Doctor Who continues its groundbreaking and ceiling-shattering Series 11 with its third episode, “Rosa”. This episode was the first in 37 seasons to be written by a woman of color and told the story of Rosa Parks, with a time travel twist.
The episode opens with Rosa Parks (though not named, obvious by the episode title) trying to enter the bus from the front door. The bus driver stops her, telling her the entrance is for “whites only,” and she tries to resist. She ultimately gives up, but when she gets off the bus to enter through the “colored” entrance, the bus takes off without her. This opening sets the scene for how everyday life was for Rosa Parks, and for many people of color, in the south in the 1950s.
The story then jumps to the freshly decorated TARDIS, which The Doctor is struggling to captain. She (The TARDIS) parks herself in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, rather than Sheffield, their desired destination. The TARDIS then displays an “Artron Energy” reading on the display, which is the energy the TARDIS runs on to time travel, coming from somewhere else in Montgomery, meaning The Doctor and her companions are not the only people out of place.
The Doctor and her squad exit the TARDIS and just start walking down the street. Ryan sees a woman drop her glove and runs up to give it back to her. However, when he taps her on the shoulder, the man with the gloveless woman turns around and slaps him – hard. Ryan is confused at first and wants to fight back, but once the man says to him, “I don’t know how it goes where you people are from, but your boy, he’ll be swinging from a tree with a noose for a neckerchief if he touches a white woman in Montgomery,” he clearly gets the message of how he is seen in Alabama. Luckily, Rosa Parks steps in and calms the situation on both sides. The white couple goes on their way, and Rosa asks Ryan what he was thinking, citing the then recent case of Emmett Till. Rosa leaves them, but The Doctor picks up Artron energy all around her. They also realize the date is November 30, the day before she refuses to give up her seat which sparks the Montgomery bus boycotts and a large part of the Civil Rights movement.
Elsewhere in Montgomery, a mysterious man clad in a leather jacket skulks around the TARDIS, scanning it with unknown technology. He tries to zap it with what is supposedly a weapon, but the TARDIS has shields, much to his dismay. He walks away, frustrated, but clearly still on a mission.
The Doctor and the companions sit at a restaurant, discussing what it means to meet Rosa Parks and what her actions the next day will mean for the course of history. However, after just a few minutes the waitress comes over and states, “We don’t serve negroes.” And the group, while frustrated, leaves to avoid trouble before they can find the real trouble. They make a plan outside and walk away as a police car pulls up to the diner, making it clear that the Montgomery police are aware of the British band of mischief makers.
The group follows the Artron energy to the bus depot and what appears to be a locked empty room, which would not make sense. The Doctor scans the room with her screwdriver and reveals a suitcase that was being hidden by a perception filter. They open the suitcase to find the source of the Artron energy – several pieces of technology clearly not found in 1955. Before they can investigate further, Mystery Leather Jacket Guy begins shooting at them with what is later revealed to be a temporal displacement weapon, a laser that does not harm or kill but, similar to the weeping angels, sends the victim to a predetermined point in time. The Doctor throws the suitcase in the path of the weapon’s beam, sending it away, and then runs as Mystery Leather Jacket Guy continues to follow her. They run outside the bus depot, where The Doctor confronts him. He threatens her to leave, and she tells him she will, but when Yaz asks if they are really leaving, she replies, “not in a million years.”
The four sneak into a motel room so as not to be stopped by the management and try to come up with a plan. The Doctor begins to write on the wall, much to Graham’s dismay. “You ain’t Banksy!” He exclaimed, to which The Doctor replied, “Or am I?” She assures him her pen is special, which is proven when a policeman comes knocking at the door. Yaz and Ryan run into the bathroom and The Doctor uses her screwdriver to hide the ink, remarking to Graham, “Banksy doesn’t have one of those… or have I?”
The officer comes in and interrogates The Doctor and Graham, and searches the bathroom for Yaz and Ryan, who escaped out the window and hid behind a dumpster. The policeman had several foul comments to make, but ultimately left them alone, leaving them with the message they should get out of town soon. Meanwhile, Yaz and Ryan have a serious discussion about how, even though the racism they experience in 2018 is not so blatant, it is still prominent. Ryan talks about how he is stopped more frequently by the police than are his white friends, and Yaz mentions how she is called “Paki,” a derogatory British slur for those of South Asian decent. This scene contextualizes the episode as not just historical fiction, but commentary on the state of racism today and why telling this piece of historical fiction is important.
Once the policeman leave, the four make a plan and split up. Ryan goes to find Rosa and bond with her, Graham tries to find the bus driver who will arrest her, Yaz works to put on a timeline based on their knowledge from the future, and The Doctor runs off to track down Mystery Leather Jacket Guy.
She finds him and learns his true identity: he is Krasko, a former inmate at Stormcage, the most secure prison in the world. She reveals why he has not killed them or Rosa Parks from scanning him with her screwdriver. He has a neural restricter in his brain which stops him from killing or harming any living thing, no matter how much he wants to. She breaks his vortex manipulator (time travel wristband) and leaves him, but the temporal displacement device is still on the ground. It is then she realizes his goal is not to kill Rosa, but to nudge history slightly so that her historic moment on the bus does not happen and the Civil Rights movement may not begin.
Meanwhile, Ryan catches up with Rosa and attends an activism meeting at her house, also attended by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This moment speaks to Ryan, and he mentions his nan, who passed away in the first episode, and how proud she would be. One line that truly captures Doctor Who is when Ryan says, “Excuse me Dr. King, yes Rosa Parks? …Woah.” Who is no stranger to historical figures – Shakespeare, Vincent van Gogh, and Charles Dickens, to name a few – and this moment for Ryan just adds to that moment.
Things begin to go awry – Krasko tries to change the bus driver and break the bus entirely. But at every turn, The Doctor and her team correct the problem and keep history on course. Ryan runs into Krasko, who is blocking the road with his car. He tries to reason with him, but it is revealed that Krasko is racially motivated, saying, “Your kind won’t get above themselves.” It is then that Ryan takes Krasko’s device and shoots him with it, sending him back in time and away for good.
All four get on the bus with Rosa, and plan to get off and let history take its course. But The Doctor realizes that they are part of the story, and they are part of the crowd that forces Rosa to make a stand, or rather sit. “We have to not help her,” The Doctor says, as they sit and listen to Rosa refuse to move, and ultimately be arrested. They did their job and kept history on course so that change could be made.
Back in the TARDIS, the group continues to discuss Rosa’s impact. They discuss how her life was still hard, how both she and her husband lost her job, but how in 1999, she received the Congressional Medal, the highest award a citizen can earn. The Doctor adds, “She changed the world, in fact, she changed the universe.” She then opens the TARDIS doors to show Asteroid 284996, named rosaparks.
Doctor Who returns with “Arachnids in the UK” on October 28, 2018 at 8/7c on BBC.