Quite a few historical figures have popped up on Doctor Who across the decades. Hitler put in a cheeky cameo in 2011, Dickens in 2005 and Shakespeare back in the show’s 1965, William Hartnell incarnation.
Hartnell-era Who was beaming into homes across Britain at roughly the same time as the US civil rights movement was confronting institutional racism across the American South. Now Jodie Whittaker’s version of the character is revisiting this painful period in an instalment co-written by new show-runner Chris Chibnall, and former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman.
If the first two episodes of the new Who were unapologetic rip-roarers, part three is slower and more thoughtful. It is also unabashedly civic minded, and feels written as much to celebrate the legacy of the fearless souls who fought racial oppression in post-war America as to tweak the Sonic screwdrivers of the hardcore element of the Who fanbase.
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine teachers years from now screening “Rosa” to their students, as a primer to a tumultuous period in US history. It gladdens the heart – but diehard Dalek devotees may be relieved when the series reverts to having the Time Lord tangle with rubber monsters.
The Tardis has zipped back to 1955 and Montgomery, Alabama, the day before Rosa Parks stages her famous sit-down protest on a segregated city bus – a spark from which flickered the campaign for racial equality in the United States.
Parks (Vinette Robinson) has a walk-on part, as the Doctor and her new crew of Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yasmin (Mandip Gill), try to ascertain why their time machine has decided to materialise in mid-fifties America. Something to do with the interdimensional wotsits hovering around Parks, apparently.
A white supremacist evil geezer from the far future – he speaks like an EastEnders extra and dresses like Marlon Brando in The Wild One – has travelled to Montgomery to snuff out Parks’ future protest – he can’t kill her due to a complicated restraining device. The villainous Krasko’s logic is, he will stymie the civil rights movement at source. But why doesn’t he just abduct Martin Luther King, whom we meet in Montgomery later on?
As with her previous adventures, Whittaker’s Time Lord is the best thing about “Rosa”. The actor has finally started to tone down the overenthusiastic tics that threatened to bubble over early on. True, she is once again a gregarious human space-hopper, with a winning line in self-referential zingers – she half jokes about being Banksy – however, a rumination on Jim Crow oppression calls for a restrained performance, and she delivers.
Blackman and Chibnall also work in some pointed comparisons between prejudices then and now. In Montgomery, Ryan and Yasmin are refused service at a restaurant and are forced to hide when a sheriff visits the white-only hotel where the team is staying.
It isn’t as if this is the first time they’ve been profiled because of their skin colour, the show is careful to point out. Ryan describes being stopped and questioned by police in Sheffield and Yasmin recalls the ethnic slurs flung at her during her work as a policewoman, and outside her mosque. It is an important point which prevents the episode feeling like an exercise in the BBC condescending to Americans – the UK in 1955 wasn’t exactly a bastion of harmony either – or pretending the racist past is a foreign country.
The actual plot, however, is as rickety as a ladder in a hurricane. Krasko (Joshua Bowman) hopes to kill Parks’s bus protest by heading off notoriously racist driver James Blake (Trevor White), who will insist she give up her seat. Meanwhile, the Doctor and the team conspire behind the scenes to make sure the bus runs – with Blake at the wheel. With a wrinkle of her nose and a twitch of her Sonic screwdriver, the Time Lord duly wins the day and “Rosa” closes with a Tardis-side peek at the asteroid named in Parks’s honour.
It is history conjured empathically and non-didactically and, as stated above, “Rosa” will serve as a fantastic dummy’s guide to the civil rights movement. Yet it is undoubtedly an episode for the occasional Whovian rather than the full-on obsessive. A preview of next week’s outing indicates it will feature Mr Big from Sex and the City fighting scary space spiders. If “Rosa” lacks anything, it is the bug-eyed irascibility that has long been Doctor Who’s secret sauce.