Doctor Who, 'Rosa': Rise up

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Oct 22, 2018, 4:48 PM EDT (Updated)

"Rosa" could have been an utter disaster.

The Doctor and Team Friendship arrive in Montgomery, Alabama, the day before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a bus, becoming the mother of the civil rights movement. But something is wrong — artron energy is all around Parks, and the Doctor needs to find out why. Except they're in 1955 Alabama and Ryan (Tosin Cole) is a dark-skinned black man and Yaz (Mandip Gill) is a Pakistani woman, and while Ryan is a bit iffy on the details of Rosa Parks' exact actions, he is nothing if not certain that the whites of Montgomery have strong, horrible feelings toward him. Someone is trying to prevent Parks from taking that seat, and our heroes need to make sure all goes off without a hitch, ensuring history plays out as it should. And it does — with the Doctor and company a silent but crucial part of the story. In order for the bus to be crowded enough for Parks' section of the bus to vacate their seats and move toward the back section, Graham (Bradley Walsh) ends up being the white passenger whose presence leads to Parks' actions.

"Rosa" was penned by Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman, the first black writer ever to write for the series and the children's author behind the Noughts and Crosses book series, which explores racism in a dystopian society. Her own history-making presence is likely the saving grace of the episode. It is very easy to imagine the ways Who could have royally bungled this episode, particularly written by even the most well-meaning white writer. In the deft hands of Blackman and Chibnall, the Doctor and friends don't cause history or have a hand in its formulation (though even the discussion of bus segregation the day before her historic protest is right on the line). This is no Marty McFly giving way to Chuck Berry.

We also saw an expanding side of our Doctor. Whereas her predecessors all played their rage and pain in different shades, this Oncoming Storm is one of a quiet and firm forcefulness, rooted in an almost content confidence seemingly absent of the shame present in the Doctors who came before.

But ultimately she and our TARDIS team take a supporting role to Parks, as well they should. In fact, the episode might have been better absent of Krasko (Josh Bowman), the villain who is attempting to stop the civil rights movement before it starts, and whose purpose is to attempt to thwart the events of that day on a bus in Montgomery and also to look remarkably like Rob McElhenney. His presence only drags the episode down.

Where it succeeds is in a far more unflinching look at racism than the series has attempted before, often relegating the issue of race for black companions to a few lines of concern. In this episode, racism is the story, the driving factor for everything and every experience, particularly for Ryan (and the presumed-Mexican Yaz). The episode doesn't hedge on the sheer hatred spewed at Ryan and Parks, nor does it allow itself to imply that hatred in any way dissolved or even dissipated thanks to Parks' actions. Beyond that, the show allows and empowers Ryan to be angry — angry about his own treatment and the ongoing systemic oppression of black people. It instead gives the hope and positivity to Yaz, a nice addition to a still-underserved character.

As Parks, Vinette Robinson (who previously appeared in the David Tennant era "42") is excellent, her quiet resolve spotted with moments of warm smiles, fleshing out a character we can love beyond her role in history. Also, she delivers one of the best American accents the series has attempted (I'm looking at you, Tallulah from "Daleks in Manhattan"). Cole continues to be this season's MVP. Ryan has had a lot thrown at him this season, and Cole plays all of it, letting it build but not define his character.

"Tiny actions change the world." And "Rosa" was a powerful ode to one huge tiny action.

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