Series 11, Episode 3 Advance Review – A Return to Doctor Who’s Roots

Note: Doctor Who TV’s pre-air episode impressions aim to be as detail-free as we reasonably can while still offering a critique, but as everyone’s spoiler sensibilities are different, we advise you read on at your own discretion.

One of the drawbacks of writing early reviews is that you often don’t get to really comment on some of the best moments of an episode due to them being off limits, or too spoiler-y. For instance, last week how good was the final scene. Yes, the TARDIS is back and that means the Doctor is finally free to travel around time and space again!

Our first proper adventure in the iconic Police Box is about as far from a fun and lighthearted trip as you could get however. The crew are transported back in time to 1950s Alabama, a place in time where racial segregation is a grim reality. A black civil rights campaigner named Rosa Parks is about to make history, but a threat emerges that could put a stop to it all.

Prior to Series 11, one of the rumours circulating was that Chris Chibnall was going to return Doctor Who to its educational 60s roots, wherein the show was intended to teach the younger viewers about history, often by having the Doctor land in a historical setting. This episode, written by children’s author Malorie Blackman (co-written with Chibnall), feels very much like it fits that remit. It’s the type of episode that you could easily see being shown in classrooms in the imminent future.

Compared to some episodes where Doctor Who has only subtly touched on racism in period settings, “Rosa” does not shy away or sugarcoat its portrayal of the divide in 1955, with abhorrent acts on full display almost as soon as the gang steps out of the TARDIS. Ryan and Yaz are subjected to verbal and even physical abuse, that some may find tough to stomach.

Although the episode deals with weighty issues, there is still time for a little levity and pleasant character moments. The Doctor and Graham’s hotel room charade leads to one great gag. Meanwhile, Ryan and Yaz are able to intensify their bond in the face of adversity. This allows for some of their best material so far.

Of course we have Rosa Parks herself leading the guest cast, portrayed by UK star Vinette Robinson (The A Word, Sherlock). Some may remember it’s also not her first Whoniverse appearance, having starred in Chibnall’s pre-showrunner Doctor Who episode “42”. Robinson does well here to play what must have been tough boots to fill, though perhaps an African-American actor would have been a better pick to allow for a more natural accent?

There are no monsters in the episode, that’s to say there’s no traditional costumed/CGI threat of the week. Whilst there are plenty of horrifying people on display, Joshua Bowman steps forward as the main villain, Krasko. A character you could crudely sum up as a “racist Captain Jack”, just lacking the charisma (though he does have a [redacted]). For all his posturing though, he doesn’t quite demonstrate enough of a threat.

Visually the episode has a distinct look from the past two. The 1950s period setting recreated thanks again to overseas filming in South Africa (perhaps next week it will fill in for Sheffield). Compared to his more atmospheric score of the first two episodes, Segun Akinola ‏treads into Gold-esque territory, being much more overt, especially Rosa’s theme. The episode also finds time for a pop tune at a key moving moment.

Early verdict

Something of a return to Doctor Who’s educational era roots. It’s a tough watch at times and doesn’t make quite enough of its time-meddling premise, but it is undoubtedly an important historical for the show that has its heart largely in the right place.