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Doctor Who: Rosa (Review)

“We don’t serve negroes.”

“Well, that’s good. Because I don’t eat them.”

Rosa is undoubtedly well-intentioned and timely.

It is hard to imagine a more relevant or important episode of Doctor Who at this moment in time than one which acknowledges the history of racism within the United States, and the horrors inflicted upon its minority populations within living memory. (A “Brexit” episode might be closer to home, though.) This is, after all, a point in history where the President of the United States has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, described nations with black populations as “sh!thole countries” and argued that Mexico is exporting rapists and murderers to the United States.

Park it here.

Of course, this isn’t just an American issue. The Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom was driven by racial anxiety, to the point that the “Leave” campaign unveiled billboards that evoked Nazi propaganda. In countries like Hungary, a resurgent ethno-nationalism is on the rise. Even on the day that Rosa was broadcast, there was a prominent news story about a white man on a Ryanair flight who insisted that a woman of Jamaican descent could not sit next to him. Rosa is certainly very timely and very relevant. It is important for children (and adults, frankly) to hear this.

There are problems, however. Rosa is a very worthy episode of television with a lot of very important things to say. In particular, its handling of Ryan and Yaz’s experiences in both the fifties and the present are very illuminating and insightful. That said, the episode runs into the same problems that haunt most of the series’ big “fixed point in history” narratives, in that it adopts a fundamentally conservative approach to history and predetermination, arguing that things can only be as they ever were. This may not be the best approach to a story about Rosa Parks.

Suitcase of the week.

To be fair, this is a long-standing issue with idea of “fixed points” narratives within the history of Doctor Who. In fact, it may be telling that the whole idea of “fixed points” in history was never a particularly big deal until the Davies Era, following the show’s return from cancellation. Davies was dealing with an audience who had grown up with series like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, who were more conversant in genre conventions. As such, he needed to justify why the Doctor didn’t run around radically upending history.

To be fair, there was some precedent, particularly in the earliest Doctor Who episodes, back when the series had a much stronger delineation between its science-fiction adventures and its historical forays. In The Aztecs, the Doctor warned his companions that history could not be changed, “not one line.” This became a recurring tension in those early years, coming up once or twice in stories like The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve. However, outside of a few conversations buried within these episodes, it was never a major source of dramatic tension.

Ironically enough, this question of preserving history was only really the focus of The Time Meddler, the first story in the series to truly mix its science-fiction and historical elements. The Doctor found himself competing against another rogue time traveler, trying to ensure that history unfolded as it meant to despite nefarious interference. This basic plot template would get an occasional reworking in episodes that found outside forces wandering into Earth’s past, like The Time Warrior or The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but the Doctor’s motivation tended in those stories was the greater good rather than temporal conservation.

While the idea of villains changing history for their own ends would come up repeatedly over the run of the show, as makes sense in a series about a time-travelling hero, the Doctor’s attempts to foil them was rarely driven exclusively or even primarily by a desire to preserve the integrity of the timeline. The villain in City of Death schemes to wipe out all of human history, but the Doctor stops Scaroth’s attempted mass murder because he sees it as monstrous rather than because it represents an effort to change history.

When the right situation a-Rosa.

It is perhaps revealing that the closest that the classic series ever really came to re-embracing that early sixties anxiety about changing history was in The King’s Demons, during the twenty-fifth anniversary season. In that story, the Fifth Doctor found himself trying to prevent the Master’s sabotage of the Magna Carta. In its own way, this was something of a nostalgic throwback; the Davison Era repeatedly harked back to the Hartnell Era, right down to the starting premise of a crowded TARDIS packed with accidental abductees whom the Doctor was trying (and failing) to get home. Rosa suggests a similar starting premise.

If The Ghost Monument can be read as something of a throwback to classic sixties Terry Nation scripts like The Daleks or The Keys of Marinus, then perhaps it makes sense that Rosa would feel like one of those early historicals from the William Hartnell era. Indeed, there is something of the show’s original mission statement to be found in Rosa, the public service broadcaster’s moral obligation to educate children (of all ages) on the importance of various historical events. The earnestness of Rosa is arguably a direct descendant of that approach to Doctor Who.

At the same time, there is also a lot of the Davies Era’s approach to time travel in all of this. Davies came up with the idea of “fixed points” in order to explain why the Doctor didn’t travel through time and abolish slavery as readily as he might topple the fascist regime in The Happiness Patrol, or why the Doctor didn’t dismantle Earth’s colonial powers as easily as he defeated the Daleks in stories like Planet of the Daleks. The idea was that history had certain moments that were more important than others, and that interferring in those moments could destroy the very fabric of reality itself.

Solid as a rock.

It was never explained why certain moments were fixed, beyond the fact that it made sense within the logic of production that the Doctor could not travel back in time to save Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy because that would shatter any sense of verisimilitude. If the Doctor took Rose back to a world where Kennedy or King had survived, it would look radically different to the world in which the audience lived, and that would create a very serious problem for the series’ suspension of disbelief.

Even introducing this emphasis on “fixed points”, Davies cannily avoided entangling them with politics. Davies would never write an episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor had to travel through time and shoot John F. Kennedy with a sniper rifle in order to pursue the flow of history. Instead, Davies treated these “fixed points” as a way to generate emotional weight for his cast; Rose was forced to let her father die in Father’s Day, Donna and the Doctor watched Pompeii burn in The Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor went too far when he messed with history in The Waters of Mars.

“Yaz all have good ideas.”

It is perhaps telling that the Moffat Era by and large made an effort to avoid paying too much attention to the idea of “fixed points”, outside of turning them into something of a punchline in The Wedding of River Song, where the Doctor has to reset the timeline after River refuses to kill him by instead faking his death as he always intended. Vincent and the Doctor never raises the issue of “fixed points” when Amy tries to stop Vincent van Gogh from committing suicide.

Let’s Kill Hitler was even more pointed in its rejection of this angsty “fixed point” logic. The title of the the episode suggested the ultimate time-travel cliché, before suggesting that the reason that the Doctor didn’t kill Hitler was because Doctor Who is explicitly not about that. There is nothing to stop the Doctor from using the TARDIS to kill Hitler other than the fact that there is nothing to be gained about writing a television series in which a time traveler killers Hitler. It is a pointless argument to have.

Hitler existed in the real world, so discussing him in Doctor Who is pointless. It made more sense to lock Hitler in a cupboard and focus on the kind of stories that Doctor Who wanted to tell. There was no point in the show meditating in the “would you kill Hitler?” hypothetical, because it was just a hypothetical. All the show could hope to do would be to stand in judgment of a figure on whom history had already pronounced a verdict, and re-live that trauma over and over again. The Moffat Era had little interest in relegislating these hypotheticals, perhaps cognisant of the political minefield it would be navigating.

In some ways, Rosa affirms the manner in which the Chibnall Era is consciously harking back to the Davies Era. The plot of Rosa brings back the logic of “fixed points”, even if it doesn’t use those exact words. Of course, the mechanics of the plot are somewhat different. The Doctor is facing a time-travelling racist who plans to disrupt history to ensure that either black people or human kind in general “won’t get above themselves.” (The line is slightly ambiguous.) As such, the Doctor has to protect the integrity of the time-line and ensure that events unfold exactly as they should.

The finer points might be slightly different than those in Father’s Day, in that there is no suggestion that the universe will implode if history doesn’t unfold as it is meant to. However, it is made very clear that the future will be changed and that it will cause irreparable damage to the timeline. As a result, it is up to the Doctor and her companions to set right what might yet go wrong, and to ensure that history plays out exactly as it is supposed to, beat by beat.

A hostile hostel.

This is an uncomfortable plot point for a number of reasons. Rosa very firmly adheres to the “great man” theory of history, the idea that history unfolds according to the actions and wills of a number of very strong individuals – that people shape history, rather than being shaped by history. Adhering to the internal logic of the story, it is interesting to wonder whether stopping Rosa Parks from making her stand in that moment would stop the entire Civil Rights movement. Would she take her stand at another time? Would somebody else somewhere else take a stand?

Rosa suggests that the entire Civil Rights movement was not an inevitable outcome of a system of horrific racial oppression, but down to one decision made by one person in one moment. None of this is to belittle or diminish Rosa Parks as an individual; she was an inspiration who did something incredible. Rather, it seems like an over-simplification of an entire era. It ignores the reality that the Montgomery Bus Strike was a match that set alight kindling that had been gathering for decades.

In this context, it is worth noting that Rosa Park’s protest was not spontaneous. In fact, Rosa Parks was a committed Civil Rights activist long before she made her stand (or took her seat) on that bus. Rosa alludes to this fact by having Ryan move through her social circle, even shaking hands with Reverend Martin Luther King. However, Rosa never explicitly acknowledges the fact that the title character’s protest was carefully planned. Instead, the episode treats that act of defiance as largely spontaneous. It is clear that Parks resents the segregation on buses, but the episode suggests all of history comes down to one moment.

In reality, had events not unfolded exactly as they did on that fateful day, there is enough evidence to suggest that Rosa Parks would have staged her protest on another bus at another time. Rosa is a very strange episode of television. It is at once entirely devoted to the idea of its title character as a singularly important individual in the large context of American history, while also removing a lot of her own autonomy and agency. Rosa suggests that the entirety of the Civil Rights movement comes down to one woman in one place at one time, which is a very simplistic understanding of history.

Getting activist.

Of course, this all relatively incidental to the plot. The characters end up in Montegomery and with Rosa Parks because this is the story that Doctor Who has chosen to tell. However, applying this sort of logic to the story raises a number of uncomfortable ethical questions about the Doctor’s use of time travel, and puts the characters in a very uncomfortable position of having to reaffirm white supremacy in order to justify the resistance against it.

Indeed, there are shades of that familiar Davies Era angst to the whole narrative, with the Doctor reflecting to her companions on how uncomfortable it is to have to live through this oppression, even as visitors. “We’re here,” she states. “We’re part of this. We’re part of history.” During the big moment, the Doctor tells Graham, “I’m sorry, but we have to. We have to not help her.” Graham himself has to stay on the bus and be the reason that Rosa is asked to give up her seat. The sequence focuses very heavily on Graham’s discomfort at being part of that moment.

Fueling anxiety.

There is something inherently conservative in this outlook, in the argument – as articulated by Morpheus in The Matrix: Reloaded – that “what happened happened and could not have happened any other way.” Indeed, Rosa positions the Doctor as the curator and maintainer of the timeline, rather than as an anarchist or a rebel. The Doctor describes her role as to “keep history in order. No changing it. Just guarding it against somebody who wants to disrupt it.”

It is a very conservative perspective. It presents the Doctor as a guardian, literalising the TARDIS as a Police Box in a way that the show has never done before. Yaz is not the only police officer in the TARDIS. The Doctor feels very close to the character of Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap, a character whose job it is to preserve and buttress the status quo rather than to topple injustice or to call out oppression wherever she sees it. In fact, it should be noted that Quantum Leap weighed into the Civil Rights era early in its first season, referencing Rosa Parks in The Colour of Truth.

In a way, it recalls the Doctor’s strange fixation on the rules of the Stenza hunt in The Woman Who Fell to Earth rather than her condemnation of Ilan in The Ghost Monument. The season premiere awkwardly implied that the Doctor might have less of an issue with Tim Shaw’s brutal attempted murder of Carl if he had adhered to the rules of conduct established by his people. In Rosa, this conservatism means that the Doctor and her companions have to actively aid and abet established systems of racial oppression to justify activism against them.

This is important, because it ties into larger debates about the nature of protest and campaigns. In the United States at the moment, for example, there is a big debate about when and where it is appropriate from minorities to protest their treatment by the forces of the establishment. The establishment naturally tries to argue about the “right” place for these protests, setting the terms of engagement. This naturally makes it much harder for these minorities to protest. Rosa occasionally feels like it is arguing for the “right” way (and time and place) to stand up to oppression.

The Amazing Racist.

None of this is to suggest that Rosa would be a better episode if the Doctor travelled through time and systematically dismantled Alabama’s (and even the United States’) system of racial oppression just as readily as he did in The Long Game. While that hypothetical episode might be cathartic, it would also be tasteless and ill-judged, another familiar white saviour narrative. However, there is still a sense of that within Rosa, a variation on the white saviour narrative where the white character has to simply move the pieces into place for the black character to resist.

The truth is that it might simply be impossible to construct a celebrity historical episode of Doctor Who around Rosa Park’s protest in Montegomery, at least as the series currently understands the concept of the celebrity historical. Perhaps the safest approach would be to simply strip all the science-fiction elements out of the story and avoid any direct interaction between the Doctor and Rosa Parks. Even then, it would be a very tricky line to walk.

All of this is a shame, because there is a lot here to like. In particular, Rosa doesn’t pull too many of its punches when it comes to portraying what the experience of African Americans would have been like in fifties Alabama. Even in the teaser, the wonderful low-angle shot of the title character, framed above the bus driver’s gun holster underscores the sense of constant peril facing these communities. Similarly, Rosa’s frantic de-escalation of Ryan’s disagreement with a local resident is very tough to watch, as it should be.

More to the point, Rosa is very consciously and overtly aware of issues like privilege and the nature of modern racism. Early in the episode, the Doctor candidly acknowledges that her status as a white woman grants her privilege over Yaz and Ryan. “It’s easy for me here. It’s more dangerous for you.” That is a very candid admission, and an important lesson to instill in audience members, to reinforce just how dangerous even being a minority was in the South of the United States within living memory.

Tabula Rosa.

More to the point, Rosa is very willing to draw a straight line between the past and the present. Chibnall has been somewhat reluctant to actively engage with politics in his early episodes, with both The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument providing oblique political commentary without anything too explicit. This is in marked contrast to his predecessors. Davies had murdered Tony Blair and shoved him in a closet in Aliens of London and World War III, while Moffat had skewered the electorate’s deliberately short memory in The Beast Below.

As such, there is something refreshing in how candidly Rosa approaches these issues. While Rosa stops just short of pointing out (the incredibly relevant given the context of the episode) point that the current President of the United States is endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, it never pretends that the protest featured in the episode “solved” racism. As Ryan explains to Rosa, “It’ll get better, you know? Not perfect, but better.”

In one of the episode’s best sequences, both Yaz and Ryan get to discuss their own lived experiences of racism, which is very important to hear on a prime-time family series being produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation on the cusp of Brexit. Ryan recalls his grandmother’s stark warning to “never give them an excuse.” He elaborates, “It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the world forever.” Yaz recalls being labelled a “terrorist” or addressed in slurs.

This is all very important, and it’s great to see these conversations happening on a series like this. Indeed, the best argument for Rosa is in these small moments, as a catalyst for these quieter discussions. If Rosa had to be a celebrity historical, it might be better if the episode’s primary plot had nothing to do with the protest, and was instead something light and simple enough that the production team could hang these important discussions upon it.

Beware(house)!

All in all, it is a very good thing that Rosa exists. It will spur all manner of necessary conversations for an entire generation of young viewers and their families. However, it still feels like the plot of the episode is fundamentally ill-judged, that Rosa really shouldn’t be about watching the Doctor and her companions travel through time in order to reinforce systems of racist oppression, even to provide the impetus to dismantle many of those same systems.

Rosa is well-meaning and clumsy. While the two don’t necessarily cancel one another out, they certainly temper the episode.

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One Response

  1. As usual, you articulated this better than I ever could have. This episode is pretty much the definition of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, it’s the best episode of the season so far. It’s socially conscious, it’s never really boring, and it will indeed spark many important conversations for young people. On the other, this episode is stuck in a zero sum game. Either they have the Doctor stand up and fight with Rosa, which, as you said, detracts from Rosa’s heroism, or they do what they did here-and suggest that the best non-oppressed people can do is cheer from the sidelines. I like this episode quite a bit, but I also really don’t.

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