A powerful episode that doesn’t pull its punches.

When Doctor Who first aired in 1963, it was launched as an educational program. Time-traveling would be used to explore history, both the good and the bad. Over the course of the First and Second Doctor’s tenures, it transitioned to the sci-fi adventure we’ve come to know and love. With the “Rosa,” the episode tells an impactful and important tale of racism, both in the past and present. There are sci-fi elements, but those play second to the crucial character work and story.

From its first moments, “Rosa” hits hard at showing the cruelty and casualty of racism in Montgomery, Alabama. We start with Rosa Parks in the 1940s, being told that to use the back entrance of the bus or she isn’t riding at all, only for the driver to slam the doors in her face. Jumping to 1955, The Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham land and search for some out-of-place energy signals. When a white woman drops her glove and Ryan tries to return it to her, he’s slapped by her husband, who threatens to lynch him. Later at a diner, they’re refused service due to Ryan’s and Yaz’s race.

These scenes are hard-hitting and bleak and uncomfortable, just as they should be. The story of Rosa Parks and American racism is not an easy one to tackle, especially for a British series to balance. But writer Malorie Blackman has a long history of using fiction to explore racism, and she gives the episode the gravity and seriousness it deserves.

Both Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill put in great performances as Ryan and Yaz, where they are stoic when faced with history’s racism, but also emotional and direct when they converse with each other about it. For them, racism isn’t something in the past. It’s part of their day-to-day lives, whether it’s Ryan getting stopped more often by the police than his white friends or Yaz being called a terrorist on the way home from the mosque. The Doctor and Graham are also disgusted by what they see, but Ryan and Yaz put it into words that only those who have experienced such prejudice directly could.

Just like it’s not confined to the past, racism is also found in the future, bringing us to our villain for the episode. He’s a criminal time traveler named Krasko who wants to prevent Rosa Parks from refusing to give up her seat on the bus, thereby weakening the civil rights movement. To keep her safe, our heroes keep an eye on her. The scenes with Rosa are generally fantastic, whether interacting with our time-travelers or going through her day-to-day life. Vinette Robinson infuses her performance with a weary but resilient and persistent nature. It’s her acting that really helps make this episode work.

While Ryan, Yaz and Graham do all they can to make sure things go as history planned, The Doctor faces down Krasko. He’s a released convict from the future responsible for the death of thousands, enough that his sentence came with a neural inhibitor that stops him from killing or hurting another living being. The Doctor destroys his equipment, but he still aims to throw history off-course just enough to make sure Rosa never has to refuse to give up her seat on the bus.

Krasko tries to maneuver the bus driver, James Blake, to take the day off, and smash up the bus usually on that route. But the team manages to repair any efforts he makes to change history. He even tries to block the path with his car. Ryan confronts him one-on-one though and uses his own time displacement weapon against him, sending Krasko far into the past. But Krasko has managed to throw things off enough that the bus isn’t full enough for Rosa to have to stand…unless The Doctor, Graham and Yaz stay on the bus. All of them are devastated that they can’t help Rosa, but do their part to protect history. This isn’t their story, it’s Rosa’s. The ending puts the focus where it belongs. Not on The Doctor, not the sci-fi elements, but on her act of bravery and resistance.

Show Notes:

  • When Ryan follows Rosa to keep her and the timeline safe, she invites him to a small civil rights gathering, which includes Martin Luther King Jr. Ryan is pretty starstruck to meet both MLK and Rosa Parks on the same day.
  • The prison where Krasko served his sentence, Stormcage, is the same place where River Song was incarcerated in for seemingly murdering The 11th Doctor.
  • When Graham learns they’re in 1955, he asks to see Elvis. The Doctor responds that he could give him a call since she lent him a cell phone. Even better, to get the reassigned bus driver out of town, The Doctor puts a call in to Frank Sinatra, who had borrowed the cell phone from Elvis.
  • When The Doctor starts writing on the hotel room wall with a marker, Graham tells her to stop vandalizing as she “ain’t Banksy.” To which she mysteriously replies, “Or am I?” It’s a wonderfully funny, purely Doctor moment.