In my first review, I expressed my hope that the new series of Doctor Who might succeed in finding the show a wider audience. The first two episodes of the new series have apparently been doing well in the ratings but it’s perhaps not the best idea to get too hung up on viewing figures. After all, the system used to collect viewing figures for programmes is far from perfect and is calculated from only a select sample of the population. Perhaps a more egalitarian approach towards measuring the success of the new series amongst the British public would be to take a look at twitter – after all, anyone can have a Twitter account. Although every episode has its detractors, the reaction to Rosa seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. And, judging by the fact that the new episode was trending on Twitter hours after it had been broadcast, it seems my hopes for a new series that can capture the public imagination are being realised.
Many felt the episode, which recreated the story of Rosa Parks and her defiance against segregation and racism in 1955, was particularly timely given the news story that broke on the day of broadcast of an elderly black woman being racially abused on a Ryanair flight. It may seem to be a remarkable coincidence but at the same time it’s a sad reminder that although, as Yaz and Ryan point out in the episode, things have come a long way, there are still an unfortunate number of people out there that harbour prejudiced views and hateful feelings towards those they see as being different from themselves. Including, it seems, in the far future as well. For our villain this week is not some green alien from the planet Zog but just a racist from the future trying to change history so that Rosa Parks never refused to give up her seat on the bus and things never, as he put it, ‘started to go wrong’.
Putting my fan hat on for a moment, I had already noticed a fair number of parallels between this new run of episodes and the ‘classic’ series, but in this episode the parallels are even more pronounced. When Doctor Who began in 1963 with William Hartnell in the lead role, the intention was to produce a family-friendly teatime adventure series that would also provide children with a bit of gentle education. Thus we had historical episodes, often termed ‘pure historicals’ in fan parlance, which would not have any aliens or sci-fi elements (beyond the time travel) but would instead act as evocative recreations of a particular era, almost like a period drama. This would educate children in history, and the sci-fi episodes would educate children in some real science. Sydney Newman, one of the creators of Doctor Who, said at the beginning he did not want to see any ‘bug-eyed monsters’ in Doctor Who. Whilst it can’t be said the show has respected his wishes on the whole, one would like to think he would have approved of this particular episode. Newman even suggested in the 1980s that the Doctor should be played by a woman. Not only do we have Jodie Whittaker playing the Doctor in Rosa, but we have an episode that educates its audience on the struggles of Rosa Parks and does so without a ‘bug-eyed’ monster in sight. Don’t get me wrong, I love the bug-eyed monsters as much as much as the next fan, but there’s no way you could stick one in an episode about Rosa Parks and still make it feel respectful. Having the villain just be a racist man is much more effective, and indeed quite a bold move for Doctor Who.
The episode ends with the Doctor informing her new friends (and indeed the audience) what the future holds for Rosa Parks; about how segregation on buses in Montgomery was ended and how Parks was eventually officially recognised by her own country as being a hero. It’s a genuinely emotional ending, and closes a thematically challenging episode on a positive note. Things have changed for the better, even if there is a long way to go. The episode does not shy away from the inequalities of modern times; there is an effective scene in which Ryan and Yaz discuss the racial prejudice they have experienced back home in 2018. But it is apt for the family audience that the episode ends on a positive note of human progress. After all, Doctor Who at its core is an optimistic show about good triumphing over evil and a celebration of what humanity can achieve at its best. As a great man once said, in fact a man Rosa Parks knew well herself, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”