WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD
Review by Tymbus Robins
First UK Broadcast: Sunday 21st October 2018
Writer: Malorie Blackman, Chris Chibnall
Director: Mark Tonderai
Guest Starring: Vinette Robinson (Rosa Parks), Joshua Bowman (Krasko)
Montgomery, Alabama. 1955. The Doctor and her friends find themselves in the Deep South of America. As they encounter a seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks, they begin to wonder whether someone is attempting to change history…
The latest episode of Doctor Who arrived in the middle of Britain’s Black History Month with the similar felicitous timing as the season’s first episode which introduced a companion with dyspraxia at the start of Dyspraxia Awareness Week.
Rosa saw the TARDIS crew arrive in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, shortly before Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a White person on a bus. It was an act that broke Alabama’s ‘Jim Crow’ laws enforcing the segregation of Coloured and White passengers. Parks was sitting in the middle rows of the bus which could be occupied by either Black or White passengers on a first come, first served basis.
However, if a White person need to sit, the entire row had to get up and move as, legally, although Black and White were to treated as “separate but equal”, no White person could be forced to sit parallel to a coloured person.
Three African Americans moved, Parks did not, an act of civil disobedience that cost her $14 in fines and court fees. The case sparked helped unite the Civil Rights movement and led to the Montgomery Bus boycott in which African American’s refused to use public transport. In response, car sharing by Coloured people was made unlawful.
Eventually, a United States District Court found Alabama’s segregationist public transport policy to be unconstitutional.
If history occurs first as tragedy and then as farce, the final time must surely be as science fiction. Indeed, Quantum Leap has already visited a similar period, and similar issues, in The Color of Truth. That story saw space and time jumping Dr Sam Beckett leap into the body of an African American and defy segregationist laws by sitting at a Whites’ only lunch counter.
In contrast, Doctor Who jumped head first into the Rosa Park story, an audacious move, particularly because it could easily seem as if a couple of white people (The Doctor and Graham) helped start the Civil Rights movement. To be fair, the script finessed this, by suggesting that a time meddling himbo called Krasko (played by Joshua Bowman with all the charisma of a rejected Love Island contestant) was altering time and stopping Parks and bus driver James (Tervour White (sic)) Blake from ever meeting.
Park and Blake had clashed before, as the episode illustrated, with Blake accepting Park’s fare but then driving off without allowing her to get on the bus. (Both parties seem to have been distracted the second time as, since that incident, Parks normally avoided any bus that Blake was driving). Much of the episode was spent with the time team running about, dodging the authorities and trying to set up conditions under which events would follow their established course.
Unsurprisingly for a programme about time travel, Doctor Who has often visited Earth’s past, yet, when show runner Chris (Chibbers) Chibnall announced that historical adventures would be used to educate the audience, there were howls of outrage and ignorance from some quarters. There were those who thought that this move would be a ratings killer, particularly if they did not contain monsters. But, in the early mid 1960s, historical adventures, in which the Doctor and companions met such luminaries as Marco Polo, The Roman Emperor Nero and Richard the Lion Heart, were popular enough to last the entirety of William Hartnell’s time as The Doctor.
Back then, nearly every other story was set in Earth’s past and, according to script editor Dennis Spooner, such adventures were only dropped because historical drama was expensive to mount. The purpose of such stories was then, as it is now, to educate and inform young viewers about the past within the context of an entertaining story.
It is worth remembering that, while much has been made of the new series’ glossy production values and its ability to compete with other pay per view product, Doctor Who’s context of production is within a public service organisation and must justify itself in those terms, rather than simply in ratings and overseas income generation. Those hunting for Political Correctness (gone mad, I tells ye!) are, once again, on a wild goose chase.
Instead, it was Lord Reith who, in 1927, became the first Director General of the BBC and established the role of the broadcaster as educating the masses, a paternalistic ethos that manages to survive to this day.
The BBC will doubtless be gladdened that Rosa has attracted criticism for being too ‘PC’ by those who believe Doctor Who should not deal with such politicised material and by others who feel the story was not political enough, because the BBC can conclude that then they must , as piggy in the middle, be doing something right. In any case, as dubious as this conclusion might be, there is no way it would have been appropriate to show a lynching on an early Sunday evening, let alone on a show aimed at a young audience.
Looking back on Doctor Who’s own long history, it is not as if the drama hasn’t addressed issues of racism before, although usually this has usually involved the Daleks. Terry Nation’s original story, broadcast in 1963/4, may have been an ambivalent take on Nazi ideology but the 1970’s story Genesis of the Daleks saw the Kaleds adopting full on Nazi regalia. Sometimes, Doctor Who has even acknowledged real world racism in stories such as the 25th season’s Remembrance of the Daleks, which noted the so-called ‘Colour Bar’ that was still in place in 1960’s Britain.
More recently, in the Peter Capaldi story Thin Ice, the Doctor declared history to be a “whitewash” and punched the story’s racist antagonist Lord Sutcliff in the face. It was a startling move that seemed intended to mirror a similar, televised attack on White nationalist Richard Spencer. Some critics berated the show for its “on the nose” peachiness. Others felt that the representation of early Ninettenth Century London as ethnic divere was implausable and complained that the BBC should have shown Black people’s subordinate role in society. A moment’s research would have called this latter assumption into question.
There were, therefore, plenty of people expecting Rosa to fail. In the event, it skilfully walked the tightrope between entertainment and didacticism. As an example, an early scene in which Doctor’s friend Ryan (Tosin Cole) tries to return an accidently dropped handkerchief to its White woman owner results in Ryan being attacked by the man accompanying her. This incident graphically and accurately dramatised the de facto segregation in Southern States, which while not law, policed the interaction of coloured and white people. So, for instance, a Couloured man was not allowed to light a cigarette for a White woman as this was seen as an inappropriately intimate act.
It was left to Ryan and Yas (Mandip Gil), while hiding from the local police, to provide a heartfelt and damning reflection on de facto discrimination in Britain today. Yas, alas, has still to be given her fair share of lines. Surely it should have been Yas, as a police officer who should be admonishing the Doctor for committing an act of criminal damage by graffitiing a wall?
Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor is still a work in progress. Her quips about being ‘Banksy’ (or is she?) provided fleeting but much need comic relief. But the real star of Rosa was Vinette Robinson as the long suffering and dignified Rosa Parks.
Parks, the person has become the stuff of legend and their exist multiple accounts of her behaviour that evening. Some stories tell of a tired seamstress only wanting to rest her weary feet on the bus. Others point to her connections with Civil Rights activism. Parks was, for instance a chapter secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It is certainly true that Parks presented as a more respectable figure than others who had staged similar protests.
Right wing conspiracy theorists present an over deterministic view of history, in which Rosa’s protest was a pre-planned act designed to spark the wider conflict that followed. Parks, such theories conclude, was a willing stooge. But, despite the tropes of science fiction that suggest otherwise, history is only determined when it is in the past, until then, everything is up for grabs and in the balance.
Indeed, a similar protest by Homer Plessy in Louisiana, 1892, actually led to the legal validation of segregation when the Supreme Court ruled that a policy of “Separate but Equal” did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment requiring equal protection for all.
The brilliant script and direction managed to dramatise the many aspects of Rosa’s position in the Civil Rights Movement, notably when Rosa introduced the time travellers to Martin Luther King (Ray Sesay).
Ironically, Parks was to leave Montgomery two years later because she disagreed with King’s policies. I guess sometimes, even Black activists just need to rest their feet. A scene in which Rosa stopped to repair the Doctor’s coat pointed towards the uninvetability of history as it occurs.
It is worth recognising that the fact Rosa was even made was a significant statement about the representation of Black people on television. This significance comes partly from the decision to tell that particular story. It is all too easy to exclude groups by selecting paces and periods in history that preclude Black people in the way history is imagined. Again, Thin Ice challenged the idea that early Nineteenth century Britain was populated entirely by white people, just as the story Eaters of Light acknowledged the existence of Black legionnaires .
The term ‘Jim Crow’’ laws came from a popular vaudeville act that featured a drunken’ black face’ tramp dancing to the song ‘Jump Jim Crow’. The depiction of African Americans as crow-like derived from farmer’s practice of getting crows drunk so that they dim-wittedly staggered around and were therefore easier to kill. Re-enacted of this act are available on You Tube, but the implications of comparing African Americans to drunken, senseless Crows are all too clear. So a story showing African Americans that avoids the grotesque roles of the past and the tokenism of television’s more recent past is to be welcomed. The fact it was gripping, enjoyable and engrossing was not an added bonus but an essential part of one of the best Doctor Who stories in the history of the show.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for the Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
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