When it was announced that Doctor Who would be traveling back to 1955 Montgomery, Alabama to meet Rosa Parks, there was cause for concern. Would the interventionist nature of the show remove the agency of the legendary civil rights activist in the name of a good story? Would the racism of Jim Crow America be explained away with a bug-eyed monster? Doctor Who has a somewhat troubled history with this sort of thing. Still, Malorie Blackman was writing the script with showrunner Chris Chibnall, so the odds were good.
The result was one of those episodes of the show that shatters all expectations.
First, the basics. The Doctor is still trying to get Yaz, Ryan and Graham home after accidentally stranding them off Earth, but the Tardis is acting up. They land in Montgomery the day before Parks makes her famous sit-down for equality. There, the three humans cope with the monstrosity of institutional racism while they also try to thwart a time-displaced villain looking to change the future by preventing Parks from making history.
I’ve been calling for a return to purely historical episodes for a long time. Aside from The Doctor herself, a few gadgets are the only science fiction element. In fact, the episode makes its points with a genius use of non-action. The villain, Krasko, is a former prisoner who was radicalized on the inside into an ardent white supremacist. However, he is also implanted with an inhibitor that prevents him from harming people directly (Think Spike’s chip from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but less funny).
He doesn’t try to kill Parks. All he wants is to ruin this one point in history. To that end, he employs simple sabotage, everything from trying to give James Blake a day off from driving the bus to making sure there aren’t enough passengers on it to warrant Parks’ actions.
The episode makes it clear that history can be quite fragile. It beats the point over the audience’s head so much it felt like watching an old Hartnell serial like “The Aztecs.” It’s a good point, though. Small actions compound, and it doesn’t take much to change the world. Krasko is from the far future, and he still manages to blame all of his racial grievances back to Parks.
Meanwhile, the Tardis crew is forced to keep history on track. Things start horribly with Ryan trying to return a dropped glove to a white woman in the street only to be slapped for his troubles. The specter of Emmet Till hangs over their heads. Both Yaz and Ryan find themselves in danger wherever they go. It’s a stark difference from back in Series 3 when Ten waved Martha’s kidnapping fears away as nothing.
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One of the highlights of the episode was Graham. Bradley Walsh has really become the emotional center of the show, and he shines here. His anger at the system that threatens his grandson is righteous, and his heartbreak that he must remain on the bus as a bystander crowding it to spur change on is terrible.
“Rosa” is an episode about witnessing. The Tradis crew and the audience by proxy are not allowed to look away from this terrible chapter of human history They mention the election of Barack Obama half a century in the future as a sign of change, but the presence of Krasko is a reminder that the fight will never, ever truly be over. Yaz tells Parks about her position as a cop and her dream of authority. She knows it’s a certainty because she has lived it, but the fragility of progress is staring her right in the face. Untold labor for good is all in danger of being erased because of one angry white guy, some jerry-rigged equipment and the ability to stop a bus from making its appointed rounds.
The Doctor, her friends, Parks… even Krasko. They are all part of the lesson. Change takes doing the right thing in tiny increments, even when those steps are hard and cause pain. Fixing broken things involves actions that may seem small, but that ripple out into a better future for all of us so long as we have the strength and courage to see them through.
Incidentally, early voting starts this week here in Texas. What do you suppose Rosa Parka and The Doctor would say we should do about that?