'Doctor Who' "Rosa" Episode Outdoes 'Legends of Tomorrow' at Its Own Game
In her third episode ever, simply titled “Rosa,” Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor protects the historical timeline in a manner that may seem strange for Doctor Who fans but very familiar for anyone who’s ever watched the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow.
But beyond simply correcting what the Legends would call a “temporal aberration,” Doctor Who goes one step further to highlight important cultural themes as the Doctor and her companions protect Rosa Parks’ legacy in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama. In short, Doctor Who does Legends of Tomorrow way better than Legends of Tomorrow does these days.
Doctor Who’s “Rosa” aired Sunday night on BBC America, offering the first of several “historical” episodes this season that’ll take the Doctor and her companions into the past where they’ll encounter noteworthy historical figures.
This setup is nothing new to Who, but usually it’s the Doctor discovering (or outright causing) supernatural and/or extraterrestrial events that influence historical figures in some way. In Christopher Eccleston’s 2005 revived series, the 9th Doctor and Rose Tyler encountered Charles Dickens in Victorian-era Cardiff in “The Unquiet Dead.” In that story, the “spirits” that inspired A Christmas Carol were actually bodiless humanoids sucked through a rift in space-time. So yeah, it’s usually kind of ridiculous.
Even as recently Doctor Who as Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, the show had only a casual concern for the laws and ramifications of time travel. But in “Rosa,” the Doctor reasserts a certain kind of responsibility. It’s a refreshing change of pace for Doctor Who to take all this time-travel stuff more seriously than usual.
In “Rosa,” the TARDIS deliberately drags the gang to this moment in time after detecting a surge of artron energy (the stuff that powers the TARDIS and most time-related gadgetry). Those artron readings mean that some time-related hijinks could stand to mess up the timeline, so of course the Doctor has to investigate. Sure enough, a mysterious new villain called Krasko wants to displace Rosa Parks in time. Even after Ryan uses Krasko’s temporal displacement weapon against him to save the day, we still aren’t sure why.
Whereas Legends of Tomorrow often uses its time-travel gimmick as an excuse to stick the cast in fun costumes — like when they dressed up as Vikings in pre-colonial America where the locals worshipped a talking Beebo stuffed animal — Doctor Who infuses this historical story with a lot more depth. “Rosa” still has its fun, but it isn’t afraid to demonstrate why this kind of story matters.
In “Rosa,” Doctor Who cleverly uses exposition to educate the viewer — and Ryan, who didn’t pay attention in grade school — about the historical significance of Rosa Parks. (On some level, this reminds us that Doctor Who was always intended as a kid-friendly quasi-educational program.) Parks was an icon of the Civil Rights Movement who refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, defying segregation laws of the time and inspiring a bus boycott. She went on to become an important Civil Rights leader who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
Yasmin and Graham clarify all this for Ryan, who misremembered Rosa Parks as a bus driver, and Yas later contextualizes things even further. Despite both her and Ryan dealing with racism in their present-day lives, she acknowledges why the Doctor refers to this as a “tipping point” in human history.
“I can be a police officer now ‘cause people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me — for us,” she says to Ryan.
Change happens slowly across history, but it still happens. Ensuring that Rosa Parks defies segregation allows our heroes to play a small role in fighting racism across time and watching a black man and Muslim woman unpack all this is a delight to watch.
Doctor Who cares about going deeper in this way, but Legends of Tomorrow almost never does.
So often, when Legends of Tomorrow presents similar historical figures or time periods, it does so indelicately and ridiculously. One of the show’s most focused efforts to address racism, for example, in Season 2 with “Abominations” had Jax pose as a slave during the Civil War. But the topical commentary was eclipsed by a weird zombie virus that almost destroyed America.
This is the modus operandi for Legends, integrating insane sci-fi that only technically corrects temporal aberrations while ignoring all the blatant ways the Legends cause more problems than they solve by wielding superpowers and advanced tech in the past. Even worse, the show almost never addresses why history matters.
For fans of time travel that want both fun stories and sensitive analysis of why history matters, Doctor Who seems like the only place to get it these days. But maybe the new season of Legends can prove me wrong?
Doctor Who airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. Eastern on BBC America, and Legends of Tomorrow airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern on The CW.