During the Doctor’s travels, he (now she) has met many historical figures and seen many important events. In the latest episode the adventure focuses more on historical events than sci-fi antics.
The Doctor has been attempting to bring her new companion back to Sheffield. Unfortunately, they land in Montgomery, Alabama just before the famous Bus Boycott instead. They meet Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) and discover she is surrounded by artron energy. More than that, she’s attracted the focus of another intergalactic traveler (Joshua Bowman).
“Rosa” was one of the most anticipated episodes in the new series because of its co-writer Malorie Blackman. Blackman is a celebrated writer in the UK, specializing in written novels for children and young adults. Racism and prejudice is a theme she likes to examine so it is no surprise she wrote an episode about one of the most famous Civil Rights activists.
Modern Doctor Who have made episodes focusing on historical figures – Agatha Christie, Vincent van Gogh, and William Shakespeare being central in episodes. But there was always a sci-fi element to the story. Van Gogh was plagued by a monster only he could see, and the disappearance of Agatha Christie was due to an alien wasp. “Rosa” aimed to be more educational, being close to events and the Doctor and the companion have to ensure history stays on course.
Doctor Who was originally meant to be an educational show that would teach children about history. During the First Doctor’s run there were historical episodes about Marco Polo, The Aztecs, and the Romans. In these episodes, there was no alien or sci-fi threat. “Rosa” is a homage to that kind of episodes and it continues Chris Chibnall’s back-to-basics approach, stripped down, simple stories.
There is a sci-fi enemy in the form of Krasko. He attempts to make small changes to events so that would have a big effect later on. The Doctor and her companions have to make sure history stays on course. It’s a small story with big implications. Rosa Parks and all the residents of Montgomery do not realize they are in a bigger story which is refreshing for Doctor Who.
The episode also looks at how racism affects Ryan and Yasmin. Ryan gets a harsh lesson when he is polite to a woman and suffers the full force of a racist onslaught. Both companions suffer at the hands of segregation laws and policies that dominated the Deep South. They have a moment together talking about how the modern day racism they experience. The episode acknowledges that there are still issues involving racism in the modern day, though there’s been massive progress since the ’50s.
“Rosa” also had a few comedic moments. The best came when Ryan and Graham interrupt the bus driver James Blake (Trevor White), uses his racism to their advantage. Ryan also speaks using London terms like ‘bruv’. The episode references the Doctor’s new gender as well, and how she’s not used to it. But another joke where Graham pitches the iPhone falls like a lead balloon.
During the Steven Moffat era Doctor Who was becoming formulaic. Chibnall has brought new life to the series, using the franchise to different stories. It is refreshing to see Doctor Who downplay the sci-fi for a change. “Rosa” is a strong episode to show to younger children.