Monday, 22 October 2018

A Doctor Who story about Rosa Parks, in a series showrun by the writer of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, could have gone very wrong. Last week’s The Ghost Monument got away with a lot of clunkiness by virtue of its genre: bombastic, flippant space adventure. This could not.

Imagine if Rosa had stuck to the ‘celebrity historical’ formula of The Shakespeare Code and The Impossible Astronaut, with history as a playground for sci-fantasy antics: the Bogallions have shot down a Deltazoid spaceship over Alabama because they trespassed onto a six-limbs-only space lane – it’s like racism, get it? – and now both species are battling it out and will destroy Earth in their crossfire. Thankfully, the Doctor has pimped a bus to return the Deltazoids to their home planet, and has the help of a plucky passenger who happens to be sat in the seat where the space energies are coalescing. Good job she didn’t move. By the way, civil rights.

OK, maybe it was never going to be that bad, especially with a guest writer of the calibre of Malorie Blackman, but especially after last week, I was nervous. 

Rosa doesn’t fuck it up. It more than doesn’t fuck it up. 

It throws away that old formula – which may have given us several thoroughly enjoyable episodes in the past but would have been completely inappropriate here – to give us instead a powerful drama that’s possibly the first classic of the Chibnall series, most comparable in tone to the similarly sci-fi-light and thematically heavy Vincent and the Doctor – and anyone who’s heard me waffle about Vincent will know that a favourable comparison to it means this must be good.

What Blackman and Chibnall have clearly realised is that the main act of heroism in this story must be committed by Rosa Parks, not the Doctor or companion, and must be refusing to give up the bus seat. 

The way the story leads up to that act, with our regulars’ goal not being to change it but to maintain it, is very clever plotting. It means that bus protest stays at the dramatic heart but everyone has something to do. It allows Parks herself to be kept at a distance from the sci-fi gubbins and so avoid being reduced to caricature. It gives the heroes a challenge that only those in a time travel show could face but that the Doctor hasn’t faced before – and wow, who knew such tension could be drawn out of bus timetables and staff rotas?

It also allows the episode time to explore its world and theme. Like the Sheffield of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, this episode’s 1955 Alabama feels real, detailed, the South Africa location shoot again justifying its expense. And it’s seriously impressive how the episode doesn’t hold back in its depictions of racism, no doubt related to its hiring of Doctor Who’s first writer of colour (yes, it is bad that it’s taken this long). Ryan being slapped is shocking; the fact that it’s not at all what we’ve come to expect from recent Who’s rarely sincere treatment of history makes it all the more so. The extended length of this series’ stories certainly helps – in the 45-minute format, the scene with the cop would probably have been cut, and here it really hammers in the oppression of the world. And the episode also reminds us, through having two non-white companions discuss their own experiences of racism, that these problems persist today.

These companions finally seem concrete in their characterisation. That may be because they have that theme to hang their discussions around, allowing more insight into Yaz’s life in particular than we’ve had previously. It’s also helpful that they have plot objectives relevant to character traits: Ryan investigates the civil rights leaders he remembers his nan admiring; Yaz sets her charts out on the motel wall like a police investigation; and Graham? Well, I love Graham, because his specific skillset is ‘talking to bus drivers’, and somehow that’s come in useful in two out of three stories. I wonder how many more before it gets silly.

And then there’s the Doctor. I commented last week that the grandstanding, speechifying approach Peter Capaldi mastered doesn’t play to Jodie Whittaker’s strengths, and it’s almost as if the show listened. She’s in her element here: compassionate and wise, driving the plot forward with the necessary sci-fi words but not taking attention from the others, putting protecting her friends above risky confrontation. (I’m aware ‘being caring and not the centre of attention’ may be playing it dangerously close to feminine stereotypes for the first woman Doctor, but compassion is never a bad trait in Doctor Who, especially after Capaldi moved away from that, and there’s also a nice feeling of the ‘family going on a trip through history’ dynamic of William Hartnell’s Doctor and his companions.) Also, Whittaker is properly funny in the lighter moments, the Banksy gag in particular.

The only negatives I have are nitpicks. There’s too much “I know about that from school” exposition. Needing to go back to re-check evidence already found should never be part of any plot. The coda in the TARDIS is oddly edited, as if they only had the rights for two seconds of the newsreel. And the Doctor’s confrontation with Krasko is distractingly over-reliant on close-up shots.

But that came from the same director and crew as this ¬–

– a combination of cinematography and acting which lingered in my mind for a while. That climax is as powerful a scene as Doctor Who’s ever had. Graham’s realisation that he has to stay on the bus and play a passive role in history is heartbreaking, and leads right into the gut-punch of this episode – they have to let Rosa be the hero, in a historical moment then presented with flair and dignity. And not a single Deltazoid in sight. 


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