Tuesday 23 October 2018

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 11x03 - Rosa

Doctor Who 11x03 - Rosa

It started off in present day, it's gone off into outer space and so by the law of averages it's now time for Doctor Who to tackle the past in its third episode of series 11. Simply titled Rosa, this is an episode that takes the show back to its semi-educational roots and brings the timeless story of civil rights activist Rosa Parks to a whole new audience. Once again directed by Mark Tonderai, the episode is notable for being co-written (alongside showrunner Chris Chibnall) by Malorie Black – the first black writer for the show in its 55 year history.

After several failed attempts at getting back to present day Sheffield, the TARDIS lands the Doctor, Ryan, Yasmin and Graham in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama – the day before Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat and influences the Civil Rights movement. Before they have a chance to leave, the Doctor discovers traces of artron energy that not only leads them to another time traveller, but Rosa Parks herself.

Deducing that the traveller intends to do something to alter history, the Doctor and her friends must act to ensure events stay on course. However to do so the group must also witness history at its ugliest.

Doctor Who is a show that's never shied away from social commentary, but rarely has it been so blatant about it as it is in Rosa. There's no allegory, no metaphor, no alien substitutes – this is a story that’s both completely and brutally honest about the state of racial tolerance in 1955. From its treatment of both Yasmin and Ryan in this time period to the event of Rosa's protest itself, this is an episode with a very clear message that is meant to both unsettle and challenge the viewer. Moments like Ryan being punched purely for trying to help, the restaurant scene or Ryan and Yasmin having to hide from a police officer simply because they're in a hotel room are all extremely powerful, but what perhaps resonates even harder in Rosa is the masterful use of extras. Whereas scenes featuring extras in other episodes will just have them going about their business, Rosa makes a point of constantly having them stop and stare at the main cast (particularly of course Ryan and Yasmin) and the visibility of it all is downright unsettling. Like the previous two episodes, this is one that uses a fairly stock plotline (in this case it's the classic "make sure history isn't altered") and instead uses the characters to drive the momentum.

This of course means there are great performances all around from our main cast, even if it still feels like the show is struggling to give Yaz something substantial to do. The standout performance of the episode comes from Rosa herself, played here by Black Mirror and Sherlock star Vinette Robinson. Robinson delivers a powerful portrayal of Rosa Parks that succeeds in commanding both admiration and respect, setting a very high standard for guest roles this early on into the series. Rosa is also another strong episode for Ryan, who visibly struggles to remain calm in a place and time which is literally out to get him. And despite still feeling sadly limited Yasmin has manages to have some great dialogue, particularly in her exchange with Ryan where they discuss not only the state of the world back then but also how it is now.

Though in some ways this was an episode that needed to be less about the white members of the cast, that isn't at all to say Jodie Whittaker or Bradley Walsh's performances are overshadowed – especially in that moment where they realise they themselves need to be part of the problem to provoke Rosa's protest. So far Graham's has been a character that's largely excelled in the comedy department (and that continues on here too), but his protest of how he doesn't want to be part of this is utterly heart-wrenching. As is the Doctor's silent acceptance of the situation, which like at the end of the previous episode Whittaker is able to a deliver superbly.

With so much focus around a powerful story that (most importantly) actually happened it's almost shame that it was felt it needed to hinge on a dash of science fiction. While the fact that the show doesn't hide the fact that Krasko is purely motivated by racist views and nothing but a racist sends a powerful message, the character himself is incredibly flimsy and consistently remains the least remarkable element of the episode. Little nods to the past like the use of a Vortex Manipulator ala Captain Jack or namedropping his former prison as Stormcage (the one that River Song was incarcerated in after "murdering" the Doctor) are nice little touches that help make this new era of Who not feel that detached from the past, but it doesn't make him any more engaging as a character. Purely as a message that acceptance and equality still have a long way to go in the far flung future it undoubtedly works, but never does he quite have that same discomforting menace as the everyday people of 1955.

Concluding the episode is a move that's already proven to be somewhat divisive amongst viewers – the decision to use a contemporary song, specifically "Rise Up" by Andra Day, in not only the climactic moment where Rosa makes her stand but also (more controversially) over the ending credits. While both the relevance and significance of this song in relation to the subject matter ("Rise Up" having been adopted as the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement) certainly can't be denied, the use of contemporary music in the context of Doctor Who itself often feels ill-fitting for a number of reasons. Music with accompanying lyrics can often be tricky because it almost feels like the song is telling the audience how they should be reacting, rather than letting the scene speak for itself. Series five episode Vincent and the Doctor had a similar problem with its final scenes as well. On the back of this it also feels like something of a disservice to the composer and orchestral team working on the series that an original composition wasn't deemed suitable to convey the mood, and in the wake of a new lead composer for the series it would have been great to see how Segun Akinola would have handled such a powerful scene.

The final point in regards to this highlights a potentially bigger problem this current series of Doctor Who may have – a loss of its identity in the pursuit of a wider audience. To use the song within the episode itself is one thing, but to then use it again in place of the theme during the end credits almost feels like the show is embarrassed to embrace what it is after tackling such subject matter. Chris Chibnall has made no secret that his era of Doctor Who has been reshaped to compete with various US productions (he specifically cited Netflix originals and the CW-verse DC comics shows), and between the polished visuals, wider range of locations and use of a contemporary soundtrack in both the show and promotional material you don't have to look hard to see how it's changing the show. In many respects this can be a good thing – better production values and a wider look a world where everything isn't a street in Cardiff are certainly nothing to scoff at, but too many changes may lead it to lose what made it so quintessentially British in the first place. Right now I'm in no way inclined to consider this a damnation against series 11, but more an observation that I'm curious to see play out.

In its first trip to the past for series 11 Doctor Who strips away all allegory to tackle a difficult and still very relevant subject head on. Featuring strong performances from both its leading cast as well as Vinette Robinson, it's almost a shame that Rosa had to feature such a flimsy time travel plot and villain to hold it together when it very easily could have done without. Even if you aren't among those that consider this to be one of the best episodes Doctor Who has produced in a long-time, there's no denying that it'll go down as one of the most talked about and culturally significant. Next week it's back up north as the TARDIS team returns to Sheffield, only to find Arachnids in the UK

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