The thing about writing a weekly blog about a randomly selected Doctor Who story is that it’s sometimes wildly out of sync with what’s new and exciting. And it feels most disconnected from the rest of Planet Who when a new series airs. Everyone’s talking about the latest and greatest and I’m over here saying, “hey, let’s talk about The Happiness Patrol!”
So when I worked out that my 250th post was going to fall during the new series, I thought I’d make a pretence of being up-to-date and de-random the whole shebang just for a moment. Just for one week, I’ll talk about the most recent episode to air. And when I was planning this brief foray into topicality, I hoped that the post would neatly coincide with an episode which was notable. Something interesting and engaging and that felt like an event for the show.
I got lucky. That episode turned out to be Rosa, an episode which offers much to talk about. I know this because so many people have been talking about it.
Online fandom seemed to draw a collective breath after this episode aired – a kind of moment of startled surprise at what they’d just seen – and then the tweeting and blogging and podcasting began in earnest. This is an episode which people want to discuss. And debate. And draw attention to, in a kind of “wow, did you see what Doctor Who just did?” moment. BBC News, Radio Times and New Statesman ran stories on it; more than the usual amount of attention for a mid-series celebrity historical.
Normally, I have months and more often, years to think about a Doctor Who story before I write about it, so the prospect of giving a prompt response to an episode panicked me. So, I’ve been reading and listening to everyone else’s opinions, to think over what other people have said to help synthesise my own thoughts. And over the course of five days, this is the general opinion I’ve noted: “It’s very good. Surprisingly good considering how badly it could have gone. But…”
And that “but” is where opinions start to differ. For some, Rosa is preachy, for others, poignant. The aspects of it that one person loves, someone else hates. Whether it’s that scene by the dustbin or the patriotic trumpets in the score or the distracting eyebrows of the time meddling racist… you’ll find voices in support and criticism of them all. Well, so far, so the lived experience of Doctor Who fans everywhere.
There’s something invigorating about this whirlwind of ideas and competing viewpoints because we all know it won’t last. In years to come, it will all settle down, consensus will be mostly reached and we’ll all come to some sort of rough agreement about the episode. We’ll assign it a mark out of 10. We’ll pigeonhole it. But right now, we’re in a state of uncertain, noisy, opinionated divergence. I wish it was always like this.
If there’s a common word to pick out of the maelstrom of comment about Rosa, it’s “important”. That’s a signifier for when Doctor Who drops its usual far-fetched malarkey and tackles a serious issue. Like that other “important” episode Vincent and the Doctor, Rosa takes a real and present problem, refuses to dress it up in allegory and drops it like a truth bomb into the Doctor’s fantasy-filled world. The Doctor’s not that well equipped to deal with racism, or depression or similarly complex societal issues. But occasionally an episode forces her to do so. And because this draws a mainstream audience’s attention to those problems, we say that’s important.
In Rosa’s case, it’s also the first story in 55 years written by a person of colour (definitely important) and a compelling piece of drama. I relished my first viewing of the episode in which the powder keg tension of Alabama in 1955 was at its most palpable. It felt like our TARDIS travellers, particularly Ryan (Tosin Cole), were in genuine danger. This pervading threat of jeopardy, all too rare in Doctor Who, is like lightning in a bottle. A second viewing can’t hope to recapture that feeling, but it at least allows the viewer to appreciate how director Mark Tonderai and DOP Tico Poulakakis created it. (Aided, it’s got to be said, by some of the best art direction the show has ever seen and some brilliant locations which felt authentically deep south).
Rosa herself is played with poise and precision by Vinette Robinson. Where Doctor Who’s other historical celebrities – your Shakespeares, Churchills and so on have been broad brush pastiches – Robinson produces the sort of naturalism you expect on prestigious dramas. She lends this already weighty story much gravitas. Among the storm of opinions about this episode, praise for Robinson is as consistent as praise for the decision to keep Rosa’s story parallel to but separate from the sci-fi hijinks of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) foiling uber racist Krasko (Joshua Bowman). Rosa’s act of civil disobedience is too profound and treasured to be spoilt by turning it into standard Doctor Who, by making the bus driver be an alien in disguise or something. If a Doctor Who episode’s going to be “important”, it also needs to tread carefully.
Still, there are missteps, and despite the episode being genuinely moving, we shouldn’t overlook them. The script telegraphs its intentions too often, such as when Ryan inquires how the temporal displacement gadget works and the Doctor carefully explains how to use it before warning him not to. Surely no one was surprised when he disobeyed her a few scenes later. Repetition snuck in: the Banksy joke, for instance, worked well once and didn’t need to be repeated. And as for how many times our TARDIS quartet explained to each other how they needed to coordinate efforts to get Rosa on the bus on time… well, I’ll just say I felt comprehensively informed.
Those four are proving to be engaging company, even if their exploits seem carefully planned around their individual skill sets. They just about get away with Yaz (Mandip Gill) using her investigative skills to plot Rosa’s movements, and Ryan can be relied upon to fire the space guns and bumble into trouble, but I’m just not sure how many more bus driving related plots they can conjure up for Graham (Bradley Walsh). Their individual character arcs are all pointing to moments of self-realisation I’m quietly dreading: Yaz reconnecting with her family, Ryan riding a bike to save the universe and Graham driving a spaceship vaguely shaped like a bus to some vital plot point. (And at some stage, surely Ryan’s going to call Graham “Grandad,” and I’ll be hiding behind my sofa for that one).
The Doctor continues to be refreshingly warm, smart and enthusiastic, walking confidently through this tale of the worst of human prejudice. She’s the first Doctor who seems to truly enjoy having a team of people around her, but she has the smarts and courage to talk down a two-bit crook like Krasko on her own, and without raising a sweat.
Where the Doctor truly looks challenged, for the first time this season, is in that climactic scene on the bus, where she must steady her friends to stand by and allow an act of racism to play out, in order to safeguard the future. It’s a brave scene in several ways. First, it’s brave to make a decision to do nothing the moment on which a drama hangs. Secondly, it’s uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and her friends silently condone a moment which goes against everything they stand for. Thirdly, in doing so, the Doctor seems to reject the radical act of demanding immediate change which she is usually the catalyst for. She’s normally the bringer of regime change on many an oppressed alien planet. Here, she falls in favour of slow, incremental change, making people of colour take the long way around to equal rights. It’s a deeply conflicting ending but it’s designed to be, and that’s what makes it work.
This kind of small-l liberal resignation to the practical – an attitude of “well you’ve got to work within the system and change will eventually come” – is an odd note for a Doctor Who story to end on. And I can see where some are coming from when they say that’s part of the story positioning racism too firmly as a historical artefact; that despite Ryan and Yaz’s dumpster conversation, there wasn’t enough recognition of the ongoing stain of racial prejudice in our own society. I think there’s two elements here which redress the balance.
The first and subtlest is that Krasko comes from the far future. He’s a walking indication that racism will prevail long into humanity’s future and will always need confronting. More overt is the choice to close out the episode with Andra Day’s Rise Up. As it’s closely linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s a clear statement that racism is still our problem and the fight goes on; a point I’d much prefer being made by music than by the post-match TARDIS exposition convo.
In her first episode of this series, and in the trailers to promote it, our new Doctor proclaimed, “this is going to be fun!” That seems to be a catch cry for this season, and a point of difference from the show’s recent past. Whatever the merits of the Capaldi era, it wasn’t, for the most part, what you’d call “fun”.
Rosa proved to be an early antidote to fun in this season. But that’s OK, because it swapped being fun for being essential viewing, for more than just us die hards. Whatever the diverse opinions about this episode, I think we can confidently say it’s been a while since Doctor Who was that.
LINK TO The Happiness Patrol: both feature Americans.
NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed. Stop your Cryon, it’s Attack of the Cybermen.