We’ve had the present-day introduction to the new TARDIS team and visited an alien world in the (presumably) far future. There’s only one place to go now to complete the ‘new Doctor starter pack’: the past. And whatever else you may be thinking of Chibnall’s tenure so far, you can’t accuse him of shying away from the real-world repercussions of the choices he’s made so far.
After between 9 and 14 attempts to return to Sheffield (at least one of which apparently necessitated a change of t-shirt), the Doctor and her friends find themselves drawn to 1955 Montgomery, Alabama by mysterious traces of Artron energy. There, they encounter not only encounter the historically significant Rosa Parks but also come face to face with the harsh realities of life in the Deep South of America on the eve of the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Someone is tampering with time and it’s up to the Doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz to make sure Rosa Parks doesn’t miss her bus.
It’s been a long, long time since a Doctor Who historical has tapped so deeply into its roots as an educational programme and writers Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall don’t pull any punches in the portrayal of racial segregation in 1950s Alabama, despite the difficulties such a setting presents for a programme like Doctor Who. The problem with sending the Doctor to Jim Crow America, of course, is that the story will inevitably require the Doctor to turn a blind eye to a societal injustice that the itinerant Time Lord would never tolerate on any other planet, all because the series can’t simply do an “Inglorious Basterds” and change the timeline of the known history of the audience watching. Speaking of the Time Lords, what are they up to these days? Surely some disgruntled racist with an inhibitor chip (borrowed from the Initiative?) tinkering around with time is something they might just frown on? They certainly would have back in the day.
The villain himself is a paper-thin villain, barely enough for one-note. He’s an angry racist from the future who’s come back in time to prevent black people from getting too uppity. Seems more of an excuse to have this story rather than thinking up a more creative reason to involve the Doctor and her friends in Rosa’s pivotal moment. The Doctor being sanguine with Ryan’s rogue ‘Black To The Future’ action of sending the dangerous racist criminal from the future even further back in time. If his plan was to leverage the butterfly effect, that’s probably not a great idea.
There’s still a heavy-handed clunkiness to the writing, especially to the ‘educational’ side, even if the Doctor’s impromptu motel class discussion does lead to a cracking Banksy gag (and also a fumbled and feeble Steve Jobs joke). There’s a flimsiness to the excuse not to go back to the TARDIS where all the information they needed would have been available, along with custard cremes, while some of the assigned tasks given to companions make little sense given the events up to that point. Sending poor Ryan off on his own in a lynch-happy town, in a story which had already invoked the memory of Emmett Till’s murder, seems deeply irresponsible of the Doctor but thankfully nobody’s ready to take Doctor Who that dark. Yet.
Whittaker’s Doctor felt oddly toothless in facing off against the flimsy villain and while grandstanding may not be this Doctor’s style, there wasn’t that sense of satisfaction of seeing the Doctor put the refugee from racist space Azkaban firmly in his place. I guess it was poetic justice to let Ryan do it, even if the set-up to it happening was one of the most obvious moments in an episode built around contrivance.
In respect of Graham, Yaz and Ryan, it still feels like the series is figuring out how to juggle so many characters and there’s occasionally the feeling that someone’s done a quick count of lines of dialogue per character and shifted the odd line about here and there to keep things even.
This episode will no doubt come in for some stick in the usual places for being the latest instalment of Chibnall’s “Doctor Whoke” agenda but it draws strength from the reason the series exists in the first place: to educate and entertain – Doctor Who is the epitome of the Reithian vision of public service broadcasting – although it’s the first episode this season to make me think twice about watching live with the whole family. Don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate and applaud the need to be socially and historically authentic and I don’t mind having difficult (and less reassuring these days than I would have hoped) conversations with my children but I’m not sure I’m happy with burdening my five-year old’s mind with the horrors of the Jim Crow south just yet.
That slight unease aside, this marks a new high-water mark for Doctor Who as an important television institution. Although the sci-fi elements of the plot are weak and largely superfluous, there’s an undeniable power and emotional intensity to the story of Rosa Parks, played beautifully by Vinette Robinson, especially in those final closing moments where the TARDIS crew find themselves trapped and unable to intervene in one of the most significant events in American – and world – history. It’s a bold and bruising episode which gets the series back on track after last week’s undercooked bubble and squeak approach to plot, although the decision to replace the end credits theme with a reprise of Andra Day’s ‘Rise Up’ – used to great effect during the episode – adds a layer of unnecessary self-satisfaction to the whole affair which risks obscuring the message.