Doctor Who Series 11, Episode 3
Posted by Kim
When it was first announced that the Doctor and her companions would be encountering Rosa Parks this series, I have to admit that the first thing I felt was apprehension. After all, Doctor Who hasn’t had the BEST track record when it comes to taking on American stories, and to take on such a seminal moment in the American Civil Rights Movement felt like the show could be walking a very fine line. So many things could go wrong, from potentially stripping away Rosa Parks’ agency by having the Doctor interfere to making her refusal to give up her seat on that bus be motivated by aliens rather than a brave and calculated act of civil disobedience. So, so, so many things could have gone wrong.
However, between the words of Malorie Blackman, the first woman of color to write for Doctor Who, (insert Jonathan Van Ness “Can you BELIEVE?” gif here), an assist from showrunner Chris Chibnall, a pitch-perfect performance from guest star Vinette Robinson, and the confident direction of Mark Tonderai, “Rosa” not only managed to avoid those potential pitfalls but also delivered one of the most profoundly moving Doctor Who stories in recent memory. It was the kind of episode that made me proud to be a fan; I can only imagine what it meant to fans of color.
One of the things that stands out the most to me about “Rosa” is how it didn’t at all shy away from the impact that going back to Alabama in the 50s would have on both Ryan and Yaz. The sense of danger is instant, almost from the very first moment, when Ryan innocently tries to stop a white woman who had dropped her handkerchief. He’s immediately struck by the woman’s white male companion; he’s referred to as “boy” (which made my skin crawl TBH) and his life is literally threatened. It’s not something Doctor Who has handled all that well in the past in regards to companions of color. Take, for example, when Martha expresses fear about being carted off as a slave in “The Shakespeare Code.” The Doctor’s response to her fears? “Just walk about like you own the place.” Which, sure, can be sound advice most of the time, but the Doctor saying that as a white
man alien to a young black woman came off wildly insensitive and more than a little bit YIKES.
The Doctor, ever the student of humanity, starts to learn though. In “Thin Ice,” we got the Doctor acknowledging to Bill, who had commented on the diversity in Regency England, that history has been white-washed, as it is most often viewed through a white perspective. So it only makes sense that the Doctor (and the show) evolve even further by not just recognizing the discomfort and danger her companions are facing, but also acknowledging her own white privilege. “It’s easy for me here,” the Doctor tells Ryan and Yaz. “It’s more dangerous for you. You can walk away.” It’s so important that she recognizes not only the physical danger they are in, but the emotional labor that their situation is asking for and it’s even more important that she gives them both an out. It speaks worlds of the type of people Ryan and Yaz are that they choose NOT to walk away, when presented with that opportunity. “Rosa Parks can’t,” Ryan says pointedly. “Rosa Parks doesn’t,” Yaz adds. So neither do they.
Ryan and Yaz’s determination to stay involved and present doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by Rosa’s story and their circumstances. In one of the most moving scenes of the episode, Ryan and Yaz sit in an alley, behind literal garbage dumpsters, hiding out from the hotel manager who is holding fast to the “whites only” rule of the property. It is there where the two discuss the casual and not-so-casual racism they face on a daily basis. It’s something that only the two of them can truly understand, even though the Doctor and Graham would obviously be sympathetic (and empathetic) to their situations. It’s one thing for someone to say “I’m sorry that happens to you” (which is what I am sure both of them would have said) and for another person to be like “I understand because that happens to me too and GOD, it really sucks, doesn’t it?” What is so poignant about this scene is how Ryan acknowledges that yes, Rosa Parks sets a great series of events in motion, but it’s not like she wipes racism off the planet. He still gets stopped by the cops more than his white friends. He still had to grow up with Grace teaching him to keep his temper in check so he doesn’t make himself a target. Yaz has to deal with people calling her a Paki or a terrorist on a daily basis.
It’s a sobering moment as they reflect on how far we still have to go in regards to equality. It’s 2018 and the Black Lives Matter movement exists for a reason. Sure, we don’t have segregated bathrooms or buses or restaurants anymore, but when I wake up on almost a daily basis to headlines about racially driven mass shootings or bomb threats or the monster currently sitting in the Oval Office making racist remarks, it feels like we haven’t come all that far, you know? (Despite Yaz bringing up President Obama’s election, cause God knows, it feels like America has taken one step forward and about a hundred steps back since he left office.) It makes the scene that Rosa and Yaz share all the more poignant because it’s a conversation that could be happening today.
YAZ: Everything here’s a fight for you. Don’t you get tired? What keeps you going?
ROSA: Promise of tomorrow. When today isn’t working, tomorrow is what you have.
Can we TALK about Vinette Robinson’s performance? It was everything. Her Rosa carried herself with such a quiet dignity but you could also see the righteous fury simmering in her eyes, just beneath the surface. There was so much subtlety to her, from the twinkle in her eye when she tells Ryan to just serve that coffee to the sense of exhaustion she had in other scenes to the ferocious determination she showed in the climactic bus scene.
I also loved that it was not the Doctor or Graham who spent the most time with Rosa. It almost felt like she was taking a step back in a way, recognizing that it was an important moment for her companions. How amazing is it that Ryan is the only one who met Martin Luther King? And how Rosa and Yaz got to share that scene together in her seamstress shop? It really felt like the episode wanted to focus on their journeys as young people of color and quite right too. It wasn’t about the Doctor for me, this time. It was about them. And while I am still waiting for Yaz to be developed more as a character, I was happy that we at least got a few more glimpses of the woman she is.
Speaking of the Doctor, “Rosa” really gave us our first glance at what I like to refer to as The Oncoming Storm moment in her major confrontation with Krasko. The way she smashed his vortex manipulator and the way she taunted him when she realized that no matter how much he wanted to had me jumping up and down on my couch screaming “YAS BITCH!!!!” It’s been amazing to see the empathy that this version of the Doctor is capable of, but I also want to see those moments of darkness, those moments when the Doctor shows that she is fire and ice and rage, in addition to being wonderful. It’s been very interesting to me to see the emotional intelligence that Jodie’s Doctor has; her fury thus far has always been directed towards her foes, never her friends. (Hilarious exasperation with Graham aside.) I never want to forget that the Doctor is alien at her very core, and has seen and done unspeakable things and that scene gave us our first glimpse at that.
It’s also been interesting to me that all of our villains thus far seem to be operating on a smaller scale, rather than a wipe out the entire universe scale like the Daleks or the Cybermen are known to do. This week’s villain, in his best T-Bird cosplay (as clearly Grease is what he watched for research) is just a good old-fashioned racist, which as we all know, is probably even more terrifying than a Dalek. He’s come back to stop Rosa Parks from taking her stand because, in his words, it’s “where things started to go wrong.” OKAY THEN. FUCK THIS GUY. Krasko’s plan is simple: “He’s not planning on killing, or destroying or breaking history. He’s planning to nudge it just enough so that it doesn’t happen. Enough of a stick in the spokes to throw everything off the rails.” Thus, Doctor Who becomes a bit like an episode of Timeless where the Doctor’s only job is to preserve history, to keep everything on track to happen just as it should, no matter how hard or painful it is to feel complicit and go against everything in your nature.
In other words, the Doctor and Graham have to keep their seats on the bus in order to ensure that the bus is full when it comes time for more white passengers to board. Because even though they don’t agree with the segregation laws, they know that Rosa Parks must be asked to give up her seat.
If there was one thing this episode HAD to do, above all things, it was nail the moment on the bus. And boy did they. I could write about the powerful way the scene used SILENCE, about the look on the Doctor’s face as she sat there with her eyes forward, not interfering with an injustice for probably the very first time in her very long life. I could write about the varying emotions on Ryan’s face, on Yaz’s, and on Graham’s. I could write about the way I burst into tears the moment Andra Day’s “Rise Up” began. I could write about the little smile and nod Rosa gives to the Doctor as she passes. I could write about the little epilogue at the end where the Doctor takes her companions to see the asteroid that bears Rosa’s name. I could do that. But it wouldn’t be enough to describe the full impact of the scene. So I’m just gonna embed it here so I can watch it again and be reminded of how goddamn right they got this moment.
“They keep fighting…”
- Graham is a perpetual mood.
- Please get married.
- Good news, y’all, I am now fully on board Segun Akinola’s scoring work. Rosa’s theme, with it subtle, heroic trumpets, was pitch perfect and made my heart SWELL, just like any good scoring work should do. It was very reminiscent of James Horner’s Apollo 13 score to me, and anyone who knows me knows that I mean that as the highest form of compliment.
- I love that the Doctor found a shirt she liked and clearly bought it in every color, cause same, girl.
- I love how, even though it’s clear that their relationship has been a little fraught, even before Grace’s passing, how Graham immediately claims Ryan as his grandson and fights to protect him.
- The Doctor is Banksy, pass it on. (Is it just me or would the Doctor TOTALLY have been delighted with the whole shredding the million dollar painting bit?)
- Have I mentioned how much I love that Graham calls her “Doc”?
- Once again, I love how the Doctor has NO TIME for Graham’s nonsense. Their relationship is delighting me to NO END.
What were your thoughts on “Rosa”? Let us know in the comments.