Doctor Who Review: Rosa

So my thoughts about Rosa are…complicated.

In the third episode of new Who‘s eleventh season, the Doctor and her friends end up in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, the day before a Black woman named Rosa Parks is due to be arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white person. They discover that a far-future white supremacist by the name of Krasko (“I don’t like it,” declares the Doctor) is trying to stop her protest, and thereby prevent the entire civil rights movement from happening, by nudging history so that the infamous bus driver James Blake is on holiday, the bus is broken, there aren’t enough people on the bus for Rosa to give up her seat…and so on.

The actual logistics of the episode get a bit tedious, as Krasko and Our Heroes try repeatedly to foil each other, with varying levels of hilarity. There’s also a tendency for things to happen in a way that makes an (important and interesting) narrative or structural point, that nevertheless don’t make sense in the Doctor Who universe as I think we’re supposed to understand it.

For instance: the Doctor’s apparent lack of awareness about how segregation worked in Montgomery, despite her being able to reel off encyclopedic facts about Rosa Parks’ life in the episode, and despite the fact that one of the Doctor’s main functions is to know stuff that keeps their companions safe. Twice she takes Yaz and Ryan into unsafe situations – a bar and a motel – and at least in the first instance is surprised at the hostility they receive from white staff, customers and police.

This is a way for writers Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman (whose novel Noughts and Crosses has been used to teach young adults about racism since forever) to demonstrate the Doctor’s white privilege in a way that sets up the episode’s denouement, in which she and Graham realise that as white people they have to become complicit in Rosa Parks’ arrest. We see the Doctor as clueless about how segregation actually affects people of colour, because it’s never affected her personally. She doesn’t fully appreciate the immediate physical danger her friends are in because she’s brought them into white-only spaces.

And I do think that’s a clever thing to do with the Doctor, with the concept of the Doctor as this all-knowing supreme being: show up their cultural specificity, their blind spots as a white person. But this is such a famous historical moment. And the Doctor apparently knows Rosa’s entire biography! I feel like those two things, the Doctor’s historical knowledge and her cluelessness when it comes to the spaces her friends can safely inhabit, sit uneasily together.

And Chibnall and Blackman’s view on how history works feels a little off-base. The episode very much takes up the Great Person theory of history: the idea that just one person! doing something extraordinary! can Change the World! The truth is more complicated than that: Rosa Parks’ protest did not come out of a vacuum. She’d already been involved with the NAACP for twelve years. Even if she hadn’t refused to move on 1st December 1955, she might well have done so another day. Or the NAACP would have found another symbol to rally behind. Rosa Parks is important because she was an ordinary person, and she did protest, at significant personal cost. But she is not the only person who could have done so.

But then: I am white, and I am inevitably reading Rosa through a white lens. There’s a sense in which Rosa is not necessarily for me; in which it prioritises viewers who aren’t white; which is not, of course, a bad thing. One of the episode’s most powerful moments has Ryan in the same room as both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King: there’s this palpable sense of wonder, of Ryan’s delight and amazement at being part of a history that is his in a way that, say, Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst might be part of mine. It’s a history tied to his own family – to Grace, his dead grandmother, for whom Parks and King were personal heroes – and so, fundamentally, to his identity. In that context, we can perhaps read Rosa Parks’ specific actions that specific day as, in fact, vitally important to the narrative of the Black people who came after her; in trying to take that away, Krasko is perhaps destroying a foundational myth, an identity.

Generally, then, Rosa centres people of colour, relegating its white characters to positions of cluelessness, discomfort or complicity (hence, perhaps, my own discomfort at seeing the Doctor powerless to protect her friends from discrimination). I’m not sure, but that feels like something the show has never done before. In Rosa, Chibnall and Blackman position the civil rights movement as part of a long arc of justice and progress, of things slowly getting better for everyone. That might not be where the world is going right now, but it is at least where the show is going. And that’s a really lovely and really exciting thing.

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