First and foremost: this is missing the chart. I am writing it on a Huawei mobile in the middle of a Yorkshire hostel. The kids are playing table football and Lara Croft Go, thankfully not at the same time. Emily – who is just opening the Merlot – has offered me the loan of her tablet, but I’m sure I can cope with this.
Doctor Who was screened in the hostel lounge over hastily concocted sandwiches and a bit of fiddling with the remote (volume down working, volume up not). We were joined by a woman and her two primary school age daughters, both wearing onesies. It was a first time for both of them – “We’ve only ever seen bits of it”, one of them explained, while the other did somersaults off the back of the chair as Rosa was escorted off the bus.
How might you react if this were your first ever episode of Doctor Who? It must happen. People tune in like that all the time, and the “How should I introduce my wife / child / friend / vet to the show?” question is one that comes up an awful lot in my groups. Curiously the most popular answer is ‘Blink’, which is surely a dreadful choice, given that it’s so atypical? Wouldn’t you be better off with ‘The Pilot’? ‘Smith and Jones’? ‘Spearhead’? Preferably something that gets in, does what it needs to do and gets out again with a reasonable body count? That said I did hear about one chap who was indoctrinated with ‘Blink’: it supposedly terrified him. He owns a sculptures yard.
Rosa Parks doesn’t work with sculptures. She’s a seamstress, putting in long hours adjusting the suits of rich white people before catching the bus home. She will eventually make history by refusing to give up her seat, which ultimately sparks the civil rights movement.
Except it may not. Because history is under threat from a sneering time traveller who is so inconsequential I’ve already forgotten his name. Deciding that this was the moment it all started to go wrong for mankind, he elects to nudge the course of history by way of the butterfly effect: a shift change here, a broken window there, and before anyone realises what’s happening years of progress are out of the window and segregation and institutional racism are alive and well in 2018.
I know what you’re thinking, but we’re not going there tonight. The Doctor didn’t, exactly. There were nods to the present: Ryan and Yas, in this week’s notch on the will-they-won’t-they bedpost, find themselves unexpectedly bonding while hiding outside a seedy motel room that doesn’t welcome coloured folks. “It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the world forever,” Ryan laments. “Otherwise how come I get stopped by police way more than my white mates?”
Has Doctor Who shifted into sledgehammer and nut territory? It wouldn’t be the first time. But how else would you do it? There is no nice way to tell this story to its intended audience without talking about the way things are now, and no way to do so with the intended audience (kids, but we’ll get to that) unless you are fairly transparent about it. Yesterday evening I watched Alfonso Ribeiro on Strictly Come Dancing. This evening I was reminded of the episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Will and Carlton get arrested by a few obviously racist police officers. It’s heavy handed and preachy, as the show often was, with enough Very Special episodes to rival the likes of Blossom, or even Diff’rent Strokes.
And yet we love it. I love it! Why is this? Is it because they were funny? Was the acting better? Or is it simply more effective when it doesn’t come across as white guilt virtue signalling? Was this a stone that Doctor Who ought to have left unturned? A line that shouldn’t be crossed?
Perhaps not. Make no mistake: ‘Rosa’ is a throwback that is set to alienate a part of the fanbase as much for its style as for its content. This is as close to a straight historical as we’ve had in years, and that’s going to upset people. There are no monsters in the cupboard: merely an unpleasant man who could just as easily have stepped out of the house down the road as he could have warped in from the forty-ninth century. There is not a whiff of culture shock about Krasko (see, I remembered eventually) and that makes him dangerously close to home – and it is this, I am convinced, that is likely to fuel much of the inevitable resentment that we’re going to see online from people who “aren’t racist, but”. It’s already playing out in The Daily Star (I am not linking on principle). The fact is he’s much of a muchness: greater sins are committed by the people of Montgomery, and Krasko is bland and unrecognisable because he doesn’t need to be anything else. He’s not the villain. The villain is us, and all of us.
It plays like an episode of Quantum Leap. We’re in predestination turf again, the Doctor and her companions racing against the clock to try and readjust the timeline so that history runs its course – or perhaps adjust it the way it was always meant to be, with their presence a necessity rather than a potentially dangerous intervention. The specifics don’t really matter: it is perhaps the first time we see them working as a team and it is fun in a way that Hartnell’s crew was and Davison’s crew could never manage. If Whittaker doesn’t quite convince this week – it’s unfair to keep making this comparison but these are lines, you can’t help thinking, that would have sat better with Tennant – the other characters do, whether it’s Graham parking up with a fishing rod or the sound of Ryan’s jaw hitting the carpet when he meets Dr King. If it’s a bit Scooby Doo in places that’s not a bad thing. At least they’re all out doing something.
Listen. This is a kid’s show. You may not like hearing that, but it is. When I’d finished rolling my eyes at the closing video montage, as the TARDIS sailed out of Alabama and off to wherever the Doctor is needed next (Sheffield again, by the looks of the teaser) it was left to Emily to point out the one thing I’d missed. “Kids probably enjoyed it,” she said. “It told the story and it was a good episode for them -” and she indicated the boys, who were looking at the screen thoughtfully. “And, you know, I think black children needed to hear it. Especially right now.”
This would have been a very good Sarah Jane adventure. It is a good Doctor Who. It is by turns meandering and madcap, but one thing that is working beautifully this series – for all its worthiness and lackluster writing – is the way it allows the characters to breathe. They behave as you would expect them to behave, considering what they’ve been through. And it does seem to be a lot. There are thirteen other time / space destinations sitting between last week and this one, a gap presumably filled with the books, along with an awful lot of headcanon.
Still: it works. I do wonder what those two girls made of it. Perhaps I’ll find them and ask them. But first, I need a refill. Enjoy your week, folks. I’m going to look at rocks.