Last week I criticised The Ghost Monument – otherwise a good episode – for being, at times, patronising. I said, “I’m not opposed to Doctor Who pushing ethical or philosophical lessons, or even trying to appeal to children, but I don’t like feeling like I’m being patronised. Neither, for that matter, do children.” If Doctor Who last week was patronising, this week it was positively unctuous. If last week Doctor Who spoke rather transparently to the kids in the audience, this week it was basically a live-action adaptation of one of those edifying, good-citizen-making children’s storybooks about Inspirational Women Who Changed The World.
And, as they would say in Sheffield, there’s nowt wrong with that. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with Doctor Who pitching itself at children – it is a children’s show, even if I would prefer it to pitch itself at me – but there’s a right and a wrong way of doing it. There’s appealing to children and there’s being patronising. There’s speaking to children in language they understand and that’s meaningful to them, and there’s treating them like idiots. Children aren’t idiots, and they know when they’re being patronised. In entertainment terms, the elementary rule of “show, don’t tell” surely applies even more emphatically when making TV for children.
This episode, thankfully, gets it right. I’ll admit – I think I would only be able to stomach one of these kinds of scripts per series. Because I’m a grown-up with grown-up tastes in television and I already know very well that racism ain’t it chief – I don’t need it to be preached at me every week. But for this series’ sole allowance of preachy, moralistic, right-on, “being-racist-is-bad” stories, it’s not a bad one. It certainly tackled the subject of racism much more powerfully than Doctor Who, or at least the modern series, has before. Taking us back to 1955 Alabama and showing us the full, incensing ugliness of racist attitudes in the era of segregation is a lot more confronting than the show’s previous limp efforts at showing us that racism is bad. Ryan getting biffed across the face by a pink-faced Southerner for having the temerity to speak to a white woman makes the point a great deal more forcefully than pantomime bad-guy Lord Sutcliffe calling Bill “this creature” in Thin Ice.
This and the other overt, confronting displays of racism in this episode will have the intended effect on the children who watched it, the way “you filthy little Mudblood” did on me when I was at that impressionable young age. And it says something that this episode made me genuinely fear for the safety of the diverse members of the Tardis team in a way I didn’t when it was Martha in Elizabethan England or Bill in Georgian London. And it’s worth pointing out that the way the Doctor and Graham seemed reluctant throughout the episode to directly confront the people’s racist attitudes shows how brave it was for Rosa Parks to do what she did. But it was also clever, if cynical writing: if the Doctor had, as the Doctor normally does, put the racists in their place, the power of what Rosa did at the end of the episode would have been diminished.
The bad guy of this episode, too, was a thoughtful addition to the theme. I was a little disappointed when I realised that this wasn’t going to be the first pure historical since the Davison era, but Krasko being a time travelling white supremacist from the distant future who’s trying to avert the historical defeat of white supremacism by stopping Rosa Parks from protesting bus segregation is the only sci-fi intrusion that I will accept into what would otherwise be a long-awaited pure historical. Krasko was creepy for how familiar, how normal he was, how this villainous white supremacist could easily be your mate from work. He was creepy for how, it seems, the kind of skin-crawling racial supremacism we thought we left behind in 1955 is still festering in the minds of some in the distant future – and if it’s alive in the distant future, it’s alive today.
If it’s all just a bit on the preachy side, it’s still a great episode. It’s intriguing, there’s lots happening, lots of good dialogue, and the right characters get respectively blasted back to the distant past or honoured with Congressional Medals. I’m still trying to get used to the slower pace of Doctor Who now. I don’t know if it’s that I’m just used to the quicker pace that both Moffat and Davies liked to take things at, or that “slow-burn Doctor Who” is something that takes more practice to get right than Chibnall and his writers have had. Most likely it’s both. But it does feel like the script is struggling, at times, to fill in its running time, given the amount of calm talking and sneaking around they all do that we don’t usually get to see.
If nothing else, though, the increased running time and the slower pace of episodes gives us more time to spend with the characters, and more time for the characters to spend talking to each other. That’s not a terrible trade-off. I think these companions are already better developed – and better written – than almost any of the modern series companions. Gareth Roberts (who wrote The Lodger, The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp) tweeted something I thought worth repeating: “Oh, and another thing. They all speak like normal people, not in smart-ass sassy writers room-ese.” It’s so true: I love Amy and Clara and Rose, but they look and sound like comic book characters next to Ryan and Graham. I don’t say next to Yasmin, too, because, even though Yasmin seems like a lovely person and a great addition to the Tardis team, unfortunately she hasn’t had very much to say or do yet. I hope that changes in the next few weeks, because she really does look like a promising character.
So my verdict on this one is basically that it’s a very good episode, but it’s the kind of thing I only want in moderation, by which I mean no more than one of these per series. Any more than that and I think I’d go off the whole thing. Let’s get back to some hard sci-fi adventuring next week, please. Oh, and you’ll notice that I didn’t do my weekly update on how the Female Doctor Project is going – that’s because there wasn’t really much to say this week. Jodie Whittaker continues to perform well, and she did some strong work this week, especially when she was facing off against Krasko, but she’s not dazzling me. I haven’t become enraptured by her yet. We’re still in “watch-this-space” territory.
Oh, and it’s brilliant, isn’t it, that we’re back to a misbehaving, capricious Tardis that spits out the Doctor and her companions at completely random places in space and time. This does actually feel very Hartnell era, and the show is all the better for it. Down with obedient Tardises and part-time companions, I say.