Rosa episode review- One of the best historicals Doctor Who has ever done

Going into yesterday’s episode, I will admit I was concerned. How was Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman going to pull this off? The show had done touchy topics and addressed the past before, but not events that happened a mere decade before the show started in 1963 concerning events that still have an impact today. There was every chance that this episode could have gone wrong, but fortunately Rosa ended up being a game changer. Three episodes into the Chibnall era and we have been given one of the finest historical stories of the entire show, one that effortlessly captures the essence of the show and brilliantly handles its difficult subject matter with skill and care.

Doctor Who has dealt with racism before, in various forms. The Daleks are an obvious Nazi metaphor and several stories have touched upon racism, from Jon Pertwee’s The Mutants to last year’s Thin Ice. Rosa is the most blatant and deliberate story to handle racism, and one of the things I admired most about it is how it did not hold back. Less than five minutes in Ryan is attacked and insulted and there is no sugarcoating just how bad things are in 1955 Alabama. Emmett Till is mentioned, there is a very real chance Ryan could be lynched and Yaz doesn’t get let off either, being referred to as a Mexican. The episode is incredibly brave in showing the younger viewers the true extent of a time period they may not be that familiar with. The effect this has on the companions is not lost either, and in a brilliant scene Ryan and Yaz talk about how things will get better- Ryan is more cynical by stating that racism hasn’t ended whilst Yaz is more optimistic and states that she chooses to ignore what people say to her and that progress has been made. This is exactly what I said I needed last week with the ensemble cast, and this week allowed them all to shine with great character moments.

The other two members of the TARDIS were also on top form. Graham is becoming one of my favourite companions, and I adored his arc here. The ending is devastating, where he realises he is part of history and states that he does not to be a part of it. Throughout the episode he has been defensive of Ryan and opposed to everything going on, yet in a beautifully ironic twist he is responsible for Rosa Parks needing to move seat. It’s a perfect twist in the narrative. The Doctor was as good as she’s ever been. What I like about this incarnation is how she doesn’t dominate proceedings like Three, Four, Six, Nine or Eleven but rather chooses to let events unfold and work her way around a situation like Two and Seven. Here, the Doctor must act as history’s guardian and keep events intact whilst not intefering herself. It’s a great play on the typical pseudo-historical which sees the Doctor actively take part in events. I just adored the Doctor’s character in this episode, and it’s hilarious when she messes around with Graham by stating she’s Banksy and going along with his Steve Jobs routine. Next week will probably see a more active Doctor return.

As for the titular character, Rosa Parks was easily one of the best takes on a historical character in the show. Whilst she wasn’t as fleshed out as someone like Vincent van Gogh, I loved how the boycott and the events on the bus were already planned before the Doctor arrived, meaning Rosa Parks’ legacy was respected. One of the things I worried most about with this episode was whether the sci fi elements would detract from the very real history but fortunately it wasn’t. Krasko served the same purpose as the Krafygis in Vincent and the Doctor- he’s a metaphor for the wider themes. In this case, he’s the episode saying that racism will always exist even in the 79th century and that it is always important to fight it. His defeat was a bit sudden but I doubt we’ve seen the last of him- I’m saying that a lot for the villains this series and I think it’s deliberate. Could Chibnall be assembling an army of villains to fight the Doctor at the end of the series? It could be. It’s so good that the historical aspects of this story took priority over the relative lack of sci-fi in this story. The production crew did an outstanding job of recreating 1950’s America and fortunately this was supported by a strong story that used time travel as a means to tell a very personal and serious story.

This episode is very reminiscent of a Hartnell historical story where the TARDIS crew have to merely observe and prevent history from changing. This explains why it is so different from the other history based episodes of the revival and why it’s so refreshing- Chibnall understands that the show was envisioned as an educational programme and uses history as an opportunity to show a new generation who Rosa Parks was and why she is important. It’s simply brilliant how this show can still teach and inspire people. This bodes well for the next historicals, which are dealing with the Partition of India and the witch frenzy of the 17th century. If they’re half as good as this, then we’re in for a treat. This episode was unrelenting and dark, which was appropriate and needed to bring the message across. The episode is ultimately hopeful and uplifting and it is a rewarding watch.

Ok, we did this last week, let’s do it again. References!

  • “Cheap and nasty time travel”. Looks like Thirteen shares the same view of vortex manipulators as her predecessors.
  • Krasko was locked up in Stormcage, the same facility River Song was imprisoned in.
  • Like The Fires of Pompeii, we have the Doctor and companions becoming part of history.
  • This has a similar plot to The Time Meddler, and Krasko is essentially the Monk without any morals.
  • Thirteen stop offs between Desolation and Alabama? Big Finish got excited at that line.
  • Here’s a really contrived link to another story- the Seventh Doctor story Delta and the Bannermen takes place in the 50’s and has a bus as an important plot point and has a villain wearing black who is a big racist. Both are the third story for their Doctor and both have the same actor in them, Morgan Deare.

In conclusion, Rosa is the best episode of the show since the 50th anniversary. It’s already made a huge impact and it’s clear that we have a modern classic on our hands. This has beaten The Doctor Falls in the “best episode since The God Complex” statement that I always make and I think I’ll eventually be putting this one on my list of favourites. This week sees giant spiders attack Sheffield. That’s right, we go from civil rights… to giant spiders. I love this show.

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2 thoughts on “Rosa episode review- One of the best historicals Doctor Who has ever done

  1. I did not enjoy it. The acting was fine and the depiction of 1950’s Deep South attitudes brilliantly portrayed. But the plot! A time traveller sabotaging events for no apparent reason? Stealing a substitute bus? Persuading a racial bigot to give up his day’s fishing? Twisted suspension of belief until it broke!

  2. I liked it – possibly because I prefer historical fiction to science fiction. An advantage of setting the story in the recent past and with an actual event is that we can more easily relate to it. A disadvantage is that we knew all along that Jim would drive the bus and Rosa would stay in the seat because that’s what actually happened, and the thought of fictional history changing actual history is a paradox too far.
    The episode had a “Quantum Leap” feeling – with the difference is that DW was trying to prevent a small change that would change history for the worse whereas QL was trying to make a small change that would change history for the better.

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