13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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Is Rosa a great guide to a horrific time in history for younger viewers who haven't heard anything about it before? Definitely. Is it successful, though, as a Doctor Who episode? Hmm. We think partly, but not entirely.
Without doubt, the story's completely on the nose. It's not allusion, it's not metaphor: it's right out there. Rosa is about racism. It says it's about racism, it portrays racism, characters talk about how they've been affected by and how they feel about racism. Normally we're not fans of this kind of in yer face stuff, as we think it tends to have more of an impact, and is more interesting, if it sneaks up on you.
And yet, despite all that, they get away with it, for one reason: race relations in Montgomery, Alabama (and elsewhere, alas) at this time were precisely as broad-brush and clearcut as is the story. How could we criticise them for overegging when there isn't a whisper of exaggeration in the straightforwardly appalling racism from that time they portray? And that being the case, we think meeting it head on with a completely frank discussion of it, shorn of any literary frills and niceties, is a perfectly justifiable response. We're not sure we'd want to see such an unsubtle approach every week, but in this particular context, it works.
Way back in the mists of time, the science fiction aspects of Doctor Who were intended to be a lacy veil for some lecturing about history. All very educational and morally improving, we're sure, but let's face it, if they'd kept on trotting down that particular highway Doctor Who would never have made it to Series Two. Instead, the Daleks arrived in the second story, and all that low sugar, high fibre stuff was tossed right out the window in favour of good old entertainment. Which is not to say that Doctor Who has never had a message: even the Daleks themselves are a big clangy metaphor. But thankfully, the BBC's zeal to funnel education into our brains has from then on taken a back seat to the fun stuff.
Until Rosa. Which is not to say that they haven't put any entertaining bits in it, because they have. In particular, there's some delightfully zingy dialogue and an excellent couple of jokes about Banksy. But without a doubt, this is a story designed to teach.
And those aspects of it are very, very effective. Even when you're familiar with what was going on at the time, it's impossible not to be smacked in the face by seeing it played out. It's a lot, but it's not too much: sadly, it's all too convincing. Rosa isn't portrayed as a plaster saint or as a cardboard heroine: she comes across as the real person she (obviously) was. By the time she makes her stand and is marched off the bus, we were bawling in unison. OK, they might have pushed things just a little too far: the horns in the soundtrack every time something particularly heroic was happening made us think we'd accidentally switched to an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Nevertheless, the script and the sensitive portrayal by Vinette Robinson transcend that.
What's more, the modern-day companions add depth to the discussion with their own reactions. Special mention has to go to Tosin Cole, who plays an absolute blinder: his struggle to grapple with what's happening in Montgomery is utterly convincing. Mandip Gill is again fantastic as Yaz, although again underused. Bradley Walsh's performance is also deeply affecting, although it wisely takes a back seat to the reactions of Ryan and Yaz.
Of course, there are many ways it could have gone horribly wrong. Probably the most egregious of those would have been if Rosa's actions were portrayed as being inspired by or prompted by the Doctor. Ugh. Can you imagine. Fortunately, they avoid this: the Doctor and her companions' actions ensure only that Rosa is able to do what she herself intends to do. Phew. Massive cringe avoided.
We're not suggesting whatsoever that the Doctor's influence on Rosa should have been stronger or that she should have been more forward in the story. No no no no no. This is Rosa's episode, as it should be. However, that being the case, it therefore follows that the Doctor is in the role of a supporting player, and that can't help but weaken the episode as a Doctor Who episode. Coming so soon in the new Doctor's tenure, this is a bit unfortunate: she's already a little hard to spot amongst the swarm of companions, and we would have preferred this episode to have come later in the run when the Doctor had had more time to establish herself.
As things are, then, dare we whisper that compared to the powerful and compelling portrait of Rosa, the Doctor seems just a tiny bitů ordinary. She's saving the day a bit, but only in a clearing the decks so the real heroine can step forward kind of way. What's more, she doesn't exhibit a great deal of the Doctorly cleverness we'd expect here. The oh-so-charming racist bigot Krasko is ahead of her at every turn, and she spends far too much time trying to put out the fires he's lighting rather than actually doing something about him. It's Ryan, not the Doctor, who shoots him off into space-time Weeping Angel-stylee. And the dodges the Doctor comes up with to make sure the bus is as it should be are pretty pedestrian. We could have thought of them ourselves and so could you, and let's face it, none of us are eccentrically brilliant Time Lords.
Another thing weakening the Doctor is the insistence on spelling everything out. Because the Doctor apparently has to continually explain exactly what's happening and why it's important she fix it, there's absolutely zero room for her to convey any deep feelings about what's going on. Here, we know she's pro Rosa Parks and what she stands for, because she says so, thus obviating any need for her to show us any emotion on this (or any other) subject. We know Chris Chibnall wanted to get back to the more educational Doctor Who days, but we didn't know this was going to mean the Doctor constantly wearing her hearts on her sleeve. How about giving the audience an opportunity to see her passion for things, rather than having her endlessly explain it? A little fire in the eyes goes a lot further than a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pointer.
Something else shooting holes in the Doctor Whoishness of it all: the use of such intense real-life material runs the risk of making the SF trappings look a tiny bit silly. Against what Rosa's up against and where we know she's headed, it's pretty hard to care about a one-dimensional far-future bigot. This is especially true at the end, and is magnified by the use of Andra Day's Rise Up. It's a powerful and affecting coda to the episode which also underscores that the struggle against oppression isn't safely moored in history; however, the use of a contemporary piece of music cuts the legs out from under the make-believe journey into the past and seats the episode firmly where we know it actually is in 2018. We wonder if instead the use of something period-appropriate like the freedom songs of the civil rights movement would have avoided undercutting the story while retaining the strength of the message.
And the wispiness of the SFery isn't helped by the scant attention paid to it, either. It feels as if it's been shovelled in there to make sure it gets over the bar required to qualify as a Doctor Who episode, but you can almost feel the impatience of the scriptwriters to get it over with. (Call us biased, because we are, but we can't help suspecting that this is the bit written by Chibnall.) What's more, the inclusion of Krasko is utterly superfluous. It's blindingly obvious what the villain of this story is, and it isn't some random space dude with a bracelet. The bigoted nonsense he spouts is nothing compared to the real-life racism we're looking at. Why is he even in there? Substituting some space-time anomaly thingy would have given the Doctor and co's race to untangle the day of the bus a lot more heft (and would have made the Doctor look a lot less stupid).
Is this a powerful piece of storytelling that must have started conversations between parents and children everywhere? Absolutely. Is it an unqualified success as a Doctor Who episode? Sorry, we just can't go that far. Nevertheless, kudos for an episode that packs such a heavyweight punch.
Four TARDIS crew. One villain. Can't they tie him up with a shoelace or something?
THAT'S MA'AM TO YOU
We adore Ryan's speech addressing first "Martin Luther King" and then "Rosa Parks" - the sheer glee of this moment is a delightful counterweight to the too many companions who take travelling in time and space for granted three seconds after stepping into the TARDIS.
IN THE TEETH OF THE EVIDENCE
According to Chibnall, there are no arcs in this season. Yeah, very convincing.
CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING
In the Nothing New Under the Twin Suns department, Krasko's implant is eerily similar to Gan's limiter in Blakes 7.