There’s a lot going on with Chris Chibnall’s revamped Doctor Who outwith of just having a new Doctor in the shape of the increasingly excellent Jodie Whittaker.Effectively what Chibnall has done is a ‘soft reboot’, a concept oh so familiar in comics and film but not television. What he’s done is basically simple; he’s stripped all the story arcs out so there’s not the annoying thing that used to happen under Stephen Moffat where stories would be diminished or reduced in order to cram in something about the arc which may well end up being forgotten about anyhow.
By doing this the show is free to do single story episodes that can concentrate on telly A story rather than three or four all at the same time. Rosa is a sign that now the series has introduced the basics (Doctor, Tardis, companions, etc) it can really get going by producing an episode which is going to inhabit fan’s Top Ten lists for years to come. The story is simple, classic Who; the Doctor and her friends go back in time to fix something and in this case its ensuring Rosa Parks makes her stand by refusing to stand for a white person on the bus. What they find is another time traveller has come back in time to alter time to stop Parks making her stand and therefore end the civil rights movement before it even got started.
The Doctor of course succeeds but not before its firmly laid out the issue of racism for viewers in as unpalatable a way possible for essentially a kids TV programme shown before the watershed with ‘negro’ and ‘paki’ being used in equal measures of disgust and shock. It makes a point that racism needs to be fought because you never know when you’re a victim of it. Even Graham (played surprisingly well by Bradley Walsh & it you don’t believe he can act just look at his face when he realises he’s the person that forces Rosa to stand. The pain and tragedy is agonising) who is the Tardis crew’s sole white male. Then there’s watching Whittaker play the Doctor getting used to being a woman and realising she can’t just command authority by being a man so she has to work harder than ever before. Also if Vinette Robinson doesn’t pick up some sore sort of award for her portrayal of Rosa parks then there’s no justice.
This feels like old Who in that it’s a historical drama (and in fact it’s the closest to a classic Who historical story the new series has done) that tries to educate while leaving it’s politics slapped in your face. Before people say, ‘ah but it shouldn’t be political’ remember this is a programme that featured alien space Nazis 18 years after the actual real Nazis were defeated in a story warning us that sort of ideology should always be fought. Doctor Who has been political since virtually the start so those complaining of an ‘agenda’ forgot the programme has an agenda to inform, educate and entertain in the very DNA of it. Chibnall has taken this strand of DNA and given it a shake to remind us of history and that today, racism has got to be fought. Indeed the same week this episode was broadcast a black woman suffered terrible abuse on a Ryanair flight and this happened in America.
My only complaint is the song at the end which is designed to make people cry but really, the episode has you by this point so if there’s not tears of anger and admiration welling up you’re a bastard of Farage-esque proportions. It doesn’t need the song to drown out the impact of the end or the lovely little coda where the Doctor shows her friends there’s a bit of the universe which will always be Rosa Parks.
Three episodes into the new series/Doctor we’re seeing the series and concept being pushed in fantastic new ways, and next week there’s spiders. No Moffatesque mysterious menaces like the possessed smell of Tudor Crisps from 1973, but spiders. Actual fucking spiders. Yeah, that might be one to watch behind the sofa…