In the third episode of the eleventh episode of Doctor Who, the TARDIS re-routes itself to the wrong time and place for the Doctor’s companions, but the right time and place to protect history. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For extensive discussion of racism, particularly anti-Black racism, lynching, police brutality
I’ll start there, because I think if someone not as talented as Malorie Blackman had written this, it might not have been as powerful and effective. (Seriously, it was so cool to see her name in the opening credits!!!) This episode just DESTROYED me, and I am so happy that this show built on last series’s attempt at talking about racism and time travel. Because this is not just a casual mention of it or a funny-but-too-real joke about it; nope, this goes ALL IN to talk about the complicated ways in which many people of color might be affected adversely by time travel. Not just that, but there’s a uncomfortable way in which the story forces these characters to be part of the system that led to the oppression of Parks and the other Black people all across the Jim Crow south. And I think the fact that this episode is so deliberately uncomfortable is part of its power. It manages to be very direct in its depiction of racism without becoming trauma porn.
“Rosa” wastes no time, and truthfully, this is an economical script, one that does not waste any portion of the story on unnecessary tangents or character interactions. I love that we see Rosa Parks first, that this doesn’t begin with the Doctor or the companions. We are rooted in a place and a time, we are shown exactly what sort of nightmare the Black citizens of Montgomery, AL are dealing with, and there’s no denying the intent behind any of this. But this exploration of racism is never rooted in anything metaphorical, which is something that speculative fiction tends to do more when talking about social issues. No, it’s not long after the Doctor discovers that the TARDIS has traveled to the wrong time and place on Earth that we’re shown exactly how racism manifested in 1955 Montgomery. It was shocking to see that devolution happen so quickly after the Doctor’s companions were thrilled to be in the past. But it was only initially a surprise; this is exactly what white people did regularly, without fear of consequence, at this time.
And it’s intentional that Parks references Emmett Till when explaining this to Ryan; Blackman’s script is riddled with the historical context that grounds this story. The mere act of touching a white woman could get a Black man lynched. Racism also often does not make literal sense, either. Not that racism is a sensible thing to begin with, but the interaction Yaz has is something I’ve been on the receiving end of more times than I can count. Like, racists aren’t even good at being racists half the time! I’ve been misidentified SO MANY TIMES, y’all, and had racial slurs flung at me that are for the wrong group.
But these moments—and so, so many more—help to explain that racism does have a different manifestation based on how a person is perceived. Note that Yaz is never once subjected to any anti-Black racism throughout “Rosa.” She’s definitely treated terribly, but Ryan is perceived completely differently from her. His accent does not protect him, either. To the white people of Montgomery, he is just as hated as Black Americans. There’s also that scene where Yaz is unsure where to sit. Is she read as white? Yes, that’s an absurd question, but within the American framework of racism, non-Black PoC have to consider our proximity to whiteness and how we are accepted and under what terms. She is absolutely not a white person, but Jim Crow laws and segregation specifically targeted Blackness, and this script includes that sort of detail. ALSO!!! There’s such a great moment where Ryan and Yaz bond over the shared experience of being non-white in Britain, and I LOVED IT SO MUCH.
ALL THAT SAID: I don’t want this to be a history lesson because I am not qualified to speak in great detail on this subject. I just wanted to say that I appreciated how specific this episode was in depicting racism. And yes, it’s still deeply upsetting, but I never felt like this was titillating; I never felt like the Doctor did not understand the weight of what she was asking of Yaz and of Ryan; I never felt like Doctor Who was disrespecting this history of this country or of what Rosa Parks did. Part of that also comes from how the plot is designed. At no point does the Doctor or her companions become responsible for what Rosa did. No, this script preserves her history of activism, preserves the community that worked with her, and preserves her choice to remain sitting on that bus on December 1, 1955. And the show could have done differently; how many times has Doctor Who revised history to put the Doctor or their companions into the causal chain in a way that credits them with a moment in time?
No, this is just about preserving something much more mundane: the conditions under which Rosa Parks made her choice. And look, I love that Krasko is not only an unredeemed villain, but he’s actually just a terrible fucking racist from the future. THAT’S IT. That’s his whole motivation! He just wants to disrupt American history because he’s a goddamn racist! And because he can’t hurt Rosa directly due to his neural implant, he does what he can to nudge events so that they don’t happen. The back-and-forth that transpires across the episode isn’t even ultimately about who has the better technology. The Doctor zaps his weaponry and time displacement tech into the future! Even then, Krasko uses his whiteness to push other white people out of their places in history. Lord, that’s so cool of this script, too; it really makes this about complicity. Who took part in these acts? Who was responsible? It wasn’t just white men, either! The white people in this episode were overjoyed to be awful humans, and this didn’t shy away from depicting that. So yeah, I was real happy when Ryan got the BEST FUCKING LINE in this whole episode as he zapped Krasko to the past. DON’T YOU WISH YOU COULD DO THAT FOR RACISTS NOW. Ah, I was also so pleased that Ryan got to spend real, meaningful time with Parks and MLK, Jr.!!!
I’m still getting chills thinking about that final scene, though. It’s done so, so well, and I love the palpable horror on the faces of Yaz, Graham, and the Doctor when they realize they will have to stay in their seats and be part of the problem so that Rosa still makes her decision. Whew, THAT WAS UNEXPECTED, and I’m glad it was so viscerally uncomfortable. It should be! And in the end, Rosa Parks makes her choice on her own, without influence from the time travelers, and history is protected.
Incredible, y’all. What an episode!
The video for “Rosa” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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