Well, I wasn’t expecting the show to do a historical involving an American historical figure. Rosa Parks is a very worthy choice for all that, so that isn’t the surprise. More like this is the first time I can recall the show ever using an American figure. British historical figures? Sure. Lots of times. Americans are a bit on the new side.
Granted, I am not 100% sure about that history they are presented…
See, the Doctor was trying to get her new friends home, but the TARDIS is being its usual temperamental self, landing the foursome in Montgomery, Alabama in the year 1955. It’s only a couple days before Rosa Parks will refuse to give up her seat on a city bus, prompting a boycott that will eventually end segregation on city transportation and be a major stepping stone in the Civil Right Movement. As it is, the Doctor saw energy residue for some kind of time traveler at the same time, so someone else went there before the TARDIS arrived.
As it is, this time and place is a bit hard for this bunch, and not for the usual reason of watching British actors do their best American accents that don’t sound quite right. No, this is a time where Ryan will be slapped across the face by a man and then threatened for the crime of trying to return the glove his wife just dropped because they’re white, he’s black, and he doesn’t know his “place” in that society, and only the timely intervention by Rosa Parks keeps things from getting worse. See, Rosa remembers what happened to Emmett Till. Ryan, well, probably doesn’t.
I’ll be honest here: I do not know what British schoolchildren are taught about Rosa Parks if anything. Ryan and Yaz do talk about her and the Civil Rights Movement at one point, both pointing out how much her efforts helped while at the same time pointing out that racism still exists for the both of them. It’s obviously worse for Ryan in this time period, and every time Graham hops in and says Ryan is his grandson, it doesn’t seem to get any better. At least Ryan isn’t objecting to being called Graham’s grandson as he did in earlier episodes. Yaz gets it a little better, but mostly because these people don’t know she’s Pakistani. At some points, she’s referred to as a Mexican and given similar treatment to Ryan, but at others, not so much.
As it is, the plot deals with another time traveler, one using a vortex manipulator like Captain Jack does, and he’s a future racist basically doing his best to ensure Rosa Parks doesn’t do what she needs to do. He’s got a weapon to zap Rosa to somewhere else, and when the Doctor swipes it, he does other things to basically change history like try to get a different bus driver to take the route, sabotaging the bus, and even posting signs saying the route was canceled for the night. The Doctor and her crew eventually have to board the bus themselves and make sure it’s too crowded so Rosa can refuse to move and get arrested.
It’s a powerful episode in many ways. Ryan follows Rosa home and meets, among others, Martin Luther King Jr. Graham doesn’t want to be on the bus, but the Doctor convinces him he needs to stay. The time traveler is not only thwarted, but Ryan uses his time gun on him to send him to the distant past, and the Doctor does not really object to that. And history unfolds with the Doctor showing the others Rosa’s impact on history.
So…small issue with this one: while the episode does show Rosa meeting with MLK, it also plays off the old idea that the only reason she refused to move was she was tired from working all day. That’s not true. She and King, among others, had planned the whole thing out as far as I know. The old “she was just tired” thing is more of a simplified view of the incident to make it look more spontaneous. In realty, it wasn’t.
Then again, if it wasn’t so spontaneous, that future racist’s plan wouldn’t have worked anyway. Parks would have just gone a different night, I suspect.
Regardless, maybe the TARDIS will take the Doctor where she wants to go now. Then again, has it ever?