Most seasons of the new Doctor Who feature one episode where the Doctor meets an important historical or cultural figure, whether it’s Shakespeare or Dickens or Agatha Christie. Season 11’s historical-figure episode arrives early with “Rosa,” which takes a different tack from previous episodes of its ilk. Where those other episodes focus on the Doctor teaming up with the historical figure to stop a science-fictional threat, here the Doctor must work behind the scenes to ensure history takes its proper shape. It’s a very good episode, but it’s got one big problem keeping it from being great.
My sole issue with “Rosa” is the villain, a human (I think) man from the far future named Krasko. (And let me just say that because Joshua Bowman as Krasko is so conventionally TV handsome, I was worried for a moment that he would become a recurring love interest for the Doctor. Thankfully, it didn’t work out that way, presumably because this is no longer the Steven Moffat era.) But what was Krasko’s ultimate goal? What was his motivation? The “you people need to know your place” line wasn’t enough for me. We never learn his backstory, beyond being a criminal, or why all this is worth the effort for him, before he’s booted from the story by Ryan and the time displacement weapon. Where did he go? Will he be back? Is he changing history wherever he wound up? Krasko is a loose thread in an otherwise tightly plotted historical adventure.
Similarly, if Krasko is prevented from simply killing Rosa Parks because of his neural restricter, but he has a time displacement weapon, why doesn’t he just zap her to another time period so she can’t make history? Why have the ability to displace people in time and not use it? I was also intrigued that Krasko is aware of what a TARDIS is, but nothing more comes of that. Does he know about the Time Lords? Does he know about the Doctor? It’s never explored.
While the science-fictional aspects of the plot are thin, the character work continues to be extraordinary. The cast is coming together really well, and no one feels extraneous. Back in the day, when the Doctor had three companions at once, one of them would usually have to be captured or knocked unconscious so that there would be enough for the others to do. That’s not the case here at all. At first, I was worried the TARDIS would be too crowded with three companions, but it’s working for me. I loved watching them work behind the scenes to make sure Rosa Parks is on the bus when she’s supposed to be. And Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks does an outstanding job.
I though Graham was going to have to fill in for James Blake as the bus driver, which would harken back to Grace telling him on their first date that he better not be like “Blake the snake.” But they did it one better by placing Graham smack in the middle of Rosa Parks’ famous bus protest. I found it very emotionally affecting, especially the look on the Doctor’s face where she realizes the only way to protect history is to just sit there and let this play out rather than jump in like she normally would.
Other things I really liked about the episode: the iPhone/Steve Jobs joke, the Banksy joke, Ryan meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. at Rosa Parks’ house, and particularly every time Ryan or Graham mention how much Grace would have loved meeting both Parks and King. I like how the characters are keeping Grace alive in their memories. I also enjoyed every time Graham calls the Doctor “Doc,” and every time the Doctor talks about having to get used to being in female form now. (The previous episode’s line “Come to Daddy…er, Mummy” is my favorite so far.)
And now for some Doctor Who neepery! There still isn’t a lot to be found, but there’s more than last time. In this episode, we have a mention of artron energy, which is found in the time vortex and which also powers the TARDIS, and was first mentioned back in the 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin.” We see another vortex manipulator wristband of the kind that both Captain Jack Harkness and Missy wore. I think River Song may have had one, too. And speaking of, we learn that Krasko’s prison was the Stormcage Containment Facility, which is the same place River Song was imprisoned in season six.
Ultimately I thought “Rosa” was a very good episode, hamstrung only by Krasko, a villain we learn very little about and who is dispatched much too easily. Of course, you could say that society is the true villain of this episode and Krasko only incidental, and I wouldn’t argue with you, but I do think they could have done more with him. Anyway, next week’s episode introduces us to Yaz’s family, which should help round her out as a character, as I think she’s the one with the least amount of development so far. It also looks like a more traditional monsters-on-Earth episode, which should be fun.