I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve been procrastinating on this recap all week.
First off, I couldn’t even watch the episode until late Wednesday night after I got back from seeing my Gran in Vanuatu.
Then Thursday I was swamped with a bunch of admin stuff, before doing the Who’s Raven On podcast on this episode with Stuart Layt and special guest Dan Beeston (spoilers: mixed feelings).
I kept trying to talk myself into writing the recap on Friday, but I had other stuff that needed doing, and Saturday was full with a birthday party, and which almost ended in a random late night trip to the Hellfire Club to see my mate Simon run their “Hell-o-ween” special but didn’t because everyone piked.
If you ARE interested in my thoughts on a late night Hellfire Club jaunt, do feel free to write in, and I shall organise one with my mate Simon. Perhaps he could swing a Game of Thrones-themed night and I could get the leather tunics out, possibly with a nice Ikea rug faux fur cloak, and indulge in some intimidating swordplay, if you get my drift, fnar fnar.
And you see, I’m procrastinating again. Because this episode of Doctor Who focused on the *teensy* bit complicated issue of race in America, and by the old gods and new I am super white and Australian and just damn worried all the time about my privilege, misusing my privilege, abusing my privilege and just basically being like Clive of India or Rhodes of… Zimbabwe, and just basically upsetting everyone with ill-placed “jokes” and inappropriate innuendo, which is all I really can do because I have the maturity of a teenage boy in a 1980s sex romp that is in hindsight really problematic.
Sigh. I know, I know. It’s not about me. It’s about Doctor Who. People want to hear about the good Doctor’s encounter with Rosa Parks, not my vain attempts to sound like I’m a legitimate perv.
So I’m going to try to pull my head out of my ass and attempt my usual humour but by jeez, by jingoism, by crikey, I might get it all wrong.
Season 11, Episode 3: “Rosa”
The episode opens with a prologue set in 1943 showing Rosa Parks angering a bus driver by not following his precise rules on boarding. Shaken when she briefly sits in a whites-only seat to retrieve her handbag from the floor, he screams at her to get off, then closes the back door in her face before taking off and leaving her in the rain.
This is based on one of those marvellous coincidences of history. That very fellow, James F. Blake, would be the same bus driver Rosa would once again subvert 12 years later, setting off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and lighting a flame for the Civil Rights movement. It’s a nice way to set up the episode, and establish not only the oppressive racism of the era, but that so many never questioned such appalling rudeness, arrogance and prejudice.
Meanwhile, the Doctor is trying to get her new Glee Team back to Sheffield, but the TARDIS is absolutely refusing to go. Instead, it’s landed in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, which if nothing else is a bit insulting to poor old Sheffield.
The Doctor realises something is drawing the spaceship back to that spot, and it turns out to be artron energy, which is totally something I remembered from previous series of Doctor Who, and not something I had to google to find out (“Oh! It’s how that lone Dalek came back to life when Rose touched it back in the day!”). Given that type of energy shouldn’t be present at that time, she decides to get out and investigate.
Which is all very well and good except that Ryan is a black man, Yas is a Muslim woman of South Asian origin, and Graham is a genuinely nice bloke who doesn’t much truck with the whole “Mid-50s Deep South” vibe.
Almost immediately Ryan is belted across the face by a white bloke despite simply trying to return his wife’s dropped glove. Things are looking heated until ROSA EFFING PARKS steps in to calm the situation. She placates Ol’ Slappy and sends him on his way, then tells Ryan and co off for getting into trouble.
The gang are all stoked to realise they’re being lectured to by Rosa Parks herself, but she tells them they should motor out of town lest they end up like poor Emmett Till. The 14-year-old’s racially-motivated murder happened in Mississippi in late August 1955, so it’s fresh and raw to Montgomery’s African-American citizenry.
As Rosa stalks off, the Doctor does a sneaky sonic scan and realises she’s also got traces of artron energy around her. The gang take a table in a pub to chat about Rosa’s life and historic achievement of refusing to give up her seat to a white bus passenger, and what that might have to do with space radiation or whatever the artron stuff is.
Of course, the pub patrons aren’t too impressed to see a modern, diverse team of time-travelling detectives casually nattering away while they are trying to play Very White Snooker (no 8 balls allowed). A waitress for whom the term “resting bitch face” was invented for declares they “don’t serve Negroes”, or, as it turns out to a confused Yas, “Mexicans”.
Leaving the pub, the Doctor urges the gang to just go back to the TARDIS, where they’ll be safe from the ugliest and nastiest aliens of all - other humans. But Ryan and Yas reckon if Rosa Parks lived her whole life soaking in the sticky prejudice of Montgomery, a few hours wouldn’t kill them. As they walk and keep talking, a police car sidles onscreen, adding to the horribly creepy atmosphere.
Meanwhile our villain of the show has turned up, looking like he arrived on Earth just moments after James Dean flipped his Porsche Spyder and stole the actor’s leather jacket and glovebox Brylcreem. Except he has none of Dean’s charisma; he’s more like the Rebel With All The Snores.
Wannabe Jimmy Dean tries zapping the TARDIS with some fandangled scanner that looks like the hot glue might melt in the Alabama heat, but the old girl has her shields up, so no dice. He decides instead to attempt to menace Rosa Parks, even though he’s purely relying on the colour of his skin for that, rather than any genuine air of a threat. For god’s sake, I’ve seen roadside collection junk more threatening, and Rosa herself gives no f***s.
The Doctor & Co follow the artron energy to a bus depot, break six deadlocks to get into an empty shed, and find a perception filter hiding… GASP… a box.
I loved the Doctor’s response to Ryan saying “Can we open it?” - “....is the right question!” and getting excited about whatever was inside. That was a lovely bit of Doctoring; no wonder the Timelord likes hanging around on Earth where we have so many traditions and days where you get to open surprise boxes full of stuff. And you never know, the Doctor may be just as impressed as I was when I unwrapped a surprise 24-can pack of Pepsi Max when given one as farewell gift from a job once. I mean, I drink that stuff like it’s life-giving placental juice, and it was a damn sight more useful than the other present received from that boss - a fountain pen with no ink in it. I think he was making a symbolic point about whether I should continue to write. However that dude had the misfortune to look like a Sontaran so I feel like I’m still ahead in the game of life.
The box contains a bunch of shitty home-brand time-travel kit and weaponry, but before the Doctor can fully explain, they’re shot at by the villain, who somehow manages to miss all of them, even though there are four people in a relatively confined space and his laser thingy has a seemingly wide blast range. Instead we simply cut to the Doctor & Friends running outside the shed, having escaped as easily as they did from those crashed spaceships last week.
The Doctor confronts the villain, sassing him as “Brando”, which I initially missed because he’s an even poorer Brando than he is James Dean. The Doctor wants to know what he’s doing in town with a temporal displacement weapon and what he wants with Rosa Parks, but he only replies she should get out of town or he’ll kill them all. “Don’t threaten me,” retorts the Doctor, with a hint of the old anger.
Despite his threats, the Doctor & gang leave the scene with ease, and fetch up at a seedy motel for “whites only”, a message that is really starting to grind Ryan’s gears. They end up sneaking Ryan and Yas through the bathroom window of a room, hiding out there rather than drawing more attention to the TARDIS. There’s a moment between Ryan and Yas that smacks of a potential love interest storyline developing, but I’m not super feeling it at the moment. Maybe it’s because they’re so young and baby-like. Concentrate on your schooling, kids, there’ll be plenty of time for snogging later.
The team start brainstorming details about Rosa Parks’ life, but are interrupted by a looming Alabama police officer, whose shadowed hat in the door frame seemed to be some sort of cinematic reference. The closest I could come up with was the terrifying guard in Cool Hand Luke, but leave your suggestions below.
There’s a bit of comedy that doesn’t quite work as Graham attempts to pass himself off as Steve Jobs; the scene fares better when the Doctor gives replies to the police officer’s pointed remarks about “Negroes” and “Mexicans” that both answer his question and make a POINT. Eventually the policeman bursts into the bathroom - GASP - will he bust Yas and Ryan?
No, because they’ve gone out the same window they just went in, which we just saw, and are hiding behind a dumpster having a conversation about how racism still affects their lives, but thanks to people like Rosa Parks, things are better than they once were.
There was a nice little nod in there to Barack Obama becoming President in 53 years, and “who knows where we’ll be 53 years after that?” After a stupidly bloody ridiculously awful week in which one mad Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to prominent political and media figures, including African-Americans, and another mad Trump supporter murdered Jews at a synagogue, I took that as a very loud message of “We can get through this batshit crazy regressive Fox News late 2010s bullshit era and come out the other side.”
Back safely in the room, the team start assembling their Rosa Parks case file. They gather bus timetables, phone books and newspapers and start running around the bus system so they can encounter Mrs Parks again and ask further questions.
The Doctor does this via a slightly suspicious market research quiz, which Rosa smartly outwits by saying even if she wins she won’t be allowed to sit anywhere she likes on the bus.
When she alights, Ryan jumps off to follow her, and the Doctor asks Graham to find James Blake, the driver who will confront Rosa the next day. Finally, the Doctor asks Yas to compile a timeline of everything that happens on the day Rosa refuses to give up her seat. Yas says sure, no worries.
My question is - how is Yas going to do this? The event hasn’t happened yet, so there are no history books she can look up at a local library. There’s no internet in 1955 - perhaps the TARDIS could dish up some information, but the Doctor’s ruled that out of bounds. It seems like Yas’ job is to remember as best she can her primary school education about Rosa Parks, which I’m fairly positive would not have extended to an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute breakdown of events, which she eventually has posted up on the walls of their motel room.
I suppose I shouldn’t be mean and point out plot holes like that, but it is a bit weak.
Ryan turns out to have a lovely night out, as Rosa realises he’s following her, likes the cut of his jib, and invites him in to serve coffee for a meeting she’s having with a few other local activists including DR MARTIN LUTHER KING. THAT GUY. There’s a lovely moment when Ryan, reciting these names to himself, has a wide-eyed moment of “WTF is even happening this is so cool”, showing the sheer delightful side of travelling with the Doctor.
Meanwhile the Doctor goes back to confront Dodgy James Dean, who turns out to be called “Krasko”. I had to check the internet to get that spelling, because all I heard was “Costco”. As “Costco” is funnier and more suited to the dude’s general crapness, he shall remain thus.
The Doctor figures out he’s a former prisoner of Stormcage, the most extreme prison outside of Cell Block H. I had totally forgotten Stormcage was a thing, and River Song had been kept there, so thanks to everyone who reminded me. I still don’t reckon there’s any kind of link there - I think they just had a good location worth bringing back. A bunch of other people reckon having a vortexy Apple-watch thingy means Costco could be either a colleague of Captain Jack Harkness, OR a young Captain Jack Harkness. But I think it would be weird for them to bring that character back. Besides, Captain Jack had, you know, charm.
The Doctor works out Costco has a silicon chip inside his head that gets switched to overload, so no matter how much he doesn’t like Mondays, he ain’t going to be shoo-OOOoooOOO-ting anything down. He’s basically Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Four, all neutered and not able to do anything except eventually fall in love with Buffy because BLECCCCCH.
He hasn’t really explained what he intends to do with Rosa Parks if he can’t actually kill her, and the Doctor is intrigued.
“This is where things started to go wrong,” he says.
So basically, dude is a futuristic serial-killing douchebag bigot. But seriously, how did he even lure enough people close enough to actually kill? I’d more likely fall for the old “Hi I’m Ted Bundy and I Have a Broken Arm Will You Help Me Put My Groceries In My Volkswagen Beetle?” trick than anything that guy might try on.
Whatever. Smugface McRacist is pretty cocky that his butterfly effect plan will work, and that tiny changes in 1955 will have generational repercussions. I guess his end game is to vortex back to a future where he can keep killing people but also Beyonce won’t be a thing? Who even wants that world?
Meanwhile, Graham catches up with James Blake for a couple of games of Very White Snooker (seriously, no 8 balls). It’s all very chummy until Blakey reveals a mysterious stranger has just told him his roster’s changed and he’s not actually on bus driving duty the next day! GASP!
Back at the motel, the team realise Costco is ruining Rosa’s historic moment by changing lots of small stuff, which means they now have to sweat the small stuff. What follows is a montage of events, in which first they get rid of the alternative driver by sending him to Las Vegas to see a Frank Sinatra show (there’s a cutesy joke about the Doctor lending Elvis a mobile phone, which he in turn lends to Sinatra, but it makes no sense because how would the charger last that long, and who is he going to call, because it’s 1955 and Ava Gardner didn’t have an iPhone); then run around town arranging things so that Rosa Parks can get right on with her game-changing refusal to stand up on the bus.
The whole thing is a little twee, and I found it… I don’t know. I’m glad they didn’t end up with a series of events that removed Rosa’s agency in refusing to stand; it would have been REALLY awkward had the Doctor and gang essentially taken credit for her actions. But it’s all a bit, I don’t know, flimsy? Like, Costco wrecks the bus, but the Doctor and Graham are able to steal another one, and find James Blake the driver and get him back in the driver’s seat without him questioning too much. Sure, he’s clearly not the brightest spark in the universe, but there have been an awful lot of mess-arounds that day and you’d think he’d be more suspicious of Graham, who’s been involved with a bunch of them.
Yas stays with Rosa as she repairs the Doctor’s coat to make sure she gets on the right bus. They have a lovely chat, but I would have thought Rosa would be more suspicious about why this random woman is so insistent on hanging around.
Ryan confronts Costco trying to block the road, and uses the temporal displacement device to blast the dude back in time - despite the fact that the dude clearly had already gone back in time to mess with the future. The Doctor had told Ryan last week not to use guns as a solution, and sure, the blasty thingy is not exactly a gun, but still, surely the past is not the best place for Dodgy James Dean and his racist butterfly effect ideas? Hopefully the people or environment of wherever he beams back to will immediately finish him off. Surely he’s too weak a villain to make a return.
Having the gang wind up as the passengers on the bus who essentially force the situation in which Rosa refuses to stand was clever. You could see the Doctor forcing every instinct to help down, in order to preserve a historical pivot point. Even better was the reaction of Graham, whom earlier we’d heard talking about his former wife’s adoration of Rosa Parks, now forced to be responsible for a terrible moment of oppression. “No, no, I don’t want to be part of this!” he says, the pain obvious.
The moment of Rosa’s refusal was beautifully played, finished with a slow-motion capture of her arrest set to an inspirational song about rising up.
Personally, I wish the episode had ended there, or perhaps with a different postscript, as I found the wrap-up in the TARDIS with the Doctor’s exposition about the Montgomery Bus Boycotts a tad… forced. It felt very much like a school history lesson, which I guess is fair enough as Doctor Who at its heart is a show for kids, but it felt a bit ham-fisted to me.
The inclusion of footage of Rosa Parks being awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom was lovely, and certainly more impressive really than showing the asteroid named after her. I mean, I don’t want to disparage the naming of anything after Rosa Parks - clearly the woman was extraordinary - but saying she “changed the universe” because an asteroid was named in her honour was a bit of an overstep. Personally I think her achievements changing attitudes on Planet Earth were more significant.
In conclusion, it feels like “Rosa” was an inspiring episode of Doctor Who more for highlighting Rosa Parks’ story than for its merits as a great piece of sci-fi. Costco the villain was weak, but that’s because the real villain was of course racism and Jim Crow laws in America’s Deep South. It’s to be celebrated then that many key creatives in this episode were people of colour, which should be continued.
Next week - spiders and Mr Big from Sex and the City!
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