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30 December 2018 @ 04:58 pm
When I first heard Doctor Who was going to do an episode about Rosa Parks I thought it was a brave choice in pretty much all senses of the word. You would think that either the plot "racism is caused by aliens" or "The Doctor inspired Rosa Parks" would have been obvious no-nos in 2018 but frankly you never know and this was possibly half-written by the man who gave us Cyberwoman*. So the early reveal that the SF-part of the episode would be about preventing someone from changing history came as something of a relief. Of course, Malorie Blackman, may well deserve much of the credit for the deft way Rosa handled its subject matter, and I'd certainly argue this was the best script of series 11 with Chibnall's name on it but, still, he's clearly come a long way since Torchwood series 1.

"This is more like it," B. remarked about 10 minutes in to the episode. Having been somewhat disappointed with the start of the series, there was already plenty here to get your teeth into and certainly more of a feeling of substance.

As the episode progressed I did begin to wonder a bit if we were getting The Ladybird History of Rosa Parks, this was partly the colour palette chosen for the episode that did remind me rather of the illustrations in Ladybird books, but also the way the episode was carefully presenting lots of Facts about Rosa, as people looked up bus time-tables, and recalled lessons from primary school. Of the many mistakes this episode could have made, erring on the side of being a bit over-didactic, was probably the one to go for. Moreover placed in the context of the rest of the first half of the season, there is a clear desire to go back to Doctor Who's educational routes which frankly works better in the historical stories than in the random science info-dumps some of the other episodes chose to give us. It's probably also fair to say that the most the average British person knows about Rosa Parks is that a lady who refused to give up her place on the bus had something to do with the American Civil Movement so a certain didacticism is probably fair enough. None of the online comment I've seen has felt the story was over-simplified, at least not in the way I feared, so my concerns there were probably needless.

Of course, the pitfall the episode didn't entirely avoid is espousing a kind of Great Man theory of history - the suggestion that only Rosa Parks and only on the 1st December 1955 could have started the Montgomery bus boycott. It clearly tries to mitigate this with its presentation of the meeting with Martin Luther King and the implied suggestion of the organisation behind the events, but I don't think that really succeeds.

Another problem the episode has, though one it shares with many in the series, is the lack of a good villain. I suspect this was a deliberate desire not to have a villain that over-shadowed the character of Rosa herself (who did not have the option, really, of chewing scenery in the time-honoured Doctor Who fashion) and it may also have been a meta-commentary on the nature of modern overt racism. While, in some ways, I think the episode might have worked better as a pure historical, it is difficult to see how the Doctor could have believably become involved without the villain's presence and actions and it would certainly have been impossible to have the very powerful scene of the Doctor and her companions on the bus as Rosa is arrested without the earlier set-up. It was also a moment where an episode which had, up until that point, been anxious to carefully spell everything out for the viewer, had the courage to let the actors and direction convey both the narrative and its underlying issues and themes.

Rosa was the first really excellent episode of series 11, in my opinion. I think it has flaws, many of which are inherent in trying to grapple with a subject as emotionally charged as the American Civil Rights movement in the context of a Doctor Who "celebrity" historical, but given the hot mess it could have been what we got was nothing short of a triumph.

* Yes, I know he claims the costume was not his doing and he only found about it too late to rectify but the costume isn't the only problem with the episode, and he was also well, status a bit unclear, but he was far from random jobbing writer on Torchwood so I'm dubious about this claim that the costume was completely outside his control.

This entry was originally posted at https://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/536664.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on December 30th, 2018 11:26 pm (UTC)
I think this was my favourite episode of the season. It was very well handled. I can't judge whether it was too info-dump-ey, as I studied the Civil Rights Movement for GCSE history, so was probably better informed than the bulk of the audience to start with. But I felt it was solid drama. I was rather upset to see my uncle dismiss this and Demons of the Punjab as "history lessons". I know Doctor Who usually is fairly unrealistic SF melodrama, but I think it can be so much more. But I worry how many other people in the audience share my uncle's views and what that means for the next season.

Re: the Great Man Theory of History: it's interesting how often Doctor Who does this. Even when written by the left-wing Pip and Jane Baker, who might be expected to be more aware of social history given their background, it swings back to it, albeit with a Great Man from a humble background. It's possible that SF melodrama simplifies events down to great men and women because it's easier to represent for a family audience than social pressures.
louisedennis: Who:Thirteenlouisedennis on December 31st, 2018 02:11 pm (UTC)
I find it very hard to gauge what the General Public makes of this new Doctor Who (even after looking at several ratings analyses - because its hard to compare because of the change of day). I think its fair to say in "real life" conversations I've had the people I've been talking too have been more enthusiastic about this than about the Capaldi stories - but I suspect there is some selection bias, random associates will be happier to talk Doctor Who with a known Who-fan if they feel they have something good to say.

I think Great Man stories are superficially easier to translate into engaging stories, though in the Doctor Who contact I think there is always a risk it will create a tension over who is the main character in the tale.