Synopsis of 11×03: The Doctor and Friends find themselves in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, on the day before Rosa Parks famously sits in the white section of the bus.
I’m always suspicious when the Brits travel through American history. Sure, Doctor Who Nixon episodes of Season 6 were fine, and I’ve mostly seen great things come of these cross-Atlantic stories. But, still, the English aren’t known for their sensitivity to American racial politics.
And yet, that’s exactly where the Doctor and friends find themselves, smack dab at the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement. The episode did feel a touch heavy-handed in the beginning, with Ryan getting slapped almost within seconds of landing. Or when he and Naz hide behind dumpsters to avoid racist policemen. But it is also a reminder that this isn’t just happening in America. England has had its own slew of hate crimes on buses brought on by racism. The Far-Right is gaining leads in Germany, Australia, and Brazil. So this story is an allegory not just for the USA, but for the rest of Western Democracy.
Like the first two episodes of this season, the plot is actually quite simple. In this one, a white supremacist alien (really, I thought aliens wouldn’t see race) decides to nudge Rosa Parks out of history. He can’t directly kill her, due to a neural inhibitor installed at Stormcage, a River Song Easter Egg. (Also, shoutout to the vortex manipulator Easter Egg, left from Chibnall’s days with Torchwood.) The Doctor and crew do what they must to keep history in order. Ryan attends a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Yaz puts her policing skills to work, and Graham makes use of his bus driver networking.
Perhaps most indicative of this new Doctor’s personality is her willingness to step aside and let others be the hero. She lacks the egomania that the previous Doctors had. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: it’s refreshing. Ten, Eleven, and Twelve all would have given rousing speeches to Rosa Parks about how important it is to stand up for the little guys, for the people in need, for the future of the children, etc, etc, etc. Thirteen decides she just needs to nudge and some faith. She only meddles in the action but doesn’t insert herself directly in it. She just does what she needs to do, and let’s everything else fall where they may.
Not that those speeches didn’t happen. Ryan and Yaz have a moment as the contemporary POC in a historical (and hella racist) Alabama about how things do get better. There’s a lot of references to Nan and her activism. (As much as I’d love her back in the show, Ryan is right. She would have caused a riot.) And Ryan and Rosa share a moment of hope outside her home. Yet, as much as the Moffat-era show has been about dialogue and speeches, it’s clear that actions are the order of the day. Thirteen uses small tasks instead of major monologues to win in the end. And it’s the small actions, the little things, that can make all the difference.
For those who think Doctor Who shouldn’t be political, I suggest you rewatch “Planet of the Oods.” Or any other science fiction you love. Science fiction at its best highlights social progress and modern-day politics. Star Trek is a prime example. New Who has never been this blatant, having often side-stepped race. The line “History is a white-wash,” was the most it offered in the past few seasons. A passive attempt at “wokeness,” instead of a head-on alliance (which, from Moffat, is fine.)
But after invoking the name of Emmet Till, the episode went right for the gut and the heart. Will this lead to a new era, with the Doctor directly commenting on the politics of the day? Likely not. But it is a step-forward into the show taking back the responsibility that Verity Lambert initially tasked it with, that of educational television. All of us, old and young, American or British, black or white or outside that binary, can take something away from “Rosa.”