Doctor Who: Tremendous – Ardent Rosa Defines Illustrious Story
Well, it’s that time – by which I mean, back in it.
Yes, it’s the coveted History Episode, ie, the part of Doctor Who that I have a punishing soft spot for. Even aside from superb episodes like The Empty Child/Doctor Dances and The Unquiet Dead, I’ll go to mat for nonsense like Robot of Sherwood, just because I’m a sucker for anything set in the past (well, I draw the line at Thin Ice, but you catch my drift). I’m a history graduate (by accident, but that’s another story) and Doctor Who has always stuck to a formula for newbies: present day (the premiere), future (last week), and then the past. So, fair warning, I’m so up for this episode, Rosa, because it’s a delve into the world behind us, and I love that shit.
But to the episode proper, and the woman at the centre of it. Because the Rosa of the title is none other than Rosa Parks, civil rights icon (you should read this article on the real story behind the iconic photographs and her protest here, by the way, because it’s not what you’ve been taught), as played by Vinette Robinson. This episode sees the Doctor and company deposited in 1955, the day before Parks’ famous protest on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and faced with the task of making sure her fateful journey takes place as a fellow time-traveller appears set on disrupting the events that spark the civil rights movement into action.
And man, I have to say, I just fucking loved this episode. The first couple of this season have been solid enough, but this was the first one that felt as though it was firing on all cylinders; I knew this was going to be an episode I had a particular amount of time for as soon as I saw Malorie Blackman’s name in the co-writing credits, as she was one of the authors who defined by literary adolescence with her superb Noughts & Crosses series (which is still totally worth a read, by the way).
And yes, the script was brilliant – but it was the character beats that brought this story alive. Obviously, it’s Robinson’s Parks who stands at the centre of this story, rich with quiet rebellion and a kindness that doesn’t neuter her to sainthood – bringing historical figures to TV like this can prove hard, but this episode nails the woman in the middle of all of this, rich with texture and nuance, and aided by a spectacular performance from Robinson to boot.
Beyond that, though, this was the first episode that I felt really gave us a look into our central four characters (the Doctor, Yas, Ryan, and Graham) on their own terms rather than as part of a group. The story splits them up and sends them skittering all over the city by themselves, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to explore who these people are when they’re not with the rest of the cast. It’s Ryan, I think, who gets the most development here, in an episode that scrubs away some of the angst that had been weighing him down the last couple of weeks – from that “Good, because I don’t eat them” response to a waitress’ snide remark about her establishment not serving black people that bristles with tension and attitude, to his glee at the discomfort of a racist bus driver in his presence, to the slack-jawed thrill of being around civil rights icons, he feels fuller than he ever has before. Plus, I like my Doctor Who with a healthy dose of social justice, and Ryan’s experiences in this time period were a stark way to shine a light on an issue that’s never not going to be worth talking about.
And it’s a good episode for Graham and Yas as well: Bradley Walsh is settling into this role nicely enough, and his reverence to the memory of his late wife through his passionate defence of the burgeoning civil rights movement is a powerful addition to his arc so far – when he’s forced into complicity with the racist forces that forced Rosa to move, it’s clearly painful for him. Yas is still probably the most underserved of the assistants this far into the show, and she is lumbered with some of the more unsubtle commentary of race relations to boot (I know some people are going to be mad about the slightly clunky nature of these elements, but I don’t give a shit – this show was created to teach kids about history, and this episode fulfilled that, no matter how bluntly), but her interactions with Rosa are proud and engaging.
But this is really a fantastic episode for Whittaker’s Doctor. Reflecting back on last season’s Thin Ice, a corollary to this episode, I was just struck by how warm the Doctor seemed in this episode – how principled, how focused, and how powerful that was to see applied to a matter as weighty as this one. When a cop comes by looking for Ryan and Yas, describing them as a couple of “mongrels”, her reply – a quiet, furious “I don’t recognise anyone by that description” – is an extraordinarily powerful moment for her iteration of this Doctor. It’s a return to something I have been missing for so long: a Doctor who gives a shit, a Doctor who stands up even when they are not immediately called on to do it.
I could really go on and on about how much I liked this episode – I haven’t even touched on the fun elements the villain had going for him, the great period details, the gorgeous sets, the pervading sense of urgency and adventure through the whole story. But I’ll leave it here, and say, more like this, please. Beyond telling a compelling story with momentum and a weighty sense of stakes, Rosa is a reminder of what a magical show this can be when it lets character flesh out history.
What did you think of this delve into the past? How are you enjoying the season so far? Let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter or Tumblr! If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out the rest of my Doctor Who recaps right here, and also check in with my other recapping projects – I’m currently covering the first Harry Potter book as well as the current seasons of Riverdale and American Horror Story. If you want to read some of my fiction, please check out the ALPHA FEMALE erotica series (eighteen-plus, obviously), available on Amazon now. As ever, if you want to see more stuff like this, please consider supporting me on Patreon!
(header image courtesy of TV Fanatic)