Doctor Who – Season 11 Episode 3
Doctor Who explores a pivotal point in the history of the Civil Rights movement when the TARDIS travels back to Alabama in 1955.
As the title suggests this episode tells the story of Rosa Parks; a black woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus and set an example for others to speak out against oppression in the effort to build a more equal future. Naturally it would be impossible to chronicle her life in the space of a single episode so the focus is on the pivotal event that would come to define her historically. Picking this point in her life is a good idea because it’s easy to get a sense of who she was.
Doing an episode like this was always going to be difficult because in order to be authentic enough for audiences to believe it the episode would have to feature characters who say and do horrible things because that is how people at that time behaved. The episode tows that line nicely by having characters say some uncomfortable things without using them to a great extent. As such the audience gets a feel of what it might have been like without being overloaded by casual racism. Arguably it’s inauthentic to censor this to some degree though I feel that the episode did enough to get the point across while still calling itself a family show.
One of the most glaring examples of this is very early on when Ryan gets slapped for picking up a white woman’s dropped glove. This one gesture sets the tone for the setting perfectly and shows that the time travelling characters aren’t somehow immune to that treatment because they happen to be out of place in this time period. As far as the locals are concerned Ryan is lumped in with all the other black people that live in that time which definitely benefits the episode as the characters are living history rather than simply observing it. This makes a difference because it raises the stakes by virtue of the inherent dangers also applying to them.
The visuals also help set the time period. Everything about this episode looks great from the costuming to the set design helping to set a 1950s vibe ably contrasted by the modern clothes worn by the main characters to make them appear even more out of place. So far this series has stepped things up a gear when it comes to the production design and this episode is by far the best looking one yet. It has a very deliberate pace so feels less frenetic than the episodes we’ve had so far. This seems to improve the Doctor’s characterisation somewhat. She seems to have a lot more gravitas and is a lot less over the top than she previously has been. It makes sense for her to head that way as she is starting to settle into who she is and it’s definitely more palatable to see her behave that way.
Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) is characterised wonderfully. The most striking thing about her is how human she actually is. Some historical narratives make the mistake of the subject being larger than life because that’s how history remembers them but the writers of this episode are acutely aware of the person behind the legend and set out to characterise her as a person with flaws who has no idea what she is about to usher in. Vinette Robinson’s performance is excellent throughout and I liked the effort put into showing that Rosa is basically just trying to live her life as best she can even if she can’t resist helping people when they need it. It isn’t until much later in the episode that her activist streak is revealed through the clandestine meeting attended by her husband Raymond (David Rubin) and Martin Luther King (Ray Sesay). Ryan as the time person out of time appreciates the historical pedigree in the same room as him but there’s a great deal of humility shown in this scene and almost a weariness from those who are tired of being persecuted for no justifiable reason.
One thing the episode gets very right about Rosa Parks is that she is already that person who refuses to give up her seat on the bus without any intervention needed from the Doctor or anyone else. So many time travel stories have the time travellers inspire major historical figures to do the thing that they are famous for but the Doctor and her companions don’t do that; their purpose is to ensure that things are set up so that she can take that stance.
Ryan makes for an interesting audience avatar for this episode. When Doctor Who first went on the air part of the intention was to create an educational show for children where journeys to the past would be for the intention of letting children learn about that time in history. This episode does exactly that and Ryan represents the audience member unaware of the events being depicted. Ryan knows about Rosa Parks but doesn’t understand what her role was exactly so this episode serves the function of letting him gain that understanding and appreciation of what happened to make her so important to history.
On a more personal level it gives him yet another reason to remember the best things about his gran who idolised Rosa Parks. It’s something that Graham can also relate to because her adoration for Rosa is something he remembers very fondly as well. There’s a really subtle and tender moment between them where they both remember what she said before letting it enhance this experience for them. Graham wishes she could be with them to meet Rosa where Ryan recognises that her being there might not actually be such a good idea. It’s such a quick moment but moves their relationship forward in such a defined way.
Graham is the most accepted member of the group in this time period being a middle aged white man and the episode wastes no time in showing how useful that can be. The Doctor is somewhat dismissed because she’s a woman in a time where women weren’t considered equals so whenever people native to this time address the group they generally talk to Graham who has to act as the mouthpiece for them. It’s a good way to use the characters and shows that the Doctor’s new gender might make some adventures that little bit more difficult.
Despite that, she is very much in charge and confidently issues commands that the rest of the group happily follow. This is the best use of the cast so far as everyone is given a defined job to do along with their own screen time to get on with it. This allows Yaz to step out from the background a bit and show what she’s capable of. She dives right into research mode almost immediately which fits with her chosen career as a police officer. Her intelligence and resourcefulness are also clearly shown and there’s a small sense of a bond developing between her and Ryan that grows out of their childhood connection. Mandip Gill does a great job playing the horrified reaction at how backwards this time period is along with the uncertainty she feels as to how she fits into it considering she doesn’t quite fit the definition of black still struggles to be accepted. Her strongest moment was when she had no idea where she was supposed to sit on the bus as she didn’t understand where the systemic racism stopped.
There are two antagonists of sorts. One is Krasko (Josh Bowman); a time travelling prison escapee who wants to derail history so that black people remain persecuted. He is the weakest thing about this episode as there isn’t really enough time spent on him to fully explore who he is as a character or what motivates him to do the things he’s doing. Josh Bowman is fine in the role but doesn’t have enough to do so Krasko feels a bit extraneous despite everything he does to ensure that Rosa won’t have the opportunity to play her part in history. He’s also casually tossed aside so that the episode could continue so I wonder if the writers would have been better off finding another way for history to be impacted.
The other antagonist is James Blake (Trevor White); the bus driver who causes Rosa to be arrested. Interestingly nothing he does is outwardly antagonistic as such and ultimately he does have to play his part in history just as Rosa does but his attitude is the thing that makes him an obstacle. As a bus driver his job is to ensure that the law is being observed in terms of who gets to sit where on the bus but he clearly believes that black people don’t deserve the same rights as white people and takes some kind of perverse pleasure in ensuring that the law is upheld. So much so that he even cancels a day off so that he can be at work and taking a stand against those who might protest that unjust law. Graham spends a lot of time with him and Bradley Walsh plays the thinly veiled contempt brilliantly. As a bus driver himself he can’t believe that someone would treat any passenger the way that James Blake treats those on his bus. This character serves the important purpose of reminding people that it wasn’t just the law that was the problem the people were too. Institutional racism wouldn’t have persevered as long as it did unless people actually agreed with it and James Blake serves as a microcosm of that toxic way of thinking.
Naturally Rosa’s iconic moment is depicted in all its glory and it is done in a really complex way. The Doctor and her companions are there to witness the event knowing that they can’t do anything to interfere. Due to Krasko’s interference it’s touch and go whether there will be enough people on the bus to allow this to happen so they have to take some of those seats as well which means that they are saving history by being part of the problem. In some ways it reminded me of “The Fires of Pompeii” as the Doctor had to stand by and let history take its course while playing a part in making it happen. This is much smaller in scale but no less important and it shows that the Doctor understands that a time traveller must make difficult decisions sometimes in order to preserve the natural flow of history. She points this out afterwards by recounting what Rosa Park’s actions would inspire. I found this to be a little overblown as I felt the event spoke for itself without the ensuing history lesson. I feel the writers should have had enough confidence to let what unfolded resonate on its own rather than using exposition to accomplish that. It doesn’t downplay the power or significance but it feels that the audience’s hands are being held to some degree.
A powerful episode that chronicles an important event in the Civil Rights movement. The episode sets the time period wonderfully with great set design, costuming and the portrayal of the general attitudes of the time. Rosa Parks is treated as a character first and a historical legend second which adds to the overall weight of the situation. Krasko is fairly forgettable as antagonists go but makes his mark in forcing the Doctor and her companions to become part of the problem in order for history to play out as expected. The pivotal event itself is quietly powerful and the James Blake character plays his part in events excellently. The expositional ending does undermine the power of the moment to some degree as it should have been left to speak for itself but outside of that the episode does what it sets out to do really well.
- Rosa Parks as a character first and a historical legend second
- making much better use of the main characters than prior episodes
- the Doctor’s personality settling down
- the pivotal historical moment playing out perfectly
- how well the setting is established
- a forgettable antagonist in Krask
- an expositional ending when the event should have been allowed to speak for itself
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