This story in a nutshell: One of the most essential Doctor Who stories of all time…
Oh Brilliant: I continue to be impressed with how Jodie Whitaker plays the part of the Doctor completely in control and yet very rarely choosing to dominate the story, instead very generously allowing her fellow actors to take equal weight in a scene. It’s a really interesting choice that sees her displaying all those essential Doctorly qualities (curiosity, intelligence, morality) without having to steal a scene or make it all about herself. Davison did something similar but I think it’s more pertinent here because she is the first female Doctor. Whilst she was quite brilliant throughout, I was most enthralled with her scenes with the villain of the piece because she gets to finally show her teeth in some very nicely scripted scenes that show the Doctor without mercy or patience. In a story that tackles racism, Whitaker’s Doctor displays her intolerance for prejudice but in a way that is very different from her predecessors. Capaldi punched a guy in the face, Tennant would have been spitting blood, Eccleston would have been all sarcasm and condemnation. Whittaker holds back, showing her disgust with gentle comments of acceptance. She never preaches but merely quietly shows her allegiance. ‘I don’t recognise anyone by that description.’ The Doctor thinks the TARDIS isn’t getting her friends home deliberately. Yeah, yeah, blame the Ship. Of course the Doctor has Elvis’ phone number. She’s practically salivating to get into the suitcase in the warehouse. The Doctor does love poking around in other people’s things. Look at the look on her face when she walks away from her first confrontation with Krasko, thoroughly pissed off. More of this please because Whittaker is genuinely impressive. The Doctor wont promise Rosa a golden future when she asks, she wont lie to her like that. To have me expressing an element of misandry in a topical episode seems quite on the nose but I really like the first female Doctor standing up to men so confidently. Why is it misandry? Because I like the fact that she is a strong woman and he is a strong man and that she bests him. When he attacks her physically, she bests him.
Graham: Our salvation in this episode. A man from contemporary times who not only lacks a racist bone in his body but embraces differences. Graham is a useful reminder of how far we have come. I really like how we are continuing to learn more about his relationship with Grace after her death and how her presence is continued felt in the series. I guess we did take her with us after all, in the people who loved her. I thought her death was a misstep in the first episode but instead it has afforded the show some real heart as those left behind deal with their loss. Graham’s anger is hidden beneath the surface but the more he is exposed to Blake, the less he can hide it behind that charming smile of his.
Ryan: Forget about the subtlety of Martha being chided for the colour of her hands in Human Nature, we’re in a period where you will be struck around the face as a black man for daring to touch a white woman. It’s a shocking moment of real violence in a season that has been pretty muted in that respect so far, showing just how ugly and dangerous history can be for the regulars. It’s a vital scene in its rawness because it shows the sort of peril our friends are in simply for looking how they do. The stakes are immediately high for them.
Yaz: I really liked how Yaz instantly became the police officer when Ryan was assaulted. Very assured, very in control. There’s a suggestion of attraction between Yaz and Ryan which I’m guessing will develop throughout the season. It’s Yaz who points out all the positives that are to come for people of colour, her optimistic nature is a real tonic in an episode that exposes the dark underbelly of society. The fact that Yaz, of Pakistani heritage, has to take her chance at sitting where she wants and wait to see how she is treated says so much about the moral compass of this time period.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You aint Banksy!’ ‘Or am I?’
‘If you keep sitting there we’ll all have to move.’
‘It’ll get better, you know. Not perfect…but better.’
‘What keeps you going?’ ‘Promise of tomorrow.’
‘Law’s the law’ is a very important line because it shows how people of prejudice can hide behind it to express themselves.
The Good: The episode wastes no time in exposing the ugliness of racism, with Rosa being asked to get off the bus and head round to the side entrance in deference to her fellow white passengers. It’s treating coloured people as second-class citizens, holding a mirror up to the fact that society considers them different, lesser, inferior. If you don’t do as your told and stay in your place there are guns and violence that will ensure that you do and the law sits squarely in the hands of those who enforce this ritual discrimination. And if you choose to stand up to your betters, you are punished. I got all of that from the first scene, which is a simple scene of Rosa choosing to behave like anybody else and sit in a seat designated for white people. I knew this was going to make an impact on me from the start. Quietly brave, displaying fear and confidence and just wanting to live a normal life like anybody else, Rosa is instantly likeable thanks to the acting talent of Vinette Robinson. It’s not a great showy role like celebrity historical in the past, there isn’t the usual insane hero worship that comes with this kind of episode, which marks this out as something a little different. The director knows exactly what he is doing in moments like the café scene, spreading an air of disquiet for the regulars to be scrutinised in; two white people and two-coloured people talking in a public place. Many many Doctor Who stories attempt to generate one tenth of the tension of the motel room sequences and fail and what I love about this scene is how damn simple it is. A few characters trapped in a hotel and one massive dose of discrimination from a law enforcement officer. It’s unbelievably tense. Maybe Doctor Who was right to scale back on its showiness after all and get back to things that feel real if it can produce moments like this. You might find it preachy but the scene where Ryan and Yaz discuss how racism is still rife in society is necessary to show that whilst we have made some strides, there is still a long way to go. I thought this scene was quite well written actually, refusing to shy away from the word ‘Paki.’ Stormcage and Vortex manipulator, some nice kisses to the past.
The Bad: I’m not sure we entirely needed the scene with Martin Luther King. Rosa was impressive enough without that added element of hero worship. However, these scenes did give us an insight into her domestic life and flesh out the character more. I sure do seem to be praising the characterisation in this season. That’s because it’s mightily impressive. That big crystal that rises and falls in the TARDIS central column is hilarious.
The Shallow Bit: How dare Doctor Who employ music to make an emotional statement! Like what the hell does this show think it is? That’s the sort of insane bollocks I have been reading on Twitter. Get a grip folks, it’s a song, not a betrayal of a 55-year-old show. It’s a very beautiful song too and taps into the core of what is going on perfectly. Oh, and the Doctor looks fab when she takes off her jacket. Just saying.
Result: ‘It’s worth the fight…’ Doctor Who hasn’t worn its heart on its sleeve in such a topical way in an age. Not since Vincent and the Doctor I would say. Racism is a common theme in the series (the Daleks) but it has rarely been tackled head in such a brutal, unflinching way where the ugliness of humanity is laid bare. I remember seeing the line up of the latest series and rolling my eyes at the sheer PCness of the series these days, trying to cater for every demographic. There was almost an element of racism in that reaction, and I’m somebody who is never more comfortable than when I am in the company of people from all around the world. I begin to see the logic of the decision now because Ryan and Yaz’s colour makes this adventure really personal for them and allows us to connect with both of them for how they are treated. However it was Bradley Walsh’s Graham that made the greatest impact amongst the regulars, proud of his love for a coloured woman and her grandson and struggling to play his part in an important moment of history. The show hasn’t tugged on my heartstrings like that in a long time, as Graham has to fight his nature to make sure something good comes out of an unpleasant moment of humanity. It’s less about holding up high a person from history and more about ensuring that the right events take place. The race against time ending to stop Krasko from interfering with Rosa’s part of history generates a lot of excitement. I was so caught up in the action that the power of the moment itself really snuck up on me. It’s one of the best ever scenes in NuWho, the Doctor realising that they have behave against their natural instincts in order for Rosa to make a stand. I find racism baffling, I was brought up to treat everybody equally and then hopefully everybody would treat me equally. It’s an element of society that gets under my skin and makes me angry. And this episode had the ability to bring something out in me in that respect. Every demeaning act that is issued made me emotional and any piece of drama that can connect me to its characters and theme that personally is definitely doing something very right. A quick word for the regulars who are gelling in a massively engaging way, all four of them had something to offer here but it is the group scenes that impressed me the most. Rosa is beautifully written and filmed piece of drama with plenty to say. I thought it was a truly excellent piece of Doctor Who and the show reclaiming its ability to shock in history: 9/10