Thursday, October 25, 2018

Doctor Who 13: "The Ghost Monument" and "Rosa"

After the groundbreaking and epic premiere of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, fans were left on the edge of their seats as the recently-regenerated Doctor and her companions were floating in space...without a Tardis or seemingly anyone to save them.

Catching up with the new season, here are my thoughts on the Doctor's travels so far in the second episode The Ghost Monument and third episode Rosa. This week's recap is a bit back-to-back, so hope you enjoy! Spoilers are behind this cut - you've been warned! What did you think of these episodes? Let me know in the comments below!

Jodie Whitaker 13th Doctor Tardis
What do you get when you have a Doctor without a Tardis? You get a Doctor on a mission to find it, and help her friends get back to Earth safely.

That's where we left off and started in The Ghost Monument. After floating in space the Doctor and her crew were picked up by mysterious spaceships: the Doctor and Yaz on one, Graham and Ryan on the other. The teams weren't broken up for too long as both of their pilots Epzo and Angstrom, respectively, ended up being the last members of a galactic race where the winner would earn unparalleled riches. What was their final task? To trek the dangerous planet (aptly named Desolation) to the finishing line and its landmark named The Ghost Monument, which turned out to be the Tardis.

Despite being strangers and competitors, everyone started working together to reach the end of the race, and their adventure raised questions about Desolation and the future of the Doctor's travels: why didn't the planet occupy a single living thing? why did the last remaining robots have human-shaped target practices? As the Doctor and her friends explored Desolation, they discovered from the remnants of old shelters that captured scientists were forced to create all of the planet's weaponry popping up to kill its encounters. More than that, Epzo and Angstrom weren't just competing to win a bounty of wealth big enough to protect a whole population: their individual species have been wiped out or captured by the Stenza - yep, the creepy teeth-filled villains from the season premiere. So the Doctor's stand-off against the Stenza warriors doesn't look to be over yet.

The Ghost Monument was an impressive follow-up to the season premiere, containing mystery over the looming dark presence of the Stenza and offered a lot of character development for the lead and supporting characters: it gave an opportunity to show the Doctor as a leader; Graham and Ryan are still reeling over losing Nan and their relationship continuing to be fractured; Yaz's curiosity and naivete over the Doctor's adventures and the challenges they face. Even Epzo and Angstrom had a few great moments delving into the reasons why they entered the competition (Epzo is rogue agent who just wants to be alone, while Angstrom is trying to save her family). And, the episode's cinematography continues to be some of the most cinematic the series has ever had.

The only elements that were missing from the second episode for me was a bit more conflict between the competitors or even the Doctor and her team. Besides hinting that The Ghost Monument was our beloved Tardis, and the Doctor needed it to get her companions back to Earth, there wasn't a lot of stakes between the competitors trying to win. Despite the introduction of some cool creatures and teasing an upcoming battle with the Stenza warriors, the Doctor's challenges came a little too easy-peacey - nothing that a sonic screwdriver and some serious outwitting couldn't solve.

The episode's best moments for me came when the Doctor finally found her Tardis; a culmination of choices in the script and Jodie's acting that makes the scene not only memorable but heartfelt and emotional: Yaz hearing the Tardis coming into view, the Doctor using her sonic screwdriver to encourage the Tardis to show up, "Come to mommy, or daddy", running up to her and complimenting her on the paint job and greeting it like an old friend. The gorgeous cinematography of the Tardis on the cliff at sunset and Whittaker's desperation, relief, and happiness is easily one of the most emotional moments of the series. And, it wouldn't be a full regeneration without seeing how the Tardis is redecorated. My first impression was that it is a little dark but also homely like a honey comb. It's going to make a lovely home for the new season. But with the Stenza on the Doctor's tail, we have to wonder how will The Ghost Monument play out in the future? One can only wait and see.

Doctor Who Rosa Parks
Tiny actions can change history as Doctor Who shines a light on one of history's biggest crimes and one of its best episodes ever with Rosa.

During the fourteenth attempt of the Doctor trying to get her companions back home after The Ghost Monument, the Tardis makes a slight detour to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 - the night before Rosa Parks famously refuses to give up her seat for a white passenger on a bus. Except, there's a slight problem: Kraskow, a racist prisoner from the future, sets out to nudge history just enough so Rosa can't refuse. The Doctor and her crew, instead of being tasked with fighting off an alien villain or spur Rosa into action, must ensure that history goes "the right way" and faces not only complicity in their actions for the aftermath of Rosa's choice, but also take into consideration how much (or how little) racism has changed.

As a historical episode, Doctor Who could've taken the preachy route as many tv series do - transplant the typical (white) hero to spur a person of color on to change history when they feel like giving up. Instead, Rosa takes the complete opposite route as an intimate, heart-pounding, and empowering look.

The Doctor and her crew aren't out to inspire Rosa from what she already knows and experiences - they're safe-guarding a tiny moment that will have an indelible imprint on history and the galaxy (an asteroid 284996 is named after Parks). While Kraskow creates enough bumps in the road that the tension builds throughout the episode to the point that it's potently palpable, the quartet strives to create a bubble around Rosa and his designs to stop her: they have to rally enough white and black people on the bus so Rosa can refuse; assist Rosa to riding the right bus at the right time; that the radical bus driver who has harassed Rosa before doesn't call off from work and is the one to call in for her arrest. Unfortunately, their plans to help Rosa plants the series' regulars put center-stage into the "heart" of racism: Ryan is denied treated with the same disregard and ignorance Rosa is like service being denied at restaurants and can't talk to white folks without being threatened; Yaz is categorized as Mexican because people only recognize black or white, not Pakistani; Graham (who's interracial marriage to Grace would've been illegal) has to be the one left standing so Rosa can refuse to move. Kraskow becomes less of a memorable villain, while the city's hostility and its white inhabitants are the real source of antagonism. No matter how much deep down the Doctor and the companions know what people of color are going through is wrong, this moment has to happen.

Rosa had the rare ability of being self-aware, even it was a little incomplete (the "highlight reel" of events after the bus felt like oddly-inserted cliffnotes). History is made up of thousands of moments and people who fought the good fight, and it wasn't easy. Fear is contagious throughout the episode, especially the ending, as you're afraid the show might start an alternative timeline where Rosa didn't stand up. And, you're afraid history will go down "just as it intended", and she will face the repercussions of being arrested: losing her job, her husband losing his job, that it'll take Rosa's whole life for her to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The episode, written superbly by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, shines a light to the fact that racism still exists today, but also the changes have been made by people who paved the way. It asks how much better we are off now versus then, and how the butterfly effect of a small act of bravery in a broader movement.

As much fear as there is, there's a celebration of a woman who followed her convictions and beliefs - it's not merely because the Doctor shows up at the wrong place and time to interfere and then protect Rosa's revolt; it was only a matter of time before she rose up and continued the fight she was already fighting.

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