RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who 2/11.03: Rosa 26 October 2018

Chibnall writes again (though this time with a co-author), but with a very different emphasis.

Usually the rules of these things mean that the junior collaborator does most of the work, but Malorie Blackman has a reasonable amount of clout; by most accounts she seems to do a good job in her books of talking about racism without descending into Author's Message.

But then I saw "Montgomery, Alabama 1943" and groaned just a little. I am entirely ready to admit that there are people who still need to be told that Racism Is Bad, but it's so very easy to over-egg the pudding and come over as preachy… and sorry, but this pudding is more egg than anything else.

Yeah, I like the idea that someone wants to mess with time to achieve, er, something, by changing an historical event; it's a possible implication of having a time-travel setting that we rarely see in this show (and The Time Meddler is a story I remember fondly). And I am glad that we're not getting another VFX-fest like the first two episodes. But surely you can find something more to say about the American South in 1955, with lots of research into how to be accurate about showing casual murder and the bus system for non-white people and everything else, than "racism is bad, and all racists are horrible stupid people, and all the people they despise are saints"?

I know this is a thing I always say, but I keep having occasion to say it. The story I want to see in this kind of setting, and maybe I'm going to have to write it myself, is one with fallible humans – with a racist who goes along with what "everybody does" not because they're cackling Evildoers but simply because it's the easy option (until their eyes are opened); or with a non-white person who's no saint but just trying to get along until something pushes them too far (unlike this Rosa who is Always Right); in general, with complex people rather than just these tedious stereotypes. Think about Rolf(e) in The Sound of Music, who happily joins the Nazis but has moments of hesitation when it comes to arresting his putative girlfriend and her family – that's perhaps not a masterpiece of characterisation, but it's more subtlety than anyone here can manage, in a musical that's nearly sixty years old.

Instead we get that first scene in the hotel which could just as easily have happened in the TARDIS, except that then we wouldn't have had Generic Nasty Policeman. And we get a villain for the episode who's just another racist, only a particularly stupid one. (Now, if only the story had ever bothered to put those two people up against each other!)

If you want the story to change the minds of racists, telling them "you are stupid" is not the way to do it. If you want to help non-racists feel smug because they are the Good Guys and, unlike the bad guys here, hardly ever beat up a non-white person for looking at them funny… then mission accomplished, I guess.

And, well, if you're going to say that Rosa Parks did what she did at least in part because of her contact with the time travellers, as they script repeatedly tries to hint… doesn't that rather devalue her own decision to act?

It's a shame, because this had some very good parts, and could have been excellent – just a bit more sophistication about the characters, a bit of humanisation of anyone who wasn't in the main cast, and I'd have loved it.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:26pm on 26 October 2018

    I agree that this was very heavy handed. But I don't agree about Rosa's motivation, I thought they were equally heavy handed about making it clear they had ensure it is still possible for her to make the decisions she historically made, but without influencing those decisions.

    Personally I think it would have been better not to make this episode at all. This is very sensitive material for many people, and it is very easy to mis-handle it. They erred far too much on the side of caution.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:21am on 27 October 2018

    The impressions I got were in the reaction shots from Vinette Robinson whenever someone said something like "you're wonderful" or "that isn't right" – it seemed to me that she was being shown as altering her thinking. I may be entirely wrong about the director's motivation, and nobody other than me seems to have felt the same way.

    I have absolutely no problem with episodes dealing with "sensitive" material; I just wish it had been done better.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:12pm on 29 October 2018

    If you want depth and subtlety I think you want longer than 50 minutes.

    While it was a bit heavy it wasn't bad as a whole.

    My problem was the villain's motivation. He's from umpty-ump centuries in the future and he is still seeing things in terms of 19th and 20th century racial and social categories.

    By then we would have developed so many, many more reasons to hate each other and have so many, many more different categories of people to hate.

    I think the authors don't grasp how recently the narrative of European supremacy emerged, got stepped on and then redoubled down in the minds of the True Believers.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:45am on 30 October 2018

    Well, yeah, that's the problem - in this episode, "racist" is a complete definition of someone's motivation and personality as well as their (lack of) intelligence. I don't demand lots of depth and subtlety from television – it's television – but this is so shallow as to be self-defeating.

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