Many Doctor Who fans (myself included) were apprehensive when they discovered that episode 3 would center around Rosa Parks. How would the show combine the racial climate that shaped this Civil Rights icon and the sci-fi element of Doctor Who without somehow side-stepping around facts or presenting a tone-deaf account of the event that sparked major bus boycotts?
There were many way for this episode to go wrong but Doctor Who delivered this time around with a stirring story about how Thirteen and her companions navigated the hours leading up to a weary seamstress’ stand against injustice. “Rosa” was written by famed U.K. children’s author Malorie Blackman and her blatant exploration of the ramifications of discrimination and racism is a testament to why it matters to have Black and other POC stories told through their own lenses.
For women like Blackman and myself, there is no room to take a rose-colored revisionist approach to past oppression because remnants of it are still pervasive in our everyday lives. And, she pulled zero punches from the start when the team found themselves in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955.
My heart preemptively started to race as I questioned how the show would handle Ryan in this episode. The answer to this question materialized very quickly when his kind gesture of handing a woman’s gloves back to her was met with a physical and verbal assault by her White male partner.
Predictably, no one in the crew rushed to stop him because they simply were not in tune with this time and location nor the imminent danger that a Black man would face for touching a White woman. The contentious encounter was well-played by the entire cast as they communicated so many unspoken emotions in that moment.
Ryan has dealt with being the target of racism but it was probably the first time he had experienced a racially driven physical assault. I could feel – and understand – his disbelief, anger, frustration, and the sickening feeling that strikes the pit of a person’s stomach when they are the target of a racist act.
Graham instinctively (and rightly) grabbed Ryan to prevent a fight, but I also appreciated how Yaz put a physical barrier between Ryan and the man as she told him to step away. As a South Asian woman, she certainly could identify with a portion of his pain and harbored some righteous anger under her stern surface.
I believe this incident was the beginning of Graham having to face some of his own naiveté about the ever-present danger that so many people of color have to face every day. No one knows much about his life prior to the events of season 11, but it can be surmised based on his age that he has interacted with other White men who have said terrible things about people of color.
Perhaps he swept those comments under the rug because they were otherwise “good” people or he didn’t want to shake the boat. But, seeing this happen to someone that he cares for was a jarring experience that made him fully realize just how perilous this world was – and still is – for Ryan.
One of the biggest wins in “Rosa” was how The Doctor fully recognized and respected the level of danger that Ryan (and later Yaz) were in during this time period. It’s such a critical and necessary reaction because Doctor Who has had a history of not properly addressing the issues that companions of color would face during their TARDIS travels.
For example, when the Tenth Doctor took Martha Jones to the Shakespearean era, she expressed her legitimate concerns about walking around during slavery times. He simply told her to do what he does and “swan around like she owns the place” which was easy for him to say because he presented as a White male.
This happened again with the Twelfth Doctor and Bill in “Thin Ice” when she expressed concerns about leaving the TARDIS in 1814 because she was Black. He acknowledged that slavery was still totally a thing and it was a dangerous place but he had no suggestions on how to keep her safe. He did try to dress Bill up according to the times, but she was later the victim of racist vitriol and Twelve “conquered” the adversary with a punch to the face.
It’s satisfying to look at, but it has some “White Savior” vibes and does not acknowledge how The Doctor is perceived by others as someone who looks like a White human. The Doctor’s physical appearance no doubt plays a key role in how this hero can navigate spaces and assume authority in chaotic situations.
As the episode progressed, Thirteen became more keenly aware of both her and Graham’s White privilege and how they can use it to act as a buffer for the POC companions to help them remain safe. I particularly loved when Thirteen confronted the police officer in the hotel room alongside Graham.
She threw in a bit of humor by alluding that she is possibly Bansky and also took a prominent stand for justice in her own way. Thirteen was thoroughly disgusted and annoyed as she told the officer that she doesn’t recognize them by his description of them as a “Negro boy” and “Mexican girl.”
He threatens that it’s an offense to “harbor” them, to which she replies that they aren’t harboring anyone who doesn’t have a right to be here. That’s how you stand up for someone!
It’s worth mentioning how the officer interacted with The Doctor as a woman compared to Graham. He tried to physically impose himself into her space, whereas he gave Graham some personal space and a bit more respect as a fellow White man, even if he thought Graham was suspicious.
The Doctor presenting as a woman and the person in charge will be something to continually examine in her arc and this episode made subtle yet noticeable hints at this challenge.
Graham was also a delight in this scene when he said he was Steve Jobs and an Apple phone. It was a nice way to lighten up some of the heavy tension but not to the point that it was distracting from the main focus.
A lot of The Doctor’s realization about her physical appearance came through her interactions with White residents but Rosa Parks herself played a major role.
Actress Vinette Robinson did a phenomenal job capturing the wisdom, resolve, and reserved demeanor of icon. The character’s interactions with the crew were believable, especially in moments where Rosa brought the crew back to current reality.
Rosa saw through Thirteen’s “market research” survey by saying her presence in the colored section would force other Black people to move to the back. This forced The Doctor to think once again about every decision that she makes and probably influenced her choice to be complicit in the bus boycott.
It was not her fight to lead because, to a degree, she had benefited from the same system that oppressed Rosa.
But, it was all love because Rosa fixed a rip in the Thirteen’s jacket, which allowed for a nice conversation between Rosa and Yaz. Rosa’s admission that life was arduous and took an expected route but she still had hope for the future was a small yet poignant moment. And, I love how she was impressed because Yaz was an officer.
I also enjoyed the time she spend with Ryan when she brought him into her home to listening to her along with Dr. King talk about their strategies. The viewers were not privy to the details of this conversation but Ryan thanked her the experience. Hopefully, the effects of that conversation will galvanize Ryan to keep pursuing excellence as a companion.
For the companions, these events were immortalized on paper and in the memories of those who lived during that time period. But “Rosa” gave them the chance to experience everything first-hand and it deepened the level of gravity that they felt about Rosa’s bus boycott.
Blackman deserved additional kudos for not ignoring Yaz’s issues in this story in terms of religious and racial discrimination. As a South Asian woman, she finds herself in a strange space in the American South because the brunt of systemic oppression was geared toward Black people.
Yaz is called a Mexican several times and the subject of police harassment along with Ryan. But, it was particularly poignant when she expressed confusion about her place on this bus and how she can best navigate this situation.
Ryan knows he has to head to the back, The Doctor and Graham sit up front, but Yaz muses about whether she classifies as a colored person. It’s interesting to note that she was allowed to board at the front, take a seat near The Doctor, and was NOT addressed at all, which indicates that the experience of people like Yaz fell on two main paths during this time and place.
They were either identified and discriminated against incorrectly in terms of their race or ignored all together until the wrong person decided to make them a target. The fear of either being ignored/unseen or a sudden victim is nothing new for any woman of color and it was a crucial point of view to include in this episode.
Modern racial issues was also explored in a one-on-one conversation between Ryan and Yaz as they escaped from the hotel bathroom window and hid outside. Ryan was feeling dehumanized and frustrated as they parsed through their feelings and tied this experience to their current lives.
Yaz spoke up from the perspective as a woman of color who is also a police officer. She noted how Islamophobia plays a role in her daily life when she is called a terrorist when she leaves her mosque. It is a tough balance for her because idealistic and wants to be in law enforcement to make things better but she is also battling a personal and societal looming hill of racism AND sexism.
And, addressing her issues as a Pakistani woman was extremely important because it differed from Ryan’s plight.
Ryan said it was taking an unbelievable amount of restraint to not fight people but he credits his Nan with guiding him on how to navigate the world as a Black man. His admission really bridged the gap between his British upbringing and what Black Americans experience in terms of discrimination, being viewed as a “threatening” presence, and general upbringing guidelines.
I had many of the same lessons that Ryan was taught about how to be compliant with police officers and tread White dominated spaces with care in hopes that it would help me avoid a perilous situation. It was, and still is, the only defense that many parents have against a corrupt system that works against their children.
This scene was a critical piece of this episode because it made that connection between 1955 and 2018. It was a peek into how people of color can let down their guard and interact freely when they are in a safe space, even it it is near a trash can. This conversation would not have happened in front of any non-POC person including The Doctor and Graham.
Companion character development really shines when the companions are left to their own devices, separated from The Doctor and having their own conversations, or spending one-on-one time with The Doctor. Yaz has been severely underutilized and thankfully this episode gave her time to do all three by interacting more with Ryan, The Doctor, and getting a chance to do some detective work by piecing together the boycott timeline. Go Yaz!
Rosa did a great job of interweaving some otherworldly action among real life events. It turns out the antagonist is a racist White male time traveler from the future (so much for a post-racial society, eh?) who has been in 1955 for some time.
His goal is to slightly tweak Rosa’s timeline so she is never forced to move on the bus, thereby changing history as we know it. But, the real villain of this episode is one that continues to be pervasive today – White privilege sustained by systemic racism.
Doctor Who’s roots are all about being educational, so this episode rang true to that aspect with the TARDIS crew gathering all their knowledge about the events of that day to come up with solutions.
The best part of their plan to guide history back to its original path was using James Blake’s own racism against him to their advantage. It’s also a sad truth about how far too many people are blinded by hatred and buoyed by laws that uphold their idiocy.
They eventually got the drive and made sure Rosa was on the bus but quickly realized that it was meant for them to stay and facilitate this moment in history. The Doctor sat silently with mixed emotions of relief at them keeping the timeline in tact but also dismay that she had to play a part in something that shouldn’t even have to happen in the first place.
Ryan was stoic yet internally troubled at watching the police lead a Black woman off in handcuffs. He likely saw his Nan in Rosa but there was also a sense of pride at watching her make this decision.
Ryan even earned a smile and nod from her as though she is passing the torch for him to continue to fight against injustice. Yaz looked on with a blend of admiration and sadness, perhaps thinking of the issues that minority women still have to face over 60 years later.
Graham was uncomfortable with having to take part in this event but he needed to be a part of this for his own personal growth and for the sake of the relationship he wants to build with Ryan. It made many fans who are similarly privileged uncomfortable and hopefully that discomfort will cause them to examine themselves and the people in their circles to be better humans.
In a side-note, Graham definitely gets props for standing up for Ryan by calling his grandson in the face of racists. Perhaps he is starting to grow on me after all…
The ending was very Doctor Who with Thirteen showing her comrades why it mattered to keep history in check when she showed them an asteroid named after Rosa Parks, which is actually true. She said Rosa changed the universe, which is such a dope concept.
Of course, there are always tiny things that can be nitpicked about any episode but Rosa was still brilliant and might be my new favorite Doctor Who episode of all time. This perfect blend of history, sci-fi, and social commentary sent a timely message while giving us everything that we love in Doctor Who.
And, it’s a proud moment for this Black woman Doctor Who fan to see someone like me bringing Rosa Parks to life and filtering through her lens as well as a Black character’s personal experience. Well done Doctor Who!