Doctor Who - Rosa
Doctor Who is back again for episode three, and maybe the best episode of the show – whether classic or revival version – that I have ever seen. From the trailer for the show, I thought it was going to be something like an episode of Timeless, but I was wrong, it is a lot more than that. It is an extremely powerful episode of TV.
It starts, as usual, with those beautiful credits, that consist of little more than a blob of CGI, blossoming from the dark and pulsating like a cloud of chaos. Accompanied by the classic tune, that is surprisingly similar to the one I remember from my 70s childhood, it never ceases to amaze me with how effective it is.
The cloud fades back into darkness, and a subtitle tells us that this is Montgomery, Alabama, at night, in the rain. The very first scene, it turns out, is Rosa Parks getting a bus. It is not that fateful night when she refuses to move seat based on nothing more than the color of her skin, it is another night, previous to that, but it is still an adrenaline soaked scene. We are shown that the bus driver is armed, and we see him humiliating this heroic woman. He ejects her for using what he, and bus company regulations, consider to be the wrong entrance.
The confrontation is brutal, and Vinette Robinson, playing Rosa Parks, does an amazing job of capturing both the strength of her character, and the way there is no other option except for her but to obey the spit-flecked, yelled demands of the driver. It is an awful confrontation, and it is hard to imagine the hardening of a person’s heart required before such injustice and spite could be experienced as, “just the way it is.”
Then, at last the darkness lifts, and we hear the comforting sound of the TARDIS materializing on a sunny day, in a back alley that is just a few steps away from the picturesque architecture of 1950s Montgomery. But it is not long before we are very forcefully made to understand that this is an ugly place, that is far more hostile and dangerous to the Doctor and her diverse group of companions than even last week’s desert planet full of wild-roaming war machines. Encounter after encounter underlines how hostile the environment is, starting with some random guy on the street, then a young waitress with the patrons of her restaurant arrayed behind her, then a sign on a motel, and then a racist cop. It is a constant drumbeat of aggression and threat, and it makes the white population of Montgomery into a much more threatening enemy than any Dalek or Cyberman.
It’s not a perfect episode, but my quibbles are comparatively minor. Ryan is portrayed as having only a vague notion of who Rosa Parks is, which seems unlikely to me, and I didn’t like how he had to have her significance explained to him by two white people, even if it is Yaz who does the heavy lifting with this explanation. Thankfully, it is Ryan who makes the closest contact with Rosa, and is invited into her home to meet guests including her husband and Martin Luther King. Later, there is another scene where the Doctor and Graham are confronting the racist cop, and Yaz and Ryan have to hide. Ryan chats to Yaz about how Rosa Parks didn’t magically end racism, and how he gets stopped by the police a lot more often than his white friends. It is scenes like these that work a lot better, and having Yaz and Ryan on the team helps the show avoid a lot of other missteps that it could have made.
The show also does powerful things, even in just the little details of reconstructing 1950s Alabama. We see the Doctor and Graham get on the bus and plop themselves down in the White section without a thought, lost in making plans for their mission, and it is only when Ryan and the Yaz get on that the difficulty and nastiness of riding the bus in Alabama at that time hits home. Ryan has to use the back door, while Yaz is allowed on at the front, but doesn’t know which seat to use.
The bad guy is a racist from the future, and he has a really well observed Proud Boys type of vibe about him. His brain has been edited by a future prison to prevent him using physical force, so he has to express his racism in much more insidious and difficult to detect was, nudges, he calls them. I loved this. I thought it was a very good metaphor for a certain type of racism that avoids outright confrontation, preferring to rely on microagressions to get its job done. It was like the butterfly-effect-theory of racism and was one of the episode’s strongest elements, in my opinion.
There is another great scene where Graham plays pool with the bus driver, showing the racist ninny as a human being, where in the first scene of the episode he was a faceless and terrifying representative of a monolithic system.
The end section of the show is the Doctor and her companions rushing around, undoing the future racist’s nudges and making sure the bus ride – this time the one where Rosa Parks is asked to move and then arrested when she refuses – actually takes place. The Doctor and her companions, in the end, are forced to save the world by not lifting a finger to help Rosa. It is an enormously powerful scene, underscored by the song Rise Up by Andra Day, for a climax to the show that is very effective. Even the BBC continuity announcer took a moment to coment on how good the episode was before getting on with telling everyone what show was coming up next.
I can only agree, it was better than any episode of a show like Doctor Who has a right to be. I feel like I’ve ben put through the wringer a little, and I’m looking forward to next week, and what looks like it is going to be a stupid episode about giant spiders or something.
Start Reading the Dark Galaxy Trilogy
Galaxy Dog is an epic space opera. What starts as an ordinary invasion of an alien planet, brings to light an ancient archaeological site of huge importance. A young man called Knave makes a life-changing discovery there and rises from a lowly position as an infantry trooper to become a player among the powers of the galaxy. This is the story of his rise, and the story of the fierce and independent woman and the feisty robot who help him.