'Doctor Who' Season 11, Episode 3 Recap: Rosa

(Photo Credit: Coco Van Oppens/BBC America)

Doctor Who attempts to tell the story of Rosa Parks as our travelers arrive in the American South in the 1950s.

Graham: You haven't got Elvis' phone number!
Doctor: Don't ever tell anyone I lent him my mobile.

The traditional pattern for any Doctor Who season with new Doctors and/or companions is a time travel episode. First, everyone meets cute, then the humans get a taste of outer space, then they get a taste of period costume. Usually, the Doctor goes back in time centuries, someplace euro or UK centric. Not this year. This year's period lands the Doctor and her followers in one of the most segregated societies of the last 100 years, as they arrive smack in the middle of Montgomery, AL in 1955, and within a few minutes, run straight into a lovely older lady who goes by Mrs. Parks. Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Before we go any further, I have to admit, I approached this episode with trepidation. Though it was written by Malorie Blackman, the story of Rosa Parks is one made facile over the decades. Most Americans barely know the real story, she was a lifelong activist, the protest which set off the bus boycott planned, the mugshot and photo of her sitting on the bus staged months afterward. How could a UK show get such a thing right? (And for god sake, considering half the current Hollywood A-List are British citizens who regularly use flawless American accents, why are the BBC southern accents so bad?)

But the show did far better than I hoped. It makes a point from the beginning the Doctor has shown up in this time and place with a South Asian and a black companion, even as they don't immediately realize the danger of being who they are, when they are. Yaz at least remembered the fable version of Parks' story she was taught in school, but Ryan doesn't even remember what she did, other than it involved buses. (He does know who Martin Luther King Jr. is though.) Their ignorance of history puts both in danger. Ryan foolishly attempts to hand a woman back her glove. The Doctor cluelessly walks them all into a whites-only cafe. (Yaz is assumed to be Mexican, which they don't serve either.) Before long, the Doctor has released she's made a horrific mistake, begging them to go wait on the TARDIS, the only place they'll be safe.  

(Photo Credit: Coco Van Oppens/BBC America)

But naturally, her compaions figure if Parks can live in this city her whole life -- especially if they are working to keep her safe so she can start the boycott the next day -- a couple of hours won't kill them.

Tell that to Emmett Till.

Graham: You ain't Banksy!
The Doctor: Or am I?

Keeping Parks safe is why the TARDIS brought them here. There's another time traveler in town, Cranzo (Josh Bowman), an escaped inmate of Stormcage, dressed as a greaser with a vortex manipulator on his wrist. (One wonders if he was acquainted with a certain River Song.) He's murdered enough people the conditions of his release put a transmitter in his brain stopping him from being able to hurt or kill anyone. And yes, he's here to stop Parks from her history-making turn, because it's where everything "went wrong." Since he can't kill her, he's carrying a weapon which will throw her deep into the future, delaying desegregation on busses, and perhaps creating a whiter version of history. 

But the real danger doesn't come from him. The Doctor neutralizes him early and often. (And Ryan is the one who gets to remove him from the timeline altogether.) The show understands the real danger to our heroes is in the cop who stops by their motel room to try to hunt down Ryan for "picking fights with upstanding folks." It's in Ryan's realization he has to hold his temper every moment he's here. And it's the discouraging knowledge though Parks' stand the next day will slowly move the wheels forward, even in their present-day lives he and Yaz are harassed and called names. Yaz tries to be more positive though. Parks' change may be slow, but it is change. It's change that allows her to become a cop. It's change that will one day see Obama win two terms back to back.

And with that, it's time for Operation: Rosa Parks. The show leans into its educational roots by throwing in extra pieces of history, with Graham knowing the name of the bus driver (James Blake), and the others looking up where she works and where she lives. Then naturally, they all get on and ride the bus, with Ryan in the back, and the Doctor and Graham up front... and Yaz entirely confused where a "Mexican" like her should sit.

(Photo Credit: Coco Van Oppens/BBC America)

But their bus trips earn a second run-in with Parks as they figure out which route it is they need to preserve for history. It leads Ryan to follow her home, to serve coffee while the group at her house tomorrow' plot, where he gets to meet "Dr. King of Dexter Avenue Church." Ryan's response gets written off as the excitement of how proud his nan would have been...and a moment where King gets to say he's sorry to hear about the loss of Grace. As were we all, Dr. King.

Graham: We're here to pitch an invention! It's a telephone... that plays music.. and it's a camera, takes photos... and it's a calendar. And it sends letters.
Mason: Sounds ridiculous. What's your name, sir?
Graham: Steve. Jobs. Steve Jobs.

Graham meanwhile finds out Cranzo has already set things in motion to change history, with Blake having the day off when he should be driving. Graham takes Ryan to get Blake back to work, while the Doctor tears her coat to keep Parks sewing away at work until the appointed time. Unfortunately, all their meddling puts the four of them on the bus along with Rose, and Graham as the extra white man standing. It's he who is the passenger the bus driver insists Rosa should give up her seat for. He has to be the part of history to catalyze the change we now believe was inevitable but never was. Grace once told Graham he better not be a James Blake. She probably never dreamed Blake had Parks arrested so her husband could sit down.

But the show doesn't swell too much on it for now. History has been preserved. Rosa Parks even has a section of the universe named after her. And Ryan, Yaz and Graham have gotten their first real taste of what it means to travel with the Doctor, ahead of next week's "Arachnids In The U.K."