★★★ Malorie Blackman, co-writer of this week’s Doctor Who, happens to be black. As are its director Mark Tonderai and the series’ new composer Segun Akinola. Skin colour should be immaterial and is something I wouldn’t normally think to mention. However, in a valuable initiative to increase diversity on the programme, this episode marks a significant confluence of talents in key posts.
These three people are the first black writer, director and composer to work on Doctor Who in its 55-year run.
It’s a timely confluence, too, because October 2018 is Black History Month in the UK and other parts of the world. Malorie Blackman, the former children’s laureate coming fresh to Who, is justly seizing her moment to relate a pivotal point in “black history” – the brave decision in 1955 by Rosa Parks to stand up against bigotry in her home town, Montgomery, the State capital of Alabama, and refuse to give up her bus seat for white folk. We recognise it now as a touchstone in the dawn of the civil rights movement in America.
It is important to give such events currency, to make the ignorant or complacent aware, and to remind people who, like me, know of the incident and its repercussions yet are hazy on the details. It’s right to present this story to many young viewers who won’t be apprised of the injustices of the past and the decades-long fight of civil rights activists to bring us to where we are today, to a finger-hold on freedom and equality that still seems precarious.
Doctor Who has touched upon racism many times before. From the abuse that Bill Potts received in Thin Ice last year, right back to the first Dalek story, where we learnt of their “dislike for the unlike” and thirst for extermination, the Time Lord has always fought against repression.
Calling the episode Rosa is a neat nod to Billie Piper’s 2005 debut Rose, and there’s a measured central performance from Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks, buttoned-up, stoical, kind, principled, the seamstress who would resist racial segregation on her doorstep and eventually bring about countrywide change.
The “monsters” in Blackman’s tale (co-written with Chris Chibnall) are the prejudiced oafs of the Deep South, the businessman in the street, the patrol cop, the waitress, the bus driver (James Blake), who treat some humans as lesser beings just because of the colour of their skin. Given the timeslot, there has to be a careful choice of language. The toxic N word is rightly verboten; it should still unsettle us to hear the terms “Negro” and “coloured” bandied about in the context of the drama.
Ryan and Yaz are denigrated as “a couple of mongrels” by the cop. Otherwise, almost amusingly, Yaz is given an easier ride as “Mexican”, while the Doctor and Graham are dismissed as Brits. I love that telling moment when Graham introduces Ryan as his grandson, not with pride, just a modern matter-of-factness, which simply does not compute in 50s Alabama.
At last, Ryan and Yaz have some material to run with. The scene they share, cowering in an alley, in America, not so long ago, is potent and painful. As they make clear, racism remains their day-to-day experience in Sheffield, 2018. “It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the world for ever,” says Ryan. Yaz admits she’s called names while on patrol and “a terrorist coming home from the mosque”. She tries to be positive: “They don’t win, those people. I can be a police officer now because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me.”
What’s pleasing is that there are no Clever Dick solutions. The time travellers work hard to keep time on track. Who’d have thought that getting a tweedy seamstress and a driver on the right bus at the right time would provide dramatic tension? And there’s a sharp beat when the Time Lord realises she and her team are part of history: “We have to not help her.” They must remain on the bus and sit quiet while Rosa is manhandled. Director Mark Tonderai pulls all this together, and succeeds at making South Africa look like Alabama with more contained spaces than last week’s episode (also filmed there).
But – I’m loath to introduce a “but”, and there are several – while we should always learn from the past, a drama shouldn’t seem like a lesson at Sunday School. Rosa feels like a throwback to the earliest days of Doctor Who when they had a remit to educate young viewers and alternated sci-fi with historical yarns. Many were excellent, but every so often the action would pause for an ill-disguised info-dump.
At least now they play around a little. Ryan isn’t clued up on Rosa Parks and, when pressed, offers, “First black woman to ever drive a bus..?” “Your nan would have a fit,” scolds Graham. But mostly the wheels on the Blackman/Chibnall bus clunk along. Thudding with tedium is the meeting at Rosa’s house, which might have delivered a punch, had Martin Luther King’s name not been telegraphed earlier. Doctor Who in 2018 is gunning for simple storytelling but shouldn’t shed the layers of wit and sophistication it has long clothed itself in. De-cloaking to a more naïve state might make Doctor Who more accessible. But let it not plod. Let it not clunk. Let it not preach. The Rosa Parks incident deserves respectful treatment, but there’s also a more gripping drama aching to be told.
The villain Krasko (Joshua Bowman) is dismally lightweight. An ex-convict from the future, he’s emerged from Stormcage prison facility – like River Song before him – primped for a fashion shoot, and has prepped for his mission by studying Danny in Grease or Fonzie in Happy Days. His motivation is unclear. He’s a time meddler, yes, keen to nip the civil rights movement in the bud, but what will it lead to centuries hence that bugs him so? Is Krasko a racist or does he have some other agenda? It’s not specified. This Brylcreemed berk’s every move is accompanied by an annoying two-note thrum on the double bass, so close to John Williams’s Jaws theme I’m expecting to see a fin on his back.
I’m also unmoved by the final soundtrack wash-over of Andra Day’s anthem Rise Up. I hope that for many watching it will let their spirits soar. But it’s another leaden cosh over the bonce for me. What is touching is the coda when the Time Lord shows her chums the real Rosa receiving her Congressional Gold Medal from Bill Clinton in 1999 – and then the asteroid that’s been named after her.
Hovering over this episode like a ghost is Grace. Our heroes harp on about her, as well they might. Ryan’s nan, Graham’s wife, who died in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, knew all about Rosa Parks and her achievements. Says Graham: “She had a T-shirt that said ‘The Spirit of Rosa’ – and I wish she was here now.” Agreed. Let this not be Malorie Blackman’s only brush with Who. She should return and write an episode called Grace.