So here we come to what was always going to be a very knife-edge episode in terms of execution and reception for the show, let’s talk about whether they succeeded or not.
When we first found out this was to be the setting of an episode of Doctor Who I don’t think anyone was expecting just how authentic they were going to go in terms of 1950s South but you really have to give them credit for not pulling any punches here. What could’ve been a very veneer focused episode centred solely around Rosa Parks and her actions instead opened up to racism in general, with both Ryan and Yaz experiencing first hand remarks on their skin colour and therefore their place in society that extend to Ryan being threatened with lynching less than 5 minutes in. Racist cops, clear signposting (literally) of segregation, and background extras all staring hatefully at them really makes you uncomfortable in a way the show had to make the audience feel to understand even some of what that must’ve been like.
Some of the strongest aspects of the episode come from the two younger companions discussing their own experiences of racism in the 21st century and that despite the progress much of what happened then still happens today, with Ryan’s skin colour and Yaz’s Muslim beliefs and Pakistani heritage seeing her ostrachised and judged in Britain today. Even Graham is made to feel uncomfortable about his own racial privilege as he doesn’t have to question sitting on the bus while his own grandson is forced to enter via the “coloured” entrance. Just overall the performances of the cast this episode really was above and beyond what we’ve seen so far.
As for the portrayal of Rosa Parks the show thankfully didn’t go down the nasty route of having her only decide to not move because of the White heroes as could’ve happened but instead her own agency is never compromised. While it’s awkward and, depending on your view, potentially over the line for the gang to cause the bus to be full to the point she makes the stand the fact remains she chooses to make the stand. Throughout the episode Rosa is entirely depicted as someone of her own mind and choices and her interactions with Ryan give a strong impression of him being inspired by her and not the other way round, with a notable scene of Ryan meeting with MLK also adding to the balance of the gang as observers and not causing the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.
If any of the characters was weak however it was no doubt the villain of the piece, Mr Future Neo Nazi Krasko. It’s probably for the best he doesn’t get the most screentime in the episode given its focus on racism. Instead he comes across quite rightly as a petulant stain of a character who underestimates those he sees as beneath him and loses entirely, though is plot does descend into almost Benny Hill levels of farce towards the end with the plan to not have Rosa refuse to stand.
Despite the serious nature of the episode there was still time for humour which comes across quite well, with the Doctor’s pushing of her being the real Banksy and Graham’s Steve Jobs bit being a welcome break from the rest of the episode.
Outside of the story the episode production wise is once again put together incredibly well, accurately putting together a piece of 1950s America in both visual and audio style. The more atmospheric music style, while jarring at first, has been growing on me but that insertion of a modern music piece during the arrest however did come across awkwardly.
The final poor choice of music however doesn’t do any real damage to what was otherwise an almost perfect episode that managed to avoid common pitfalls when dealing with the issues raised to deliver a touching and impactful piece of television.