“Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”–Rosa Parks
December 1, 1955: African-American seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, and is arrested. This simple act of peaceful protest sparks the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helping to end segregation.
This event sets the stage for “Rosa,” this week’s episode of Doctor Who, propelling the Doctor and her companions into the past, where they become guardians of one of the most important moments in history.
The episode begins with a flashback to 12 years previous when Rosa Parks boarded a bus and tried to walk straight through the white area instead of going to the separate boarding area set aside for African-Americans. The bus driver, James Blake, verbally abuses Rosa and she ends up going to the separate bus entrance, only to be stranded by Blake, who closes the doors and drives off. History tells us that Parks swore she would never ever ride a bus driven by Blake—until the fateful events of December 1, 1955.
Now in 1955, traces of artron energy are keeping the TARDIS from getting the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham to present day, so they decide to check things out. What they find is scarier than any conventional monster or alien—it’s racism in 1950’s America. Walking through a park, Ryan notices a white woman has dropped her glove, and when he goes to return it, the woman’s husband strikes Ryan across the face. While the TARDIS team come to protect him, it’s Rosa Parks, who was walking by, that defuses the situation by reminding the white gentleman that the suit she’s been working on will be ready soon. Rosa then warns the so-called out-of-towners to watch themselves or they’ll end up like Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American who was tortured and killed.
Let’s be clear—Doctor Who has dealt with racism in a roundabout way in the past. In “Human Nature,” Martha Jones has to work as a maid until she can figure out how to transform John Smith back into the 10th Doctor. In “Thin Ice,” the 12th Doctor punches a gentleman who disrespected Bill Potts for the color of her skin. But these are mere moments in hour-long episodes. In retrospect, these moments almost feel like the respective writers were checking a box. Here, writer Malorie Blackman intends to show racism for what it truly was and still is: deeply uncomfortable and absolutely life threatening. The simplest actions become dangerous. The TARDIS team can’t have a conversation together in a local bar, and they can’t get a hotel room together. Ryan receives the brunt of the verbal abuse and racial slurs, although Yaz is mistaken as a Mexican instead of her true heritage.
The team gets down the business, relying on their own knowledge of history and sleuthing to keep all the players in place. Ryan seeks out Rosa Parks—and ends up at her house, serving coffee to Martin Luther King Jr., watching the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement being laid out before his own eyes. Yaz builds a timeline of events, and Graham works the bus driver angle.
The artron energy turns out to be tangibly tied to racism in the form of Krasko, an escaped Stormcage prisoner with a suitcase of future tech who’s hellbent on changing the past so racism can carry on deep into the future. The Doctor learns he’s killed thousands of people and he has a neuroblock that prevents him from hurting anyone else, so he’s relying on small changes to have his plans play out.
“Now we know what our task is,” the Doctor says. “Keep history in order. No changing it, just guarding it against someone who wants to destroy it.”
But as powerful as that is, both Ryan and Yaz know the future still leaves something to be desired as they hide behind a trash bin while the Doctor’s motel room is being searched by an Alabama policeman.
“It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes racism out of the world forever,” Ryan explains. “Otherwise, how come I get stopped by the police way more than my white mates?”
Yaz has experiences, too, on and off the job as a police officer.
“Of course, I do, especially on the job,” she says. “I get called a Paki when I’m sorting out a domestic or a terrorist on the way home from the mosque.”
This moment showcases the bigger problem here—that racism is still around and if left unchecked, it could turn back time for many minority groups. The old adage that goes that if people don’t pay attention to history it usually repeats itself, is also clear earlier in the episode when Ryan can’t place who Rosa Parks is in from his school studies. Showrunner Chris Chibnall has made it clear in past interviews that he wanted to take Doctor Who back to its roots, where it served to educate children and their families—and it shows here, in the best ways possible.
While the Doctor is able to strip Krasko of his weapons and his “cheap and nasty” vortex manipulator, he still always seems to be one step ahead, by changing bus driver schedules, destroying buses and the like. Rosa’s work schedule even changes but the Doctor keeps it in place by tearing her coat and asking her to stitch it up. The Doctor leaves Yaz with Rosa, and then troubleshoots bus schedule issues with Ryan and Graham. The Doctor and Graham commander a bus for James Blake to drive. Ryan discovers Krasko has put up flyers announcing suspended bus service so he runs around town pulling them down until he runs into Krasko himself blocking the road. Having pocketed the one piece of tech the Doctor stole from the Stormcage criminal, Ryan sets it for as far back as it will go and blasts Krasko back into the past and then moving his car from the route.
So many tasks leading up to the big moment, the TARDIS crew continues to think on their feet and prove themselves worthy companions. They all reunite on the bus with Rosa when the Doctor comes to a shocking realization after counting seats—they must stay on the bus so Rosa will be asked to give up her seat. They must sit silently by, and bear witness to history. It’s almost too much for Graham. Since meeting the Doctor, he’s lost Grace, who embodied much of what Rosa Parks stands for and who was a hero to Grace. Despite his and Ryan’s strained relationship, he’s been fiercely protective of him throughout their journeys. To be standing on the wrong side of history to ensure it happens is a burden he doesn’t know how to carry.
“No I don’t want to be a part of this,” Graham says, his face in anguish for being the catalyst for Rosa’s protest.
“We have to, I’m sorry,” the Doctor explains. “We have to not help her.”
It’s a heavy, breathtaking moment that weighs on the Doctor as well. As the now-historical altercation plays out, she can do nothing but stare straight ahead and wait for Rosa to make the choice to not move. It’s a moment we’ve seen other modern Doctors struggle with when saddled with set points in time, but none have felt so emotional. Rosa locks eyes with James Blake, remembering their encounter from 12 years previous. Rosa sits, and history stays in sync. When the policemen come to take Rosa away, the Doctor and her companions watch in awe, and Rosa simply nods. The TARDIS crew sails off, with the Doctor discussing how Rosa changed the world.
In this season of firsts, “Rosa” feels like the first pure historical we’ve experienced in a long time. While others, like “Vincent and the Doctor” relied on metaphorical monsters to represent depression—or in general with the long-term villain Daleks standing in for Nazis—“Rosa” puts the problem squarely on the human race’s shoulders. It’s up to us to do better and to stand up for what’s right. We hold the power to change bad circumstances to good, with every single nudge and step forward. And while the Krasko plot-line might feel thin, there is an important lesson embedded in his character, too. Krasko shows us that racism is alive and well in the universe—a sentiment that is being felt daily here in modern America—and that there must be people like the Doctor to find ways to stop it. “Rosa” is an episode we’ll be discussing for years to come—and will hopefully bring about change for all that embrace its message of hope and standing strong to ideals in the face of life threatening adversity.
Rachel Stewart has written fandom commentary for sites such as FangirlConfessions.com, Nerdy Minds Magazine, and ESO Network, among others. She has work in the anthology “Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who.”