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How DOCTOR WHO’s ‘Rosa’ Episode Stays (Mostly) True to History

The story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus has been told many times. So, while re-watching Doctor Who‘s “Rosa,” particularly during Black History Month, I began to wonder about the episode’s accuracy. Sure, this episode itself breaks historical ground with its writer Malorie Blackman, a Black woman and accomplished author, becoming the first person of color to write for the series. But I was not sure to what extent Doctor Who had gotten things right in this story about Rosa Parks; however, after taking a look at the past, it is rather accurate when you take out the sci-fi aspects.

Rosa’s choice to stay seated was spontaneous but also could be seen as a strategic and conscious decision to provide a case to start the Montgomery bus boycotts. Several things seem to support this statement. The idea of having a woman plaintiff protest the unjust policies enforced on and around busing was already in play, which Mrs. Parks knew about. Rosa and her husband Raymond Parks’ activist work was already in play for some time.

a photo of an actress portraying Rosa Parks sitting on a bench wearing glasses, a small dark hat, and a beige suit with a brown purse

Coco Van Oppens/BBC

Her husband had been a protestor for the Scotsboro boys, and both of them were NAACP members. She was particularly invested in the case of Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat in March 1955. Colvin nearly became the face of the movement before the discovery of her being a pregnant and unwed teenager. Fears of Colvin’s potential treatment by white press led the NAACP to wait for another person. According to Mrs. Parks’ memoir, Colvin was the granddaughter of her grandparent’s neighbor—a connection that sparked her interest. 

When you take this knowledge into consideration, one might assume that Mrs. Parks’ actions were intentional, but she steadily denies this in her memoir. Parks says she did not think about boycotts nor being a plaintiff prior to her arrest that day. She did not want to give in anymore because, in her words, “The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us.”

We see this brewing frustration and exhaustion in “Rosa” with Rosa deciding to refuse an order by the bus driver. She almost seems to hesitate but stands her ground, opting instead for arrest over following an unjust law. The Doctor even follows up with a epilogue about what happens after Rosa’s arrest: the Montgomery bus boycotts, the Parks’ losing their jobs, the desegregation of Montgomery buses in 1956, and Rosa’s Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. 

a woman depicting Rosa Parks stands beside a man wearing a dark suit in a dimly lit room

Simon Ridgway/BBC

The episode also shows the Parks’ activism through an intimate meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Gray; companion Ryan Sinclair is also present as an audience surrogate of sorts. It takes place the night before she refuses to give up her seat. There’s no specific conversations on-screen but it is a rather surprising scene considering that Martin Luther King, Jr. was relatively unknown prior to the bus boycotts.

In fact, the reason King became a leader of the movement was because he was new to Montgomery. He hadn’t made any waves that would lead to local political infighting. Nevertheless, the average viewer does not have that historical knowledge; so, inserting him in this scene is a way to demonstrate Rosa Parks’ level of activist involvement. 

That small anachronism aside, when I compare “Rosa” to the information shared by Mrs. Parks in her memoir I have to admit that, aliens and time travelers aside, the portrayal of events in Doctor Who are almost as accurate as I could ask for from a science fiction television show. The issue comes with the aliens and time travelers themselves. While Thirteen and her companions aim to prevent a shift in history from an alien; but this actually ends up taking some of the agency away from it.

a Black woman wearing a tan skirt suit, wire rim glasses, and white gloves holding a purse stands facing a white man whose back is turned to the camera

Coco Van Oppens/BBC

The TARDIS team scrambles to create the conditions for things to go a certain way. Their actions cause the full bus and makes sure that James Blake (the driver) and Rosa are in place. They want to make sure events stay the same as current history remembers them; but, in Parks’ memoir, she says she would have avoided getting on that bus if she were paying attention because of her first interaction with James Blake years prior. Both instances reinforce this “unpredictable” nature of events; however, the show implicates that if Thirteen and fam hadn’t done what they did that history would have collapsed with white supremacy winning that day and the universe. 

The truth is that people like Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith all chose, of their own volition, to keep their seats. And I’m fully confident that if Mrs. Parks hadn’t stayed in her seat that there would have been another day in the near future that she would have kept sitting, with James Blake or with someone else. Things would certainly not have been exactly the same. But the boycotts had been in the works for months if not years, and Black folks were tired of oppression. The wheels were already in motion. Mrs. Parks gave them an extra boost. 

There’s also the episode’s small issue of centering Graham toward the end. He does not want to be a part of this narrative of history via taking a seat on the bus. This is Rosa’s moment with The Doctor and the companion’s there to just literally take up space on the bus. I understand the reasoning behind it. Having team TARDIS be integral to the historical narrative is essential for the show. But I do wonder if there could have been another way.

photo of Doctor Who companion Ryan Sinclair shaking the hand of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Simon Ridgway/BBC

I could easily see, for example, a modification on the companion-lite concept with less weight towards Graham’s narrative rather than trying to equally include all the companions. The latter seems to be what “Rosa” aims for, but it did not flow well for me. We can speculate about how much input showrunner Chris Chibnall had on the episode and perhaps Graham’s involvement; he shares a co-writer credit with Blackman for this story.  

The brief conversation between Yaz and Ryan with them discussing their current experiences vs. what’s happening where they are in Montgomery is more in line with what fans need to see. It felt like the kind of conversation that could happen with one of my own friends. And, it shows a level of camaraderie and solidarity between Ryan and Yaz as people of color (along with Yaz’s perspective as a police officer) that isn’t seen enough on the show. It’s a true shame that it won’t happen again with Ryan giving up his full-time companion spot. 

Overall, my outlook on “Rosa” is very positive. It is a solid historical episode about a big event that holds true to Mrs. Parks’ own words about that day. Hopefully, Doctor Who continues to hire more writers and directors of color (Mark Tonderai returns for “Rosa” after becoming the show’s first Black director) who will do more excellent work to tell vital stories.