I am running absurdly late with my review of the Doctor Who episode "Rosa," written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall. I did not, in fact, get to start writing my review until more than a week after the episode aired.
As my regular readers know, such a delay is not unusual for me. And, sometimes, I find that a delay can significantly change my relationship to an episode, for reasons that have little to do with the episode itself.
Here, for example, are just a few things that happened in America in the week after "Rosa" aired.
On Monday, the President of the United States proudly declared himself a "nationalist." "You know what I am?" he told a crowd at a rally in Houston, Texas. "I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word." Though Mr. Trump has claimed to be unaware of any racist connotations to the word, the comments—like many things the President says—were such obvious "dog-whistles" to white supremacists that they barely deserve to be treated as coded. ("Trump's 'I'm a Nationalist' comment will likely represent the biggest boon for white supremacist recruitment since the film Birth of a Nation," tweeted reformed Neo-Nazi Christian Picciollini in response.)
On Wednesday, a white man named Gregory Bush, armed with a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, attempted to enter a predominantly black church in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, during services. When he failed to gain entrance, Mr. Bush headed over to a nearby grocery store, where he shot and killed two black senior citizens, Maurice E. Stallard, 69, and Vickie Lee Jones, 67. Leaving the store, he told a white bystander, "Whites don't kill whites."
On Friday, a white man named Cesar Altieri Sayoc was arrested by the FBI for sending at least 14 explosive devices to prominent progressives and Democratic leaders, including the Obamas, the Clintons, philanthropist George Soros, and African-American members of Congress Maxine Waters, Corey Booker, and Kamala Harris. At the time of his arrest Sayoc was apparently living in a van covered with Trump memes. His former employer reports that Sayoc often expressed hatred of homosexuals and people of color, and proclaimed his belief that “everything that wasn’t white didn’t belong in the world.”
And, on Saturday, a white man named Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, armed with three pistols and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Screaming anti-Semitic slurs, he opened fire, killing 11 people—ranging in age from 54 to 97—and wounding six others. "I just want to kill Jews," he reportedly told one of the arresting officers. Mr. Bowers had repeatedly shared virulently anti-Semitic and xenophobic posts on extremist social media sites. It has been widely reported that Bowers was no fan of Trump, but only because he thought the President was too much of a "globalist," and not enough of a white nationalist.
Obviously, I can't really deal with all of this here: even if I presumed to know how to say something meaningful about any of it, I probably would not attempt to do so in a Doctor Who review.
(This has been, to be honest, the sort of week that makes me wonder if there's really any value in writing about popular culture at all, and those weeks have come much more frequently over the last couple of years.)
However, I bring it up here, in part, to explain why I am not currently inclined to over-analyze and nitpick "Rosa." It is a story, after all, in which the villain is a white supremacist, determined to roll back decades of hard-fought progress towards racial equality in America. More remarkably, it's a story that recognizes that such progress is always imperfect, always unfinished, and always vulnerable to being rolled back. It's a story that acknowledges white privilege, and teaches white people how to be an ally without making the story about them. It's a story that celebrates black strength, and black anger, and black resilience. It's a story that reminds us that hatred and prejudice will always exist—even in the 79th century—but that small acts of moral courage and protest can change the universe ever so slightly for the better.
All in all, that's a good sort of story for Doctor Who to be telling right now. In another mood, in another place, in another moment in history, I might be tempted to quibble with minor things in "Rosa"—some historical over-simplifications, some dodgy accents, some questionable plot points—but I'm inclined this week to celebrate "Rosa" as a smart, powerful, and timely triumph. So let's focus on all the many things that Blackman, Chibnall, and director Mark Tonderai did right.
"We have to not help her.” — The Doctor
I admit, when this episode was first announced, I was nervous. Doctor Who—a British science-fiction/fantasy show primarily aimed at children—was blundering into a dark, sensitive, and sacred area of American history, one that should never be sanitized, trivialized, or sensationalized.
(Granted, the Doctor has interacted with important historical figures since she looked like William Hartnell. But to put Rosa Parks into the typical Doctor Who adventure—fighting giant bees like Agatha Christie did1, perhaps, or made a cutesy friend of Daleks like Winston Churchill was2—would be not just disastrous but fatally offensive.)
But the first of several wise decisions Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall made here was to not place Rosa Parks into a Doctor Who story. Instead, they placed the Doctor—very gingerly, and very sensitively—around the edges of the Rosa Parks story.
In fact, quite cleverly, Blackman and Chibnall ensured that the Doctor's agenda was precisely the same one they had as writers: to somehow leave the essential narrative of Rosa's story completely unaltered, unblemished, untouched by Doctor Who shenanigans. ("Now we know what our task is," the Doctor says. "Keep history in order. No changing it, just guarding it, against someone who wants to disrupt it.”) The Doctor and her friends must quietly protect the events of December 1, 1955 from any interference: from that of time-traveling white supremacist Krasko (Josh Bowman), first and foremost, but also from any interference of their own. ("We have to not help her," the Doctor says, as they bear silent witness to Rosa's courageous act.) For characters and authors alike, the mandate was the same: to tread softly, leaving no footprints or fingerprints on a narrative that they know doesn't belong to them, and in which they know they don't belong.
Such a low-impact approach demonstrates a rare and welcome respect for the history into which the Doctor ventures, and stands in stark, almost accusatory contrast to any number of previous incarnations of the Doctor. Fans with a more obsessively encyclopedic memory than mine will have to tell us when the last time might have been that the Doctor moved so completely invisibly through a story, but it is—to say the least—a welcome change.
And—though I have no particular desire to disparage other eras of Doctor Who, each of which had its strengths and weaknesses—the mind reels to wonder what some previous showrunners might have done with this concept. We have had far too many stories in the modern era that presented the Doctor as a kind of messianic figure—a sort of spiritual fount from which all goodness springs—and it is far too easy to imagine a version of this idea in which Rosa Parks was somehow inspired or emboldened by the Doctor. But Blackman and Chibnall, thankfully, knew that giving the Doctor any credit for Rosa's actions would be an unforgivable insult to her memory.
(The question of what the Doctor's gender-change means to her character is still an open-ended one. But, certainly, it seems very relevant here: the Thirteenth Doctor is refreshingly content to avoid even drawing attention to herself, and has no desire or need to elbow herself into a central role in the story. It was never clearer to me that we've entered a new paradigm of Doctor Who than when I realized, to my relief, that we were in no danger of hearing the Doctor mansplain courage to Rosa Parks.)
All of this was precisely the right way to go, for, of course, Rosa Parks's story needs no embellishment.
“No.” — Rosa Parks
Blackman and Chibnall know better than to play fast and loose with the facts of history here, and "Rosa" has an adherence to historical accuracy that is rare for Doctor Who. They do simplify the tale down to its essentials, however, which is forgivable, and perhaps even advisable. (In fact, it's not even that they get history wrong: they simply leave some complexities of the case undiscussed.)
The simple inspirational myth most American schoolchildren learn—of the tired seamstress who spontaneously started the Civil Rights Movement when she angrily refused to give up her seat—is here for those who want it, and it's a foundation myth that has its uses. But Blackman and Chibnall gesture as well towards the larger story, which is slightly more complex, if no less courageous.
In real life, Parks had long been an activist and organizer in the movement, serving as secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP. "Rosa" nods to this by showing us a meeting between Parks, Martin Luther King (Ray Sesay), and Fred Gray (Aki Omoshaybi). (Gray was the civil rights attorney who would defend Parks in court; a life-long activist, he would later go on to bring other important civil rights cases, like the class-action lawsuit over the Tuskegee experiments. Dr. King—well, I'll assume you know who he was.)
Undiscussed, here, is the fact that Rosa Parks was not even the first woman to do what she did. In the previous year alone, three black women had been arrested for the same offense, including fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin, whose refusal to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus led to her being charged with violating the city's segregation law, disorderly conduct, and assault. The NAACP defended her, but Colvin—an unmarried teen-age girl who had recently become pregnant—was not the ideal symbol of the movement. The NAACP—as Rosa Parks well knew—was looking for someone else who could serve as the plaintiff in a case they could take to the Supreme Court, and to serve as a symbolic rallying figure for the citywide bus boycott they had already begun organizing.
There is disagreement about how spontaneous Parks' act of civil disobedience actually was; some say it was entirely and carefully planned in conjunction with the NAACP, while others (including Parks, in her autobiography) have maintained that it was a genuinely spontaneous act. But, either way, there is no doubt that, when Parks refused to surrender her seat on that bus, she knew exactly what she was doing, and exactly what she was getting herself into. As educator Herbert Kohl writes;
"To call Rosa Parks a poor tired seamstress and not talk about her role as a community leader is to turn an organized struggle for freedom into a personal act of frustration. It is a thorough misrepresentation of the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery and an insult to Parks as well. […]Mere anger and stubbornness could not account for the clear resolve with which Parks acted. She knew what she was doing, understood the consequences, and was prepared to confront segregation head-on at whatever sacrifice she had to make."
Here, Blackman and Chibnall honorably split the difference: we glimpse the meeting in Rosa's house, but we are not witness to the discussion. We know Rosa is active in the movement, but the episode does not interrogate her exact thinking and intentions when she refuses to move on this particular night. It is a treatment that allows a simple interpretation of Parks' civil disobedience, while centering that action in her established commitment to a larger, organized struggle. ("I haven't done anything," Parks says to Ryan after the meeting, and unspoken but understood is the word "yet.")
In retrospect, it is admirable that "Rosa" does not presume to know the inner mind of Rosa Parks, and wisely does not attempt to define her (or diminish her) by inventing passionate, soul-bearing, inevitably phony speeches about why she did what she did. It is a respectfully distant treatment, and Vinette Robinson embodies these complexities in a restrained, internal performance of great intelligence, humanity, and dignity.
“It’s easy for me here. You can walk away from this.” — The Doctor
What is particularly impressive about the story Blackman and Chibnall construct around the Rosa Parks story is how it manages to address several important themes, both overtly and subversively. This is an episode that is not merely a screed against systemic racism, but also manages to be about white privilege, and the responsibilities of being a white ally.
I don't want to spend much time on Krasko: a white supremacist with a supercilious demeanor and a Richard Spencer haircut, he is a suitable enough villain for our times. (Blackman and Chibnall don't spend much time on him either: the episode spends not one second fleshing out his "character," or entertaining his "arguments," and that's appreciated. All we know is he's a smirking neo-Nazi, and that's all we need to know.) His sci-fi agenda, however, is a fairly clever metaphor for the actual agenda and methods of our current generation of white supremacists. He wants to effectively roll the clock back to the 1950s, an era that lives in the minds of too many Americans as some kind of golden age of "family values" and (white) prosperity. And he doesn't come back in time to kill Rosa Parks, but to change her narrative in subtle ways and thus chip away at the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. In our era of Fake News, Holocaust-deniers, Internet trolls, and racist politicians who somehow try to claim that Martin Luther King would have been on their side, Krasko's attempts to literally alter the history books is fitting. History, as the Doctor reminds us, is fragile, and we all have to be vigilant about insidious attempts to rewrite the narrative.
So Krasko is not a subtle monster, and he is not meant to be. But "Rosa" as a whole is surprisingly subtle and sensitive in its construction.
Throughout the episode, it is Ryan and Yasmin, of course, who feel the weight and threat of Montgomery's racism. They are only the third and fourth full-time companions of color in Doctor Who's 55-year history,3 and now they become the first to experience the dangers that should, realistically, be a much more common complication of time travel. Where previously the show did little more than wave at the notion that people of color might face additional dangers in the past, Blackman and Chibnall acknowledge it fully: from inequitable laws and customs to the ever-present danger of violence from police and private citizens alike.
Here, again, I give Blackman, Chibnall, and the entire BBC a lot of credit. I have no doubt that there were difficult conversations about how realistically Doctor Who should attempt to paint this era—and how directly to address issues of systemic racism that did and do exist—in what is still, primarily, a children's show. It was not a surprise to see Doctor Who show discriminatory practices such as those in the transportation, food service, and hospitality industries: reducing the fight against racism down to such struggles—struggles that have largely been won—is often how it is sanitized and made palpable for children, and even in films for a general audience like Driving Miss Daisy and The Help.
It was a surprise, however, to hear a white man (Richard Lothian) directly threaten to lynch Ryan for speaking to a white woman. (“He’ll be swinging from a tree with a noose for a neckerchief if he touches a white woman in Montgomery.”) It was a surprise to hear Rosa Parks invoke the name of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who had been lynched in nearby Mississippi—his murderers acquitted by an all-white jury—for allegedly doing just that a few months earlier in 1955. This is a difficult subject to discuss with children, and I give "Rosa" a lot of credit for not shying away from it.
We do not hear the N-word in "Rosa"—a completely understandable lack of verisimilitude—but the episode is otherwise remarkable for its refusal to tone down the realities of mid-century racism. (I am particularly impressed that "Rosa" does not feel obligated to show us even one single saintly white person in 1955 Montgomery: most stories of this type go out of their way to show us that "not all white people were like that," ensuring that white viewers have someone decent with whom they can identify. Blackman and Chibnall, very intentionally, provide no such comfort here.)
And I very much like the scene in which Ryan and Yaz—while huddling for safety from a racist cop—acknowledge to each other that not everything about 1955 Alabama is unfamiliar to people of color in the 21st century. "It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the board forever,” Ryan says. "Otherwise, how come I get stopped way more by the police than my white mates?" He and Yaz even discuss getting "The Talk" from their family members: the conversation all parents of color must eventually have with their children, warning them of the immediate and ever-present dangers of racist white people in general, and racist cops in particular. ("Thank God me Nan taught me how to keep my temper," Ryan says. "Never give them the excuse.")
It is significant, too, that this conversation happens when Ryan and Yaz are alone, for these are shared emotions and experiences they might not discuss as openly and honestly with their white companions. Co-written by a black woman, "Rosa" is sensitive to the ways people of color experience the world, and process those experiences, and discuss those experiences, in ways far different than white people do. The Doctor and Graham are allies, but they do not experience this place and time—or any place and time—in the same way that Ryan and Yaz do. They understand things even the Doctor doesn't know.
I also like the way Blackman and Chibnall's script acknowledges the sometimes conscious, sometimes clueless white privilege of the Doctor and Graham. "It's easy for me here," the Doctor tells Ryan and Yaz, giving them the option of going back to the TARDIS. "You can walk away." (It is an option, of course, that they don't take. “If she can live here her whole life," Ryan says, "a couple hours ain't gonna kill me.” Only later—in that conversation alone with Yaz—will he admit how hard it is. "I'm having to work so hard to keep my temper, every second here," he says—a sentiment that will also be familiar to people of color in our own time.)
"Rosa," as I've already suggested, does a pretty good job of teaching white people how to be allies: bear witness, and use your privilege to help, but don't make the story about you. (Graham's information-gathering infiltration of the bus-drivers is a good example.) Graham and the Doctor are allies, but—though properly outraged—they do not experience this world the same way as Ryan and Yaz, and they do not fully understand their own privilege. Driven from the restaurant, for example, Graham is offended, but he's also still petulantly hungry. "Hey, we will stop somewhere else to eat, though, won't we?" he complains, and Ryan gently calls him out on it. ("We just got thrown out of a bar and that's what you're worried about?") Meanwhile, the Doctor is seemingly oblivious to the fact that sneaking Ryan and Yaz into the Whites Only motel is putting their lives in danger, or that sending Ryan out alone at night to corral white passengers is probably not a great idea. While questioning Rosa on the bus, the Doctor is also utterly clueless that her good-natured assumption of equality is creating an uncomfortable situation for the black passengers, a hard fact of life that Rosa must patiently explain to her. ("Ma'am, if you keep sitting there, we're all going to have to move.")
I am reminded of Season Three's "The Shakespeare Code," written by Russell T Davies, in which Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) expressed trepidation about being "not exactly white" in Elizabethan England. "Just walk about like you own the place," the Tenth Doctor cockily assured her. "Works for me." It was a stunningly tone-deaf line on Davies' part, and an irresponsible expression of white (male) privilege on the Doctor's part. Here, the Doctor is a little more woke, but "Rosa" admirably acknowledges that the Doctor's whiteness—and, until recently, maleness—serves as an all-access pass to history that doesn't work for everyone.
Not everyone can afford to walk around like they own the place, even in the 21st century.
“I don't want to be part of this.” — Graham
The uncomfortable acknowledgement of privilege reaches its peak, appropriately enough, in the final bus scene. Having ensured Rosa is where she is supposed to be on the evening of December 1, 1955, the TARDIS team intends to depart the narrative and get out of history's way—but they can't. There are not enough occupied seats to fulfill the conditions that led to Rosa's arrest, and so they must stay. "We're part of the story, part of history," Yasmin says. And Graham, standing in the aisle, actually becomes one of the white people to whom driver James Blake (Trevor White) demands Rosa and the other black passengers relinquish their seats. "No, no, no," Graham says, choked in horror when he realizes what's happening. "I don't want to be part of this."
But he is part of it. They're all part of it. We're all part of it. "Rosa" reminds us that there is no removing ourselves from the story; none of us get to extricate ourselves from the terrible fabric of history. To attempt to do so—to shirk our own responsibility, or deny our own complicity—is an insult to the story itself, and a refusal to grapple with its meaning.
This is how it happened. Rosa refused to move, and she was arrested for her refusal to move, and she and her husband lost their jobs, and everything was hard for her for the rest of her life. She did an incredibly brave thing on December 1, 1955, and no white people helped her, and no other black people joined her. "It would have been quite interesting to see the whole bus empty out," she wrote in her autobiography:
"Or if the other three had stayed where they were, because if they'd had to arrest four of us instead of one, then that would have given me a little support. But it didn't matter. I never thought hard of them at all and never even bothered to criticize them."
No one gave her even a little support, not that night. She didn't judge them for that, for such courage does not come easy. But we should acknowledge that few of us would have shown that courage either. We all want to pretend we would have been the person to stand with her—to protest her treatment and help her shoulder that terrible burden—but we are almost certainly deluding ourselves. "We have to not help her," the Doctor says, because that's how the story goes. No one helped her. We didn't help her. Mark Tonderai's subtly powerful direction captures the truth of that moment, shooting her from below, so that neither the white people in front of her her nor the black people behind her are visible: there is just Rosa, a solitary tower of strength and dignity and righteous anger. And on this night, Rosa sat—she stood—alone.
"This ain't history here," Ryan has said, earlier in the episode. He means that being in 1950s Montgomery is very different from learning about 1950s Montgomery. But that line—falling as it does in the conversation he and Yasmin have about the things that have not changed—has special resonance.
Because this ain't history here: history is all yesterdays, just a bunch of stories, and, as the Doctor reminds us, history is fragile. None of us—not even the Doctor—can live in a yesterday. We are always living in today.
As Rosa says, when today ain't working, the promise of tomorrow is what we have to fight for. And today, right here in 2018, a lot of things ain't working.
Today, countries around the world—including, but not limited to, the United States of America—are taking horrifying turns towards overt white nationalism, xenophobia, and fascist oppression.
Today, white supremacists are freshly emboldened by the hate rhetoric of their leaders to commit acts of terror against people of color, motivated by a twisted longing to roll back the hard-fought, incremental, imperfect progress that activists like Rosa Parks spent their lives achieving, inch by inch.
Today, police officers murder unarmed black people, and systemically racist law enforcement and criminal justice systems conspire to cover up, justify, and pardon these crimes.
Today, immigrants are being demonized and vilified, subject to persecution and imprisonment and threats of violence. Today, families fleeing wars are greeted by armies who threaten to shoot them. Today, parents desperately trying to bring their children to safety are having their children taken away to prison camps.
Today, in Missouri, a black activist named Melissa McKinnies is mourning the death of her 24-year-old son Danye Jones, after waking up to find him hanging from a tree in her backyard on October 17, 2018. The St. Louis police department has ruled Danye's death a suicide, but Ms. Mckinnies—whose family has received death threats ever since she helped lead the Ferguson Uprising in 2014—knows it was a lynching. In a Facebook post, Ms. McKinnies posted a picture of her son’s hanging body, much like Emmett Till's mother insisted on an open casket for her son's funeral, way back in 1955. Like Mamie Till, 63 years earlier, Melissa McKinnies was insisting—with a pain and courage and rage most of us cannot begin to imagine—that the world not be allowed to turn its face from the unspeakable horror of what had been done to her son. “This is what I woke up to," Ms. McKinnies wrote, beneath the picture. "They lynched my baby. I’m sick and losing my mind but I had to let the world see what they did to my baby.”
This—and so much more—is happening right now. And, as several people have pointed out recently, if you ever wondered what you would have done—during slavery, during the Holocaust, during the Civil Rights era—you don't have to wonder, because you're doing it right now.
This ain't history here. This is now, 2018. And none of us gets to get off the bus.
- In Season Four’s “The Unicorn and the Wasp.”
- In Season Five’s “Victory of the Daleks.”
- After Tenth Doctor companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Twelfth Doctor companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie).