Doctor Who #998: Rosa

"Riding the bus in Montgomery. Good times."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.21 2018.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor's gang meets Rosa Parks on the eve of her famous stand (so to speak).

REVIEW: Let's preface with some politics. There's been a LOT of talk about this episode. Some of it positive, some of it very negative, some of it manufactured by Russian trolls and the like (easily dismissed, so you won't see me refute nonsense about how Doctor Who shouldn't be political or PC or whatever other claptrap). Some, I feel, are just dead tired of the real world's growing darkness, and would rather not see it in their escapism. The episode may, in fact, hit too close to home for many American viewers. They will certainly be the first to be irritated by the bad accents (so now you know how WE fell, *wink*). In many places around the world, white supremacy is a hot button issue right now, and has been discussed, analyzed, dissected every which way, so a 48-minute genre oversimplification is hardly going to do it justice. I, myself, am impressed at how far they went in some ways, yet also feel they didn't go far enough in others. But does that mean Doctor Who shouldn't attempt "relevant" episodes just because its format doesn't allow for deep enough a story? I think episodes like Vincent and the Doctor are proof they SHOULD be attempted. It is a beloved episode that nonetheless sparked a lot of discussion when it aired, much like Rosa did. I say any episode that engenders so much discussion is worth doing whether it completely succeeds or not. And in many cases, its success was based on whether its message was one you agreed with or not.

In Malorie Blackman, Who gets its first ever black writer, which sounds absurd, but there it is, and there's no way to yet know what Chris Chibnall's co-credit means to the finished episode (just rewrote the characters to his vision, or something more?). The story reminds me a lot of The Aztecs, in which the Doctor also asks companions to stand idly by while reprehensible behavior goes on. There, Barbara was unable to shift history, but she was trying to divert a great current. In this case, the villain of the piece, a time-traveling white supremacist called Krasko tries to fool history by effecting very subtle changes that will have bigger ramifications down the line. We don't know what these are, really, nor does he. But he nonetheless tries to prevent Rosa Parks' protest from happening, and maybe if screwing with bus schedules etc. can do that, then something as small as WHEN she refuses to give up her seat (she would have SOME day to be sure) could have had repercussions on anything from who is chosen to be the symbol of the civil rights movement, MLK's participation, who knows? A lot of people have tried to make sense of this, but I think it's enough that the Doctor is worried about it. Now, it's when you look at this plot that politics get a little in the way, because it forces our heroes to make sure there's a travesty of justice AND that they not try to help Rosa. That seems counter to Doctor Who's usual ethics, but there's nothing else to be done. Even her tiny acknowledgement to Ryan puts the thought in our minds that he inspired her to do it in some way, which is touchy (so good thing we have a prologue where she almost does it, and her involvement with Martin Luther King and civil rights is also made plain - this wasn't some random lady on a bus, she had an activist streak). So the show might accidentally say oppressed people should fight their own fights, allies need not apply. Except, does it? The gang more than lets it happen, they recreate the conditions for it to happen. To Rosa, the Doctor and Graham were no help at all, at least to her situation. But to the cause? They gave her an opportunity.

And then there's all the stuff where the Doctor doesn't really push back at Alabaman racists when they spit their venom at Ryan and Yasmin. When the show goes to the future and discusses similar themes in safe, allegorical, science fiction terms, he or she was never so restrained. Personally, I think it makes this place and time more dangerous that the Doctor doesn't want to make things worse by insulting "upstanding white citizens". Every time the Doctor has had black companions, we've heard fans inquire as to whether racism would be addressed in historical episodes. The answer for Martha and Bill was "a bit". No episode has gone this far. And while the environment could be deadly for Ryan, no one is saying putting history on track will magically fix racism. Ryan is reacting from the point of view of somehow who gets hassled in contemporary Sheffield. Yas too, for being a Muslim of Pakistani descent. And Graham married a black woman, and it visibly pains him when his adopted grandson is mistreated. So it's all the worst because it still goes on today. That fight is never over, which IS a very Doctor Who thing to say. 50 years after Rosa Parks, the U.S. has a black president. Today, there's an enormous backlash to that event and we're horrifically back-sliding, but Yas still gets to pursue her dream of being a police officer. She talks about what progress might be made 50 years in the future. We saw Rosa Parks ready to fight for her rights 12 years before the events of the episode; she gets awarded a medal for it only in her 90s. The song that plays over the final scene and end credits, Andra Day's "Rise Up", talks of getting up 1000 times. The struggle is ongoing and likely without end. So IS the story really an oversimplification? The villain's unfathomable motivation (because racism is blunt and stupid and sadly all that's needed). Allies who are afraid of going up against the system (for different reasons than you or I, but have we stood up every time to help the downtrodden?). A hopeful, but depressing ending that really asks us to commit to small gestures that might change the world. Nothing simple about it. My one problem insofar as "not going far enough" is with the Doctor showing her group the Rosa Parks asteroid, as if it were a good example of how she changed the universe. Surely, a very diverse crowd of humans and aliens living together in relative harmony would have been better, surely.

You know, when I saw the series teaser (the one with the regenerating pizza), I thought temporal anomalies would be the threat of the season, and that more episodes would be like Rosa. The Doctor trying to fix history isn't something we've had a lot of over the last 55 years, which is strange for a time travel show (see Voyagers!, or Quantum Leap, or Poul Anderson's Time Patrol stories). I like that it was treated as a puzzle to be figured out, an evolving one as Krasko continues to improvise around their efforts. I don't think he deserves to be back (and certainly, he's lost his ability to time travel), but one might ask if all these disappearing foes (every episode to date...) will somehow return. Maybe Ryan shouldn't have sent him to the far past where he could do some damage, but he might be running from dinosaurs for all we know. It IS odd that the Doctor didn't say anything about Ryan basically "shooting" someone. If she were the 7th Doctor, we might even suspect her of explaining how the gun worked on purpose. I don't think so though. She was just in exposition mode and rambled about the displacer thoughtlessly. I really believe that. Because wow, she dumped a LOT of exposition on us in this episode. Exposition we didn't need, some times. Recaps of plot points we just experienced. So. Much. Exposition. Were Blackman and/or Chibnall afraid we wouldn't understand the stakes? Cripes. That's really my main complaint about the episode.

Otherwise, the Doctor has many good moments. Her humor still seems a bit deadpan to me (imagine the Banksy stuff with her smiling or winking at the end), though she does a lot with expressions (her face when Graham puts his arm around her in front of the cop). But when she gets angry, watch out. She's ruthless. Letting "Don't threaten me" hang in the air. Goading Krasko into grabbing her by the throat just so it would activate his inhibitor chip. The bit where she buzzes him with her sonic screwdriver.  Her dead quiet when he confesses to his 2000 murders. Stomping on his vortex manipulator. So maybe she did purposefully put the displacer into Ryan's hand...

The companions all get their moments too. Yas is still something of an outlier, but she does get to play the detective and reconstruct the events of December 1st, 1955. This is the kind of thing she wants to do on the police force and isn't currently allowed to. There's a flirtation with making her and Ryan an item, as he embarrasses himself by showing jealousy at one of her old boyfriends and embarrasses himself. Will that lead to anything? Do you want it to? Ryan as a civil rights movement fan boy, spending an evening with people he admires, but also holding himself in check as indignities are piled on his head (but getting a crack in when he can too). Graham is the real MVP though, getting information out of "Blake the Snake" through gritted teeth, and horrified to become the white person standing on the bus for whom Rosa should move. I guess he was made a retired bus driver to better fit this story, but it pays off. He gets some jokes in early on, but the drama is what he's really good at. He absolutely breaks my heart when he remembers Grace's "Spirit of Rosa" t-shirt, and tongue-tied, just admits he wishes she were there. Such an open, sincere face. And look at Ryan, following it up with a joke, because he refuses to let grief overtake him. So many great character moments in this one... In a way, it's a shame it's all overshadowed by the politics.

THEORIES: The show gives novel and audio writers room to breathe by saying Alabama 1955 is the Doctor's 14th attempt to get the gang home. You might be inclined to think she dematerialized as soon as she checked the TARDIS screens, but there's evidence that there were longer pit stops. First, they've all changed clothes, including the Doctor. Second, Graham complains that the Doctor interrupts meals with calls to action "a lot", but there hasn't yet been an occasion where they might've stopped to eat. If it's a whole 13 untold adventures, there hasn't been a lot of character development in that time, so it's probably less than that.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - I don't fancy the Doctor as exposition machine, but the drama is, to say the least, thought-provoking, whether or not you agree with the conclusions you're wont to draw from it.

UPDATE: Check out Straight Outta Gallifrey's Rosa episode where Diane BLEW MY MIND by equating the white supremacist from the future who wants to nudge history his way, with white supremacists in the government nudging events and laws to do the same today!

11 comments:

snell said...

I will echo your point that this is the second episode in a row where the villain's characterization is wafer thin, and he just vanishes/is vanished without a faretheewell (At least Tim Shaw had a fair amount to say, and a proper final confrontation). A troubling writing tic of Chibnall's?

Note that we were given a close-up--twice--of the initials on Krasko's suitcase (G.F.B.). There was really no reason for that, which leads me to suspect that Krasko will be back, and his story is part of some larger tapestry we don't have the pieces to yet.

LiamKav said...

A mistake I think people sometimes make of "message television" is the "all TV is for me". I am not racist (I hope). I know what Rosa Parks did. I don't need to be shown what she did or how racist the 50s were.

The thing is, not all TV is for me. Maybe there's a 9 year old white boy watching this, learning about what ethnic minorities have had to and still deal with. Maybe that causes him to try not to be racist when he gets older. And maybe there's a Muslim girl watching the scene where Yas and Ryan talk about how they get treated, and realises she's not alone.

So yeah, every once in a while I think we do need to be lectured at. And if it got people talking (RosaParks was apparently trending on Twitter) then I think the good outweighs the bad.

LiamKav said...

That said, I do agree with the oddness of the Doctor being so... passive. Especially considering thst last season the Doctor punched someone in the face for being racist to a companion. Maybe a line about having to be extra super careful because this was an incredibly importing Fixed Point In Time that was very vulnerable to disruption?

Brendon Wright said...

The whole episode had me tingling right thru for two reasons... the message AND the fact it was teaching history, like the BBC first intended and shied away from back in '66.

Most prejudices are hard to see in ourselves, so I love the way it challenged us...
The Southerners were "fine, Upstanding Citizens" as far as they knew, yet we can see otherwise in retrospect.
Every time I get upset about something nowdays I wonder where it came from... am I operating from an unrecognised prejudice?
Stereotypes are prejudices too, where does that leave a lot of our humour?
Chibnall and co are doing amazing.

I don't know WHY I believe this, but I feel if humanity is falling short anywhere that it tars all of us to some degree. Whatever happens between quarrelling neighbours in Gaza is the result of something that's inside of all of us. We need to learn and relearn the lessons as much as the perpetrators of the deeds... a strange philosophy I must say but it's got me strongly in its grip!
Chibnall's Doctor doesn't tell me it's wrong thinking.

LiamKav said...

All of us are prejudiced to a certain degree. It's acknowledging that and trying to confront it that's the trick. Am I genuinely hiring the man rather than the woman because he'll do a better job, or am I unconsciously thinking that the woman is too weak to do it? No-one is perfect, but (as the episode shows) every step is important.

Stereotypes are another matter. One of my friends is gay, and when we were younger we used to make way jokes that he'd go along with. Now, years later, he admits they made him uncomfortable but he took part because he didn't want to seem a stick in the mud. In general, the trick with humour and stereotypes is to punch up (or at least sideways), not down. The French and the English can joke about each other far easier than England can make jokes about, say, India, because our colonial scars are still relatively fresh.

Also, if your thinking involves putting down an entire group of people, history is probably going to judge you harshly.

Brendon Wright said...

Here in New Zealand we've always had a "friendly rivalry" between us and the Aussies.
We often stand up for each other but we also raise hackles over who invented what and what country does this celeb "belong to",(really??) no wait, and sports. Perhaps abolishing Rugby would be a step towards peace? At any rate, no matter how friendly a rivalry is, someone always gets offended... so how much friendship is in it really?

I think many of these things aren't "bad" but if we develop in following decades they may fall away as unnecessary and unproductive habits.
(and be replaced by new ones?)

Anonymous said...

The scariest monsters I've ever seen on "Doctor Who" are the white people of Montgomery AL.

This episode did so many things right, I'm not about to nitpick. The most important thing the episode did right was, it let Rosa be the hero. Rosa wasn't inspired by the Doctor or anything of the sort; this was Rosa's show, and the Doctor's only role was to allow her to do what she had to. That was exactly the right call.

About racism in general, we all live in racist societies, and just being part of those societies means we're going to pick up at least a little bit of prejudice. Think of it like personal hygiene: if you don't bathe daily you will stink; there's no shame in being prone to stink, just in failing to clean one's self. We also have to perform hygiene on our attitudes or they will stink. In other words, commit to the process, not to some mythical condition of being beyond stink and beyond prejudice.

Siskoid said...

Quick update at the end of the text after listening to Straight Outta Gallifrey's Rosa episode.

LiamKav said...

Cool. I'll give it a listen on my next long drive. The "nudging" theory reminds me of the story of Robert Moses, who allegedly built the Southern State Parkway's bridges extra-low. This meant that buses couldn't get under them, which meant that poor (ie, predominantly black people) couldn't access Jones Beach easily. The result: Segregation by engineering.

Little nudges.

Anonymous said...

Given the last 12 months of bearing witness to middle aged white guys jumping on the Alt Right bandwagon wholesale merely because they didn't want a female doctor. I've enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching the show go from strength to strength much to their general chagrin. It must also be galling that all those messages about tolerance of the other that aren't safely tucked away in the folds of allegory anymore, no matter how badly implemented.

Siskoid said...

The time may have passed for subtlety.

 

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