An episode of Doctor Who that I turned the volume off for at times. An episode of Doctor Who that I put on pause for ten minutes at a time, that I barely got through. An episode of Doctor Who that bordered on violating good taste and making me cringe. An episode of Doctor Who that managed to regain and redefine the show's purpose.
This episode is named after, and about Rosa Parks, and is an undisguised attempt to educate the UK audience about the history of the United States Civil Rights Movement. The Doctor and company land in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and are quite quickly introduced to the brutal reality of racism in the era, especially since two of the Doctor's companions are not white. On top of that, they find something is not right: history says that Rosa Parks will be starting her protest the next day, but something is trying to interfere in history. On top of the historical plot, the science-fiction plot is that a time travelling racist is trying to undo history. It is up to the Doctor and company to protect the timeline and make sure Rosa Park's protest happens.
It would be pretty easy to mess this one up. It would be easy to treat this frivolously, mixing a historical story like this up with explosions and technobabble. Thankfully, showrunner Chris Chibnall shared writing duties with acclaimed Afrocarribean-British writer Malorie Blackman. The episode manages to display racism in a very raw, and personal way, showing how the brutality, ignorance and nihilism behind the South's racist society. The only thing that was spared was usage of a racial epithet that would have probably been used casually at the time. And it was raw and scared me in a way that Doctor Who has never done before: I have seen the Doctor barricade doors against all sorts of apocalyptic entities, but it didn't scare me until it was the Montgomery Police Department knocking.
Obviously that is important, but people might wonder: how does this relate to the episodic and sometimes whimsical nature of Doctor Who? Was this a social studies lesson plastered onto Doctor Who? For me, no, this episode helped recontextualize a lot of Doctor Who. We are used to the Doctor making speeches and taking actions against tyranny in the abstract. But the Doctor's most common opponents are usually legacy characters based on budget-tier special effects from the 1960s and 1970s. It is hard to really take the Doctor's moral indignation at things like the Daleks seriously. But seeing an episode of the same hatred and bigotry in a more minor but real form recontextualizes the Doctor's attitudes, it makes what the Doctor fights for more real. Christopher Eccleston, in 2005's "Dalek", convincingly communicated realistic rage in his conversation with what was, objectively speaking, a silly looking prop. But this episode lets that make sense: that type of rage makes sense to me when it is about every act of petty bullying and ignorance I have encountered. When Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor confronts the racist Krasko, her matching wits with him shows that she is combining traits of previous doctors: it is a combination of the rage of Eccleston's Ninth Doctor with little hints of the whimsy of Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor.
If this is what the series has for us, I would say that it is rapidly picking up steam, although apparently, next week returns to more silly territory, with Arachnids in the UK.