“I have a duty of care.” These words spoken so often by the 12th Doctor are what immediately spring to mind when I reflect over this week’s episode of Who. So many, myself firmly included, have waited so long for this episode; not “Rosa” specifically, but any story which addresses the history and culture of people of color, written by someone who can authentically tell it, and this week after a grueling 55 year wait, Whovians of color finally got their first taste of what that could be. In the weeks leading up to “Rosa” I found myself nervous, but overwhelmingly optimistic in anticipation of this story, because, as the saying goes, after waiting all this time, it has to be good, right? Even so, when I finally found myself sitting down for a borderline religious viewing session, my stomach was gripped with nerves.
Upon finishing it, I was a little baffled with myself; I definitely liked it, it was Doctor Who and therefore automatically enjoyable to me, but I didn’t feel the immediate warmth that floods over me with reckless abandon, as with so many instant favorites before it. My initial reaction was disappointment, three quarters with myself for not being uncomplicatedly enthused. See, I’d latched on to one part of the episode more strongly than the rest; the main conflict lies in the fact that Krasko and the TARDIS team believe that “nudging” history just enough so Rosa doesn’t commit her act of civil disobedience that day, would completely topple the Civil Rights Movement. “Parks won’t be asked to stand, she won’t protest, and your kind won’t get above themselves.”
Growing up in the South, I’d spent a lot of time learning about the efforts of the NAACP and all of the work that went into organizing the Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement. As a bit of an organizational mess myself, I was always in awe of their tireless dedication in pursuit of equality, which is why I think this erroneous assumption hit me so hard. Even if Rosa hadn’t “sat her ground” that day, the Boycott would have eventually taken place. Tensions were incredibly high, many women had done what Rosa did that day before, but she made an excellent icon because she was a paragon of the Black community. This fact does not in any way make her less of an important figure however, in fact it is because of the activism she and other members of the NAACP did previous to that fateful December night that the Boycott was able to create such an impact, despite lasting over a year, through the hot Montgomery summer months. However upon a second viewing of the episode I was struck by this thought; even taking into account the writers’ knowledge of the work of the NAACP, the belief that Rosa was the key to the CRM doesn’t ring as outlandish for either our “Space Racist”, the TARDIS Team, or even the Doctor herself to have. So often people, even those in marginalized groups themselves, don’t realize or acknowledge all the thought, planning, and persistence that goes into the mere right of existing as an equal in a society structure that’s stacked against you.
Hit with that thought my stomach unknotted, and though I had noticed it before, I was able to completely appreciate all of the earnest care that went into this story. Aside from a single off color joke Yaz makes about using Ryan as a piñata (maybe not the best laugh to have in an episode where the threat of lynching is constantly hung above Ryan like Damocles’ Sword), Yaz and Ryan really do feel like old school mates reunited. I enjoyed their amiable banter in quiet moments as they allowed themselves to relax, alien threats less pressing, and the earth familiar and solid beneath their feet. The Doctor is wholly kind and encouraging, proving with every passing moment that after years of work she can now effortlessly be the best version of herself.
Though as a Southern American I found the levity with which they all strode off the TARDIS more than a little alarming, in context it makes perfect sense; I doubt even Martha or Bill would be as concerned about visiting the comparatively more modern era of the American 50s. One would think that segregation doesn’t hold a candle to slavery, however the reality of the danger involved in such a trip for three quarters of young Black men could hardly be stated to be much less. The message still doesn’t seem to quite hit home with them though, as following their disturbing encounter, they still act with little regard for the basic rules around them (shocker, I know), at the risk of Ryan and Yaz’s safety. The Doctor has never had to navigate the nuances of privilege before this series and I am so looking forward to the day when she does not possess the advantage of fair skin, opening the possibilities for some wonderfully intriguing storytelling. All the Doctor does is make waves, how will they operate when their non-compliance could derail history?
More than anything else however, the great triumph of this episode comes down to Rosa herself. Her portrayal was so incredibly honest and heartfelt. Unlike so many larger than life historical figures before her, Rosa is wonderfully grounded and three dimensional; the smallest amount of time spent with her left me with a feeling of immense calm. Her quiet fierceness and kindness shines in every scene, her activism is neither forgotten nor overshadowed, opening the door for curious viewers to learn more and be inspired by her efforts*. Leaving this episode, you feel as if you’ve met the real Ms. Parks, and you are all the better for it.
As much as this episode is overdue, it is also extremely timely. Today when we’re faced with so much political chaos, with some scrambling to mask injustice with the guise of legality (as Blake said, “Law’s a law”), it is so very important to remember how far we’ve come in such a short span of time, and how far we have yet to go. It’s encouraging to know that her story will inspire a whole new generation of fans. In the end the message is clear; never let anyone silence you, go on with the spirit of Rosa.
[i] In addition to being secretary for the NAACP, Rosa spent years dedicated to registering Black voters in the face of deliberately discriminatory registration laws
Learn more about Rosa and the Civil Rights Movement
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