Rosa – Doctor Who; History became Legend

Doctor Who has something of a weird track record with history. Which is odd for a time travel show. Running the gauntlet of being a family friendly show, trying to educate and entertain has led to some questionable decisions. How much of the bleakness of history do you show? How much detail?

Rosa runs a very particular tightrope – delving into the stark realities of racism and segregation, while trying to remain hopeful and entertaining. If you hop on social media you will see a lot of praise for how brutal this story was in its portrayal of prejudice and white privilege.

A Legend or a Person

The 2010 episode Victory of the Daleks shied away from portraying Winston Churchill as he was in favour of the legend of who he was. Gone were the ugly sides of a politician whose views on racism and women would have been wholly unpalatable to most audiences. Instead we had the comic version of him, the gruff British bulldog from the car insurance adverts.

The story of Rosa Parks is a big and important one. Legend says that she was coming home, tired from work, and refused to stand on the bus. This simple act of spontaneous rebellion sparked a wide ranging protest. But is that how it really happened? That is very much the comfortable version of history that has been fed to us. What really went on in Alabama in 1955?

Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist and organiser. The bus protests were something that had been planned and organised for a long time in advance of December 1955. Rosa was chosen, and indeed chose herself, for a variety of reasons, to stage the protest. This was not some spontaneous, spur of the moment act, but a calculated and well executed plan.

Heroes and Stories

The story of Rosa Parks is very powerful. A woman at the centre of a resistance movement standing up (ironically) to an oppressive regime through a simple act is incredibly inspiring. The fact that she worked hard, almost all her life, to organise, prepare, plan and execute this plan is inspiring in a very different way.

It is hard work to stand up to horrible systems. Years and years of work, and toil, and suffering. And even after all that work, things are still tough.

The Doctor has, countless times, been involved in uprisings, resistance movements, and rebellions. They know how hard it can be, how much effort goes into these fights. Having said that, given how often the Doctor shows up at the end to trigger a big, climactic showdown and bring it all crashing to down, maybe they don’t.

Rosa Parks’ activism wasn’t ignored. She wasn’t passive, she was involved in politics and was a member of the NAACP. When Ryan follows Rosa home, he mentions that he wants to be part of ‘The Fight’. He is introduced to others involved, including Martin Luther King. It would have been brilliant to see more of this, and given that the Doctor has such a history with resistance groups, it would have fit in well with the show.

Hard Graft

What message is the show sending with this story? The simple act of standing up to oppression seems very, well, simple. The story of Rosa Parks and the movement she was part of; telling the audience that to garner real change takes a lot of hard graft and difficult work is not the kind of story many audiences are used to hearing.

The episode was dedicated to showing incredibly uncomfortable realities of segregation in the Jim Crow era. Dip into social media and you will see a lot of comments about how the show tackled the uncomfortable topics and showed them starkly.

The Shakespeare Code (2007) came under fire for its blithe dismissal of Martha Jones’ worries about being a woman of colour in Elizabethan England. The Doctor’s glib ‘just act like we own the place, always works for me’ came across as incredibly insensitive.

Rosa deals with this head on with the Doctor admitting that for herself and Graham things will be easier because they are white. Ryan and Yas were given the option of returning to the TARDIS to be safe, and to hide from it. They chose not to, they chose to fight on.

Ryan and Yas have a very frank conversation about the prejudices they face in the modern day. It is a welcome and brilliant piece of television; these are important issues and Doctor Who is uniquely placed to give these topics air. There’s a huge audience, and many of them young, who desperately need to hear it.

Young people will see this story, see people discuss how they are treated in this day and age. The ‘you are not alone’ message, and that if you see it, you’re not imagining it.

A Dark Future

The villain of the piece, Krasko (Joshua Bowman), is a racist from the future. Exactly how far in the future isn’t clear, but far enough that he can get hold of some cheap and nasty time travel.

This is a poignant decision for the writers to make. For an episode that puts so much emphasis on how much Rosa Parks and the protests she helped organise changed things, it is a stark reminder that these twisted people will still exist in the future.

When Yas comforts Ryan with the fact that America changes to the point where a they will elect a black President, I suspect most of the audience immediately thought, as I did, but what about the guy who came next?

History is not a straight line from bad to good. A pendulum swinging one way, then the other. Krasko wants to nudge history so as to maintain his prefered political set up; white people on top, black people kept “in their place”. That the future contains these people reminds us that the present does, too.

We live in an age of white supremacists on the resurgence. Far right groups see the White House occupied by one who supports them. The internet is chocked full of trolls and anti-black activists thirsting for a fight.

An episode like this is important, to tell us that history can change, and that individuals can change it. Rosa Parks’ story is inspirational, emotional, and dangerous. Can the world we live in now handle the story of the hard work, constant grind and pain it takes to make real change? Perhaps executives at the BBC decided that no, it can’t.

Education, Education, Education

Chris Chibnall stated that he wanted his series to return to Doctor Who’s roots as an educational program. There were certainly moments where it felt like Jodie Whittaker was reading from a history textbook, talking directly to the audience.

While this may have been more of a watered down version of the Rosa Parks story, I really hope people seek to learn more as a result. The production team and the actors clearly put their hearts into this episode and if a good portion of the viewership decide to go out and learn what really happened, this episode will have done a good job.

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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.