Before Doctor Who’s 11th season began to air, there was a sense of unease among some corners of the fandom. With viewing figures steadily decreasing throughout Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s tenure, there was a fear that if Jodie Whittaker’s era was met with the same low figures and general disinterest, it could be the end of the show – at least for a few years. There was a sense the BBC didn’t know what to do with the sci-fi classic, and debate raged over varying factors: was it a disinterest in an older Doctor, was it people tired of convoluted backstory heavy plots? Was it both?
The viewing figures for season 11’s first episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, were some of the strongest in the series’ revived history, standing alongside Christopher Eccleston’s debut and David Tennant’s specials. But in the weeks that have followed, new viewing number calculations that include catch-up services, smartphones and computers, have pushed that figure to the highest NuWho viewing figures ever.
Initially, good viewing figures were somewhat to be expected thanks to a new showrunner and new Doctor (and the first female Doctor) coupled with a healthy advertising showcase from the BBC including a teaser trailer during the FIFA World Cup. But the drop-off for episode 2 was much less than expected, and the viewing figures have stayed strong for this third episode, “Rosa”. The mass of online discussion around this episode has cemented the relevance of the 13th Doctor’s era. If the first episode was an exciting first step, this third adventure is the show at full sprint. It is one of the best episodes of not just Doctor Who, but sci-fi television, in years.
The concept of the episode was always one that easily could have been handled poorly. The legacy of Rosa Parks, whose actions are seen as a turning point in the American civil rights movement, isn’t one to be dealt with lightly, especially in the current political landscape. But aside from one or two small wobbles, the episode pulls it off – Rosa is treated with the respect and reverence one would expect, and the portrayal of 1950s Alabama is shocking in a way I never expected from Doctor Who. Racial slurs are present and overt racism and aggression towards non-whites is prominent throughout the episode. It’s a big risk that pays off massively, and both the writers, producers and the BBC themselves deserve recognition for tackling such a huge issue so maturely in a family show. Most importantly, the Doctor doesn’t save Rosa or inspire her – quite the opposite, she ensures the incident takes place. The moment 13 and her companions realise they have to actively take part in the historic moment, that Graham (so recently married to a black woman and with a black grandson) has to ensure Rosa Parks is victimised, is one of the most powerful in the show’s history.
Which isn’t to say the episode is entirely doom and gloom. Ryan at one point meets a young Martin Luther King, with one of the funniest asides of the season so far when he takes a moment to relish exactly where he’s stood and with whom he’s talking. Yas brilliantly deflects misguided racism and is at her most driven and useful yet. Graham continues to be the highlight of the new companions and offers some of the most overtly comedic chops of any character since Donna. And the 13th Doctor seems to be slowly taking a more finalised form throughout – the alien presence in this episode drawing out the more upfront stark intelligence of this incarnation.
The alien threat is no doubt the weak point of this plot. It feels a shame that someone in development wasn’t comfortable with a purely historical story, but at the same time, it’s a clever compromise that the alien doesn’t cause the incident but is instead trying to bump it just slightly off course. There is a surprising amount of Who lore wound around the alien threat which perked my ears – callbacks to both Captain Jack and River which are much more interconnected with previous eras than rebooted Who has often been.
Although something odd to me was that this criminal not only recognised and knew what a (cloaked) TARDIS was, but that he didn’t seem at all phased by it. Maybe this will be addressed later, but after 10 years of the ‘last of the Time Lords’ and the grand presence of the Doctor, it was very strange to have an enemy – presumably – know that 13 is a Time Lord, but barely react to it. Maybe this hints to the Time Lords being a much more mundane presence in the universe once more, but without some more context, it’s hard to say. Ryan’s decision to send the alien into the distant past with his own weapon was also somewhat out of left field – while it neatly removed the threat and was satisfying to see, should 13 have accepted this so calmly?
The setting and locale of this episode are once again far beyond what the show has achieved in the past – we’ve of course had episodes in America before but this felt like America – the cars, the fashion, the motel – it’s all so grounded and vivid, and gives the show a much larger sense of adventure and change than it’s had for a while. It’s a shame that the next episode is in Sheffield but so far, the alien world and other Earthly places we’ve seen only make the opportunity to travel more tantalising. The image of the Doctor as a wanderer feels much more immediately believable in this new era.
And the Doctor herself is strong as ever. I’ve heard some complaints about her being Tennant-lite and always being too frantic, which I understand, but it’s important to remember that we are still very early on with 13. She may not be the most defined Doctor yet but with the amount of change present in season 11, making her too strong a character immediately could have easily thrown new viewers off – I feel Jodie has done a good job of communicating the otherness of the Doctor, their intelligence and control of a situation. It must be said that 13 is distinctly more human than 11 and 12, and this is beyond control whether the individual likes it or not – as 10 is my favourite Doctor, I have little qualm with it.
We also have some of the strongest character acting we’ve had in the show – Vinette Robinson’s portrayal of Rosa Parks is an obvious highlight – but everyone is at their best here, down to bit-parts and even the antagonist racist bus driver. People have believable motivations and they are products of the time and place they exist in. Hell, even the racist alien is unfortunately believable in his illogical hatred. There’s a real imposing threat present here that brings to mind episodes like “Midnight” and “Silence in the Library”, and ironically the threat of violence comes from the species the Doctor has spent so much time protecting.
Another interesting move is that the Doctor’s gender hasn’t yet been an obstacle for her. A brilliant scene where 13 and Graham act as if a holidaying couple has some fun asides – the Doctor not being used to being called ma’am, not sure what to do with Graham’s arm around her – but it’s not stopped her doing anything yet, especially surprising in 1950s southern USA. This isn’t a criticism and perhaps smartly avoided so as to not undermine or conflate with the issue of race throughout this episode, but with the tackling of such a real issue as the focal point, I hope we see the Doctor’s gender discussed in such an interesting manner also. Quite simply, it has always been easy for a male Doctor to be almost anywhere he wanted to be in Earth history, which isn’t true for a female one.
This is a historic episode of Doctor Who. It is required viewing and reaffirms the importance of this show as a bastion of learning in the face of irrational hatred. It will stand alongside so much great media that lets us examine and learn about the worst elements there are to humanity. Doctor Who is as powerful now as it’s ever been.