Doctor Who goes back to its roots with Rosa

Although the casting is more diverse, the show feels closer to its traditional shape than it has for a long time.

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Doctor Who stories come in three flavours: alien or unworldly forces come to Earth in the present-day; the Doctor and friends visit the far future or a distant planet; and the historical, adventures in the Earth’s past. In fact, Doctor Who’s first adventure – 1963's An Unearthly Child – was a historical, as the Doctor, his granddaughter, and two schoolteachers ended up back in the time of the cavemen.

The historical emerged from the programme’s original conception as an educational show in which the Doctor plus his teacher tag-alongs, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, would teach children about science and history (their respective disciplines) through the medium of a science fiction show, though that vision didn’t really last beyond the first appearance of the Daleks in the show’s second serial.

Like the Doctor, the historical has gone through several regenerations over the show’s run: at the beginning, the only science-fiction element was the presence of the Doctor and their companions, as the main characters struggled to find their way back to the TARDIS, make sure history ran its natural course or simply to survive. It wasn’t until 1965’s The Time Meddler that the show broke with that format, in an adventure that was also the first to introduce another member of the Doctor’s species (though their name and home planet would have to wait another four years to appear on screen). The so-called “pure” historical now had a pushy cousin to contend with: the “quasi” historical in which figures from the past shared the screen with sci-fi baddies or devices, and it couldn’t compete. The last regular pure historical, The Highlanders, aired in 1967, and the only pure historical to be filmed in colour is 1982's two-parter, Black Orchid.

When Russell T Davies brought the show back, he invented a new type of historical in 2005’s The Unquiet Dead: the celebrity historical, in which the plot revolves around a single pivotal figure. In the case of The Unquiet Dead it was Charles Dickens, and that new form has existed pretty happily side-by-side with the cod-historicals that have been with the show since The Time Meddler. In this case, it’s Rosa Parks who is the famous name in question, and who also gives the episode its name.

Rosa borrows not only from The Unquiet Dead but also from The Time Meddler – in that its plot is driven by the time-travelling Krasko, a white supremacist from the far future seeking to strangle the American Civil Rights Movement at birth – and from the pure historicals that The Time Meddler killed off. This week’s monster is as much the setting as it is Krasko: the casually violent passers-by, the violent and threatening police officers, the racist bus drivers. Just as in The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve or An Unearthly Child, the past is a scary, unruly place where even the Doctor can’t fix things: because it’s the past, and it already happened that way.

Rosa works for the same reason that Malorie Blackman – the writer of this week’s story – is such a skilful author of young adult fiction, in that a good Doctor Who historical and a good young adult novel often share the same commonality: a feeling that the powerful adults in the room are doing terrible things and that you can survive and muddle through but you can’t actually stop it – and in some cases, you might not even survive.

Where Rosa works less well is when it becomes a bit less like An Unearthly Child and a bit more like The Time Meddler: Krasko never really convinces as a threat and never really works as anything other than a contrivance  – a pure historical would probably have worked even better.

It’s part of the intriguing mixture of this new era of Doctor Who: on the one hand, the casting of Jodie Whittaker is the most bold since the show’s writers decided to kill off William Hartnell and have him turn into Patrick Troughton in the first place. On the other, the programme is playing it safe, sticking pretty rigidly to the format laid down when Davies rebooted the show (first episode on Earth, second in deep space, third in the past, fourth episode back home, etc.) and is back to its roots as, essentially, an intelligent children’s programme. Whether that works for the fans who enjoyed the byzantine plots and deconstruction of the show’s mythos of the Steve Moffat era, the result is a series that, for all the presence of a woman in the role, feels closer to the show’s original purpose than it has for a long time.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.