Am I going to run out of superlatives in these recaps? Because we’re only three episodes in to Chibnall’s run, and being this relentlessly positive is weird… I admit to having been very apprehensive about this week’s episode, purely because I worried that the story wouldn’t be done well, that the framing of Rosa Parks’ story within the Who-niverse would be iffy and problematic at best. I was so happy to be wrong. I really shouldn’t have worried; sharing the writing credit with Chibnall for this episode was Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses. Rosa’s story was in safe hands, my friends.
The Doctor’s part of the episode began with the TARDIS up to her old tricks, refusing to take the Doctor and the new team where they wanted to go following the emotional reunion at the end of last week’s episode. But this wasn’t the opening of the episode; no, we started with Rosa, in 1943, dealing with a racist bus driver and a segregated bus. This was Rosa’s story from the very start; all that Team TARDIS had to do was keep “history in order” when they ‘accidentally’ arrived in 1955. 12 years after the opening scene, little had changed for Rosa. Thankfully, the heroic protest that kickstarted the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t revealed to have been the work of the (white) Doctor; there were no white saviours to take the credit for what Parks did. Instead, the Doctor and her friends were cast as bystanders at that crucial moment, forced to watch and do nothing, while Rosa made the decision herself, and acted all by herself, in the fight against the real Big Bad of the episode: Racism.
And not once was this struggle glamourised or romanticised. What Parks did changed the world (and the universe) but problems weren’t solved overnight. Ryan reminded us of that: while hiding behind a bin from a racist cop, he says, “It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the world forever”, and later, to Rosa, he offers some comfort: “It’ll get better, you know. Not perfect, but better.”
Of all the team, Ryan found this trip to the past the most difficult, because of how people treated him — hitting him, threatening him with lynching within minutes, and viewing him with disgust and suspicion — and because unlike Yaz, he knew very little about Rosa Parks, calling her the ‘bus woman’, much to Graham’s horror. Grace would be very disappointed. But he also went the furthest, joining Parks for a gathering that delivered my absolute favourite moment from the episode:
By this point, it’s safe to say that Grace would be very proud.
Ryan was also the person responsible for dealing with the episode’s secondary Big Bad: Krasko. Dressed like a background T-Bird character, Krasko (Josh Bowman, Revenge) was a time-travelling mass-murderer fresh out of prison. ‘Neutered’ by a neural restrictor that prevents him from harming people directly, he is also, weirdly a glorified bystander. His grand plan is to nudge history off course, because, in his eyes, ‘This is where things started to go wrong,” and by preventing Rosa from refusing to give up her seat, “Your kind won’t get above themselves”. Doctor Who has given us super-villains obsessed with racial purity before, but this casual, human white supremacy was even more chilling. It’s not hiding behind a metaphor, catchphrase or a metal suit. Who else cheered when Ryan used Krasko’s temporal displacement weapon against him? Hoist by your own petard, T-Bird Man. Hope time doesn’t hit you on the butt on your way through.
The team dynamic continues to delight. Graham is still the ultimate kickass grandpa. Yaz’s wide-eyed enthusiasm is brilliant to watch. And Thirteen continues to remind us of David Tennant and Matt Smith with her excitement and playfulness as well as her disgust for those who are unkind and intolerant. Her careful half-truths to the cop ensured that she walked that line of blending in whilst refusing to compromise her ethics: “I don’t recognise anyone by that description” and “We’re not harbouring anyone who doesn’t have a right to be here.”
But the standout star of the episode was Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks. Playing the role with a determined grace, Robinson’s Rosa was careworn, dignified, cautiously hopeful, firm, diplomatic, and a damn inspiration. We knew what was coming, but it didn’t feel any less momentous as a result. When the Doctor travels back in time, we understand that there are big moments, fixed moments, and little moments. Some can be changed. Some can’t be changed. Some must never be changed. The Doctor has broken those rules before, but normally to protect those in that timeline from harm. Here, we had a big moment and a little moment at the same time. Little, because all it took was one word.
No: a tiny word that led to something greater. And it was all Rosa. She did this with or without Team TARDIS running around Montgomery, Alabama. All that the Doctor had to do was keep this moment on track by running interference on the world around her. As much as Graham didn’t want to be a part of it (LOVE HIM), he had to — because it wasn’t about him.
It was all about her.
Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey Stuff
Krasko is a former inmate of the Stormcage. Another notable inmate of the Stormcage, who also liked to use a vortex manipulator, was none other than River Song.
Artron energy is another classic bit of Who-niverse science, as is the perception filter. Krasko’s temporal displacement weapon is also a callback to the Weeping Angels.
The Doctor knows Elvis, and Frank Sinatra! And may or may not be Banksy.
Finally: there really is an asteroid named ‘Rosaparks’. She really did change the universe. Excuse me for a sec, there seems to be something in my eye.
Next week: oh no, it’s spiders. But also Mr Big!
Header Image Source: BBC