A History Lesson In Equality
This week on Doctor Who, the Tardis spins back in time to the United States Of America in 1955 for a humbling history lesson on racism and equality. After writing the first 2 episodes, Chris Chibnall hands the pen over to writer Melanie Blackman and with it, a much more character driven plot than we’ve seen this season as The Doctor and her companions go back to the start of the civil rights movement with Rosa Parks.
While the plot does have a few issues and the antagonist is forgettable at best, it’s overshadowed by the central focus here which remains solely on Rosa Parks and the treatment of blacks in the heart of Alabama. Someone has left time travel residue all over 1955 and it seems to be gravitating around Rosa. Curious as to what this means, The Doctor jumps into action with her companions and it soon becomes apparent there’s a plot at works to offset the balance of history, preventing the iconic lady from ever defiantly refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus. This, of course, sparks a nation wide series of protests and the first real headway in the civil rights movement.
After some back and forth investigative work, the plot builds to an emotional climax that leaves the episode hanging on a thought-provoking note and an underlying message about equality and the ugly side of humanity’s dark history. Very early on we see The Doctor and her companions face this head on as Ryan, being a black man himself, finds himself isolated and questioning his own beliefs in the wake of such ruthless hatred all around him. It’s an interesting stance to take and one that’s handled with respect throughout the episode. It also helps give Ryan some much-needed character growth too, with Graham finally given the emotional lines needed to solidify his character and connect with his step-grandson. At least a little.
Yas also has a more prominent role this time around too but it’s also becoming increasingly obvious she’s the odd one out of the 3 new companions. Her involvement is still an important one but her personality and tropes haven’t really evolved beyond “trainee police officer and childhood friend to Ryan”. Hopefully this is something that’s addressed as the season progresses but the rest of the characters are really starting to come into their own here.
After the first two episodes we were a little concerned that the quick pace and constant set-piece driven action were an indication of a more action-orientated Doctor Who which would subsequently overshadow any character work done with Jodie’s doctor. Thankfully, the third episode slows the pace down, allowing Jodie to really come into her own, even if a few of her lines still feel like echoes of previous Doctors. There’s an air of Ecclestone here mixed with Tennant’s fiery determination and Davison’s affectionate stance toward companions. Those doubting Jodie Whittaker’s ability to portray a compelling female Doctor can certainly quell their concerns, at least for another week anyway.
We saw a new tool in The Doctor’s arsenal this week too; a magic pen that can be erased from any written surface with a click of the sonic screwdriver. It’s used to good effect for the most part and unlike the Sonic Sunglasses during Capaldi’s run, seem like a practical use of The Doctor’s abilities rather than a cheap gimmick.
If there’s one blemish on an otherwise solid episode of sci-fi entertainment it can come from the lacklustre antagonist. Weak motivation and a back story void of logic and reasoning beyond a series of vague observations and guesses make it a disappointing inclusion here. His abrupt ending to the story is a little jarring too although whether this means the character is going to show up again given their anticlimactic removal from the episode is anyone’s guess.
So all in all, a decent episode this one. Rosa Parks is played to perfection and the time period is certainly realistically depicted. A weak antagonist and a questionable bite of music at the end (2015 piece of music for the 1950s?) does feel a little anachronistic but Doctor Who continues to delight sci-fi fans, keeping the intrigue and excitement high for next week’s episode.