❉ ‘The defiantly humanist, brilliantly written series I fell in love with all those years ago is well and truly back’, writes Rob Fairclough.
“Yes, the theme of the story was on-the-nose, but look at the world we’re living in now. Like 2015’s Zygon two-parter, Rosa was up front about attacking a real-world monster: extremism in the former, racism in the latter.”
I needn’t have worried. Doctor Who is like an old, old friend: it might disappoint you sometimes – indeed, you might think you’ve fallen out with it for good, sometimes, and that you have nothing in common any more – but then a story like Rosa will come along. When it does, you realise why you fell in love in the first place and you’re off on a second honeymoon.
We’re in Montgomery, Alabama, USA, in 1955 and a seamstress called Rosa Parks (played with consummate dignity by Vinette Robinson), is about to defy the humiliating restrictions that keep whites separate from blacks on public transport. People of different ethnic backgrounds had to use a separate door on to a bus and use designated seats and “coloureds” weren’t allowed in white folks’ hotel rooms. The most appalling thing is, it’s really not that long ago that public bigotry like this was allowed to take place.
It’s interesting that Radio Times editor Alison Graham huffed in the preview about how “preachy” this story was. Yes, the theme of the story was on-the-nose, but look at the world we’re living in now. Rosa was screened in the same week that a racist on public transport – a Ryanair flight – screamed abuse at an elderly black woman who wanted to sit next to him. Like 2015’s The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion, Rosa was up front about attacking a real-world monster: extremism in the former, racism in the latter.
The Zygon story dressed the theme up in an alien takeover, but Malorie Blackman’s episode was extremely respectful of, and unapologetic about, its historical setting. The dusty roads and lovingly detailed ‘50s period design contrasted strikingly with the repugnant attitudes of the white characters. In fact, apart from Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh, there wasn’t a single white character in it who was sympathetic, which may be a first for Doctor Who.
Speaking of the regular cast, the writing and direction here put them firmly into third gear. They all complemented each other well and they were all given significant things to do, with Ryan’s plot-line certainly the most moving, as he met a young Martin Luther King and faced unrestrained racism first hand.
Chris Chibnall’s announcement that there would be nothing from the past in this series turning out to be a bit of a fib was a bonus too, as the Doctor faced off brilliantly against a Time Agent (?) with a Vortex Manipulator (previous users: Captain Jack Harkness and one River Song). As well as the Stenza from The Woman Who Fell to Earth being referenced last week, we now potentially have a – whisper the phrase – story arc involving villainous time meddlers. Bring it on.
Most of all, I loved the idea that history is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which is how and why the world changes. For that I can live with the syrupy ballad that brought Rosa’s story up to date, because the defiantly humanist, bloody brilliantly written series I fell in love with all those years ago is well and truly back.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.