Director: Mark Tonderai
Screenplay: Chris Chibnall
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Vinette Robinson, Joshua Bowman, Trevor White
Runtime: 50 Minutes
Series 11 - Episode 3
As is customary for most first-time companions, “one trip to the past, one trip to the future”. Rosa feels like the first episode since at least 2010s Vincent and the Doctor (blimey it’s been a while) to actually delve into the history lesson aspects that the show was once initially sold with back in its inception, or if not strict history at least a thorough retelling of the life of a famous historical figure, usually represented doing the thing they were famous for.
This very much feels like the baby of guest writer Malorie Blackman – with contributions from Chris Chibnall – who rose to fame through her critically acclaimed Noughts and Crosses series of YA novels, which predominantly focused on a fictional dystopia as a means of exploring different aspects of racism.
Here, our heroes find themselves slingshot to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, the day before Rosa Parks (a very good Vinette Robinson) is due to refuse her bus seat for James F. Blake (Trevor White). A pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement. But trouble is afoot as a criminal from the future is on a mission to prevent this from happening, and the heroes are placed in that rare position where they have to keep history happening exactly the way it was intended to.
The show has dealt with racial prejudice in the past in its past based episodes, with companions such as Martha and Bill having to put up with (or in certain cases not) comments from less enlightened times. But never as a central theme and never this focal in its pointed commentary.
It adds to a layer of genuine discomfort and tension, with Montgomery feeling like a more dangerous environment for companions Ryan and Yaz than even a hostile alien world – because it certainly feels like one in some respects. It offers a real contemporary reflection as the two companions of colour discuss their own confrontations and difficulties with their race in modern Sheffield growing up, but maintains the positive outlook that the show has always been renowned for.
As far as the history lesson aspect is concerned, events of the day itself are plotted out on a literal whiteboard by the Doctor with names, dates and locations marked out and explored – as well as a namedrop mention for Emmett Till. There are also the literal barriers constructed caused by segregation that inconveniences their mission multiple times, and builds into the ticking clock element that (along with the sharing the same year) almost feels like we’re watching Doctor Who’s own version of Back to the Future playing out.
Jodie disappears more into the ensemble this time around beyond two great exchanges with antagonist Krasko (Joshua Bowman), and it feels like the first proper taste of the character dynamics on the go.
Ryan gets the most to do this week, with Tosin Cole delivering a believable performance as the one receiving the brunt of the public abuse, and the resonant mentions of grandmother Grace allow him to have the words of wisdom this week with “never give them an excuse”.
But with all the alarm, it’s also a very funny episode. Ryan treats a scene when he’s in a room with both Parks and Ray Sesay’s Martin Luther King like he’s in a dream that he can’t quite believe he hasn’t woken up from yet. Graham is proving to be a hilarious addition to the TARDIS crew, and the extra grumbly delivery from Walsh is great. Even Yaz gets her moments of astonished wonder at her environment while being more the second hand to the Doctor than anything else.
It's just a shame that the defining moment of the episode on the bus, one that is otherwise energised by the awful point that our heroes have to sit by helplessly and watch as history unfolds, is overplayed by a contemporary music cue that feels jarring. Krasko ends up being a one-note villain, but although his disposal is quick, kudos for putting his fate in the hands of it’s most deserved character.
There’s a possible structural issue in that scenes when taken as a whole end up coming off as a collection of chapter bits, although that’s maybe down to the writer originating as a novelist. But Mark Tonderai’s direction is a decent build on last weeks in an earthbound setting with some more energetic camera movement in interior dialogue scenes, and Segun Akinola’s score has some delightful tinges of ethereal late-80s sound.
Rosa sees the new run go from strength to strength, and even if it’s a heavy one to drop so early into the new series it feels as vital as it should do given a still stunted climate of discussion regarding presentation of people of colour on and off screen, and their positions as they stand in history as society. It’s a neat history lesson, moves well and ends on a positive and powerful note.