My expectations for Rosa, the third episode of this season of Doctor Who, were not high. I wish I could say I was wrong. The fact that I can feel the good intentions radiating from every aspect of the show doesn’t help; if anything, it makes it worse.
As documented in last week’s review, the notion of a Doctor Who episode featuring Rosa Parks struck me as a singularly terrible idea. It seemed to me almost impossible for even the most talented writer to thread that needle, because the format demands that any episode about Rosa Parks not actually be about Rosa Parks. Historical figures who show up in Doctor Who are a sideshow to the Doctor’s time-hopping adventures. For the most part, this is fine; nobody minds if Julius Caesar or William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens are sideshows. But when the subject is the catalyst for the civil rights movement in the US, in the middle of the Trump administration…sideshow Rosa Parks is not a great look.
The absolute worst case I imagined was that the episode would Back To The Future it and have the (white) Doctor inspire Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat. Fortunately, this did not come to pass. In fact, the episode does a better job than I imagine in keeping Rosa well away from any alien-related nonsense, and in keeping her actions and legacy central to the episode’s structure. In many ways, the episode is a success that exceeds what I imagined possible. But this partial success comes at a terrible cost. The conclusion of this episode is a calamity, only barely any better than the Back to the Futureism I feared, and it’s filled to the brim with a false – or, at least, incomplete – history.
One aspect in which the episode is not false about history is in its portrayal of the perils of the Jim Crow south. The Doctor and her companions hadn’t been on the ground for five minutes before Ryan was struck by a racist white man, and threatened with a lynching. There’s a tense confrontation with a local police officer who wants these trouble-making travellers to leave town. And while BBC-mandated language restrictions prevent them from whipping out the full N-word, the script walks as close to that line as it can get away with. The episode makes no bones about the fact that the villain is racism, and that Jim Crow was enforced through violence against black people. I’m of two minds about whether this is actually a good thing or not. On the one hand, without a grisly depiction of this violence, the episode would be not only hollow, but a lie; there is no way to talk honestly about the Jim Crow south while eliding its atrocities. But on the other hand, the simple reproduction of this racist violence doesn’t serve anyone well unless it’s done with a clear purpose, and I don’t think the purpose it went towards here was particularly good. To put it another way, if you’re going to have fresh-faced new black companion Ryan Sinclair, who has hardly had an opportunity to distinguish himself as a companion yet, get immediately slapped in the face, called ‘boy’, and threatened with a lynching for the crime of trying to return a white woman’s dropped glove…you better have a really good reason for doing so. And I don’t know that this episode justified that, in the end.
Still, I’m counting this in the episode’s favor. Whether you think they succeeded or failed in their purpose, they went way out on a limb here, and really committed to a risky storytelling tack. And on its own terms, the episode did a good job of it.
I feel less ambiguous about the scene with Yazmin and Ryan, as they hide behind a dumpster, in which they commiserate about racism that they’ve experienced, and survival tactics they’ve developed or been taught. This is a really well-acted scene, and sufficiently powerful that I hardly even mind that it occasionally slips into the stare-into-the-camera-and-tell-your-life’s-story expository mode that has so typified this season’s writing. That it’s the two companions of colour talking among themselves, with the Doctor and Graham out of the scene, that really sells it. This scene is genuinely great. I wish the whole episode was like this! Let the Doctor and her temporal shenanigans slip into the background and have an episode about two companions of colour dealing with the history, present, and future of racism.
There are three big problems with this episode. The first is that its history of the Jim Crow south is incomplete. The second is that its history of Rosa Parks’s role in the civil rights movement is false. The last, and possibly the worst, is that makes the Doctor and her companions complicit in the racist violence, and then mines that complicity for pathos, treating it like a great sacrifice on their part.
The first problem is by far the most intractable. The episode, as previously noted, does a good job demonstrating the depth of racist terror in the Jim Crow south. It falters, however, in demonstrating its breadth. Segregation of public places, enforced by the implicit and explicit threat of racist violence, is an important element of Jim Crow, but it’s only a part of it. Jim Crow was a whole system of methods used to protect white supremacy and prevent black people from exercising their human and constitutional rights. The episode makes no mention of poll tax and literacy tests used to keep black people from exercising their right to vote, or to the massive (700% in some cases!) funding disparities between black and white schools. It even manages to avoid all mention of slavery, which Jim Crow was created to preserve.
Indeed, the only way Jim Crow is presented to the audience is through the fury of white people when faced with the existence of black people in spaces they consider ‘theirs’. One could easily walk away from the episode with the impression that the problem with the Jim Crow South was that it was full of Bad People. There’s no attempt to systematize the racism, and indeed, the episode even engages in some saccharine racial positivism: “They don’t win, those people. I can be a police officer now because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me; for us. And in fifty-three years they’ll have a black president as leader. Who knows where they’ll be fifty years after that.” It’s a very heart-warming sentiment, but one that rings absolutely hollow two years after Donald Trump rode a wave of racial resentment and backlash into office; when neo-nazi gangs are beating protestors in the streets of New York while police stand by; when Republican governors and secretaries of state throughout the country are busy doing everything they can to suppress the black and latinx vote in order to allow for white minority rule, just as it was under Jim Crow. And the fact that the villain of the piece is a racist from the 79th century is no help here. Yes, racism clearly exists in the future, but our time travelling racist is also a mass-murdering super-criminal from turbo jail. This doesn’t suggest that the institution of racism survives into the future. Like the rest of the episode, it puts the blame for racism on Bad People and disguises the broader system.
How many white viewers will see themselves reflected in bus driver James Blake, or Mr. Racist Future Man, or the white man who threatens Ryan with a lynching? Some, certainly; there have always been white people who revel in racism’s violence and power and feel justified in doing so. But there are many more who will see these overt, threatening, explicitly violent forms of racism and feel disgusted, and feel absolved of any participation in racism by their disgust (because we’ve all sold ourselves on the myth that only bad people are racist), and then go on to support the political party that is trying to build a new Jim Crow without a shred of self-reflection. Rosa’s failure to engage with these issues lets these people off the hook entirely. This is a missed opportunity at best, and malpractice at worst.
As I said, this issue is somewhat intractable. I don’t know how you would build a Doctor Who episode around systemic racism; the format of the show demands simple villains and neat conclusions, and the issue of systemic racism offers us neither of these things. Perhaps if the episode was light on the Doctor and villains from the future, and spent more time on Ryan and Yasmin and Rosa Parks, it would help? But I think there’s kind of nothing to be done.
The second major issue with the episode is that its version of Rosa Parks’ role in the civil rights movement is a false one. To be fair, it is not false in a particularly novel way; the narrative of Rosa Parks’s refusal to move as a spontaneous and catalytic moment is everywhere. But of course, this isn’t the case. Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress; she was an active member of the NAACP and an activist for decades. She was not the first black woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus; Claudette Colvin beat her to that by nine months. Her actions did not create the Civil Rights movement; the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mississippi had, years earlier, organized a boycott of gas stations that refused to let black customers use their restrooms. In short, there was nothing whatsoever accidental about what Rosa Parks did or that it became a rallying point for the campaign to desegregate Montgomery’s bus system.
Her act of protest was not planned (indeed, she’s said herself that had she realized who was driving the bus that night, she would not have gotten on board), but it wasn’t spontaneous, either. She went into it as an act of protest, knowing that she was taking a great personal risk by doing so, and knowing that most likely nothing would come of it. It is likewise not an accident that her case became a rallying point for organization and activism, when almost nobody has ever heard of Claudette Colvin doing the exact same thing. Her case was chosen, after the fact, to be that figurehead, because her sympathetic profile made her relatively resistant to the smear campaign segregationists were already running against her.
Indeed, from a certain perspective, although Rosa Parks and the bus looms large in our conception of the civil rights struggle, Rosa Parks’s refusal to move is not actually all that important. “Rosa Parks refuses to stand and changes history” is a great story, and that’s why it appeals to us, but it’s simply not true. What changed history was not that one act of protest, but rather all the work that Rosa, MLK, and thousands of other less-sung-of heroes put in, at great risk to their own health and safety, to win their rights and force white people to acknowledge their humanity. It was many people taking a stand over and over again for years. If Rosa Parks had never taken that bus, the organizers and activists – and Rosa herself! – would still have been out there, doing that work.
This is not to dismiss or diminish Rosa’s courage and righteousness on that day in any way; if anything, it enhances it. As historian Jeanne Theoharis reminds us, “Perhaps the most courageous thing about what she does that night is the fact that there’s nothing to suggest that night that making a stand will do anything different than it had the previous times…and there’s much to suggest that something bad will happen”. But bearing these facts in mind makes it clear that the logic on which Rosa is predicated is deeply false. The entire episode hinges on the assumption that if Rosa Parks is not on that bus, on that day, with that driver, and at least that many white passengers, that the history of the Civil Rights Movement comes unravelled. The episode’s entire back half consists of the Doctor and her companions attempting to recreate these conditions after a time traveller from the future goes out of his way to muck them up. It presents the Civil Rights Movement as an accident of history, a spontaneous occurrence that can be undone by fucking around with the bus schedule. It erases the work, and so misleads the audience.
To be fair to Rosa, it does nod to her history of activism, and makes it clear that she was motivated to remain seated by a sense of injustice and anger over the death of Emmett Till. In this, it is better than many other false accounts of this chapter in history. But the accident-of-history logic is weaved so thoroughly into the fabric of the episode’s plot that it cannot be extricated.
Which leads us to the final major problem of the episode. Having banished the evil racist back to the future, the Doctor and her companions set out undoing the damage he’d wrought on history. They ruin James Blake’s vacation, they steal a bus for him to drive, they make sure passengers wait for an incredibly late bus instead of making their own way home…and at the end, when it becomes clear that not enough passengers did wait, they keep their seats to ensure the bus will be sufficiently crowded that Rosa will be asked to give up her seat, becoming firsthand participants in an act of racist violence against her. And this is where the episode falls apart for me. Not only do I not buy this development, because it is based on false assumptions about history, I find the decision to mine Graham and the Doctor’s reactions to this for pathos distasteful.
I’ve seen some people praise this episode for not allowing them to prove their Good Enlightened White People Bona Fides, as is so common in time travel stories involving this era. I would find this argument more compelling if the final montage, set to Rise Up by Andra Day because of course it is, was solely Rosa and Ryan’s show. But instead, it prominently features closeups of the Doctor and Graham’s faces, filled with pain at what they had been forced to do to Rosa. The episode presents it as a great sacrifice on their parts, which is simply wrong, morally and factually. The episode gets to have it both ways, having them participate in racist violence while still retaining their Good White Person Bona Fides by showing off how saddened they are they they had to do this thing. It left a foul taste in my mouth. If this is the point the entire episode was driving towards, the episode was made in error.
And in addition to this, there is a character problem here. This sort of false moral choice is the exact kind of choice that the Doctor has, historically, refused. “Never be cruel or cowardly,” goes her motto. Well, at the end of this episode, she is both of those things. She is cruel, because she intentionally causes Rosa pain and suffering, and she is cowardly, because she does this out of fear – fear that the struggle for civil rights is so fragile that it cannot withstand the loss of Rosa Parks’s refusal to stand on that particular date.
Imagine a version of this episode where instead of this, the Doctor said “No, actually, you know what? I’m not going to do that. If it’s not today, it’ll be some other day, and if it’s not Rosa, it’ll be someone else, but the movement is bigger than her and bigger than this moment, and they will keep working and fighting until the work is done.” If the episode centered the struggle, rather than the event. If it educated viewers about the real history rather than regurgitating old myths. That would be an episode worth watching. That is, tragically, not this episode.
These issues pale in comparison to the above, much heavier complaints, but issues with this season’s production continues apace. In one shot when Space Racist From The Future is mucking around with the TARDIS, he steps back from the camera, and goes in and out of focus three times as he does. Conversations are still being shot in extreme closeup for no real reason. The show’s colour palette is still bizarrely washed out. And furthermore, this episode features some extremely goofy scene transitions: one in which the villain shoots the camera as a dissolve, and one where, while the Doctor discusses plans for the night, the camera cuts away from her mid-sentence, to an exterior shot, which timelapses from day to night so rapidly that it’s over before your brain’s finished figuring out what’s happening. In short, this episode looks like shit, just like every episode so far. I really hope this is just the crew adjusting to a new camera rather than a deliberate aesthetic choice, but I fear it’s the latter.
It brings me absolutely no pleasure to pan this episode. This episode was made with an earnest desire to educate and to celebrate Rosa Parks’s life and legacy. You can feel the good intentions radiating off of it in every direction. It’s also, bafflingly, the first Doctor Who episode ever to be written by a black person. I don’t want to give it a bad review! But I am. Rosa is daring, risky, powerful…and a failure.
2 thoughts on “This Episode of Doctor Who Was A Mistake”
Good writeup and excellent points. Really enjoyed the read.
“No, actually, you know what? I’m not going to do that. If it’s not today, it’ll be some other day, and if it’s not Rosa, it’ll be someone else, but the movement is bigger than her and bigger than this moment, and they will keep working and fighting until the work is done.”
Yeah but does this version involve the Montgomery bus system remaining segregated one day longer? They should totally have noticed that they could do that, but they shouldn’t really do it.
Also it’s kinda tacky, ’cause the Doctor… can’t actually help Rosa Parks. She’s real. And dead.