Janine Rivers (@janinemrivers on Twitter) is a writer, script editor, and musician. She spends her days working in a library, and was the head-writer and editor behind her passion project, The Twelfth Doctor Adventures. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
Zoe Lance (@SJANeverending on Twitter) is a fan-fic writer extraordinaire, best known for her work on The Sarah Jane Adventures and the creation of The Never Ending Universe, a collaborative offshoot of the Doctor Who universe. Her favourite Doctor is Matt Smith.
Ruth Long (@UndiscoveredAdv on Twitter) is a writer, amateur graphic designer, and animal lover, best-known as the co-lead writer of Clara Oswald: The Untold Adventures, a fan-written project following the character of Clara after the events of Hell Bent. You can also catch her on the odd Who podcast, writing meta, or waffling about this, that, or the other on forums. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi (and if she’s being really cheeky, Jenna Coleman).
Header picture by Esterath (@finlay_hs)
Janine: I think it’s worth starting with the elephant in the room. For an episode which has received near-universal critical acclaim, “Rosa” is inevitably going to be a controversial beast. There are two things to say on that front. The first is that, contrary to what some people might have you believe, the controversy (as it exists in the harder leftist circles of fandom) is not a matter of “white people vs black people”. It would be inaccurate to say that Rosa is a product designed to be praised by white, faux-progressive neoliberals whilst actual ethnic minorities turn and shake their heads. There are people of colour to whom this story has meant a tremendous amount, and whilst I wasn’t able to line up schedules with any to join in this discussion, I’m sure plenty will testify on Twitter how much this story has emotionally resonated with their own experiences. There are white critics who hated this for failing to address key dimensions of racial oppression. The reverse is true of both. The subjectivity isn’t binary.
That’s the first point. The second is that with controversy comes a need for sensitivity. Some people loved this episode because it touched them on a profound, personal level, or because it made sense of their own experiences as members of marginalised groups. Others hated it because it’s 2018, because Donald Trump is President, and because to them, in some way, “Rosa” just wasn’t an adequate response to the months, years, of pain they’ve dealt with. We’ll make our minds up about the episode over the course of this post, and you might agree or disagree — but please remember, as I’m sure you all will, that this is going to be a difficult story to discuss. If you’re planning to comment, please keep it as civil and kind as you’ve been up until now.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Alabama.
Zoe: I can summarise my thoughts on the setting in one word: inspired. Montgomery is obviously the best place to go to tackle a Rosa Parks story, but the detail of them arriving a day earlier was what I loved the most. It really gave us a chance to acclimatise and learn more about the characters and existing dynamics in a segregated world.
Ruth: Historicals throughout the years have varied greatly in how they utilise their setting. For some, established tragedies have formed their primary conflict, such as in “The Fires of Pompeii”; they’ve drawn from the mythos of the time and region, such as in “The Girl Who Died”; or they’ve been backdrops to facilitate a story that isn’t really about the era in which it’s set, like “The Woman Who Lived”. And then of course, we have the celebrity historicals, which by and large have been primarily focused on the central figure and how they relate to their world as opposed to necessarily the world itself. As far as episodes set in the past have been concerned in the new era, we’ve visited the mid-20th century and the United States on a few occasions, most notably in recent memory “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Day of the Moon”. But I’ve got to say, never before has a historical setting felt so much like a character in its own right for me as it did in ‘Rosa’. More than that, Montgomery Alabama in 1955 was the monster of this story, and it was absolutely chilling. This wasn’t just an episode about Rosa Parks, it was about the kind of world she lived in, the injustice, prejudice and hardships she and countless others had to face just to survive in such an unforgiving place dominated by bigotry and human cruelty. And unfortunately it is a world which echoes our own.
Janine: I like the idea of Montgomery as almost a character within the episode. It’s common in Doctor Who for the setting itself to exert its influence in that way; you get stories like “The Chimes of Midnight” or “Heaven Sent” where there’s a sense in which the architecture itself is nefarious, omnipotent agent, shaping the narrative to its own ends. But that’s new largely new territory as far as historicals are concerned, I think.
Ruth: Oh, certainly, and you could also argue that London, for example, is a huge character in Doctor Who, among many other locations both recurring and one-off (I mean the planet “The Doctor’s Wife” was set on literally was the antagonist). But for a historical, this does feel different in how it makes use of the setting, the society of the time, and the sheer hostility of it.
Zoe: I don’t have much knowledge on historicals, having watched New Who and delving into the occasional Big Finish audio, but this was a genuinely enthralling experience. To see the past in its devastating brutality was something I found quite profound. ‘The past is a foreign country’ has semblance to it. What really gets me, is that the past reminded me, and Yaz and Ryan, of today’s climate.
Janine: And that mirror to today isn’t just coincidental — that’s one of the main themes of the episode; where we are now, and whether it’s any better. I think that’s a conflict the episode takes pretty seriously. I was initially very thrown off by the Obama reference, because I don’t exactly see him as a benchmark of progress in racial equality — but on re-watch, it was notable how unconvinced Ryan was by that logic too. But of course, it’s a very Yasmin observation to make. She’s a copper, she plays her part in an authoritarian power structure, and her solution to injustice within that structure is to aim for a position of power herself. ‘Being in charge’ is an end in itself, for her, so she absolutely would see Obama as a tangible step towards progress.
Ruth: Absolutely, that theme is fundamental to this story, and pervades every aspect of it, from the setting to the antagonist to of course, Rosa Parks herself. And this simply isn’t a story you could tell in the same way without Ryan and Yasmin, a young man and woman of colour who experience racism in their day-to-day lives back home in Sheffield, and indeed, face the awful reality of it in the past as well. The two characters were imperative in this reflection of how far things have come, and how much further there still is to go, each offering their own contrasting perspectives as well.
Zoe: It was a pretty insightful look into Yaz’s character, especially after she took a backseat for a majority of the previous two episodes to allow Ryan and Graham to shine. And even though the other two were just as prominent in this instalment, they’re beginning to deepen her layers and complexity, and I am here for it.
Ruth: I totally agree Zoe, Yaz really flourished in this episode where she hasn’t had as much of an opportunity before. She’s definitely emerging as the most optimistic of the TARDIS trio, which I imagine will tie into her growing hero-worshipping of the Doctor as the series goes on. And as admirable as that attitude is, you already get almost a sense of… naivety? Is that the right word? It’s a fascinating potential flaw that I’d love to see explored further in the series.
Zoe: Her superior officer’s quote “don’t run before you can walk” comes to mind. It is rapidly growing to be a pretty significant statement about her.
Janine: And beyond those moral and thematic dimensions, there’s just so much stylistic beauty to the discussion. This isn’t just the TARDIS team sitting in the TARDIS and talking about racism (as lovely as that would have been); the location filming is just glorious, and the exposition scenes and emotional beats are satisfyingly paced out by some frankly nail-biting suspense scenes, like the policeman’s interrogation of Thirteen and Graham, and the race to fill up the bus. There’s a balance of very astute humour and, well, raw terror in those moments, a contrast handled with the casual confidence of a Steven Moffat script (and the political insight of… well, there’s no comparison; the political insight of Malorie Blackman).
Zoe: Malorie Blackman is second to none.
Janine: This has definitely been my favourite week for Segun Akinola so far, too. I’m beginning to understand how he ticks as a musician, getting a sense of his quirks and preferences. And I think his forte is definitely action music. A lot of people have been talking about how much more subtle than Murray Gold he is, and I can’t find myself agreeing — I don’t think Gold would have indulged any more than Akinola did here. But I could also picture those last ten minutes under Gold. They’d have been good, but there’d have been several renditions of ‘A Good Man’. Akinola’s got such a refreshing approach to action music that almost feels like something out of a Thomas Newman score (there are echoes of “The Adjustment Bureau”‘s action scenes in the race against time, here). Those tracks are fun, sprightly, punctuated with unexpected major chords and some more unusual percussive instruments.
Ruth: I must confess, one of the things I found lacking in “The Ghost Monument” was the sense of stakes, but I found Rosa to be quite the opposite: the tension was simply masterful. And so much of that is owed to the enmity of the setting, and the way in which Ryan and Yaz especially are more vulnerable. It’s a testament to the mastery of Malorie Blackman’s writing (not to mention the superb acting, editing and direction), that in the most nail-biting scenes there were no aliens or villains, but an ordinary policeman (and god, does that hit hard), or the possibility of Rosa Parks not getting the chance to take the stand that would help spark the civil rights movement through the simple, powerful act of refusing to give up her seat on the bus.
On that note, I’m very relieved that there weren’t any of the usual extraterrestrial threats, which could easily have come across in poor taste. It’s the closest we’ve come to a pure historical in a very long time, and I believe is the first episode not to feature any sort of conventional ‘monster’ since “Listen”. I’ve always found that approach rather fascinating, and hope this will open the door for more experimentation of that nature in the future. Having the antagonistic force of Rosa be a racist human criminal from the future (in addition to the structural and societal racism of a nation as we touched on before), one whose influence came from smaller, sinister acts of manipulation rather than killing or other bombastic schemes, was far more meaningful, and lends to the overall themes of the story. It’s also notable that he was unceremoniously banished by Ryan before the climax really got going, because this episode wasn’t about Krasko or the Doctor facing off against him. The emphasis was where it should be, on Rosa Parks and her agency.
Janine: I’ve seen some fascinating discussion about how Rosa understands the narrative of historical progress, actually — because, as is inevitably the case with celebrity historicals, this is the study of one woman and her impact on history; and as is the case with other “fixed point”-type stories, it’s a study of a single “turning point” of history that spins oppression off its axis.
That certainly seems, on the surface, amenable (if not outright deferential) to the Great Man Theory: that historical progress is the result of certain “Great” (powerful, influential, brave, charismatic…) individuals and particular actions. Granted, it’s a version of the Great Man Theory which distances itself from Thomas Carlyle and his own brand of patriarchal hero-worship; the Great Man is a Great Woman, and her act of heroism is defiance against racial segregation. But it’s still a view which glorifies heroic saviours and downplays the wider sense of discontent, and the efforts of individuals who never made it into the history books.
But I don’t think Rosa really does endorse a Great Man view of history. True, Rosa’s act of resistance is regarded as a pivotal turning-point in the Civil Rights Movement — but it’s just that, a small act of resistance in a far greater movement. There’s constant emphasis on how progress is achieved through ordinary people making the smallest of decisions. History isn’t shaken by the untimely murder of a great man (this could have been Let’s Kill Martin Luther King, after all); it’s “nudged” out of place by petty interference in quiet acts of heroism. It’s less “Great Man”, more “butterfly effect”.
Ruth: Very well said. I think it’s wonderful that Doctor Who is focusing on a story about one small, courageous act of resistance, that helps give rise to a greater movement of wider change and progress composed of many people. The episode takes particular care to show that, I think, for example it dedicates time to exploring Rosa’s activism when Ryan spends the evening with her, in the company of Martin Luther King Jr. no less! (the look of bewildered joy on his face in that scene is delightful). Again, it comes back to Ryan and Yasmin, who are as companions the eyes of the audience, getting to see through Rosa’s courageous example the message of solidarity and hope that inspires their own drive to keep fighting. It’s all in that final look exchanged between Rosa and Ryan as she’s led off the bus: that moment is everything, it really is.
Zoe: Oh, I love the butterfly effect. It’s been cropping up more and more in recent times, with games such as the amazing Life is Strange, which also has the story moulded by the seemingly inconsequential effects of one woman. This is Doctor Who’s spin on it, and it is magnificent. The balance between maintaining history and recognising and progressing past its faults was handled masterfully. It’s just like you said – Krasko’s efforts were petty and selfish. But to see Ryan, Yaz and Graham – three brilliantly ordinary people – rise up to stop him was a marvel to watch unfold.
Ruth: It’s Doctor Who to its very core, isn’t it? The way in which simple acts can change the universe, the way in which ordinary people can do the most extraordinary things.
Janine: And the final scene is really rather sweet, widening the scope of Rosa’s influence to the mysterious depths of the universe. It’s very Doctor Who, transforming the heroic sacrifices of the past into a utopian vision for the future. But it’s also an inevitably bathetic moment, as others have pointed out, because an asteroid is just an asteroid; and an official honour isn’t necessarily a testament to social progress. No, I think the real moment this story sings is when Graham realises he has to stay on the bus. Not just because Bradley Walsh is *magnificent*, as I had predicted he would be ever since he was cast, but because it’s the culmination of a realisation that began inside Mount Vesuvius between the Doctor and Donna. For all that it’s the Doctor’s job (supposedly) to stand back and preserve history from a distance, to watch but never interfere, that’s just not how time travel works. As soon as she steps outside the TARDIS, she becomes a part of events. For all the episode purports to be about non-interference, I think it’s actually about the necessity of involvement. You can’t just watch history if you’re a part of it. You have to take a stand, one way or the other, and sometimes that stand is complex. Sometimes it requires you to betray innocent people so that they’re empowered to make a change for themselves. Is that the right stand? Maybe not. But Blackman and Chibnall have opened up that discussion now, and that in itself is a good thing.
Zoe: I must admit I was initially slightly skeptical of Bradley Walsh, as my only experience of him was as a demonic, child-snatching clown, but he knocks it out of the park every week.
Ruth: Bradley Walsh was incredible in that scene. The expression of pure horror and guilt on his face as Graham watches events unfold, unable to intervene no matter how much he longs to, it’s an image that’s really stuck with me. Likewise the shot of Thirteen in the foreground as Rosa is harassed by James Blake, where you can just feel the sheer will she has to exert not to act as she always does in the face of injustice. The conflict is palpable, and phenomenally portrayed by Whittaker.
Zoe: That scene really solidified her as the Doctor. That and “I don’t recognise anyone by that description.”
Janine: If there’s one defining trait I’d associate with Thirteen’s Doctor, it’s her honesty. She’s got a lot of Ten and Eleven’s mannerisms, but those Doctors could both be pretty devious. Thirteen is honest to a fault, so her confrontation with the police officer was one of my favourite scenes so far this series, as she manages to find a balance between protecting her friends and telling the absolute truth. And you get much the same satisfaction from her confrontations with the villains across the series — she’s unafraid to tell them exactly what she thinks of them (whilst this confrontation was the strongest so far, I still look back fondly on how she scornfully called Tim Shaw “obscene”). Thirteen is hardcore.
Ruth: Thirteen was magnificent in this episode (then again, when isn’t she?). Thus far she’s been a chaotic force of brilliance and chutzpah, but what I really loved most about her here was her sense of righteous fury and gravitas. The confrontation between her and Krasko is stunning; the way that she taunts him, exerts her power over the situation, it’s the kind of scene I was especially excited to see with Jodie’s Doctor. But I’m also immensely glad that at no point did this become a white saviour narrative. The Doctor/villain face-off was placed around the midpoint, with the true culmination being reserved for Rosa and something which she would have done with or without the presence of the Doctor and her companions. They were the guardians of history: they became part of and witness to events, but didn’t command them.
Janine: Well, altogether, I absolutely loved that story. I’m fortunate enough that there’s an emotional distance with the subject matter. I’ve witnessed racial oppression (though never experienced it firsthand) in the community where I grew up, and seen it manifested in political acts of social cleansing and socioeconomic discrimination. But actual segregation, speaking as a white woman living in England, seems about as far-fetched as last week’s alien planet. Which is naive on my part, because, of course, this story took place during my parents’ lifetimes. This isn’t Ancient History.
Which is why, ultimately, I think Rosa is a force for good. I never learnt about Rosa Parks at school — we had a cursory off-topic chat about Martin Luther King, and moved on to popular Western history; Medieval England, the Tudors, the two World Wars… and I’m sure that sort of syllabus will be all too familiar to many other British readers.
Doctor Who was conceived as an educational show. With Ian and Barbara as companions, and the whole of time and space to explore, it was a vehicle through which children could learn about history and science in the making. And isn’t it wonderful, to think that whilst the generation of the 60s got the Aztecs, today’s generation of children will be learning about Rosa Parks, a woman still fighting for equality when the show first aired?
I love this for the fact that it picks a corner of history, and watches it unravel. Will Rosa go down as the definitive story about race? Perhaps not. But that’s okay. No episode can be everything. If just one child learnt about Rosa Parks, this would have been a victory. As it is, that victory might be closer to a couple of million.
Ruth: My favourite stories are the ones that shake you to your core, that leave you speechless, in awe, that inspire and stay with you long after the credits have rolled or the book has closed. I felt that way after watching Doctor Who episodes like “Turn Left”, “The Waters of Mars”, “Listen”, “Dark Water”, “Hell Bent”, “The Doctor Falls”; each for different reasons. Rosa is another one of those stories for me. From the very first scene, hearing the powerful notes of Segun’s theme for Rosa, seeing what she lived through portrayed without shying away from raw, brutal truth of it, and the emphasis on her determination and strength in the face of such oppression, I knew this was going to be something special. Every aspect of the episode just sung to me, from the dialogue to the pacing to the visuals to the best performances we’ve seen from the leading cast (not to mention Vinette Robinson’s stunning take on Rosa).
And crucially as you say Janine it’s a story about a chapter of history that doesn’t get nearly enough exposure in British education, yet is as relevant today as it has ever been. To see Doctor Who tackle it with this level of nuance, skill and sensitivity (and by the first ever person of colour to write for the televised show – which cannot be emphasised enough – it’s shameful that it’s taken this long), bringing this story and its message to such a wide and diverse audience is so, so important. I’ve seen many parents online saying how Rosa has helped start a conversation with their children about racism, and others expressing how much it means to them that Doctor Who, the show that should always be at the forefront of exploring these issues, is going to these places and handling the subject matter with the consideration it deserves. This is Doctor Who at its very best, and I dearly hope that this is an approach that will continue going forward.
Zoe: Rosa has been an amazing experience for me. After initially believing I wouldn’t be granted the chance to watch the episode live due to visiting family, we all ended up sitting down and watching it together, which definitely bolstered the experience. I will treasure the look of awe on my young cousins’ faces as they watched the story of this amazing woman unfold. And that’s just what Doctor Who has always been, as Ruth and Janine summarised so succinctly: a show to delight and educate families. To see these four characters find themselves a part of established history was a joy. To be granted the opportunity to delve deeper into the story of Rosa Parks is a privilege (as Janine says, it’s not really a part of the British education syllabus). The cast were on top form, especially Ryan and Yasmin — who I feel have a very Clani (a portmanteau of the relationship between Clyde Langer and Rani Chandra from SJA) vibe to them – and of course, the magnificent Vinette Robinson, who is an absolute treasure. Sensational episode all around. I eagerly await the promise of tomorrow.
Team Verdict: 9/10
A big thank you to Zoe and Ruth, who joined me for this late-evening discussion! See you all next week. Make sure you keep dusting those cobwebs…
Fancy joining the gang to discuss the remaining episodes? Places are quickly being filled, but there’s still room for more contributors. Anybody is welcome to contribute, but I’m particularly interested in hearing from minority voices, or anyone with a fresh perspective on these stories. If you think you might be interested, drop in and say hi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to tune in for Tibere’s feature on Saturday, and if you haven’t already, head this way to catch the most recent!