Doctor Who: Revisiting ROSA - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting ROSA

Shurrup, says Tony, you’ve got something in your eye.

Holy Hannah, the risk factors.

I mean, Let’s Kill Hitler had risk factors, and the jury still rages to this day across the internet over whether shoving him in a cupboard and being punched by Rory unduly trivialises the actions of a man who was responsible for the deaths of millions, or whether such trivialisation is in fact just what he deserves.

But Rosa…freakin’…Parks? If you’re going to bring the Doctor and Rosa freakin’ Parks together in a story, you’d better be sure – really, reeeeeally sure – you can get the tone of voice right.

If you’re going to do it three stories in to the tenure of the first female Doctor (already a move that had some frankly tiresome fans wittering on about box-ticking and social justice warriors), you’re out there in the stratosphere of risk factors, either ploughing a bold new furrow for Doctor Who or, just possibly, getting it very, very wrong.

I know people who think Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman got it very very wrong. So do you, probably. Maybe you feel that way yourself.

But for my money, Rosa blew the roof off the series with its rightness. With its understanding of tone. With its refusal to sugar-coat the reality of racism. And with what almost felt like a new kind of adventure, while returning to some hardcore pure-historical story principles.

The mood of the piece is set early on, with an innocent Ryan trying to return a dropped handkerchief to a white woman on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama – and being hit and threatened with a lynching by her husband for his pains. It’s a shocking moment in Doctor Who, where there’s always been a tendency to ignore the physical differences of the Doctor and friends from the prevailing norm. Even in Elizabethan England, the always cocky Tenth Doctor advised Martha Jones to just forget about the potential of skin colour-based prejudice. So that slap breaks the cosy little bubble of our watching world. ‘No, really,’ it says, ‘this is a world where having the “wrong” skin colour lays a film of flammable tension over everything you do. Give those in power a reason, give them any reason, and they’ll use it to burn you to death, or hang you stone cold dead.’

We’re not in Sheffield no more, Toto.

Ryan’s fictionalised example of the atmosphere that existed in that time and place is swiftly given a factual backbone by the lady who saves his skin as she recalls the fate of Emmett Till, who was lynched aged just 14 for allegedly ‘insulting’ a white woman. Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman (former Children’s Laureate and the first non-white writer in Doctor Who’s history) intend to tell you a story, but they’re not about to let you have the protection of a fictionalised everybody-getting-along world this time out. This time out, it’s important we understand that people die for impoliteness. That’s important because the woman who tells them the story of Emmett Till…is Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks who’s destined not to be impolite but to purposefully disobey the laws of a racially segregated society, and help further the cause of civil rights for black people of in a place where the extension of such rights to non-whites was regarded as anathema by far too many people in power.

Having established that, it’s time for some sci-fi to simmer down the tension. There’s another time traveller in town, and the Tardis is keen for the Doctor to check them out (on her fourteenth attempt to get the gang back to Sheffield – you have to wonder if the Tardis has a whole card catalogue of places the Doctor needs to be, or whether it tried to make her land in Montgomery fourteen times particularly). Annoyingly, worryingly, there are traces of Artron energy all around Rosa, meaning either that Rosa herself is a time traveller, or that someone from way out of town’s keeping an extra special eye on her.

The villain turns out to be the entirely ordinary-seeming Krasko – late of Stormcage, possessor of a vortex manipulator and making a strong play for Tim Shaw’s previously undisputed ‘King of Rubbish Banter’ crown. Unable, as it turns out, to kill, thanks to a device borrowed from Blake’s 7, his plan is to give the web of time not a hack and slash, not a grand bwahahaha plan…but just a nudge. Then another nudge. Then another. Gently guiding time out of alignment like a game of temporal Ker-Plunk.

People less keen on Rosa than I am have focused on Krasko’s low impact, no-black-hat or zip-in-the-forehead villainy as a reason why the story itself doesn’t work, but in some important ways, his plan takes us back to classic pure historicals, where, for instance, plans by humans that would have changed history have to be foiled if time is to unfold in the way we know it did, and, just as importantly, the Doctor and friends have to avoid changing anything too big. The game of cat and mouse that then ensues between Team Tardis and Krasko is no different in its fundamentals to the likes of The Aztecs or The Crusades. It’s merely the case that we haven’t really had anything close to a pure historical for almost forty years (Black Orchid), so we’ve grown relatively unfamiliar as viewers with this kind of storytelling. This story is so close to a pure historical, it’s almost a shame that Krasko is a time traveller from the far future. He has to be, because otherwise, his plan wouldn’t be so temporal in nature and there’d be nothing complicated to stop him shooting Rosa – or indeed, as would be more likely because Rosa doesn’t become ‘Rosa Parks, person of vilification to white nationalists’ until she makes her bus protest, to stop him burning one of the meetings she attended to the ground and going on his merry way. But except for that need for a time travel rationale to underpin his motivation, this is pure historical down to the wire.

There’s also been issue taken with the amount of re-exposition that covers the middle ground of the story, a la Quantum Leap, but if you watch it carefully, the situation in which Team Tardis find themselves is like playing a game of chess on a cobweb – each of them go off to gather particular pieces or kinds of information, to watch or enable or sabotage particular parts of the trail of events that lead Rosa to her protest, and so when they re-assemble, a catch-up is necessary. Every move they make, every counter-attack Krasko puts in place, changes the situation, and the re-iteration of the problems that are then in front of them would be crucial to the success if they were, say, real people trying to get something done, rather than scripted characters performing for an audience who already know about Rosa Parks and the part she plays in our timeline. When an event is relatively meticulously recorded in the history books, you can’t be sure how important any particular deviation will be. All you know is that things have to happen the way you remember them happening – hence Operation Rosa, to keep the timeline on a familiar track whatever the cost.

That being the case, there’s something to be said for the argument that Krasko is summarily, even casually dispensed with as soon as he becomes less a threat to the timeline and more a simple out-and-out pain in the bum – and that the Doctor appears not to bat an eye at the fact that Ryan temporally relocates him as far back in the past as his machine will allow. It’s even been argued that this amounts to an execution – a charge which appears to involve quite a big leap of logic, since we know the power cells on the temporal relocator were at least ‘a bit knackered’, so it seems distinctly unlikely they could have got him very far back into the past. But certainly, Krasko is cleared out of the way with somewhat irritating haste after giving a tokenistic speech about Ryan’s ‘kind’ staying in their place. You can argue, if you like, about Krasko’s minimal screen impact, but it’s possible to view Ryan’s actions here as a kind of mini-Rosa moment of his own – a young man of colour, taunted by an interfering white man who intends to see his ‘kind’ perpetually kept in ‘their place’. A young man of colour who, unbeknown to the aggressor, has taken control of the tool of empowerment (in this case, the temporal relocator), and who uses it to stand up to that aggression, removing the oppressor in an – at least technically – non-violent way.

And then.

Ohhh and then. We can argue all we like about naff villains with a bad line in banter, we can argue about the appropriateness of Steve Jobs jokes and the framing of Rosa Parks in the context of American history and the emergence, fifty years later, of a black President. We can argue about the continual re-caps of the plot and the summary despatch of the villain. What seems beyond argument though is the power of that ending. Of that climactic scene where, against everything that burns inside them, against everything that wants to yell, to shout, to help Rosa and everyone oppressed by segregation, the Doctor, and Graham, and Yaz, and Ryan have to simply sit there, not helping. They have to simply sit there, being part of the problem, being part of the reason Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat. Yes, it would have happened anyway with other butts on those seats, but to maintain the tiny thread of causality which means there’s a need for her to move, they have to stay still, they have to sit there, seemingly solidifying the barriers between them and her, seemingly belying the friendships they’ve made with her. They have to sit, so that she has to move – and so that she will refuse.

You had to get it right if you mixed Rosa Parks and Doctor Who. It had to be Rosa Parks that was the hero, not the Doctor. That’s another reason people have claimed it didn’t feel like a Doctor Who story – because the rule of a Doctor Who story is that usually the Doctor, but always either the Doctor or her friends, save the day. And in this story, they couldn’t – it would have undermined everything the civil rights movement achieved and stood for if desegregation came as a gift from an alien. Rosa Parks was the hero of that moment, and she had to still be the hero of that moment, even in a take on her world that involved racist time travellers trying to destabilise the web of time.

Which is why for my money, Doctor Who, in the hands of Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, got it right.

So right it’s become a highlight of Series 11 – and just possibly, a highlight of all of New Who so far.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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