Discussing Doctor Who: Rosa

Doctor Who Rosa Parks

Fresh off getting her TARDIS back, the Doctor learns that she, like most of her other incarnations, doesn’t actually control her ship.

Instead of taking them home, the TARDIS takes them where they need to go and this week it’s Alabama at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement with Rosa Parks.

I’m joined this week to talk “Rosa” by Hannah Long (@HannahGraceLong) and Jenna DeWitt (@Jenna_DeWitt).

If you need to catch up, we broke down the season premiere “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” and “The Ghost Monument.

This week, I’m asking the questions (with my 2¢ throw in), while Hannah and Jenna push back some and provide the bulk of our conversation.

This episode has been heralded as one of the most important episodes in the history of Doctor Who. What are your initial thoughts?

Jenna: It’s a bit intimidating to write about this episode, which has been called one of the show’s best in its long history (which began a mere eight years after the events of this episode). Regardless of its ranking, it marks a significant moment in Doctor Who history as well—a return to the original vision of an educational show.  

Andra Day’s “Rise Up” was a fitting choice for the moment of Rosa’s arrest, hitting a pinnacle when she looks up at Ryan through the window just as Day sings “for you.” She did it not because she was tired from her work day as a seamstress. Not for herself. But because she knew things had to change for future generations.

Had this episode aired during the early years of the Obama presidency, the “look how far we’ve come” factor would have been sweet and victorious, but that’s about it. Now, just a few years later, it is wrapped in so much more power in a post-Ferguson, post-Charlottesville world.

One where the trolls of the comments section have taken to the streets with tiki torches. One where hashtags memorialize those who have died due to police brutality. One where affirming that black lives do, in fact, matter as much as any other has become a political statement. The US—and the world at large—is finding itself divided as ever and with all the tech tools to reveal and stoke the outrage, whether of hatred or of justice.

We need more stories like this, not just to remind us of our past, but to put ourselves in the place of Rosa and hear from a Ryan: “It will get better. Not perfect, but better.” The stands we take today for what’s right do matter. They have an impact. Maybe not immediately, maybe the fight is just getting started, but someday future generations won’t be able to recall the details of how bad things used to be.

That’s the promise we fight for when we engage in little rebellious acts against systemic evil. That one day, what’s right will come so naturally that we will have to be reminded of how much has changed and actively honor what it took.

Hannah: Rosa is the first episode of the series written by someone other than new showrunner, Chris Chibnall (though he co-wrote the story). I must say, it’s an improvement. There’s much more warmth and sense of place than either of Chibnall’s earlier episodes, and I never felt weighed down by exposition. It doesn’t quite work on a couple levels, but I’ll get to that later.

My favorite part of the episode was unquestionably Vinette Robinson’s performance as Rosa Parks. She’s superb—steely and certain of her own mind, but not in a reckless or rash way. You can tell she’s been living a life of appeasement, but she doesn’t like it. Her restraint makes it all the more powerful when she is defiant.

That said, I don’t think the episode is any more or less important than any of the countless other episodes about racism we’ve seen on the show before. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have important messages. But the talk about its unparalleled importance in all of Doctor Who history is a bit overhyped.

It was hard not to get emotional watching this episode. Vividly portraying (as much as possible on an ostensibly kids’ show) the racism and human degradation present in America during Rosa Parks’ life was gut-wrenching and powerful, yet I can’t help but think the show simply rode the historical weight of that moment in time and failed to create any real tension exclusive to the show. How did you feel the show balanced the importance of the real moment with the development of a television episode?

Jenna: I think that it would have been a mistake to try to make it sci-fi beyond what they did. The point was to portray a real person’s defining moment and to have some sort of monster like in the Van Gogh episode or droids from the Madame du Pompadour episode or a giant bee like in the Agatha Christie episode would have been borderline offensive and at worst, white-savior-y. I think they did the best they could keeping the cheese out while also giving the Doctor a reason to be there.

Hannah: The sheer bravery of Parks’ stand really does buoy up an episode that doesn’t have much of a plot otherwise. I agree with Aaron: I’m not sure it’s fair to credit the episode for any particular innovation in storytelling, since it largely follows history to the letter. What unique changes it does make feel iffy—particularly putting the Doctor and friends on the bus with Rosa. Jodie Whittaker sitting there with her Mork-from-Ork costume can’t help but somewhat trivialize the situation.

My question is this: What storytelling purpose does it serve for the characters to actually be on the bus? Is it emphasizing that the Doctor and her friends aren’t allowed to meddle with time? Could be, but they never had that discussion—the Doctor hasn’t explicitly evoked the rules of time before. So the audience is left in the dark and the opportunity to establish a key component of the show’s mythology and drama is left untouched.

The experience on the bus doesn’t yield any significant later character development, either. If I’d let Rosa Parks be abused on the bus when I could have stopped it, I’d be profoundly disturbed. Ryan, Graham, and Yaz look upset in the moment, but it doesn’t change them.

How could Graham not be heartbroken that he’s the white man who caused Rosa Parks to be arrested? How could he not be angry at the Doctor—irrationally perhaps, but understandably—for making him fill that role? This is what earlier historical episodes have done to companions (Barbara in “The Aztecs,” Donna in “The Fires of Pompeii”) to teach them that history must not be changed and to create a dramatic conflict between the Doctor and companion. It just feels like a wasted opportunity.

I hate to say it, but the show lost me during the historical recap of Rosa Park’s legacy. It felt tacked on, like an afterschool special. In trying to make her more real, it seemed to place her back in a static piece of history. Why not actually go to another seminal moment in Park’s life and allow the story to show us her lasting significance instead of telling us with the Doctor essentially reciting an encyclopedia entry about Parks? What did you take away from the episode’s conclusion?

Jenna: I would say the point was to be educational, so I didn’t have too much of an issue with the biography aspect, but I agree that I wouldn’t want every episode to tie up with an “and that’s our lesson for the day” neat little bow. It’s also good to note that the writer, Malorie Blackman is a well-known British children’s author, so it makes sense it would have a more afterschool-special feel than a Moffat dark revisionist history fairytale vibe.

“In fact, she changed the universe,” the Doctor says back on the TARDIS, showing the gang an asteroid named after the civil rights icon in the closing moments of the episode. But perhaps more meaningful is the clip of the real Rosa Parks receiving her medal of honor from President Clinton in her lifetime.

That to me was the real lasting significance moment: getting to see the actual person being celebrated and not just an actor portray her finding out about the impact she made through some time travel or museum stop or showing her a book with her name in it, though those have been powerful in the past.

https://twitter.com/malorieblackman/status/1054288053081128961

Hannah: I actually wish that the entire episode had been about Rosa during a different period of her life. It’s not that it’s not important for kids to know about Rosa Parks’ bus protest, but it’s a story which has been told over so often that it needs some new angle or aspect of the story to justify its inclusion as a dramatic story-line.

Covering a more obscure moment in history would also have given the show more leeway to tell an original story and play with some of the details. Notice how, in “Vincent and the Doctor,” it’s set a year before he kills himself. It would be tacky to set it the week before, or right after he lops off his ear. There needs to be some distance to treat tragic and triumphant historical events with some artistic license and creativity without being disrespectful.

I’m torn on the villain this week. If we never encounter Krasko again, he will have been a complete waste and nothing more than a plot device for this episode. It would also seem to contradict the supposed pacifist lesson the Doctor wanted Ryan to learn last week—you can’t solve things by shooting. But if we encounter him again, I’m not sure the show will allow him to be anything more than an avatar for racism and not a fully-developed character. In that case, it avoids actually cutting to the real issue of racism and the like—that it’s in our own hearts. That real, normal people harbor these feelings and we must fight against them not only in others, but ourselves. What did you think about Krasko this week?

Jenna: The sci-fi baddie this episode was, thankfully, minimal and in the background to let the larger evil of racism take the center stage. Doctor recognizes the prison tattoo of Stormcage (the highest security prison in space) on a white-supremacist greaser criminal from the future. The TARDIS senses Krasko’s Artron energy, leading the Doctor and gang to follow him and make sure history is preserved.

It is odd to me that Krasko is so fixed on one moment, though I fully agree it was a significant one. If Rosa Parks’s plan to protest by refusing to give up her seat had failed that night, she would have done it another night. Was he planning on just thwarting bus routes for the rest of her life?

Hannah: Krasko was pretty forgettable. His subplot should have let the episode expand some ideas about racism or oppression in general—instead he’s just basically a racist jerk who happens to be an alien. And like Jenna said, his plan had some obvious plot holes that should have been called out.

There were some definite moments of character exploration among the companions this week—Graham still dealing with Grace’s death, Ryan and Yaz talking about the racism they encounter and hints at a future relationship—but the episode still seemed overly crowded—particularly when the show is (rightly) giving as much space and agency as possible to the historical character of Rosa Parks. What were the highlights of the episode in terms of the companions?

Jenna: This was an emotional episode to watch given the very personal subject matter for the younger companions and our current moment. When tempted to fight back, they have to hold in their anger. “Never give them the excuse,” Ryan and Yasmin recall being taught from their childhood. Even in their own time period, they face racism and religious discrimination, lest the (let’s be honest, majority white) viewers are taught such hate ended with a paragraph in a history book.

I love how the spirit of Grace was such a large influence here (much in the way the “spirit of Rosa” influenced her). It was sad seeing Ryan discriminated against with no way to defend himself and have to get in the back of the bus. Graham and the Doctor are appropriately regretful, but Yasmin not knowing where she fits in a world of black and white is a poignant reminder that racism isn’t as simple as Southern US 1950s life. She is mistaken for Mexican, and sometimes faces the same racism as Ryan but also is allowed to sit in the white section of the bus.

It is fitting that the main characters of the show, the Doctor and her friends, are actually somewhat background characters to the main narrative, which can’t be solved by blasting an alien to another place and time or talking sense to two warring sides of a conflict or flashing the sonic screwdriver about.

They just kept any sci-fi forces from interfering and let the true heroine of the story make her choice. Graham in particular has a look of powerlessness at the crucial moment on the Montgomery bus, formerly able to use his white middle-age male privilege to advocate for and defend his black grandson. Here, he can do nothing but ensure Rosa has the choice to make her stand—or, in this case—sit. 

Hannah: Funnily enough, I thought this episode had some of the best character moments we’ve seen so far in this season. I’m talking moments, mainly – like Graham’s stricken face during the bus scene, or Ryan’s geeking out about meeting Martin Luther King, or Yaz joking about being Mexican.

Unfortunately, the moments don’t really amount to much in the way of development or change. The TARDIS team visit significant events but do not learn anything from them that they didn’t know already (that racism is bad is not only clear to our heroes, but has been clear to the show ever since it invented its most iconic villains, the Daleks, eugenicist space Nazis, in 1963).

With such a serious episode, it needed some light moments to still be a Doctor Who episode and I think this week delivered a few great ones. When did you laugh during “Rosa”?

Jenna: Ryan being so in awe of meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and serving coffee in Rosa Parks’s house took the cake. He wasn’t quite sure what she had done at first, but then as he is immersed in the time period, I think his grandmother’s influence came back to him and he is properly astonished to be in the presence of these civil rights heroes.

Hannah: Yeah, that was a highlight for me, too. That was one of my favorite Ryan moments so far – as well as the fact that he didn’t even correctly remember what Rosa Parks did. I loved the running joke about Elvis as well.

I’m curious if Chibnall is leaving tiny breadcrumbs in these seemingly standalone episodes that reveal themselves as significant later on in the season. A few that stood out this week were the Doctor never giving her name to Krasko, when in the past she (or he) takes great relish in making a grand pronouncement about the earth being under the protection of the Doctor. There’s also the fact that Krasko broke out of the same prison as River Song and used the same means of time transport. Do any of those seem significant to you or did you notice any others?

Jenna: It’s a treasured Doctor Who pastime to look for mysterious connections and hidden meanings, but with no double episodes and no long-term arcs, I hesitate to ascribe any meaning to him than a convenient reason for them to stay in the wrong place and time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets reused, but I don’t think he’ll have a significant impact on the series in the vein of the Silence or the Master or anything.

I’d like to think the reason for the lack of a “I am the Doctor” grand pronouncement is more due to the character and showrunner change. It isn’t all about her being the only one who can save the day and the ruler of the universe. She’s just there to make sure the timeline is preserved and stay out of the way of the true hero of the story.

Hannah: They feel more like easter eggs for fans than anything else. It’s kind of disappointing that Chibnall isn’t inventing new pieces of mythology himself, though. Kind of lazy and weird for him to crib Moffat’s “cheap and nasty time travel” line.

Next week on Doctor Who: “Arachnids in the UK.”

2 Comments

  1. Sorry to say but I kinda miss the old reviews from the previous seasons. There doesn’t seem to be as much talk about the deep spiritual significance. The stuff above strikes me as a bit nit-picky, you can get reviews like that anywhere. The Wardrobe Door should stand out as being different.

    Even though we knew that Ms Parks was going to refuse to give up her seat there was plenty of tension with the Doc and crew making sure that history wasn’t changed and then the heart break at having to be part of that history. Isn’t that a first for Doctor Who? (I’m kinda loving the fact that the Doctor no longer has a male ego – it’s refreshing.)

  2. Jasen Reply

    I found the episode very lazy. We’ve already had “Timeless”, “Quantum Leap”, “The Magic School Bus”, “The Magic Tree House”, and who knows how many other shows cover Rosa Parks and/or racism. Even “Babylon 5” had the green & purple Drazi episode – and that show had a LOT of racial tension in it.

    Maybe I’m just old & jaded. A lot of young people seem impressed with the episode. I found it tired ground that’s been tread over many, many times. This episode offered nothing new.

    From a Christian/spiritual perspective, they didn’t deal with the religious reasons behind why racism is bad. MLK and Billy Graham both opposed racism for Christian reasons. Dr. Who just went with “it’s mean” or “unfair”.

    Finally, the “she didn’t just change the world, she changed the universe” line. Please. To elevate Rosa Park’s protest to universe-changing significance belittles all the other racial protests & activism. What about women’s suffrage? What about the abolition of slavery? What about Dr. MLK & Billy Graham? How about Katherine Johnson? And on and on.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.