This week’s episode of Doctor Who was one of the more publicized installments of season 11, as it came as something of a surprise that the British sci-fi show was tackling the U.S. civil rights movement. Particularly, the moment that kicked it off; the day Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up for a white woman on a bus, thereby starting an all-important chain of events. Could the series approach this event in such a way that it could make for an entertaining time-traveling adventure but while still treating it with the respect it deserves? Remarkably, the answer is an easy, unequivocal yes.
“Rosa,” from writers Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, is certainly the most well-written episode so far this season. The past two have been oodles of fun but the deft handling of a tricky subject matter demonstrated here is on another level. Obviously, we wouldn’t want Doctor Who to be this heavy every week, but a mature piece of drama every now and then is very welcome. In fact, the last time the show managed to successfully mix its patented sci-fi wonder with a meaningful examination of a sensitive issue was 2010’s “Vincent and the Doctor,” which didn’t shy away from Van Gogh’s depression.
Doctor Who is for all ages but, let’s be honest, it has to be mostly geared towards children. Despite this, “Rosa” never shies away from the grim reality of life for black people in Alabama in the 1950s. As soon as the TARDIS lands, Ryan’s threatened with lynching by a passing racist. The use of shocking racial slurs are also continually heard throughout. This is a lot darker than Daleks shooting folks with laser guns, but the depiction of oppression in this era is pitched exactly at the right level – enough for it to be emotionally affecting and to make clear the unpleasantness of the real-world situation that still tragically spill over into now, but not too much so as to traumatize kids before bedtime.
Perhaps the scene that best displays this is the sequence in which the plot’s paused and Yaz and Ryan discuss their own experiences with racism in the present day. For one, it’s great that this moment is even possible, as so few previous eras had two prominent people of color in the primary cast. It also touched on the sad truth that, amazing as Rosa Parks was, her work and that of those who came after didn’t eradicate everyday racism. Perhaps this was somewhat on-the-nose, but again, it opened up an important issue for younger audiences – or maybe just those privileged enough not think about this a lot – to consider.
Speaking of the woman of the title, there was some consternation amongst fans before the episode aired that having the Doctor and her friends mess with Rosa Park’s protest would have an unwanted knock-on effect of having them influence her decision to not give up her seat, thereby robbing her of her own achievement. Thankfully, Blackman and Chibnall are well aware of this and manage to sidestep it completely. Rosa’s own strong-headedness and thirst for justice is made clear from the opening scene and the culminating sequence, in which the gang sink into the crowd and sit and watch Rosa get arrested, is superbly handled. The Doctor’s literally a bystander in her own show in this episode, but that’s definitely the right move here.
Jodie Whittaker was again terrific this week, too. She excels at playing the teacher to her friends and standing up to the ugly prejudice of the era with smart wordplay – “I’m not harboring anyone who doesn’t have the right to be here” – instead of fisticuffs. It’s yet another reminder that she IS 100% the Doctor we’ve always known. Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh also offered the strong turns we already expect from them every week. Once again, Ryan’s the standout, as his awe at spending the evening with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King was very endearing. A shout-out should go to Sherlock’s Vinette Robinson as Parks as well. She did a good job portraying the woman’s inner steel and her southern drawl was a lot better than the rest of the faux-American cast.
Much like last week’s “The Ghost Monument” – I bet you’ve already forgotten those creepy rags – “Rosa” did come out a little weak on the villain side of things. However, that’s entirely forgivable in this instance. Dropping some bug-eyed monster into the story would have been the wrong turn, as it was all about the terrible way that us human beings treat each other. As such, Josh Bowman’s Krasko, a racist zealot from the future, was the only foe this episode could’ve had. Still, a little more meat on his bones wouldn’t have gone amiss.
For the second week in a row, Doctor Who left the UK and offered up an episode filmed in South Africa. The exotic locations and the increasingly beautiful cinematography this season made “Rosa” a great-looking hour of TV as well. On the soundtrack side of things, I personally could have done without the heavy use of an inspirational pop song towards the end of the episode, and playing something else over the credits other than the Doctor Who theme is a big no-no.
Honestly, though, these criticisms are just trivial details compared to all the things “Rosa” got right. If season 11 was missing anything before now, it was a bit of heft and a strong sense of drama. That was completely fixed in this episode, though, which probably served up one of the most powerful hours Doctor Who has ever given us.
"Rosa" offers an incredibly deft handling of a sensitive subject matter to bring us one of the most powerful episodes of Doctor Who we've ever had.