Doctor Who And The Rosa

Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC1, 2018).

This review of Rosa, the third episode of Jodie Whittaker’s first run of Doctor Who, was originally written for the fan site This Way Up. This was primarily done as a favour to the editor, who was someone who used to enthusiastically run my abstract ideas for features in fanzines back when nobody else was interested, and I do like to remember the people I met on the way ‘up’. That said, it’s also always welcome to have an opportunity to be able to say whatever you like about a brand new episode of Doctor Who, without having to remove arcane references and robust opinions or needing to fit it inside two hundred and eighty characters while trying to avoid getting drawn in to the uproar over whatever the writer of TV’s Paris has said this time, so I do like to take advantage of this every so often. When was the last time you saw someone mention Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch in a review of Doctor Who? Oh it was me? Well there you go then.

One of the main reasons that I’d enjoyed Peter Capaldi’s final set of episodes so much (as you can read more about here) was that, admittedly more from lack of interest than any actual aesthetic intention, I’d known so little about it ahead of broadcast and with absolutely no expectations whatsoever I’d ended up being pleasantly surprised. I’d fully intended to keep this up as a deliberate act when Jodie made her debut, which was handy because the incoming production team suddenly weren’t quite so keen on releasing advance details of upcoming stories, and in some cases the episode titles weren’t even made public until the week before broadcast. Some individuals have taken great exception to this for furiously stated reasons I can’t quite fathom, but personally I found it refreshing and it actually made me look forward to Doctor Who as a Saturday Night event again. And indeed subsequently as a Sunday Night one. I had no idea of the theme, storyline or even title of Rosa when I asked to review ‘the third one’ on an almost entirely random basis (well, there was some logic behind that, but I’m not explaining it here). Earlier on the day of transmission, I’d recorded a guest appearance on The Zeitgeist Tapes talking about Doctor Who and politics (which you can listen to here), and had remarked to Emma and Steve while we were setting up that I knew nothing more about it than what had been in the trailer the previous week, and hadn’t been this excited about new Doctor Who in a long time. Well, apart from when I thought they were actually going to have more than about nought point eight of a second of Polly in Twice Upon A Time, but that’s another story.

Even ahead of knowing anything about Rosa, I’d taken the decision that I would not even allude to the ludicrously inflated and largely concocted ‘controversy’ surrounding Jodie’s casting in my review, as the handful of ‘not my doctor!!!4’ boneheads and smug columnists inventing non-stories about nothing, all of whom probably hadn’t watched Doctor Who since it was Tom Pertwee and the maggots or something, didn’t really deserve any further acknowledgement of their ’cause’. However, Rosa took everything off in a completely different direction which nonetheless provoked an additional load of silly bleating about ‘PC gone mad!!!!!!!!!’, which left me feeling compelled to take a swipe at them regardless. They’re still at it now, depressingly, and it’s high time they all sodded off and watched The Idiot Moron’s Blowhard Hour For Pillocks instead. Well, I had to put something in place of that cut reference to Hedge And Mo from Playboard. On a more positive note, however, I’ve just noticed that a Twitter account that didn’t follow me but nonetheless kept tweeting at me to vigorously assert that Jodie Whittaker had received very bad ‘crits’ has apparently disappeared, so every cloud has a silver lining. If you’re reading, I hope you enjoyed this particular ‘crit’.

Television on a Sunday. Never the most exciting or essential time of the week. The place where they put everything that they had to show, but nobody would have tolerated them doing so on a day when they might actually have been watching.

If you got up early enough, there was a bible lesson from The Sunday Gang, with Teena asking why no-one ‘elped that poor geezer before that Samaritan come along while Mackintosh Mouse screeched about ‘Sassenachs’ in the corner. Morning Worship and Songs Of Praise, to remind you that actually literally physically going to church wasn’t quite enough for Jesus. Weekend World, The Money Programme and Credo and their frustrating combination of exciting theme music and tedious topical content. Out Of Town, which didn’t even bother with exciting theme music. Whatever in the name of sanity Cabbages And Kings actually was. That’s Life, which you watched because it was the closest thing to actual entertainment on offer (although I am not prepared to make a legally binding claim that it actually was entertainment). And hidden away right at the end of the night, ITV’s almost-too-hot-for-broadcast stick-them-there-and-hopefully-Mary-Whitehouse-will-have-gone-to-bed comedy shows like Spitting Image, The New Statesman and Clive James On Television. Which were actually good, of course, but due to a combination of parental nervousness and the inevitable clash with something on the ‘other side’, you rarely actually got to see them and had to pretend in school the next day that you had. A pretence that could generally be convincingly maintained for upwards of two and a half minutes.

What you’d never really find on a Sunday, though, was anything remotely like Doctor Who. Or The A-Team, or The Tripods, or The Hardy Boys And Nancy Drew Mysteries, or Tales Of The Gold Monkey, or anything even halfway exciting. No, that was the stuff of Saturday evenings and midweek battles over the black and white portable, of waiting for the sports roundup or Wogan to finish, fully aware that there was plenty more worth watching to come. In the words of Avon Barksdale from The Wire, you can do some shit and be like what the fuck but never on no Sunday, and come to think of it they would probably never have shown The Wire on a Sunday either.

What you did get on Sundays, though, were the BBC’s ‘Sunday Classics’. Overseen for much of their existence by former Doctor Who showrunners Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, these were literary adaptations ranging from The Diary Of Anne Frank to Sexton Blake And The Demon God, frequently involving actors, directors, scriptwriters and even musicians they had worked with on Doctor Who, and were, in effect, sometimes as close as you could get to ‘extra’ Doctor Who when it wasn’t on the air. Especially when Tom Baker was in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. But Doctor Who itself could never be on a Sunday. Of course. Everyone knew that.

Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh and Vinette Robinson in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC1, 2018).

Well, now we’re three weeks into Doctor Who’s new regular slot on Sunday evenings, and despite the dire predictions of some who it wasn’t aimed at and would have been watching on the iPlayer anyway, it’s clearly the best decision they’ve taken in ages. Well, second best after one slightly more obvious one, but the timeslot perfectly complements the fresh new direction and seems to have caught the attention – genuinely and provably – of a large number of viewers who almost certainly wouldn’t have been watching otherwise. That said, with two sensibly functional episodes designed to introduce not just a whole new cast of characters but a whole new direction and approach out of the way, there was a lot riding on the third episode, Rosa. And that’s before we’ve even got started on how tactfully and subtly it would need to tackle certain issues. “Sister Rosa Lee Parks, love forever her name in our hearts”, The Stone Roses once sang on a song that sounded like they’d made it up in less time than it took to record. But would we be loving Rosa the episode forever, whether in our hearts or otherwise?

The answer is yes. And how. Written by Chris Chibnall with novelist Malorie Blackman – yet more evidence that careful collaboration with writers from outside the Doctor Who discipline is the right path to pursue – Rosa didn’t give anyone what they had been expecting, whether they had been expecting to like or hate it. There were no long and mythology-building speeches about prejudice, no anachronistic stands made by assistants, and no high concept alien tech cause and resolution that looked like it had wandered out of a bad episode of Torchwood. Instead it concentrated on subtle acknowledgement of the era and its failings, debated why trying to confront those failings head on was dangerous historically as well as physically, and responded to the disarmingly low-tech villain and his attempts to change history using little more than a pen and paper – and, crucially, we never did quite find out what his issue with those pesky coloured folk actually was, mainly because we didn’t need to; he was bad and doing bad and that was that – by carefully manually undoing his meddling with history as slowly and methodically as Hiro Nakamura and Peter Petrelli with a big string map thing in an episode of Heroes. There were no big moments of confrontation or desperate action-packed struggles and it was all the more tense and exciting for it. When I kept saying I wanted a return to low-key stories, I had no idea they would get quite this low-key and yet quite this effective.

Everything about Rosa looks and sounds effective, from the buses and their passengers to the style and sonic quality of the records playing on jukeboxes (they’re even in mono) to Krasko’s cursory can’t-be-bothered attempt at looking just about ‘fifties’ enough to fit in and get what he wants to do done, and the overall effect is an authentic world you can believe in and relate to but still feel at a necessary remove from. The regular cast are all given plenty to do and rise effectively to the very real challenge of the storyline and the dialogue – I’m willing to bet some of the other actors felt the need to apologise for saying some of it at the initial read-throughs, but well done to everyone involved for refusing to tone it down – thought it’s Vinette Robinson’s dignified yet furious take on Rosa Parks that really powers the episode.

Vinette Robinson in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC1, 2018).

Which brings us around to – inevitably – the episode’s treatment of the entire culture and context that gave rise to the incident for which Rosa Parks is remembered. This was no lecture or diatribe; it approached an uncomfortable historical detail in a sensible but unflinching manner, depicting it as it was and tackling it as it was, leaving the lessons and morals for the present and the future. Unlike previous (and it has to be stressed laudable and effective) attempts at raising the subject, it didn’t present racism as something that could be waved – or indeed punched – away with a couple of witty retorts. It’s a restrained but very real and menacing background threat throughout the episode, with a genuine sense that it could explode at any second, and is all the more effective for that. Looking back through a couple of old reviews recently, I have been struck by how much matters have depressingly changed since a time when a passing reference in an episode was enough. This could have felt like a clumsy and contrived response to this resurgence of nasty boneheads but instead it came across as nothing other than an entertaining episode with something to say. Plus, it’s worth saying, plenty of well-aimed lighter moments too, notably Ryan and Yaz’s reminiscences about their classmate apparently called Danny Tiswas, and The Doctor’s intimations that she might or might not be Banksy; all the more hilarious for having been written and filmed months before the current ‘self-shredding art’ controversy.

Not everyone’s quite this impressed though. In the time it took me to decide which Sunday television programmes I was going to mention in the first paragraph, I’d already been unfollowed on Twitter by someone for saying I liked Rosa, while a supposedly respectable broadsheet critic had managed to fling out a scornful review comparing it negatively to Let’s Kill Hitler, which calls into question whether they’ve not just ever watched that but indeed any television ever. This does suggest that there are people who are out to find reasons to dislike it whatever the cost, and no doubt some of them are informed by a belief that it has become too politically correct, what with allowing them BIRDS to play a body-shifting alien and saying racism is bad and they won’t even let you say that line out of The Celestial Toymaker now because of the ‘PC brigade : (‘ et cetera et cetera et intentionally referencing a certain Latin-toting politician here fucking cetera. Well, much like a certain disco producer and smug phone-hacker, they’re going to be left behind. Not just by social attitudes but by good old plain and simple entertainment. If you’re deliberately not watching this to prove some ridiculous non-existent point to yourself then we’re all just going to laugh at you. As Avon Barksdale said, be a little slow, be a little late, just once… and how you ain’t goin’ never be slow, never be late? And he wants his corners, so you’d better watch out.

I never did quite get married to Teena from The Sunday Gang, but as I write this, it’s rapidly approaching half past ten on a Sunday night and yes, I probably will watch an episode of Hot Metal before bedtime. But before I do, I’m going to watch Rosa again first. And it’s a long time since I’ve done that with Doctor Who.

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: Rosa (BBC1, 2018).

Buy A Book!

You can find a detailed history of the BBC’s ‘Sunday Classics’ serials in Not On Your Telly, a collection of columns and features with an archive television slant. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. You can buy me two if you’re still unaccountably furious about there being a ‘woman’ Doctor Who.

Further Reading

Doctor Who And The Thin Ice is a review of the previous series’ racist punchingly-thrilling standout episode of the same name, which you can find here.

Further Listening

You can hear me chatting with Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about the reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s debut, and politics in Doctor Who in general, on The Zeitgeist Tapes, the show where politics and pop culture collide, here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.