Rosa.



TV  Oh you silly old stupid franchise.  Even after fifty-five years, after all those stories across several media, you somehow manage to find a new way of presenting yourself, making yourself fresh and brave and relevant at just the moment when we need it.  Three episodes into the new epoch and we're really starting to get a handle on what Chibbers and co are trying to achieve and it's the Hartnell era through a contemporary lens, unashamedly embracing Reithian values but tackling themes which resonate in the 21st century while simultaneously doing away with teasers.  Which isn't to obscure the big themes the show's tackled previously including racism.  But more often than not it's been through an allegorical, pepper pot shaped filter.  Rosa confronts racism head on, showing how it effects the main characters in a way which the series has only offered a certain amount of white saviour lip service to before, unafraid to simply iterate the facts when necessary.

Which isn't to say I wasn't concerned beforehand.  In her book Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about how it wasn't until her second year at university that she really became steeped in black British history.  Before that she'd "only ever encountered black history through American-centric educational displays and lesson plans in primary and secondary school", "(w)ith heavy focus on Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad and Martin Luthor King Jr" which were important to her, but far removed for "a young black girl growing up in north London".  The writer then devotes the next fifty-six pages offering some balance with a tour of the international slave trade, the windrush, the 80s riots and Stephen Lawrence and I can't recommend the book more.

With that in mind on hearing that Rosa Parks would be the subject of an episode, I did wonder (taking into account any presumed co-production money) if this most British of franchises couldn't have featured a figure from our history, perhaps who's been obscured by US iconography and deserves to be brought into the light.  Except glancing back through the Eddo-Lodge chapter it's also true that in terms of British history, it's difficult to pinpoint a similar act of peaceful defiance as clearly defined as Parks's bravery that could easily be spun into fifty minutes of family drama for a Sunday night.  Mary Seacole perhaps but the budget even this budget might not stretch to recreating the Crimean War and which particular event would be portrayed.  I understand why Malorie Blackman and Chibbers were drawn to Rosa's moment rather than a British story that might require greater explanation and the sheer quality of the episode more than justifies that decision.

It's also true that the writers are well aware of these issues and work them into the fabric of the episode, notably when Ryan and Yasmin, hiding behind some bins, discuss how even in 2018, racism is still pervasive and effects their lives even if it's not quite the shitshow people of colour had to endure in 1950s Alabama.  Eighteen months ago we were congratulating Twelfth for punching a Nazi in defense of Bill.  Now here we are watching how a society which has white nationalism baked in effects the Doctor's friends even to the point of making Yasmin feel uncomfortable because she's somehow exempt because the authorities in Alabama hadn't even thought far enough to recognise that people of Pakistani heritage exist, ignorance of a different sort which somehow puts her in a superior position to Ryan left skulking at the back, an image which on its own demonstrates just how ludicrous and insipid this form of racism was.

Taking the old school "historical" approach of simply having our heroes observe events amid being captured and escaping and being unable to re-enter the TARDIS isn't unfortunately enough in the 21st century.  The classic Seasons of Fear, Back to the Future and most notably Quantum Leap approach of preserving a series of incidents in order to improve or in this case simply preserve the timeline is another excellent choice because it allows viewers to become steeped in the mechanisms and details of history and how a single change can create ripples.  It also provides plenty of opportunities to give her friends mini-adventures and see them work as a motivated team in a way we've not seen from the show in a while, harking back to the Seventh Doctor in the New Adventures, albeit with a slightly less omnipotent memory for history.  This plan needs research, research, research.

Which leads us to the ongoing germination of Thirteen.  Tim Shaw accepted, this is really the first time we've seen her face off against an adversary alone, and as expected she smoldered and its confirmed, as if it needed to be, once again, that she is the Doctor.  Her deduction and destruction of his surface mysteries are vintage and its in these moments we really see the millennia of experience bubble to the surface, an ancient God with new eyes and accent and Jodie inhabiting that authority.  Who is this Stormfront, sorry, Stormcage escapee?  I've tried running Krasko through Google translate and it doesn't seem to mean "Monk" in any languages, plus the Doctor would surely recognise a fellow Time Lord, so along with the Stenza, he's must be another example of Chibbers creating new returning adversaries for the Doctor rather than relying on the old favourites.  Does anyone know if the Nation estate's rule of wanting to see a Dalek at least once in every series still stands?  Does Krasko count?

For much of the time she's willing to be discrete and cautious in her choice of interventions, choosing when to make a fuss, when to leave her friends to defend themselves and when to make a quiet exit, which makes the conclusion all the more powerful.  Unlike Sam Beckett's mission statement to "put right what once went wrong" (which found itself reversed within the aforementioned confrontation with Krasko), it's the wrongness of the moment that becomes the catalyst for future history.  Like Tenth and Donna causing the deaths of thousands at Pompeii to save the timeline, the Doctor and her friends have to sit and observe in such a heartbreaking scene, to essentially participate in it from the wrong side of history in order to save that history.  But it's also notable that the Doctor and his cohorts don't inspire Rosa to take her action.  She retains her own agency.  They facilitate it by not participating.  Graham even wants to leave the bus entirely, the pain of remaining etched on his face.

It's also a notable example of the "celebrity" historical in which the eponymous figure doesn't interact directly with the villain and also doesn't really discover who the Doctor and her friends really are.  Vinette Robinson doesn't play Parks as a larger than life figure, but a realistically extraordinary person burning with intelligence.  Blackman's script also doesn't simplify her biography, including her activism and connection to Dr King providing ample background as to why she remained seated that day.  Interestingly it does ignore Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith who both took part similar protests earlier that year but weren't rallied around in the same way due to being too young, poor and obscure (apparently) unlike Parks who was a prominent member of the community.  None of which should be seen as criticism.  Sometimes its important to simplify real events in order to reveal a greater truth.

And all of this was filmed in South Africa!  This feels like it wouldn't look out of place on a cinema screen, or at the very least is of a piece with the higher quality end of HBO or one of those newfangled streaming services.  The huge number of interiors and exteriors, the size of the cast, the sheer bigness of it all feels like it can't keep up, that we're going to have a locked room mystery within the bottom six episodes of the series.  For every Turn Left, there's a Midnight.  We're now way beyond football field in Cardiff doubling as Central Park and someone forgetting to the dismantle or at least obscure the crossbars.  Presumably we'll have to await a Pixley exposé to discover how much of what we saw tonight was shot abroad vs Cardiff, now much it had to be created or was otherwise already in situ but this has a level of ambition we've not seen before outside of specially specials.  Not to mention that although the franchise hasn't ever been an enemy of popular music, is it the first occasion when it ran over the end credits?

But even as I write, I appreciate that I'm not really the best person to judge how the wider themes of the episode have been tackled and reflect on the importance that Rosa will have for some viewers, especially its core audience.  Eddo-Lodge also talks about performative solidarity, in which white people often go out of their way to offer support to the Black community as a way of demonstrating just how unracist they are, how unlike the Charlottesville protesters, the KKK or Krasko, the woke equivalent of have a friend who's a person of colour.  The fact I keep mentioning this book could be seen as an example of this as if to demonstrate that I've read at least one book about racial politics.  It's very easy for me to say from a position of privilege that it feels like it reflects well the experience of people who don't look like me in society, but I can't possibly know if that's right.

The fact that I'm this uneasy and hell, that I've written the previous paragraph just goes to demonstrate the paradigms that are shifted when episodes like this are broadcast.  Once again I'm flabbergasted that the same franchise which gave us Love & Monsters, The Adventuress of Henrietta Street and Beep The Meep is also capable of tackling this sort of topic and feel all of a piece with it.  Next week is an alien invasion story with a Sex Pistols punning title.  There are few shows which go out of their way or are capable of these surprises, that are able to re-engineer themselves in this way, stay true to what they are and yet become something else entirely.  And all this under the supervision of Chris "Cyberwoman" Chibnall.  Is it time to forgive him yet?  I'll let you know in seven episodes.

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