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TV Review: Dr Who (Series 11, Episode 3)


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Penned by Malorie Blackman, the third episode of this season of Dr. Who takes us right to one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights movement in the USA – Rosa Parks’ refusal to stand up for a white man on a segregated bus.

After a Tardis that seems to have a mind of its own takes them to Montgomery, 1955, following multiple botched attempts to get back to Sheffield, the Doctor and her companions set out to protect history as they find traces of artron energy.

The episode could have fallen into a lot of narrative traps, but it is evident that a lot of care has been put towards avoiding that.  

While ‘Rosa’ obviously doesn’t shy away from racism but it succeeds in portraying it sensitively by avoiding a few pitfalls, the first of which being metered in how much violence and segregation is actually shown on screen.

Being mindful of how much violence is shown in the episode manages to build up the heaviness permeating the episode in a painful reminder that the fifties weren’t that long ago.  

Segregation, however, remains a constant presence throughout the episode, and acts as a better villain of the week than Krasko, the Space Nazi from the Future (that is about as much as we learn about him, but definitely for the best).

Secondly, the narrative refuses to consider racism as a thing of the past – nor a purely American phenomenon either.

Rather than the “progressive Brits travel in time to backwards America” narrative that could have been taken, the episode’s narrative presents a double platform, where on the one hand, people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are fighting for basic freedoms.

And on the other, Yasmin and Ryan can share their own experiences with racism and recognize that while a lot already has been achieved, a lot more work is needed.

On that note, ‘Rosa’ manages to sneak in discussions about colourism as well – Yasmin, for example, is allowed to take a white seat on the bus, existing in a then-undefined space between black and white people.

Lastly, the Doctor is never presented as the white saviour who swoops in and does everything – rather, the companions and more importantly, Rosa, are given space to do what they have to and stand for what they believe in.

Overall, the third episode makes for a watch that feels uncomfortable by design. Though there’s little of the mystery and space adventures that are so celebrated in Dr Who, it is more importantly celebrating humans’ capability to change so much of history through small actions. The reason why the Doctor loves humans so much.

The villain of the week – beyond humanity’s overarching bigotry and its capability to transform – can be considered the weak link in the episode, but there is effectiveness in this portrayal. We get no backstory, no motivation, nothing - he is just a killer. 

‘Rosa’ arrives in a tough news cycle, which has been dominated by reports that a black woman had to be reseated on a Ryan Air flight.

However, the episode’s layered portrayal is helped by nuanced perspectives from historic black figures, as well as Ryan and Yasmin, whose experiences differ, yet are still grounded in the same racism from the fifties.

The message is simple: change happens with small actions, and though Ryan is right that there will always be bigots, actions such as Rosa Parks’ protest changed the world, and the universe.   

The next episode airs this Sunday at 6:55pm on BBC1. Episodes of the new Dr Who are also available on iPlayer.

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