'Rosa' recap: 'Doctor Who' breaks new ground with an emotionally-charged classic

Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC)
Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC)

The third episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘Rosa’:

What’s it about? The Doctor, Graham, Yaz and Ryan fight to keep a defining moment in history on course in 1950s Alabama. Lunch is not provided.

Verdict: It’s really quite something when a TV show with 55 years on the clock manages to disarm you with something so fresh, so new and so unexpected you’re forced to reconsider all your notions about what that show actually is. That’s ‘Rosa’ – a Doctor Who story that sees the world’s longest-running science fiction series breaking new ground with an emotionally-charged slice of period drama that’s quite unlike anything it has ever attempted before.

The plot is elegantly simple: an alien criminal has travelled back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 in an attempt to stop Rosa Parks from giving up her seat on a bus to a white passenger – the small, defiant act of protest that lit a fire under America’s civil rights movement.

The script, by former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman and showrunner Chris Chibnall, is careful not to remove any agency from Rosa (a beautifully dignified performance by Vinette Robinson). A defining theme of modern Doctor Who is the Doctor’s capacity to inspire others to greatness, but it would have been deeply problematic to suggest Rosa’s stand was in any way the result of an intervention by a white alien aristocrat. Instead, history has merely slipped a groove, and it’s the Doctor’s job to nudge it back on track again.

Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC)
Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC)

Tonally, this feels unique in the Doctor Who canon. That’s partly down to the type of story they’ve chosen to tell, and partly down to how director Mark Tonderai has translated it to the screen. For the second week in a row, the crew’s visit to South Africa really pays dividends: Cape Town looks – to these British eyes at least – authentically like 50s Alabama, suffusing the episode with a different colour palette, a different texture and a different energy to anything that’s gone before, even in a show as gloriously schizophrenic as this one.

It sounds different, too, thanks to Segun Akinola, who is turning out to be one of this series’ biggest assets. His heroic “Rosa’s theme” – part Superman, part salute – is especially striking, as is the evocative use of southern spiritual songs.

No doubt some will roll their eyes and grumble about Doctor Who being too “woke”, but that would be an absurdly reductive view of a story that’s rich with natural drama and tension. It’s amazing, really, that Hollywood hasn’t done more with this story (Angela Bassett played Rosa in a 2002 TV biopic) and it’s only with the benefit of hindsight we can see what perfect Doctor Who material it is.

This show is often at its best when it keeps its focus tight and character-led. Because which is more dramatic: Ryan getting cuffed across the face and threatened with being strung from a tree for daring to return a white woman’s glove, or Davros threatening to destroy the universe with a Reality Bomb? (It’s a rhetorical question, don’t write in.)

For the same reason, this was an episode with an unusually strong resolution. Doctor Who has always had a problem with convincing endings, but here there was no need to fall back on sci-fi bafflegab, a wave of the magic sonic wand or the other standard deus ex machina. This was literally about putting enough bums on seats to make sure one woman on a bus in 1950s Alabama would be asked to move down the car – and the drama was all the stronger for it. As Rosa was led off the bus by the police, I didn’t know whether to shed a tear or punch the air (I did both). And the final shot of asteroid 284996 Rosaparks was a beautiful little grace note.

There’s no monster, either – at least not in the traditional sense – which, again, feels like a smart move, as having a man in a rubber suit lumbering around the streets of Montgomery would only have cheapened the story being told.

Jodie Whittaker and Joshua Bowman in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC)
Jodie Whittaker and Joshua Bowman in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC)

Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor continues to delight, and is gifted some terrific hero moments: her confrontations with Krasko on top of the tankers, and later in the bus depot, are thrilling, mixing steely resolve (“Don’t threaten me”) with mental dexterity and acid wit. Love the nifty little manoeuvre with the suitcase, too.

The episode is a terrific showcase for Tosin Cole’s Ryan and Mandip Gill’s Yaz, for whom the Deep South in the 1950s is a world as alien as any distant planet. Though not, as it turns out, quite as alien as we might hope, the pair making it clear that life in 21st century Sheffield isn’t always a bed of roses either. And yes, it’s shocking to hear words like “Paki” and “mongrel” in Doctor Who. But sometimes we need to be shocked.

If all this makes ‘Rosa’ sound a bit dull and worthy, then nothing could be further from the truth. And that’s possibly the greatest masterstroke of all: Blackman and Chibnall’s script displays a delightful lightness of touch, folding the Issues, for want of a better word, into an exciting adventure in space and time that is also, crucially, laugh-out-loud funny. (If you’re not helplessly in love with Bradley Walsh’s Graham by now, check for a pulse.)

I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and suggests this one deserves a place in the front rank of Doctor Who’s all-time greats. Rosa Parks once said that “memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others”. I think it’s fair to say Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall have done her memory proud.

Doctor’s notes: The Doctor is Banksy. Or is she? She once lent Elvis her mobile (and he lent it to Frank Sinatra).

Fellow travellers: Yaz was born with a positive attitude. Ryan thinks Rosa Parks was the first black woman to drive a bus, and accidentally reveals how much he fancies Yaz. Graham’s stomach requires regular feeding.

Isn’t that…? Vinette Robinson (Rosa) previously appeared in Chris Chibnall’s 2007 Doctor Who story ’42’, playing medical officer Abi Lerner. She also had a recurring role as Sgt Sally Donovan in Sherlock. Josh Bowman played Daniel Grayson in US thriller Revenge, and was most recently seen as Jack the Ripper in period sci-fi drama Time After Time.

Location, location, location: Montgomery, Alabama, 1955.

Scary monsters: There’s no scary monster as such, but Krasko’s motive appears to be to kill off the civil rights movement and divert history down a less enlightened path for the sheer racist hell of it. Which seems pretty monstrous to me.

Quote unquote: “Is anyone excited? Cos I’m really excited.” The Doctor

“I guess I’ll park my South Asian-Mexican backside in the white section then, and see what happens.” Yaz

“Excuse me, Dr King. Yes, Rosa Parks? Woah.” Ryan

“Your boy, he’ll be swinging from a tree with a noose for a neckerchief if he touches a white woman in Montgomery.” Huge credit to the writers for not pulling their punches, even in a ‘family’ show.

Yaz: “Everything here’s a fight for you. Don’t you get tired? What keeps you going” Rosa: “Promise of tomorrow. When today isn’t working, tomorrow is what you have.”

Gadgets and gizmos: Krasko travels through time using a Vortex Manipulator – once described by the Tenth Doctor as “cheap and nasty time travel”. He’s also carrying an Information Brick, a Temporal Displacement Weapon and a Multi-Interception Surveillance Device. All a bit knackered.

Best bit: It could only be Rosa’s historic stand on the bus, for which Andra Day’s Rise Up is the perfect soundtrack choice.

Worst bit: There weren’t really an duff moments. Yaz and Ryan’s chat by the bins started out a bit “theatre in education”, but even that ended up being a rather lovely moment.

Scariest bit: Krasko telling Ryan his plan is to “stop your kind getting above themselves”. Strong stuff.

Funniest bit: “Have you noticed that happens a lot?” Graham is struggling to adapt to TARDIS mealtimes (or the lack thereof).

Back in time: The episode title is a knowing wink to ‘Rose’, the story that relaunched the show in 2005.

Krasko was a prisoner in the Stormcage Containment Facility, sometime home to a certain River Song. Does that explain where he got that Vortex Manipulator from?

Next time – Arachnids in the UK: The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan find their way back to Yorkshire – and Yaz’s family – only to find something is stirring amidst the eight-legged arachnid population of Sheffield.

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