A new episode of Doctor Who saw the series awkwardly take on the American civil rights movement.
Before the 11th season of Doctor Who premiered, new showrunner Chris Chibnall noted that he wanted to bring the series back to its roots as a semi-educational program. In the first two episodes of the season, that element wasn’t really evident aside from a slight increase in expositional monologs. However, that new aspect of the show was on full display in “Rosa.” More so than any other episode of the revived Doctor Who, this installment felt like something that was meant to be shown to school children during Black History Month.
On the one hand, you have to admire the show’s producers for wanting to use their platform for a good cause. In recent years, racial tensions have risen across the globe so trying to address that unsettling trend with a message of acceptance is laudable. And it has to be said that Doctor Who has never dealt with racism as directly and honestly as it did here. On the other hand, “Rosa” was an undeniably clunky episode of television. In trying to inform the audience about a very important moment in history, the show simply wasn’t very entertaining.
“You know what they did to Emmet Till”
This week’s episode began with The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) trying to take Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) back to Sheffield after their brush with murder rags. However, the TARDIS instead brought the group 1950s Montgomery, Alabama. The Doctor discovered the presence of Arton energy (time machine fuel) in the era and decided to investigate. Immediately, Ryan and Yaz were subject to racist discrimination and abuse. While looking for the source of energy, the group met Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) and realized they arrived the day before her famous act of civil dissidence.
Before getting into everything about this episode that didn’t work, I want to talk about a few things that did. First off, writers Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall did an excellent job depicting how terrifying racism can be. Whereas Doctor Who has largely portrayed it as a kind of antiquated rudeness, “Rosa” showed how intense and unsettling it is to be the target of racial animus. In taking the kid gloves off, the program treated the topic with the seriousness it deserved and it should be commended for that.
It’s also worth noting that director Mark Tonderai continued the new season’s trend of looking really good. Aside from some chintzy looking future technology, the episode presented a high-quality representation of 1950s America. And Tonderai made a lot of strong decisions in this episode, making the cast’s encounters with racism feel surreal and suffocating while also making the episode’s setting look deceptively inviting. With the release of “Rosa,” I think it’s fair to say that season 11 is the best Doctor Who has ever looked.
“Is anyone else excited cuz I’m very excited”
A Sinister Greaser (Joshua Bowman) with time travel tech discovered the TARDIS and later warned the Doctor and company to leave the era. While hiding from a suspicious policeman, Ryan and Yaz bonded over the difficulties of being non-white time travelers. The Doctor determined that the Greaser intended to intercept Rosa before she could make history. Ryan elected to protect her and got to meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Doctor confronted the Greaser, who revealed that he was a future mass murderer named Krasko wanted to derail the civil rights movement. In response, she destroyed his Vortex Manipulator.
Reconnect with her team, The Doctor explained that due to a neural inhibitor, Krasko couldn’t harm anyone but was still intent on changing the past. Graham found that Krasko had arranged for another driver to be on the bus that Rosa would make her stand on. Ryan used Krasko’s discarded time displacement weapon to send him to the ancient past. With the help of the Doctor’s friend Elvis, the TARDIS got Rosa and the bus’s intended driver where they should be and history proceeded as it should. Afterward, the group returned to the TARDIS and the Doctor told the team about Rosa’s life and enduring legacy.
While the season of Doctor Who is certainly looked amazing, it must be said that its characterization hasn’t been up to par. For the third episode in a row, the show has introduced completely forgettable antagonist.
For a murderous racist, Krasko never felt all that menacing. Also, his plot to change the past in a way that would harm people of color seemed wildly convoluted. And it came off as being bizarrely ineffective. Did he really think that throwing off Rosa’s bus protest would’ve stopped the entire civil rights movement? While I respect the show’s producers for going all in on new villains, I really hope they create one worthwhile before the season is up.
“She changed the world. In fact, she changed the universe”
Although it’ll probably make for an entertaining history class at some point in the future, this was a pretty disposable installment of Doctor Who otherwise. While it certainly succeeded in being a decent history lesson, but it was a very bland time travel adventure. Because Krasko’s weak characterization and insipid scheming, “Rosa” didn’t have much in the way of tension. As a result, the whole episode felt like an exercise in inevitability. And though it made its case in refreshingly direct terms, it didn’t have anything to say other than “racism is bad.” And that was a lesson the show imparted while still being entertaining last season.
Additionally, this episode didn’t do anything to advance the season as a whole. Graham and Ryan didn’t make much progress in mending their relationship. We didn’t learn much new information about Yaz. And there were no wrinkles added to the Doctor’s character. Plus, there was nary a mention of the Stenza or the Timeless Child. With only 10 episodes this season, ignoring the big arc stuff for a week was an odd choice.
Good intentions aside, this was the least essential episode of Doctor Who since Mark Gatiss was on the writing staff. Hopefully, next week’s installment, which will bring the TARDIS team back to the present and in conflict with some evil spiders, will get the season back on track.
Did you enjoy this episode of Doctor Who?
Doctor Who airs on BBC America Sunday at 8 pm.