I’ve got to admit I had a moment of worry last week when I realise the TARDIS crew were bound for Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. It’s not the kind of historic event where you want Slitheen to pop up, or the Doctor to suddenly claim credit for catalysing the civil rights movement, or anything that might – even in the most well intentioned “big fan” kind of way – diminish Rosa Parks and the way she challenged segregation.
So are they going to mess with with what happened? Well, sort of. They’re going to try to “protect history” which is in one of its delicate phases (for all the first TARDIS crew vibe, the Doctor certainly isn’t saying “you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”) They need to protect history from meddling. From the moment she mentions artron energy I’m sure it’s The Monk. In fact, I’m still sure Krasko is a racist incarnation of The Monk who has somehow got himself banged up in the Stormcage Containment Facility (alongside River Song) and that there’s some perception-filter-ey reason why he and the Doctor don’t recognise each other.
What connects this episode and the last is the extraordinary sense of place that this series is able to generate – and the very real feeling that wherever they find themselves out of their own time or space, our protagonists are in a genuinely hostile environment where the danger is real and immediate. Ryan is punched for picking up a glove. Yaz, a police officer, finds herself on the wrong side of the law just by being the wrong colour in the wrong place. These are not stories where the stakes are a Threat to the Entire Universe, but they are real and important and they matter to us and they matter so much, enough that they eclipse everything else.
However heavy handed that dialogue behind the bins might be, it’s important that this episode didn’t diminish present day racism or go out of its way to give itself a big slap on the back for being right-on enough to celebrate this vital moment in the history of the struggle for civil rights. “It took so long, though” says Ryan, who may have noticed that Malorie Blackman is the first black woman to write for Doctor Who in its 55 year history. Indeed, its first ever black writer.
I also love the fact that Grace is still a presence in this – that Ryan talks to Martin Luther King about her, and Graham talks about meeting her.
GRAHAM: She just said he gave all bus drivers a bad name.
YAZ: She said that when you’d only just met? That’s pretty hardline.
RYAN: That’s my nan.
The further in we progress, the more absurdly contrived the plot gets. But of course it all had to be leading up to Graham keeping his seat on Rosa Park’s bus. For all you can see it coming, it’s a devastating moment.
“No, no, no, I don’t want to be part of this.”
“We have to, I’m sorry. We have to not help her.”
This is a moment that, no matter it be part of a silly nonsensical bit of scifi whimsy, has an extraordinary power that cannot be diminished. And the treatment here conveys that. It’s incredibly moving and important viewing for a new generation of youngsters tuning in to see monsters defeated.
On the more trivial issues, I’ll leave it to our American cousins to give their verdict on the accents in this one, but they sounded mostly fine to my insensitive ear (although I’ll admit even I would be surprised if it turned out the actor who played Officer Mason was from Alabama).
I’m also starting to get quite excited about the soundtrack. I missed the pop songs we had back in the days of Russell T Davies; they seemed to vanished in the Moffat era – and they’re back! I think I forgot to mention last week how well Segun Akinola’s soundtrack fitted with the episode. Here it stood out a bit more, but I’m feeling much more excited by it than I was in The Woman Who Fell to Earth – I think he may be the Eric Serra of Doctor Who. Or he would be if Carey Blyton weren’t already.
Next week: looks like a sequel to Planet of the Spiders, but I’m even looking forward to that, since this series just seems be making extraordinary leaps in quality from week to week.