When the names of the writers for this season of Doctor Who were released, it was Malorie Blackman who I was most interested in. I haven’t read any of her books, but, having just spent a year and a half working as a college librarian, I know how popular they are with young adults. I imagined she would be telling a futuristic parable similar to her Noughts and Crosses books, so it was with interest that I discovered that she had co-written a historical story.
A while back I suggested on Twitter that the programme could avoid the problems of colour blind casting stories set in eras before mass immigration to Europe by visiting non-European history, as the Hartnell historicals had done, so I was pleased to see a step towards that here. Rosa is set in Western history, but not in Europe and at a point of racial conflict. (I think we are to get a completely non-European historical story later in the season.) There’s a tension in this production, a sense that this is too important a story to fail with the double weight of the new regime’s first trip to the past, reinventing the ‘time meddler’ strand of story, and the importance of the subject matter.
The ‘innocent abroad’ sequences at the start have an additional weight and horror not seen since The Massacre as the TARDIS crew realise the full extent the danger posed by the society of the Deep South. This is the most fully-realised ‘alien’ society seen in the programme in a very long time. Given that under Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat the past was often presented as having the same attitudes as the present, but with different clothes, this is disconcerting in more ways than one. Rosa’s warning to the Doctor early on that she would get into trouble that she would not be able to get out of easily serves as an warning to the audience about the type of story this is, one largely unseen in the new series, where societal forces create a problem too great for the Doctor to defeat directly and only a small or partial victory can be achieved. This story is somewhat more optimistic than The Aztecs or The Massacre, positing that small actions can have great effects over time. This verges on a slightly Whiggish version of history, heading inevitably towards peaceful pluralism, but Yaz and Ryan’s conversation about their own experiences of racism in the twenty-first century helps to add a note of caution and a reminder of the distance the audience still has to travel.
As with The Massacre, it’s the standard Doctor Who stuff that jars, such as the lines about the Doctor giving her mobile to Elvis who then lent it to Frank Sinatra to push the plot along a little. Krasko in particular feels a light-weight, under-motivated villain. James Blake is a product of a society built on centuries of racism and slavery, but we never really find out what Krasko’s society is like, what made him the way he was, what has made him go to all this effort. Perhaps, as with real-life questions about what made, say, Hitler, the way he was, it’s ultimately unanswerable and doesn’t need an answer purely in terms of plot mechanics, but it does leave Krasko feeling more like a plot device than a character, someone there to put the wheels of the story in motion. The very real danger of scenes where the regulars come up against the entrenched racism of unnamed supporting characters, particularly the scene in the motel with the policeman, produce far more tension and fear than any of Krasko’s scenes. The difference between these characters and the cardboard Nazis of Let’s Kill Hitler is palpable.
By this stage the slower pace to the stories is beginning to look deliberate, an attempt at changing the house style and allowing for stories that would not have been told in more frenetic recent years. The Doctor’s confrontations with Krasko allow her to show real ‘steel’ in the face of danger perhaps for the first time in this incarnation, but this is still a quieter Doctor than we have seen so far in the twenty-first century, one who listens to her companions as much as she speaks and is willing to stand in the background rather than hogging the limelight, particularly when gently nudging history back on track.
Overall, this was a strong episode that revitalised the pseudo-historical sub-genre.