Last week, an article in the Daily Mirror claimed that the latest episode of Doctor Who would be the first time the series had tackled the topic of racism. Needless to say, this attracted its fair share of ridicule, particularly as the very first aliens the Doctor encountered back in 1963 – the Daleks – were essentially Space Nazis who genocidally hated those who were unlike them.
In fact, this is an area which the show has touched upon to varying degrees over the years. Sometimes, it’s been done on an allegorical basis, such as 1972’s The Mutants, which used colonialism and segregation as the basis of its story, in a slight at British imperialism, as well as Apartheid in South Africa.
1988’s Remembrance Of The Daleks told a tale of racial purity and intolerance, set against the backdrop of 1960s London, where cultural tensions still ran high as the country saw an influx of immigrants from the former colonies. In one scene, tackling racism head on, the Doctor’s companion Ace is incensed to find the boarding house she’s staying in has a ‘NO COLOUREDS’ sign hanging in the window.
Since the show’s revival in 2005, there’s been a more diverse range of actors in leading roles, including Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones. This allowed the show to depict racism directly affecting one of the main characters, with Martha being on the receiving end when she was working as a housemaid in a public school at the start of the Great War in 2007’s Human Nature/The Family Of Blood.
The programme has also taken advantage of having time travel as its core premise by visiting different periods of Earth history. In the early days, Doctor Who was seen very much as being educational, and told what are known as being ‘pure historical’ tales, which basically means that they depicted events and characters which could be found in school history textbooks, and didn’t feature any sci-fi trappings, other than the TARDIS.
As such, the audience saw episodes which featured Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, as well as a story which was set during the French Revolution, with Robespierre and Napoleon. These unfortunately proved to be some of the show’s least popular escapades, and were quietly dropped in 1967, after a visit to the Jacobite Revolution. Since then, trips into history have tended to be original adventures set against the backdrop of a particular period, without the educational element.
The ‘celebrity historical’ has been rather a hallmark of the revived Who, featuring appearances by Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Madame de Pompadour, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, and Winston Churchill. These have worked with varying degrees of success, with one notorious example where Adolf Hitler briefly appeared in one episode to be treated as a comedic figure of fun, before being locked in a cupboard.
Since then, the world has changed, with a resurgence of open racism and the rise of far-right and fascist ideologies. It would suggest that a very different kind of storytelling is needed nowadays when tackling these kinds of topics, as what worked even 5 years ago – let alone back in the 1960s – might not be appropriate or suitable now. This is why this week’s story – Rosa – has been met with much trepidation.
For dealing with such serious subject matter head-on, Doctor Who has to be careful that it’s not taking such a significant historical event – the Montgomery Bus Boycott – lightly, for risk of trivialising it, or seeming disrespectful. Turning it into a ‘pseudo-historical’ story – by working in some of the standard trappings of sci-fi – is a very risky proposition, and needs some deft scripting to make it work, by telling a decent story, rather than just throwing in issues to make 2018 Doctor Who look like it’s trying to seem ‘woke’.
In lesser hands, the tale could have come across as mawkish or sensationalist, at risk of cheapening the real life story of Rosa Parks. Thankfully, Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman hit just the right note from the get-go, opening with a real gut punch which shows Rosa Parks boarding a bus in 1943, and encountering the prejudice against which she came to make a stand in 1955. As well as being a clever bit of foreshadowing of what’s yet to come, it neatly sets the scene, letting the audience know the world in which Rosa lives, and the cruel reality of life in a segregated America.
The script is unflinching in its depiction of a deeply racist Deep South, not pulling any punches by exposing Ryan and Yaz to the derogatory and abusive language which the people of that time – including figures of authority – used with such venom and hatred towards anyone who was a non-white. It’s a truly shocking moment when Ryan is slapped by one of the townsfolk for trying to carry out a simple act of courtesy, and helps to show the extreme contrast in attitudes between then and now. It takes an even darker twist when there’s a suggestion that Ryan could end up being lynched.
When people say that ‘the past is a foreign country’, it’s never more apparent than here, and we start to see the cleverness of Chibnall’s diverse character base, as it gives us a chance to see events through the eyes of the companions, which is firmly in the oldest traditions of the programme, going all the way back to 1963. It also establishes that there’s a very real danger in time travel, as modern sensibilities can end up putting you in jeopardy if you’re in the wrong place, at the wrong point in time.
The show also returns to its educational routes, by giving a legitimate reason to build a timeline of events in order to stop history being changed for the worse, as the Doctor and friends work out what the villain of the piece – Krasko – has in mind. In many ways, it’s also reminiscent of Quantum Leap, not only in terms of its ‘Evil Leaper’ character, but also with its setting bringing to mind the episode The Color Of Truth.
Krasko’s motivation – to stop the birth of the Civil Rights movement, and keep non-whites ‘in their place’ – is a simple one, but resonates strongly with current themes in the real world. In fact, the notion of him travelling through time ends up being a MacGuffin, with the story’s sci-fi elements ultimately being the least important part of the episode; it’s a means to an end, by giving us a chance to see the real story unfolding, and explaining the significance of what happened on that December day in Alabama, by referring to the ‘butterfly effect’, and the effect that even seemingly minor ripples can have on history.
Fans of the show will have gotten a kick out of callbacks to continuity elements from earlier series, such as the Vortex Manipulator, and the Stormcage prison facility in the far future. However, none of this is done at the expense of the story, and each element is explained well enough for casual viewers to be able to understand what they are. Krasko being a former prisoner with an implant which prevents him from killing means that we get to see a battle of wits between him and the Doctor, as he has to be cunning and ingenious in how he goes about trying to achieve his goal, while giving the audience a valid reason as to why he didn’t just murder Rosa.
We get to see some wonderful interaction between Ryan, Yaz and Graham, as they start to grow as individuals, and learn more not only about themselves and each other, but also the universe in which they’ve found themselves by meeting the Doctor. There’s real warmth as Graham proudly announces Ryan as being his grandson, in the face of the disbelieving, narrow-minded prejudice of the era.
The true heart of the episode comes from the depiction of Rosa Parks, both in the writing, and also the phenomenal performance by Vinette Robinson. Her portrayal comes from a place of real respect and integrity, and we see Rosa as a fully-fleshed individual, which does not detract from the real person. The script also makes the right call by separating Rosa from any science-fiction elements, and keeping her firmly grounded in the real world, as to do otherwise would have done her a massive disservice.
Even the brief appearance by Martin Luther King is done in an honourable and reverent way, which frames his real-world significance for the younger viewers, as well as his place in the bigger struggle that’s taking place. In this way, the story manages to avoid making any of the missteps potentially posed by having real people as characters in a drama series, and makes them seem rounded and real individuals, not just the iconic people they become.
Although we know how the story is supposed to end, there are so many twists and turns that there’s a genuine sense of tension as events build to the climax, and it seems for a moment that things may not work out as planned, casting the Doctor and her friends almost as helpless bystanders as time ticks away. The perfect denouement is when the Doctor shows her friends real footage from 1999 of Rosa Parks receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, while also showing what a major part she played in changing the world – and, as it’s Doctor Who, the universe – for the better.
Rosa manages to tell what feels in some ways like a small, personal story, while simultaneously setting out how significant that one act of protest was, and is surely destined to become one of the all-time classic Doctor Who stories – it certainly shows any naysayers that it’s more than just a kids’ TV show or just another sci-fi series that’s just quarries and bug-eyed monsters. Most significantly, the episode also works as a piece of drama in its own right, and is one of the most thoughtful, clever, bold and tearjerking pieces of television this year. Bravo.