Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor has met her first historical figure. Over the years, the Doctor has crossed paths with everyone from William Shakespeare to Adolf Hitler, usually with some alien shenanigans involved. Season 11’s first historical episode continues the tradition, landing the Doctor and friends smack in the middle of 1955 Alabama, with renowned civil rights icon Rosa Parks. But that’s about where the similarities end: “Rosa,” co-written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, is a rare episode that fully explores the horrifying realities of the past and the ethical implications of time travel.
The Doctor has always fought back against prejudice and bigotry, but “Rosa” is one of the first times the show has dealt head-on with some of the institutional racism that comes with traveling to the past. Former companions like Martha Jones and Bill Potts faced racist remarks when traveling with the Doctor, but this episode explores exactly how the Doctor and Graham are treated differently than Yaz and Ryan in 1955 Montgomery. Within minutes of arriving in Alabama, Ryan attempts to return a glove that a white woman dropped, only to get slapped by her husband. He’s rescued by Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson), who warns him to be careful and reminds him that it’s only been a few months since Emmett Till’s murder.
Robinson imbues Rosa with a quiet strength, and she quickly becomes the center point of the story. (This actually isn’t the first time Robinson has starred in a Doctor Who episode: She previously appeared as Abi Lerner way back in season 3’s “42” — which also happened to be written by Chris Chibnall.) The plot’s pretty simple: A time-traveling white supremacist named Krasko (played by Revenge’s Josh Bowman) is trying to alter history by making sure Rosa Parks never refuses to give up her seat on the bus. It was a small, individual act of civil disobedience, but it sparked a massive bus boycott in Montgomery, which helped bring the civil rights movement into the American national consciousness. Instead of trying to outright murder Rosa, Krasko tries to interfere in small ways — like reassigning the bus driver or giving the bus a flat tire. It’s up to the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham to make sure that Rosa is on the right bus at the right time, so that history can proceed as intended. (It’s a plot that feels right out of the late, great NBC show Timeless, in which a team of good guys has to stop bad guys from altering American history.)
Smartly, the show never casts the Doctor or her companions as the hero of the episode; this is Rosa’s story, and they’re only there to make sure things go as they should. Most of the time, Doctor Who is a show concerned with grand, universe-altering gestures, so it’s lovely to see a story that celebrates how a single person can change the world with a small act of heroism. There’s also a poignant moment where Yaz and Ryan discuss their own shared experiences with racism — a very real reminder that although things have changed since 1955 Alabama, they haven’t changed as much as they should. “It’s not like Rosa wipes out racism from the world forever,” Ryan tells her. “Otherwise, how come I get stopped way more by the police than my white mates?”
Unfortunately, the weakest point of the entire episode is Krasko and his leather jacket. We learn that he’s a mentally unhinged racist and he’s been imprisoned in Stormcage (the infamous prison where River Song was once held) for murdering thousands, but we never really get a sense of who he is and why he’s so fixated on Rosa Parks. He’s been fitted with a neural restrictor, a nasty bit of tech implanted in his brain that prevents him from killing or injuring any living things, but it’s an interesting idea that’s never fully explored. (He’s also got a vortex manipulator, a cheap, futuristic wristband that allows its user to time travel — something we’ve seen before on River and Captain Jack Harkness.) Ultimately, it’s Ryan who does away with Krasko, using the villain’s own temporal displacement weapon to send him back in time. I’m glad that Krasko wasn’t a traditional Doctor Who monster, as it would have trivialized Rosa’s story to have her facing off against some campy sci-fi alien. But he still felt a bit under-baked and more like a concept than an actual character.
Finally, the Doctor and her crew are able to get Rosa on the bus, but they soon realize that it’s emptier than it should be and they’ll have to fill seats themselves. As a result, they’re forced to sit as silent witnesses to Rosa’s bravery, unable to interfere. (There’s a particularly gut-wrenching shot of the Doctor’s face as she silently listens to Rosa and knows she can’t do anything to help — going against her own vows to always help anyone who needs it.) Ultimately, history unfolds as it should, and Rosa Parks takes her place as the hero she’s always been. It’s an episode that’s not subtle — especially when Andra Day’s “Rise Up” plays in the background and the Doctor gives a speech about how Rosa changed the world — but it’s still a moving testament to an extraordinary woman and the kind of thoughtful storytelling Doctor Who needs more of.