Doctor Who decides to drop all the pretense for once and I’ll be damned if it isn’t powerful.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), trying to get home with her companions, Graham, Ryan, and Yas (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill), becomes annoyed when the TARDIS refuses to go back to 2018 and instead lands the four in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Ryan, being black, quickly runs into some trouble and has to be bailed out by none other than Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson). It turns out that today is November 30, 1955, the day before her famous arrest.
The reason why the Doctor and crew are there is that the TARDIS locked onto a time-travel energy signature. It turns out that Krasko (Joshua Bowman), a time traveler from the future, has come back to stop Rosa Parks in the hopes that it will derail the civil rights movement and result in minorities still being oppressed in the future. However, in the future, he was implanted with a chip that prevents him from killing or injuring any living thing, so he can only try to manipulate the situation indirectly, like giving the day off to James F. Blake (Trevor White), the driver who told Parks to move.
The Doctor and companions manage to fend off not just Krasko, but also the prevalent racism of the 1950s South. However, Krasko manages to make the bus 3 riders short, meaning that Parks would not have to move. The Doctor and the TARDIS trio (decent band name) are forced to play the part of people on the bus but, in order to not change history or undermine the significance of Parks’ protest, cannot help Parks at all. History plays out, Parks is arrested, the Montgomery Boycott ensues and racism is… still a thing, resulting in Parks spending the rest of her life advocating for equality that, the episode sadly makes clear, doesn’t yet exist, even in Britain.
So, this episode was about racism. Doctor Who is no stranger to the subject. Hell, the most famous villains in the series, the Daleks, are just thinly veiled analogues to Nazis, seeking genocide against anything that is not a Dalek, believing (despite all the times they’ve been defeated) that they’re the perfect race. But, unlike most of the portrayals in the show’s history, they didn’t use an allegorical layer to separate the story. This wasn’t a race of red aliens and green aliens fighting, this was white humans being dicks to black humans for… reasons that aren’t really reasons.
This isn’t the first time the show’s done this, but it is still rare, to say the least. In the 1988 episode “Remembrance of the Daleks,” which was about racism within the Daleks themselves, the Doctor goes back to 1963, when the show premiered. While there, companion Ace sees a sign saying “No Coloureds” prominently displayed, reminding the audience that the story about racism among space-Nazis might still be relevant in the real world.
The big upside in this episode is that everything involving the actual protest is well-done and damned powerful. When Rosa refuses to give up her seat, the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day starts and it is… well, emotionally evocative, to say the least. In some episodes I would say it’s a cheap tearjerker moment, but they give this the level of gravitas it deserves. It also marks the first time I can remember a song playing over the show’s end credits, though the TARDIS Wiki tells me it isn’t the first ever.
Overall, I don’t know exactly how to feel about the episode. There isn’t a lot of humor (though Elvis having a cell phone is hilarious) and a lot of parts of it, where they’re interfering with Krasko’s interference, doesn’t really work great because it feels like they’re just forcing their way through the scenes to buy time. Sometimes it seems a little heavy handed but, since Montgomery WAS a LOT heavy handed in the 1950s, that actually seems justified. Ultimately, though, it did something great by having the Doctor and crew step back and let someone else be the hero of the story. Rosa Parks’s protest had nothing to do with the Doctor, they just got out of her way. It’s an amazing moment and one that needs to be remembered.
Without that last part, this would not be a great episode. It might even have been a bad one. However, with that, I have to give this episode an A-. It’s not perfect, but it’s damned “brilliant.”
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