Last week's episode of Doctor Who - Rosa - drew me in like no episode has for a long time. The last time I watched an episode which made me think so much was The Girl in The Fireplace and that was quite a few years ago. I've been enthused with praise for the episode ever since last Sunday, and although everyone I've spoken to thinks it was "OK", at least, I don't seem to find many people who share my enthusiasm.
And that got me thinking - what was it about that episode which I enjoyed. Enjoyment is maybe the most subjective thing there is, and so those who didn't enjoy it much as I do aren't wrong, and I'm not trying to convince anyone. I'm simply sharing without judgement, as I always try to do.
But whilst writing about the episode, there was another ever-present thought swirling around me. In writing about how much I enjoyed the episode, I am very conscious that I'm a white person writing about how bad racism is, and that makes me feel like I'm walking a tightrope and need to pick my words carefully.
It's so easy if you're a cis-gendered, white man to come across as patronising. It feels like whenever I write anything about discrimination against women, or racism or issues facing trans people I have to wave a little flag which says I do genuinely believe this stuff; I'm not just writing this because I want to appear liberal
And that little flag, if it really existed, would be a literal virtue signal. And I don't like waving it. But wave it I must.
I'm gay ( shock horror! ) and so I do know what it's like to identify with those who are bullied or treated badly because of who they are. But I'm not a woman, black nor am I transgendered. So much as I can listen and try to understand what it must feel like to be one or many of those things, I can't pretend to have felt it.
And so, before I dive into why I think this episode of Doctor Who was really rather good, I'm going to wave a little please don't judge me flag. Anyone who both possesses and uses a brain can tell that racism is not only unpleasant, but detrimental to everyone in society, not just the direct victims of it, and so I'm going to try to avoid saying that racism is bad. Let's just take that as a given and look at why the fact that Doctor Who handled it so well is a good thing.
Right, now I've got that off my chest - why did I enjoy the episode so much?
(Oh, and I'm not going to attempt to avoid spoilers. You are warned)
Jodie Whittaker really is The Doctor
Whenever there's a new Doctor, I get nervous. I grew up with the character, and I do feel a level of emotional investment with the character. My nervousness around Jodie Whittaker has nothing to do with the fact she's a woman ( I'm waving my little flag here... ) but simply that a new actor brings a new feel to the character, and especially when following a Doctor that I came to love, there's the nervous hope that the new actor is going to be good.
I warmed to David Tennant immediately, and I think he is now my favourite. Even overtaking Tom Baker, who maybe I only rank so highly for reasons of nostalgia.
I never warmed to Matt Smith. I found him too energetic and never thought he captured the darker side of the Doctor in the way that David Tennant did.
Peter Capaldi took a while for me, but by the end of his tenure, he ranks in my mind a close second to David Tennant.
And so, with the advent of Jodie Whittaker I got nervous.
For the first two episodes, the new character was being established and the action was mostly running around, trying to figure out who she was, picking an outfit and settling in. It was all a bit manic, and whilst I enjoyed them I was a little concerned. But something in the way she held the sonic screwdriver reminded me of David Tennant, as did the brown swishy coat.
But this week, in the third episode, she reached the point where she is The Doctor in my mind. She was in control, she was forthright in what she believes and she was strong and smart. There's a particular line in this episode where she's standing on top of a rusting old tank (the type for putting liquid in, not the thing with tracks and a gun) and says the line "Don't threaten me!". That was the moment for me when Jodie Whittaker really became The Doctor in my mind.
The supporting cast are great
There are a lot of other people running around the TARDIS this time around. And one of them is Bradley Walsh. There's a genuine ensemble feel to having all those people around the Doctor, and each of them is very different from the others and brings something interesting. Plus, there's no sign that any of them will go all goo-ey and fall in love with The Doctor, as I'm so over that...
It's early days, so the back stories for the three of them are only just starting to build, so it'll be interesting to see how the stories play out between them. And was there a flash of flirting between Ryan and Yas. We're pretty used to seeing inter-racial kisses and relationships on TV these days, but when was the last time you saw a relationship between a black person and an Asian person portrayed on TV? I don't think it should happen simply to tick that box (I hate box-ticking) and part of me would be slightly fearful that having a romance in the TARDIS again would feel a bit same-y. But on the other hand, I'm all for breaking the norms of what's shown on TV.
Bradley Walsh has also been a revelation. For the first two episodes, he was playing the slightly comic character that I'd let myself presume he would be. But in the third episode, in the climactic scene on the bus, the way he portrayed a man who was happy to be able to secure such an important event came to pass, but really didn't want to be part of what was about to happen moved him far away from being a comedic foil for The Doctor to play of.
The racism was raw and real
Doctor Who is a family show. It's explicitly written and produced to be a show that the whole family can sit down and watch together. That's why the dialog is sometimes a little "obvious" and why the plots are sometimes spelled out a little too explicitly. The kids have to understand what's going on as well as the adults do.
Within that context, it would've been easy to shy away from just how unpleasant and shocking racism is. It was refreshing to hear words like negro and Paki being spoken out loud rather than simply inferred or censored. The episode succeeded in portraying racism as something hurtful and violent rather than covering it up with easier language and simply implying the hurt it causes.
There was also no congratulatory flag waving about how far we've come. The scene where Yas and Ryan had to hide outside by the bins to avoid the police in the motel room was raw and felt real. To dilute it would've been to remove the impact of the story.
The antagonist was simply an unpleasant person with no grand plan
Krasko had a suitcase full of timey-wimey kit and a killer leather jacket. He looked like your typical modern Doctor Who villain, intent on making endless riches or conquering a planet. Throughout the episode there was the feeling that his big plan was about to be revealed, and we'd discover why he was so interested in Rosa Parks.
But the big reveal never came. He was simply a racist, and that was enough for him to be the villain.
I've often heard it said that the Daleks are a representation of racism. But this time there was no implication nor subtext that racism was behind his actions. He was simply a racist, and that was enough for The Doctor to know that stopping him was the right thing to do.
Rosa parks was left alone to do her own thing
Historical episodes of Doctor Who often serve to fill gaps in the historical record. Where someone's intentions or motivations haven't been left to us through the years, the writers seem a space into which The Doctor's actions can fit without interfering with the historical record.
Rosa Parks in this episode was very much allowed to do her own thing. At no point was she aware that people were conspiring to allow her to make her protest, and she didn't draw her inspiration from anyone other than herself and those around her from her own time. There was no pep talk from The Doctor, and not even a hint from those trying to line everything up that there was any expectation on her. They simply put her in the right place at the right time, on the right bus and with the right driver and let history take its course. The episode took nothing away from Rosa Parks, and did nothing to lessen her actions.
Don't misunderstand me; I don't think the episode was perfect. I have a particular problem with the way that Ryan used that funny gun things to send Krasko back in time - it felt like a bit of a limp way to deal with the villain, and also I was waiting for The Doctor to chastise Ryan for using the gun. Which she didn't. But something doesn't have to be perfect in order to be moving. And that episode moved me.