The new Doctor Who series hit its stride on Sunday.
The third episode, Rosa, brought tighter pacing, a cast really starting to gel together, and subject that mattered.
The gang found themselves stranded in Montgomery, Alabama, days before Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) was due to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus—a gesture that became a turning point in the struggle civil rights. But they weren’t the only time travellers in town, with an alt-right hipster (Joshua Bowman) returning from the future to rewrite history in the service of white supremacy.
If the new series is to succeed in becoming must-watch television, then this is the way to do it. Rosa will have sparked conversations about racism and anti-racism in living rooms, workplaces and schools across Britain.
If anything, it’s shocking that Doctor Who never did Black History Month sooner, its format perfectly suited to re-examining the past. More shocking still is that guest co-writer Malorie Blackman, best known for her young adult anti-racist dystopian book series Noughts and Crosses, is the first black person ever to write an episode.
The episode rapidly established a toxic atmosphere of pervasive racism that was repulsive, threatening and believable. The characters’ initial shock gave way to an ability to adapt that highlighted the persistence of racism today, like how Ryan (Tosin Cole) gets stopped by the police far more than his white mates. This insistence on looking the past and its implications square in the face was a welcome change from too many time travel stories that reduce difficult histories to nostalgic romps, Doctor Who’s lovable-eccentric-uncle version of Winston Churchill being a prime example.
Blackman’s savvy script rightly reinstated the lifelong commitment to a broader movement that many retellings of Rosa Parks’ story bury, and subtly linked this to a contemporary threat more frightening than any rubber-masked alien. Its limitations were those of the format, requiring a time-travel plot capable of being resolved in under an hour. This relied on a level of gullibility from some characters that strained credibility harder than any of the sci-fi stuff, and a misleading butterflies-and-hurricanes insistence on every little detail being just right that slightly undermined its message about a long struggle. That’s a price well worth paying.
Rosa represents a huge step in the right direction, hopefully setting a precedent for more adventures in socially engaged history for the masses.
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