Every new Doctor has to have a story set in the present day, a story set in the future/on an alien planet, and a story set in the past to start off their first season. We’ve had the present day story and we’ve had the futuristic/alien planet story, so it was time for our first trip into the past with this new TARDIS team. And where does the TARDIS end up taking our plucky heroes? None other than Montgomery Alabama, 1955. The day before Rosa Parks’ famous bus protest. Obviously, this is a rather touchy story for Doctor Who to try and tackle, so the biggest question is whether or not the show handled it well. In short: it absolutely did. (NOTE: There will be full spoilers ahead, so read with caution.)
Episode 1103: Rosa (written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall and directed by Mark Tonderai)
Montgomery, Alabama. 1955. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends find themselves in the Deep South of America. As they encounter a seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson), they begin to wonder whether someone is attempting to change history.
I adored this episode. It’s easily the best episode of season 11 so far and it’s a perfect example of how great a historical Doctor Who episode can be. Rosa features no alien menace and doesn’t try to suggest that the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) or her companions directly influenced the historical events. Instead, the Doctor, Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are forced to make sure that history happens the way it’s supposed to as they try to stop Krasko (Josh Bowman), a racist criminal from the future, from stopping the bus boycotts (and, consequently, the entire Civil Rights movement) from ever happening. This kind of premise reminds me a lot of how the NBC show Timeless handled its forays into the past. The Time Team would have to stop the evil Rittenhouse from changing history and, as a result, would often end up involved in the history they were trying to preserve; not directly causing it or influencing it, but merely becoming the facilitators of it continuing to happen as it should. It’s a smart way to handle historical episodes as it doesn’t rob the real historical figures of their agency but it does still give our main characters something to do and allows them to interact with history in a way that is both educational and entertaining to the audience.
Much of this episode deals with Ryan and Yaz’s experience in 1950s Alabama. To oversimplify it, it really wasn’t a good time to be a person of color in America and Rosa doesn’t shy away from that at all. Pretty much from the moment the TARDIS team leaves the TARDIS, they’re confronted with casual acts of racism – both verbal and physical. In fact, the first time the gang meets Rosa Parks is after Ryan gets slapped by a white man for picking up his wife’s glove and trying to return it to her. Rosa Parks steps in and defuses the situation before it can blow up, but it’s a pretty brutal scene to watch (it doesn’t go into any extreme violence or anything and is very much still appropriate for children, but it’s absolutely uncomfortable to watch – as it should be). This kind of casual racism continues throughout the episode as Ryan is forced to deal with life as a black man in the 1950s. Yaz gets hit with a similar, though not quite as extreme, form of racism as she’s repeatedly referred to as a Mexican (though, as she points out a few times, she’s not; she’s of Pakistani heritage) and encounters some of the same roadblocks as Ryan does, though, curiously, she’s not forced to sit in the back of the bus. The episode handles this element really well. It’s on the nose, but it kind of has to be. Racism, while still very prevalent today, was extremely prevalent back in the ’50s. There’s no way a character like Ryan or Yaz would be able to walk down a street in a state like Alabama without something bad happening to them. The episode doesn’t shy away from this terrible aspect of history but it also doesn’t dwell on it. It’s an important part of the episode and it factors very heavily into both the plot of the episode and the experiences of many of the characters, but it’s not the overwhelming element of the episode. The episode isn’t a total downer or anything, but it doesn’t shy away from real history either. It’s a great balance.
The star of the show, of course, is Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks. She is perfectly cast in the role and is given a lot to do in the story. The episode starts out in 1943 with her first bus-related incident as she tries to board the bus (coincidentally driven by James Blake, the same man who would be driving the bus 12 years later on the day of her protest) through the white entrance and is forced to get off the bus and re-enter it from the “colored” entrance, only for the bus to depart without her on it. From there, we flash forward 12 years to 1955 where Rosa Parks works as a seamstress by day and has meetings with a Civil Rights group (attended by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ray Sesay)) by night. Throughout the episode, Rosa Parks is shown to be a strong figure. She’s immensely tired of life in the South being as crummy for people of color as it is, but she uses that frustration as fuel to work towards a better future. A popular myth about Rosa and the bus protest was that the only reason she didn’t stand was that she was tired. That’s not true and, thankfully, the episode takes care to not perpetuate that myth. The episode portrays Rosa with all the urgency and agency she had in real life and Robinson has to manage the balance between the genuine exhaustion Rosa must have felt with life as a black woman in the 1950s with the determination and hope she held for a better future. Robinson does an extraordinary job portraying Rosa Parks and she’s a genuine highlight of a delightful episode.
This episode continues to continue the trend of strong character development. Here, we finally get a bit of development from Yaz and she’s actually given something to do in this episode. Here, we learn a bit about her background and her struggles back in present-day Sheffield. She has some really touching exchanges with Ryan as they both struggle with the racism they’re being forced to endure throughout the episode. She has a great dynamic with the Doctor and a genuine excitement at the prospect of traveling to an important historical event. And she’s even able to play a large part in the gang’s plan to keep history on track. It’s nice to see Yaz get some development as the previous episode have mainly focused on Graham and Ryan’s development. Those two continue to have some development in this episode as we see them getting closer to each other and we see Graham being very protective of Ryan as Ryan faces some of the racism of the 1950s. They both share a lovely moment where they talk about how Grace would have reacted to being a part of this adventure and it’s really sweet. I am enjoying seeing the two of them grow together and grow closer. It was also nice to see Ryan and Yaz connect some too. This episode just had a lot of really good character development for the companions and it was lovely.
That’s not to say this episode was perfect, though. It’s mostly very, very good, but its weakness is, again, the antagonist. Krasko isn’t really given much development outside of being a criminal who was responsible for the deaths of a couple thousand people, a crime that landed him a sentence in the Stormcage prison (the same prison where River Song served her sentence for “killing” the Doctor), and a racist who doesn’t want people of color to have equal rights. Other than that, that’s all we get on him. We don’t really know why he wants to stop the bus boycotts, other than general racism/evilness. I’m not saying we needed to sympathize with him or anything, but a little bit more information as to why, specifically, he wanted to stop this event from happening, and more of what his actual plan was would have been nice. He was an interesting villain who wasn’t given a whole lot to do, aside from being a generic racist character. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as making Krasko a “cosmic racist” gives the episode a pretty clear villain for the gang to fight against, but I’d have just preferred a tiny bit of nuance to the character, not to make him likable or anything, but just to make him feel a bit more three-dimensional. Maybe just a bit more about his past – what his actual crime was, how did he get the Vortex Manipulator (was he a Time Agent, like Captain Jack Harkness?), etc. It’s a minor problem, really, and not one that impacts my enjoyment of the episode much at all, but it’s worth mentioning.
Overall, Rosa is an excellent episode of Doctor Who. It’s everything that a historical episode should be. It features a great setting; a plot that’s well thought out, well-paced, and doesn’t rob the historical figures of their agency; some superb performances from the lead actors and the guest actors; and some excellent character development and overall writing. Not every piece of dialogue totally works – some lines are a bit more clunky than others – but Rosa is a really well-written episode. We get to see the Doctor really take charge again here, not tolerating any of Krasko’s racist nonsense and being extremely protective of her new friends. We see the new companions start to come to grips with the excitement and danger of time travel. We see a superb performance from Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks. And we get an episode that is just massively entertaining while also being educational in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s just a school lesson. Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall really hit it out of the park with this episode, and Mark Tonderai’s directing helped elevate their, already excellent, script into something even more special. This was an episode where all the elements really came together and it leaves me extremely excited for all that this new era of Doctor Who can do.
5 out of 5 wands