If there is one thing Doctor Who has always been good at, if there is just one thing it often excels at, no matter who the writer in charge is, it is its ability to pull at our heartstrings when we are allowed to watch history come true before our very own eyes. If there is one thing Doctor Who has always managed to do it is to revisit those historical events we can only read about, and make us long for them with the ache of those who have been inspired by them.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a historical episode grace our screens on Who, but this season’s third episode just about did it. “Rosa” is one of the best examples of why, no matter what The Doctor looks like or who the person in charge of her adventures is, we will always want to come back to the thousand year old alien with a blue police box that’s bigger on the inside.
History Has Its Eyes On You
The episode’s rhythm was still kind of wonky, and the characters haven’t fully become themselves yet. We’re still trying to figure out who Yaz actually is, what her motivations really are. We’re still not sure whether Ryan is adorably ignorant or remarkably clever. We still don’t know if Graham is there as comic relief or as something more. And, although the last minutes of last night’s episode certainly gave them a whole new dimension as they had to watch, heartbroken, how they ended up being accomplices of Rosa Parks’ arrest, we still need to see them shine and grow individually to become fully fleshed-out companions.
And sure, maybe our baddy’s intentions could’ve been more explained, and he could’ve posed a bigger threat to The Doctor and those who she affectionately calls “The Gang.”
Perhaps because the real “baddy” was racism. But let’s keep that a secret, shall we?
Also, I have to admit, the idea that The Doctor might actually be Banksy and the entire conversation revolving around that had me in stitches.
But back to the point. This episode’s intention wasn’t to create a complex storyline with an intricate plot. It was to criticize and denounce injustice, and to give voice to those who are still silenced far too often.
Chibnall had announced that this season of Doctor Who would deal with racism, and parity, and all the social issues a show about diversity and acceptance should tackle. He assured it would deal with diversity beyond diverse companions. And “Rosa” –an episode written by two women of color– proved it will. “Rosa” proved it can.
From our companions getting racially assaulted to deeply moving and mature discussions about how things have –or haven’t– changed since Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up that December night in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, the episode never strayed away from what was truly important: understanding, quite realistically, that what Rosa Parks did that night began a fight that is still nowhere near finished. That Rosa Parks sitting down –a small action, a small change– sparked a flame that has to keep burning in the present, and should keep burning just as intensely in the future.
Because –and I know I said our weekly villain could’ve been a little nastier, but bear with me for a second– what was really terrifying about our little time traveling prison break out boy was that he came from far, far into the future and yet his motivations were as racially influenced as James Blake’s. He wasn’t scary because he could throw you back in time or wanted to stop the Civil Rights Movement from happening with just the tiniest nudge –which was actually a wake up call for all of us to understand just how fragile those moments are–, he was unnerving because he meant that, even in the far future, racism is still powerful enough to motivate someone with such conviction.
Because it means this fight will go on and on and on and may never be completely won.
And that is the scariest thought of all.
A Pile Of Good Things And A Pile Of Bad Things
But of course, not everything is dark and terrible. The Doctor always makes sure of that. So we were gifted with watching our favorite Gang fight through racist Alabama in order to make sure history happened the way it did.
It was “Rosa”, yes, but it was also “The Fires of Pompeii” and “Vincent and The Doctor” and just about any other episode in which The Doctor meets and saves –or tries to save– a key historic figure to protect the past and to ensure the future.
And, like “Pompeii” and “Vincent” it was equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.
It was hopeful, like Doctor Who often is. It reminded us that if we believe in ourselves, stick together, and believe in one another, we can accomplish even the seemingly hardest of tasks.
And saving Rosa Parks is a pretty big task, mind you.
But it was also bittersweet, as victory often seems to be.
Because, just like in “Pompeii”, not every terrible thing could be avoided. In the most ironic of turn outs, to ensure Rosa’s safety –and the one of millions and millions of black people after her– she had to get arrested. Because, just like in “Vincent and The Doctor”, our heroes had to be part of that moment, had to force the tragic fate onto her.
Because “life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
It was brutal to watch Graham, who is still madly in love with a black woman and holds his black grandson very dear to his heart, have to be the one standing up and literally forcing Rosa Parks’ arrest. It was damn near traumatizing to watch The Doctor, who’s always ready to sacrifice herself for anyone else, explain that they had to stay inside the bus. Regardless of how brilliant it was writing-wise.
But it was also cruelly realistic and remarkably mature of a television show to portray white people as a key part of the problem. To show that white people sitting down and watching are just as guilty as those striking black citizens.
Just as guilty as those throwing them off buses.
To show that history is written by those who sit around and watch, but also –and most importantly– by those who refuse to stand up.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC One and BBC America.