Here come some thoughts on this week’s episode. Fear the spoilers…
– Celebrity Historicals have been a standard of the show since RTD brought it back, but I really wasn’t expecting what we got here, which is the closest we’ve come to the kind of ‘pure’ historical story the show used to do back in its 1960s early days, when the educational remit was still a strong part of Who’s backbone. There might be a mild sci-fi ‘changing history’ element driving the plot, but the time period and the event in question are the major stars here, which is rare. (Big Finish have done a bunch of these kinds of Who stories on audio, but I really didn’t think we’d get anything like this in the actual show). Aiming at this kind of historical event is daring, and could easily have gone wrong, but they pulled it off.
– Once again, production values are way up here, aided by the South Africa shoot. Who has faked America in recent years, but it’s always been a bit rough around the edges (no matter how much they try, Spain just doesn’t quite look like the USA). Here, on the other hand, the environment and the period detail sells the illusion extremely well, and the sight of the TARDIS parked in a 1955 Alabama alley really does tap into that pulpy ‘anything is possible’ vibe that Doctor Who is so good at.
– I liked Jodie Whitaker more here than I did in the previous two episodes, and she seems more comfortable in the role – which is weird, because The Woman Who Fell To Earth was shot after this one. Maybe it’s the largely more serious tone of this episode, or maybe I’m just getting more used to her.
– Who has dabbled with racism in history before – most notably with Martha in Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Bill in Thin Ice – but this is a whole different order, and I’m impressed with how effectively they portrayed the time. Again, this could easily have tipped into cartoonish caricature, and while it sure ain’t subtle, it does a great job of showing exactly how pervasive the attitudes are. Racism is essentially the main bad guy in this episode, and it’s handled in a way that doesn’t sugar coat the times in the slightest (even making it clear that Ryan could easily end up getting himself lynched), and which also doesn’t pretend that everything was sorted out once Rosa makes her protest. Again, this is the amazing thing about Doctor Who – it can go from last week’s running around from robot snipers and evil bits of cloth to this, and it can make this kind of history accessible and enjoyable for kids who might not even know who Rosa Parks is.
– It’s also just as well that racism was such a pervasive and convincing threat, as the actual villain of the piece was another weak, two-dimensional thug who barely makes an impression. He works in theory – I can see why they went that route (especially building in the ‘unable to kill’ element so he can’t just assassinate Rosa) but in practice, he’s a hopeless and unthreatening character who doesn’t ever feel like he’s going to present that much of a problem. There’s very little tension that comes from his presence in the episode (some of which may be down to casting), and the fact that he vanishes in the same ‘We’ll probably be seeing him again’ manner as the villain in ep 1 does not fill me with confidence.
– Thanks to this problem, the actual nuts-and-bolts storytelling aspects of the episode aren’t as exciting as they could have been. Krascow isn’t like the weird invisible Chicken-monster in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, a throwaway threat to drive what’s largely a character piece – he’s the main antagonist, and he’s so lacking in threat that the episode doesn’t always build a full sense of drama, especially with some of the more fiddly ‘we have to get the bus more crowded’ story engineering during the finale (and particularly since he’s defeated so easily.)
– And talking of Krascow’s defeat – considering the Doctor didn’t seem remotely annoyed at Ryan stealing the Time Displacer and firing Krascow into the past, why didn’t she just do it herself and save themselves the stress? (Plus, isn’t firing a vengeful racist time traveller at random into the past potentially a rather bad idea?)
– Another note – considering her experience in time travel, the Doctor takes a loooong time to work out that Krascow might be changing the future by trying to nudge history in the right direction.
– Vinette Robinson is really strong as Rosa Parks, and once again, Bradley Walsh is the TARDIS team MVP, especially in the climactic sequence on the bus.
– Also once again, we’re still not quite getting to know the companions much more than we did in episode 1. A crowded TARDIS has its advantages, and the characters do get a reasonable share of the action here, but it still feels like they’ve got a way to go before they find the right balance.
– On second look, the TARDIS redesign is looking unfortunately like an explosion in a New Age shop, especially in that final scene.
– As pointed out by @ianberriman on Twitter, this is also possibly the most Quantum Leap episode of Doctor Who ever.
– There’s points where the storytelling does get a bit heavy-handed (and boy, I could really have done without the reprise of the song over the end credits), but the episode gets an awful lot right, and is the first to give me a sense of confidence about where the show is heading (which, for an episode that’s co-written by Chris Chibnall, is saying something).
– And yet… while I admire a lot about what the show is doing, the determined steer away from the majority of the show’s crazier side is a little cause for concern. An episode like this needed to be mostly hard-hitting in order to work, but the three episodes of season 11 so far have consistently been the least goofy and weird Who has been since… well, possibly, since Eric Saward was script-editing back in the Eighties (although feel free to argue if you disagree). The lack of decent villains so far is a definite problem, and while ‘Rosa’ has given me confidence, Chibnall’s version of Who still has some way to go before I’m completely sold on it. Of course, in terms of goofy weirdness, next week’s ‘Return to Sheffield/Killer Spiders’ episode may or may not prove to be what I need…