Doctor Who has always tackled racism in a number of ways. As is common with the best science fiction stories, several of the show’s writers have used the trappings of alien worlds to explore the sensitive subject, thereby mirroring events and attitudes within our own society. Historical episodes have alluded to the prejudices that would have been prominent in the periods the Doctor and pals visit. Greater still, the show was exploring the subject from the very beginning, with the Daleks being used as the ultimate analogy for racism and ethnic cleansing.
But for all of its previous forays into the realms of social commentary, no episode has truly explored racism in such an honest way like Rosa does here. Centring on Rosa Parks and her pivotal protest that sparked both the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the entire civil rights movement, what follows is an episode that boldly eschews the usual aliens and monsters in favour of something far more real and personal.
From the start, it’s clear that the writers aren’t pulling their punches when it comes to accurately representing the deplorable nature of segregated America. Time meddling criminal Krasko (Joshua Bowman) may be an evil racist trying to change the course of history, but the residents of Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 are the true big bad of the episode. Yet despite the theme’s prevalence throughout, Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall‘s script never becomes overly preachy – what we get here is on-topic but nuanced in a way that it never feels like the message is being forced.
Unexpectedly, the story goes to some darker places there we’re used to, with mention of lynchings and stark glimpses of the violence and ill-treatment that was afforded to minorities during this time. It’s ten times more horrifying then any alien monster and rightfully unsettling, especially in the moments where Yaz and Ryan are on the receiving end.
In many ways, Rosa is something of a throwback to the earliest Doctor Who adventures, which did away with the sci-fi and simply set about detailing real moments in history. Granted, the catalyst for this adventure is a time-travelling villain, but what’s remarkable about the episode is how it chooses to keep the focus firmly on the historical aspects.
In much the same way as the other episodes this series, the focus on character over complexity lends proceedings much of its power. Rightfully, the writers choose to make the TARDIS team part of the action but not in a way that influences Rosa’s eventual decision to do what she does. It could have so easily have been embarassingly tongue-in-cheek and self-referential. Instead, the key moment is powerful and heartbreaking, with the team having to sit still and be complicit in the event itself. Every one of the four leads sells the anguish well, whilst guest star Vinette Robinson masterfully portrays Rosa’s determinedness and bravery in a scene stealing performance throughout.
The episode is not altogether perfect – Krasko’s demise is rushed and passes with very little comment, whilst the cheesy song that plays over the climax doesn’t quite have the power a normal bit of original score could have provided. But these are mere nitpicks in what is otherwise a terrific episode.
At it’s very core, Rosa continues to do what Doctor Who has done since 1963 – educating and entertaining in equal measure. The fact that the episode pulls very few punches in terms of it’s subject matter and deeper themes is astounding and bold, but handled in a way so as to ensure younger viewers will understand it. Above all else, it’s a perfect example of Doctor Who‘s importance and value beyond just scary stories and sci-fi monsters.
Doctor Who is back on BBC One next Sunday. Be sure to check out our Series Blog and join us for our verdict of Episode 4.