Someone is trying to stop Rosa Parks from taking her historic seat, and the Doctor arrives to make sure she does.
“Rosa” is the 13th Doctor’s first proper time travel story, and also the first racially charged episode of Doctor Who, to my knowledge. The Doctor is having a hard time controlling the TARDIS – while trying to get back to present day Sheffield, they arrive in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama. There are traces of Artron energy (the same energy that powers the TARDIS) swirling around Montgomery, and particularly around Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson). This is going to be a problem, because Rosa hasn’t sat in a white person’s seat on the bus yet, and someone wants to stop her.
“Rosa” boasts some pretty rough American Southern accents (a tradition in Doctor Who and I’m sure it goes both ways!), and some unevenness in the storytelling at times. We still have a Yasmin problem – she does get more to do, but not enough. There’s also the issue of all the research the Doctor and her companions do to figure out Rosa’s timeline – they’re researching an event that hasn’t happened, without the internet or going back to the TARDIS. I know that’s a nit to pick, and I appreciate that the Doctor really has the companions working on the problem, but it left me continually asking “how?” Emotionally, this episode works incredibly well – there are just some plot issues that make it uneven.
It’s not two minutes into their first time travel adventure with the Doctor before Ryan, trying to help a woman by retrieving her dropped handkerchief, gets slapped full in the face by the white woman’s husband. The issue of race came up a couple of times during series three, because Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) is black, most prominently in “The Shakespeare Code.” However, this issue was mostly played for laughs. With one slap, “Rosa” does more for a discussion of race than I’ve seen in Doctor Who.
Parts of “Rosa” are more than a bit heavy-handed, almost comical, in their commentary, while others resonate with deep pain and emotion. After being chased about town by the police for eating in an all-white restaurant (seriously, the Doctor should’ve known better…) and then having to hide behind garbage bins while a white hotel manager makes sure that the Doctor and Graham aren’t hiding any “mongrels” in their room, Yasmin and Ryan bring a bit of searing reality to the situation, for neither of them is white. Ryan says it well: “It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the world forever. Otherwise how come I get stopped way more by the police than my white mates?” Yasmin relates her struggles too but brings in some much-needed hope: “Course I do [get hassled], especially on the job. I get called ‘****’ when I’m sorting out a domestic or a terrorist on the way home from the mosque. But 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 53 years they’ll have a black president as leader. Who knows where they’ll be 50 years after that. That’s proper change.”
As an American today, I often feel as though I’m witnessing my country wading through a hopeless mire of hatred and bigotry – and I’m a white guy, not even getting the brunt of what we see presented by the news daily. It’s hard sometimes to see that we have seen amazing change in the last half-century. Is it all over and done with? No. Do we still have deep issues to resolve? Yes. But we have grown as a nation. There’s still more growing to do, however. Thanks, Doctor.