DOCTOR WHO Recap: “Rosa” Finds the Show at its Bluntest, Angriest, Best

Doctor Who is a happy show. Not all the time, of course, (I mean, each incarnation of the character inevitably ends with that version dying and starting over again) but the overarching tone for this series since it was relaunched in 2005 has been one of spirited optimism, founded in the belief that people, even the smallest of people, can rise to their best selves and change the world(s).

To that end, doing an episode centered around Rosa Parks and the small act of defiance that literally re-shaped the world is both perfectly in keeping with what Doctor Who does best, and potential for a nuclear-force mis-step if things aren’t handled with the exact right care.

While Doctor Who has never been oblivious to the potential downsides for people of color traveling backwards in time, the show’s general approach has been to good-naturedly, problematically, blow right past the issue. Sure, there have been isolated incidents where a Companion was accosted or spoken down to because of their ethnicity, but the matter is usually pushed to the side and treated with kids’ gloves, if it’s handled at all. While there’s something cowardly about that tactic, you can also understand why there might have been concern that cross-pollinating the whimsy of The Doctor’s escapades with the brutality of historical racism crosses a line that the show couldn’t recover from.

“Rosa” takes a…different approach. The opening flashback to a younger Rosa Parks being driven from her seat is perhaps the ugliest moment ever depicted on this show, director Mark Tonderai’s (returning from last week’s “The Ghost Monument”) tight close-ups capturing every flinch that crosses Vinette Robinson as Rosa’s face while a white man brays his hatred in her face. Making the moment even more lacerating is the complete absence of any sci-fi or fantastical element or character to mitigate or temper what we’re seeing.

Even when the TARDIS team finally makes an appearance, that ugliness takes only minutes to assert itself once more. Dumped into 1955 Montgomery, Alabama by an unruly TARDIS, The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is concerned by the appearance of artron (timey vortex-derived) particles in the area, and so she and the gang (her words) head out to see what’s what. While walking down the street, excitedly gushing over actually walking around in the past, Ryan (Tosin Cole) stops to help a woman who has dropped her glove.

And is immediately slapped in the face.

Again, the moment is all the more shocking because we’ve been conditioned by Doctor Who episodes past to always broach subjects like racism and bigotry through the lens of metaphors and allegory. “Rosa” rips that Band-Aid off and forces you to confront our shared history, our fucking terrible history, dead in the eye. As if that wasn’t enough, when Rosa Parks herself steps in to defuse the situation, she talks Ryan down from his anger by invoking the name of Emmett Till, and even if the script (by showrunner Chris Chibnall and acclaimed novelist Malorie Blackman) shies away from the most stomach-churning aspects of Till’s murder, it still spells things out with a frankly astonishing bluntness.

It turns out that the artron particles are centered around Rosa herself, which tips The Doctor off that something unnatural to this time and place might be stalking her in the hopes of altering the momentous moment when Rosa refuses to give up her seat on the bus. After an extremely short amount of detecting, the culprit is revealed to be Krasko (Joshua Bowman), a criminal from the future decked out like off-brand Danny Zuko, armed with a vortex manipulator (do they just give those away in the future?) who is eager to alter the timeline for reasons that the episode waits to spell out until near the close.

But put simply: He’s a MAGA-ian dipshit hoping to stop the Civil Rights Movement from happening. It seems that the future is a diverse utopia, where mouth-breathing fucknuggets like this chud-y chode are rightly ignored, so Krasko figures he can put people of color back in “their place” by curtailing social revolution. What a fuck-hole.

The episode’s stakes and scopes are refreshingly simple and straight-forward after the first couple episodes’ overly-complicated mysteries, but that simplicity is something of a double-edged sword. The back-half of “Rosa” is a desperate back and forth between Krasko and the TARDIS team as he tweaks history and they set it back, but Krasko is such a non-threatening threat (beyond being an unarmed human, he’s also had neural blocks implanted so he cannot commit acts of violence) that the show never presents a compelling reason why The Doctor doesn’t just conk him on the head, schlep him back to the future, and call it a day.

But taking the scenic route pays dividends for the show and actors. I complained last week that Whittaker’s first couple outings as The Doctor gave her no breathing room to actually be The Doctor, but 13 really comes into her own this week. “Is anyone excited, because I’m really excited!” she beams as she investigates a discovered suitcase, before chiding Graham (Bradley Walsh) for “killing the vibe” by worrying over whether or not the suitcase has a bomb.

Elsewhere, this episode is easily the best work we’ve seen yet from Cole as Ryan struggling to maintain his temper in the festering shit-pit of pig fucks that is Montgomery, Alabama. And “Rosa” is the first episode where Mandip Gill’s Yaz feels like a full character, thanks in large part to a lovely scene in which Ryan and Yaz grappled with both historical racism and the prejudice that they continue to face in our modern, supposedly more-enlightened world. While the realities of that ongoing prejudice exhausts and frustrates Ryan, Yaz chooses to focus on the huge strides that have been made despite such oppression.

“In 53 years, they’ll have a black president as leader,” Yaz says. “And who knows where they’ll be 50 years after that. That’s proper change.”

(Sidenote: Holy fuck I needed this show back in my life right now.)

In the end, the TARDIS team successfully orchestrates Rosa onto the bus so she can have her confrontation with James Blake (Trevor White, who was in two 9/11 TV movies in 2006, playing two different characters. And now you know that.), but Krasko’s manipulation of events necessitates The Doctor and company have to occupy their seats while said confrontation goes down. While “Rise Up” by Andra Day bellows over the soundtrack, Rosa steps into history as The Doctor, a centuries old, universe-hopping alien, looks on with undisguised awe across her features.

Doctor Who and Doctor Who have always expressed a reverence for the audacity of humans to shake the universe through sheer force of will and determination, but by zeroing in on this woman, this moment, it gives those of us alive during this terrifying, infuriating moment of history the knowledge that we’re not alone in our anger or our fear, and a reminder that even in the darkest of moments, change is possible. Hope is possible. As Rosa, Vinette Robinson wears fear and apprehension plainly across her face as this awful task is handed to her to shoulder. Yet shoulder it she does.

As Ryan promises Rosa, and as Doctor Who promises us each week: “It’ll get better. Not perfect, but better…It’s worth the fight.”

Episode Thoughts:

-Bradley Walsh as Graham remains the most overtly comedic of the new Companions, but he gets a few powerful moments this week as well, from the tears that come to his eyes as he reflects on how much Grace would have liked to meet Rosa, to the hushed horror that comes over him when he realizes that he will need to keep his seat and watch what happens to Rosa.

-Krasko is something of a dud as a villain, and he gets dealt with as such, tossed back in time with his own temporal displacement laser by Ryan. I can’t decide if Krasko’s underwhelming nature is a pointed choice or just a byproduct Bowman not being the most wildly charismatic performer in the world, but either way it mostly works.

-Yaz is repeatedly mistaken for Mexican by the turd-goblins in Alabama, leading to confusion over whether or not she should take a seat in the “Whites” or “Colored” section.

-Graham refers to 13 as “Doc” and it’s just the most adorable thing ever.

-Yaz also mentions attending mosque, making her, I believe, the first overtly religious Companion for at least new Who.

-Ryan meets Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by Ray Sesay). Ryan is very excited, as you can imagine.

-Elvis cannot be trusted with a cellphone.

The Weekly Timey-Wimey Moment: “Artron energy” is a sort of catch-all, all-purpose device that can serve whatever narrative purpose is needed, since at least the time of the Fifth Doctor. It powers TARDISes, aids in regeneration, and even facilitated body-switching escapades during one Sarah Jane Adventures episode featuring Matt Smith.

Arc Alert: Almost completely standalone, the one potential untied thread is the way the camera lingers over the initials “G.F.B” on the suitcase in which Krasko keeps his time travel gear and weaponry. Is this meant to have greater significance?

Most Whovian Moment: “Can we open it?” Ryan asks about said suitcase. “IS THE RIGHT QUESTION!” The Doctor excitedly exclaims.

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