Fighting For Civil Rights
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer and Brit in Los Angeles, Robert Cave, takes a look at the third episode of the new Doctor Who season…
Doctor Who Season 11 Episode 3
Director: Mark Tonderai
Writers: Malorie Blackman, Chris Chibnall
Stars: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole
Back in 2005, when he masterminded the modern revival of Doctor Who, Russell T. Davis established a pretty good roadmap for engaging new viewers and introducing them to the central concepts of the show. First he introduced his main characters in a sci-fi tale in a contemporary setting. He then followed this with a story in the far future, before switching gears and going for a story set in the past. This structure was as effective as it was straightforward, and so you can’t really fault Chris Chibnall employing the same tried and tested formula for his opening three episodes as show runner.
But while Davis commissioned Mark Gatiss to produce a quite camp historical romp featuring Charles Dickens that was full of comic touches and knowing winks at the audience, Chibnall has instead chosen a more difficult path, commissioning former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman to work with him on a story that focuses on American civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
It’s bold and ambitious choice, not just because the civil rights of ethnic and other minorities are still a hotly contested issue today, but also because Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., who also features in the episode, are very real figures from recent history. Their stories, and that of the civil rights movement as a whole, are complex and cannot really be simplified down into a 45-minute family fantasy/drama. There isn’t much scope for knowing gags amongst all the talk of nooses and the murder of Emmett Till. Nor is there room for overtly non-human aliens. The show’s standard sci-fi trappings would detract from the real struggles and achievements of Parks and her contemporaries.
Simply put, doing the Doctor meets Rosa Parks is a hell of a lot easier to get wrong than it is to get right. However, it is to Chibnall and Blackman’s credit that despite all the inherent difficulties they really commit to the idea, bringing to the fore an earnest and more overtly educational edge that had been largely missing from the show since straight historical stories were largely phased out during the tenure of the first two Doctors.
There is a lot to like about the episode. Vinette Robinson is brilliant as Parks, perfectly capturing both her look and steely resolve in the face of injustice. The choice of Krasko (Joshua Bowman) as the episode’s villain was also perfect: racist humanoid criminal from the far future underlines the fact that the inhumanity that some humans display to each other is a very human trait, and not something we can lay at the feet of any outside aliens. Moreover it demonstrated that racism is something that is not going to disappear in some utopian future, but that it will need to be confronted again and again on an ongoing basis.
I loved how the diversity of the current TARDIS helped demonstrate some of the complex intersectional workings of discrimination and how it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) reflecting on their own contemporary experiences of racism as both unjust and yet still somehow “better” than what Rosa Parks and her contemporaries faced was also great.
While I could understand the thematic and narrative necessity of ensuring Rosa’s actions remained true to the historic record, I wasn’t quite sold on the primary importance of not changing “the past”, as opposed to the present or the future. While the show has made much in the past about the significance of “fixed points” in the temporal firmament, something about viewing the relative past as being somehow more significant than any other part of space/time doesn’t quite work for me. That said, I liked the Quantum Leap-style vibe it gave the episode.
If there was one thing I could have done without in the episode, it would probably the prominent inclusion of Andrea Day’s song Rise Up, which, to me, seemed to verge on the sententious, but that is probably just down to my personal tastes.
Overall, I enjoyed the story and really liked its earnestness. And if it introduces just one audience member to Rosa Parks and some of the details of the civil rights struggle in the United States, so much the better.