the way he feels threatened by Ryan's blackness, asserted or not.
Events in this story reject any conception of the Doctor's travels into the past as jolly historical tourism. As soon as Yaz declares that "time travel's awesome!" her euphoria is undermined by the assault on Ryan. Good manners - as Rosa Parks enforces upon Ryan - are a matter not only of courtesy but of self-defence in Montgomery. Casual behaviour towards others, including strangers, becomes a mark of progressive tolerance on one hand but also of the privilege of living relatively secure from fear of another. The Doctor and Graham come close - but not as close as they could - to experiencing the police as if they were black when under the intruding eye of Officer Mason (Gareth Marks). Mason can rudely barge into a private room because he has the monopoly of force, and compel the Doctor and Graham into outward conformity to social norms so their friends can escape arrest. One of the many notes of humour in an unflinching tale (though family-friendly - no on-screen lynchings) was Whittaker's portrayal of the Doctor's reaction to Graham putting a husbandly hand on her shoulder; this is a world which inhibits her Doctor-ness through gender expectations. Meanwhile Ryan and Yaz in turn conform by briefly living in an alley behind bins. It's a powerful sequence, as the script acknowledges how little agency Yaz and Ryan have in Montgomery. Their dialogue offers straightforward contrasts in their experience: Yaz still excited that history is taking place around them, enabled somewhat by the difficulty Montgomery's racial classifications have in dealing with her appearance, while Ryan is miserable and angry. Yaz's remark that America will have a black president in fifty-three years time is presented as part of a progressive narrative, but Ryan's doubt about her optimism is surely shared by many in her audience given the pandering to white racism by many elements across government in the present-day United States.
This is a Doctor Who for an age where politicians have done well out of banter and wit and celebrity charisma, overcoming the hindrance of policies absent, incoherent, contradictory or widely unpalatable with personality. Jodie Whittaker's often curiously understated performance here underlines this, especially when contrasted with Joshua Bowman's Krasko, whose flippant attitude to his murders suggests someone who believes he can joke his way out of trouble but dreams of using force. Chris Chibnall's Doctor Who which doesn't oversell its symbolism, so Krasko isn't orange or blond as some productions might have made him. Bowman plays Krasko as a wolf guarding his territory; the Doctor's puncturing of his alpha male pretension by describing him as 'neutered' isn't enough to stop him prowling off with a swagger, outwardly certain of victory. He's despatched in a way which seems in the short term to vindicate Ryan's predilection for shooting at things, but Ryan's action this time is not condemned. Kraskos's return later in the series at first seemed to me a reasonable expectation, but after reading other views and considering how self-aggrandizing a thug he is, perhaps allowing him to gain status in the programme as a primeval proto-racist thousands of years in prehistory would be too generous to him.
The climax is carefully orchestrated, building up to a dull and sorrowful realisation that it is impossible for the Doctor and friends to escape complicity, whether they are the privileged Doctor and Yaz, Ryan seeking to be unobtrusive, or the awkward white man standing, Graham, in whose cause therefore Blake seeks to force Rosa to the back of the bus. The beats familiar to anyone who has read up on historical events then play out, as Blake calls his supervisor, the police arrive and escort the arrested Rosa off the bus, accompanied by Andra Day's 'Rise Up', a song of liberation in perseverance. Rosa Parks's collective activism was quietly played, but it was shown in the evening meeting at her house and given context not only in colour prejudice but in a struggle to be educated which many working-class women would recognise. While the Doctor's awestruck behaviour on meeting her was placed directly in the comedic tradition established by the Ninth Doctor in The Unquiet Dead, it's Ryan who gets to meet Martin Luther King (Ray Sesay) and respond in a way which though performed with a little exaggeration feels from Tosin Cole an entirely natural reaction to meeting historical figures who have been exemplars in Ryan's upbringing.
Grace's memory is an even stronger presence than it was in The Ghost Monument. Grace herself is an absence triangulated with the presence of two dead icons alive in visitable history, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Ryan can't admit his grief to Graham or perhaps to himself, but comes closest when in King's presence at the Parks household. Other threads of continuity go further back, Chris Chibnall's series being keen to show that this is still Doctor Who even when told in a new voice. In doing so new layers are brought to old stories. Stormcage was a laughably permeable prison for River Song with little thought to the nature of her fellow inmates, but there is no redemptive narrative for Krasko. The mechanics of Rosa are speeded by the Doctor contacting her 1950s American acquaintances, giving a practical purpose to namedrops of the past and subsuming the Doctor's celebrity networks into purposeful determination. Artron energy is reintroduced, explained and dramatized. Casting, as often, offers layers: Morgan Deare appears as a frightened and angry old man, where thirty-one years ago in Delta and the Bannermen he was a stupid CIA agent whose behaviour embodied British caricatures of Americans while young Britons made American pop culture their own. Where the 1987 story celebrated 1950s America for its lack of barriers, its 2018 successor acknowledges the divisions on which the economy which exported that culture in part relied. The origins of Malcolm Kohll, Delta's writer, in apartheid-era South Africa, juxtaposed with the post-apartheid South African locations for this story only accentuate the parallels and contrasts which have accumulated.
Indeed, the treatment of history in this story offers a plainer authenticity than the series has seen for a very long while. The Girl Who Died presented a rounded view of Viking life - raiders yes, but farmers and dreamers too. It was set in a much more heightened reality than this, though - just as The Woman Who Lived which followed it made an alien out of royal iconography for a story set during the mid-seventeenth century English republic. Rosa is set in a less romantically mythologised past than either. Its decision not to challenge legend by exploring the detail of the discussions which led to the decision to begin civil disobedience against racial segregation on buses recalls the treatment of horned helmets seen in The Girl Who Died, but nuance points in a more didactic direction here - that the detailed reasons why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery on 1 December 1955 are less important than that she did, and that circumstances and consequences made the act heroic.
This Doctor Who past is one which recognises today's centrality of identity politics. The era just passed, where the fictionalised past of Europe was populated by non-white minorities, while rightly acknowledging historical diversity and saying that everyone had the right to claim the court of Versailles, the legend of Robin Hood or Victorian London as their own history, perhaps obscured the recently won battles and the ongoing conflicts over the rights and roles of minorities in modern Britain and other countries with a historically privileged imperial majority constructed as white. The basics here are re-addressed. The hybrid of re-enactment and invention in a highly symbolised past gives way to sober restatement of essentials with little room for ambiguity. The moral situation is clear, and reflection on what it might feel like to be out of one's time and an unwilling actor in the past is not easy. The myth is present but shapes what is selected and how that is prioritised. It's a pity that the Doctor was given the line that Rosa Parks changed the universe and then pointed to the asteroid 284996 as evidence, because the naming of the asteroid surely more specifically represented how Rosa Parks changed how people viewed the universe around them.
Rosa was accomplished television, claustrophobic and epic at once. I'd have liked more exposition about the civil rights movement in Montgomery and was disappointed in some minor points of presentational detail - specifically the changing signs on the bus seats and the modern typography - which undermined the otherwise beautifully crafted setting. Nevertheless there was much less preaching at the audience than I feared and what there was mostly came at moments when it was justified by drama and character. Vinette Robinson delivered a Rosa Parks of quiet strength exasperated at becoming the straight woman for the British visitors at a time of crisis and pointing out the limits to the Doctor's freedom of action where her business was concerned. A Doctor Who which advertises its introversion a lot less than in recent years might still be erring too far in assuring the audience that they are not being excluded from a private joke. Threat was always present in a thinly charming but soon all too apparently hostile environment. Rosa was confident but still a little anxious contemporary Doctor Who , tapping firmly on the nose, indignant at injustice and individual failures but ending in the hope for positive change the thirteenth Doctor's arrival presaged.