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“Rosa” Challenges DOCTOR WHO’s History, and Our Own

“Rosa” Challenges DOCTOR WHO’s History, and Our Own

Warning: here be spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “Rosa.”

When you’re a fan of time travel as a genre, there’s an inevitable question that comes up: forward or backward? Given the keys to the time machine of your choice and the ability to go anyplace in history that you are wont, do you go to the future or the past? The answers can be mixed, but I’ve noticed a trend that the further one gets from the privileged center of modern human experience, the less and less likely a person is to say “past.”

With this knowledge in mind, “Rosa” is an episode of Doctor Who that I have been anticipating with a strong degree of anxious trepidation. This nervousness has been present ever since the first rumblings of it as a potential story were being leaked out into the Internet as series 11 of the show entered production. A story about our team of time travelers visiting Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) and likely becoming involved with the events of December 1st, 1955, felt like something that had millions of ways to go wrong and only a very few, if any, ways of going right.

Being a woman of white privilege in the USA, I don’t feel that I have the right to say which of these two camps the episode ultimately lands in, but I do think it goes about it in the best way possible. Firstly, the episode’s co-writer Malorie Blackman is the first woman of color to write for Doctor Who in its entire 55-year history. This statistic should be a painful embarrassment for any show, let alone one that prides itself on the value of empathy and the betterment of understanding the way Who does. Speaking at New York Comic Con this year, showrunner Chris Chibnall, who co-wrote the episode with Blackman, stated that one of the most important aspects of this new series and its diverse writing staff was the way it allowed for stories that came at the Doctor Who formula from previously unconsidered perspectives. “Rosa” marks the first attempt at such a story, and it takes as much aim at the show’s own history with race as it does humanity’s.

As much as I love Doctor Who, its racial track record has not been exemplary. Heated fan debates have raged as recently as this summer over the legacy of one of the most popular serials of Tom Baker‘s classic series’ run, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” an homage to Victorian pulp detective stories that is both laudable for its storytelling, and cringe-worthy for its vastly uncomfortable depiction of Asian characters, including one of the primary antagonists, a Chinese man played by white English actor John Bennett in yellowface. Recent years have done a little better, but the show has had a poor tendency to want to nope away any racial conversation rather than hang on to it. Similarly, Bill Potts, the gay black woman who served as Peter Capaldi’s companion in his final season, had her own experiences with race or her sexuality treated as quirky relics of a distant society on multiple occasions.

“Rosa” does not let the culture, or the show itself, off so easily. Where Bill, or previous black companions like Martha Jones or Mickey Smith, would express their fears of traveling to the past and ultimately do so safely, one of the first events to befall Ryan (Tosin Cole) is one of immediate violence committed upon him in the street. And it’s not a one off-interaction: Ryan is the subject of racist hatred throughout the episode. To a lesser but still painful degree so is Yaz (Mandip Gil), a Pakistani-British woman misidentified as “Mexican” by the people of Montgomery.

Furthermore, the story doesn’t allow the audience to rest easy with the mistaken belief that everything is better now. Ryan and Yaz engage in a conversation about ways racism still impacts their daily lives in the modern day UK, a discussion it largely feels that they’d be unable to have with such candor or uninterrupted with naive white hope if Graham (Bradley Walsh) or even the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) were present. Not content to simply shine a light on these realities of the modern day, Blackman and Chibnall refuse to rest on the optimism that previous Doctor Who stories have of a future where such ideas have been completely eradicated. The episode’s villain, Kresko (Josh Bowman), is a time traveler from the distant future who still maintains the same prejudices of 1950s Montgomery. These are ideas that we cannot assume will simply go away. They must always be fought.

Where “Rosa” has the most impact, and what makes it stand out from possibly every other attempt that Doctor Who has ever made at depictions of race relations, is that it absolutely flat-out refuses to allow its white leads to feel like heroes. Where previous episodes gave the Doctor, and thus the audience, moments of triumph like punching a bigot, “Rosa” instead forces the Doctor and Graham to be complicit in their whiteness. Throughout the episode Ryan and Yaz share a sense of danger in their identity that the Doctor and Graham simply do not. They frown and grimace and apologize for it, but the results are still the same. As ultimately righteous as their mission to preserve the events of history may be, when it comes to Rosa Parks’ moment of destiny, the Doctor and Graham must make the decision to participate in the events that force her to move in the first place. Both of them must remain in their seats on the bus in order to allow the bus driver to force Parks to move.

The inherent danger in depicting an important event in the American Civil Rights Movement in a time travel show (whose title character is a white woman) is in cheapening the things done by the real historical figures. It would have been easy enough for Blackman and Chibnall to just make the Doctor a sideline hero, helping things along without recognition and then stepping aside like an episode of Quantum Leap. Instead, she ends the episode having to get her hands dirty and participate in the oppression of the time. The Doctor and Graham, and by extension any white audience members who want to feel above it all, are made uncomfortable in exactly the way we should. It doesn’t matter that the Doctor’s an alien who has saved the universe a thousand times over. At this moment and in this place, she’s benefiting from the culture that Rosa Parks is standing up against. To treat her like she’s not would be a disservice to the entire endeavor.

Images: BBC

 

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