This week Doctor Who tackled a pivotal moment in American history with heartbreaking resonance for current events. With white supremacy on the rise again, choosing to have the first historical episode in this season focus on Rosa Parks is bold and important.
Headed by the first female Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), this season has shown itself as making a bold stand for women in the present and the future already. It was always going to be significant which women they chose to celebrate from the past. It would have been very easy to celebrate white women. And even though we have a female Doctor, we’re still on our thirteenth white Doctor. There have been calls for a person of colour to play the Doctor for as long as there have been calls for a woman to play the role – possibly longer. And there was no reason that the call to cast a female Doctor could not have been answered by one of the many capable women of colour who I’m sure would have jumped at the role.
So it’s important that we’re not, for instance, revisiting Elizabeth I, or taking in Catherine the Great, or even one of the suffragettes – many of whom were only fighting for the emancipation of white women. We are instead introduced to a key figure from the civil rights movement whose refusal to move from the ‘white’ section of a bus sparked a wave of protests that helped end segregation in the US.
It’s important, too, that this is a TARDIS with two people of colour as companions. We aren’t seeing this from a completely white perspective. While it’s good that the Doctor recognises Rosa’s significance, that recognition isn’t nearly as interesting as her resonance for Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill), the Doctor’s black and South Asian companions.
It is a strength of the episode that much of the history of this period is recounted by Ryan and Yas, and not the Doctor. And even when some of the explanation comes from Graham (Bradley Walsh), her white companion, he attribute’s his knowledge to Ryan’s grandmother.
We also get to see Ryan and Yas discussing their own feelings of powerlessness – the warnings their parents gave them not to fight back because it is just too risky. It is important that white children watching the show know that in our supposedly enlightened world their friends may not feel as safe and easy – that they have a privilege in not experiencing that fear as a part of daily life.
I have only recently come to understand this in the past few years. I grew up in the 80s and 90s thinking that racism was mostly a thing of the past. That ignorance is a part of how it has been possible for the far right to rise again, targeting people of colour. That ignorance stood in the way of understanding and solidarity. We need to know the truth of what is happening to others when we feel safe. Privilege is blindness. Dismantling that blindness often involves coming to recognise your own complicity in accepting ignorance and not questioning more.
But it’s also important to recognise the role that this representation plays for the children of colour watching this episode, too. That their experiences are validated. That they feel a part of a community with common struggles that extends beyond their own front door. That these struggles are shown as a part of something as iconically British and widely viewed as Doctor Who.
From this perspective, I’d like to encourage you to seek out the reviews of people of colour and not just read my thoughts on the matter. I am likely blind to both problems and successes in this episode, and I can only draw on empathy to guess what this episode must mean to people of colour, not direct experience.
For what it is worth, the episode seemed by and large sensitive and skillfully constructed.
The racist 1950s white folk are shot in such a way as to feel very much like sinister Doctor Who monsters who might pop out of the darkness at any moment to pounce on our heroes. There’s even a creepy musical theme that plays to make us feel like they’re always watching, and the camera often views the Doctor and her companions from the shadows – just as it would if there were gribblies waiting to jump out.
There are gribblies here. They are the white people.
And the interactions with 1950s American white people made for uncomfortable watching. I’m always less comfortable with episodes that go back in time because there’s always a bit of second-hand embarrassment as modern characters get the behaviour and dress of the time wrong. But the discomfort here wasn’t that jarring kind of embarrassment humour. The discomfort that arose from modern people interacting with historical characters was not (mostly) played for laughs. Ryan doesn’t ‘get it wrong’ when he tries to hand a fallen glove back to a white woman. He is doing nothing wrong. It is the racist reaction of the white people that makes the scene uncomfortable.
It’s a kind of discomfort I should have to sit through. White people are fragile when it comes to race. Even where we believe in equality, we don’t want to talk about it. We’d prefer to pretend that everything is fine and everyone is already equal. But being ‘colour blind‘ is its own sort of racism. It is not fair to the struggles that people of colour face to insist that their experiences are the same as ours – that we don’t see the difference. It is harder for them. White people make it harder. Denying that you can see any difference is not a good thing, and it leads to one being insufficiently critical of one’s own blindspots.
So it’s uncomfortable to watch Ryan face the prospect of death and imprisonment for a kind act. It’s uncomfortable to watch black and Asian characters be refused service. It’s uncomfortable to witness Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) being told to move to the back of the bus because of the colour of her skin.
It’s uncomfortable, and it’s good that white people are being asked to live with that discomfort.
But it’s also important that this is not just a tale of terrible things that happened and are happening to passive black people. We are told directly that Rosa Parks was not just a tired woman who refused to move; we see her as part of a movement. I particularly like that Ryan, as the only black companion, is also the only companion who gets to meet Martin Luther King. He deserves that honour and it is good that it’s not overshadowed by what would have been the Doctor’s delight, or Graham’s, or even Yas’s. Other people of colour can identify with these struggles, but they are also not a homogenous group. Black people in the US suffered a particularly fraught history, and this is their story, Rosa is their hero. As a black British man, Ryan has a different and much closer relationship to those struggles than the other characters.
I also liked that there was a brief acknowledgement that though this is a particularly American moment in history, Britain cannot claim any kind of superiority over race relations. In addition to Yas and Ryan discussing their experiences of racism at home, a throw-away line from the Doctor makes a gesture towards acknowledging British imperialism: “You know us Brits,” she says, “very imperious.”
It’s not really enough, but they cover a lot of ground in this episode, and perhaps it would have been too distracting to delve deeply into British historical racism as well.
Similarly, I watched hoping that there would be some acknowledgement that Rosa Parks was not the first black person to refuse to give up her seat on the bus. Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa. But Rosa was a more palatable hero. Claudette was 15 – a teenager – and seen as less reliable. She also noted of Rosa Parks: “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class… She fit that profile.” (Source.) I’m always a bit bristled when I see a woman written out of history, but again, it was perhaps too much detail for what had to be a very tight episode and cover a lot of ground.
We do see Rosa as an activist, though, and that she did not work alone. And I was really glad that Ryan got to play a significant role in standing up against the white supremacist baddie. This was not simply the Doctor acting as a white saviour and co-opting black history. It isn’t even entirely her plan that sets history back on track – all the companions contribute.
That said, the Doctor, Graham, and Yas become a necessary part of history by taking up seats on the bus – an issue that is directly discussed as Yas notes that they must have always had to be there to make this moment in history happen. That is not entirely cool. That is white people (and Yas, who is not white, but is shown to be treated differently to black people on buses) making this moment in black history possible. I… would have preferred if the writers hadn’t gone down that route, or at least made it less explicit.
It is, of course, a familiar Doctor Who trope for the Doctor and her companions to become a part of history and to turn out to have been necessary all along. It’s heavily implied that the Doctor was integral to such moments as Nero’s burning of Rome and the Great Fire of London. But there’s something very different about the morally questionable First Doctor giggling about the fact that he might have had a hand in Rome burning and a modern, progressively framed Doctor inserting herself into recent history that was an important moment of black triumph.
Overall, I do think the episode appropriately centred black characters and people of colour, and Rosa’s moment is appropriately tense and powerful. It would be remiss of me not to note these qualms, but ultimately I’m not in a position to say whether it really marred the episode. It does feel like the most important historical episode I can think of. In the spirit of genuine educational messages that this season seems to be going for, the episode takes an important moment in history that is relevant to our current political climate and, well, educates. Historian, EK, on Twitter was crowing with delight:
Children are not only being given an account of an important moment, but shown part of how historians do research, as the Doctor and her companions piece together Rosa Parks’ day from bus time tables and newspapers.
Where the previous two episodes gave us a classic Doctor Who aliens-on-Earth encounter and a dystopic-future encounter, tonight’s episode was a classic Doctor Who historical – mixing history with adventure and a powerful social message.
This season continues to prove its classic credentials while offering something that stretches us and takes the format further. I can’t wait to see what they do next.