Doctor Who answered the challenge of Brexit and Trump in a big way with the third story of the current series, “Rosa,” cowritten by show-runner Chris Chibnall and children and young adult writer Malorie Blackman. The TARDIS crew set down in Montgomery, Alabama on November 30, 1955, one day before Mrs. Parks celebrated one-woman bus sit-in. Visiting historic figures and events is nothing new for Doctor Who. Indeed, in its original conception, Who was meant to be a semi-educational children’s show. But this visit was special, not just because of Rosa Parks, but also because the current TARDIS crew has never been more diverse. And their different backgrounds informed and enhanced the story.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) currently travels with Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), and Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole). Imagine this group walking around together in the Jim Crow South: a white woman (wearing pants), an older white man, a South Asian woman, and a young black man.
Ryan immediately gets into trouble when he innocently picks up a dropped hankie and tries to give it back to its owner, a white woman. The woman’s husband responds violently by slapping him and threatening worse. You don’t molest a white woman, boy, he warns the stunned Ryan. Rosa Parks happens along and defuses the situation, acting obsequiously to the offended white man, as blacks had to at that time. She also assures him that the garment of his that she was working on will be ready on time. When the white couple leaves, she scolds Ryan, reminding him that Emmett Till had met his end for crossing a white woman just the year prior.
This tense opener beautifully captures the brutality of the era. Though no one drops the n-word, you’d swear that you heard it.
Later, the foursome retreat to a local bar to assess their situation. Oops. Oblivious to Jim Crow laws and mores, they instantly become the subject of suspicion and hatred. The folks in the bar take exception to Ryan the Colored Boy and Yasmin the “Mexican”—a wonderful touch. And Graham, who was married to Ryan’s black grandmother until her death, complicates things greatly by identifying Ryan as his grandson. And the only thing worse than a n****r is a n****r lover. Towns folk quickly label the group troublemakers and the police monitor their movements.
Using her trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor ultimately discovers evidence that someone is trying to tamper with history. This leads her to Krasko, a foe from the future. After serving time for murder, he managed to get a wrist time-travel devise (of the type Capt. Jack Harkness wore), a ray-gun that blasts people to another time, and other temporal toys. He uses them with the expressed purpose of preventing Rosa Parks’s famous sit-in from happening on December 1.
I found Krasko a most disturbing villain, far more so than Daleks or Cybermen or even the Master/Missy. Because Kraskos really exist. A Krasko current sits in the White House. Kraskos bearing tiki torches and Nazi and Confederate flags marched through Charlottesville, Virginia to promote White Power. Kraskos made the Brexit campaign all about “us versus them.” Our world today has emboldened Kraskos and we continue to feel their wrath on an almost daily basis. Just a week after this episode aired, a man attempted to mail pipe bombs to various Democratic leaders and CNN, folks on Trump’s “enemies list.” And another man opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during service, murdering 11 and wounding 9 all while shouting “all Jews must die.”
The Krasko character painfully reminds us that people with his mindset remain with us, decades after the fall of the Third Reich. And that they will likely remain with us well into the future.
While hiding from the police behind a dumpster in an alley, Yasmin and Ryan share a wonderful scene where they discuss racism, comparing their lives to life in the Jim Crow South. Ryan wonders if what Rosa Parks did ultimately changed anything. The police stop me on the streets more than my mates, he complains. And Yasmin, a police officer herself, says that she does not receive as much respect as she would if she weren’t Pakistani-British. But she also believes that things are better than they had been. Case in point, a story like this would never have been made in 1955. And if it had, television stations in the South likely would have boycotted it—like they did the infamous Star Trek episode where Kirk and Uhura kissed.
I should also note how much I am enjoying Whittaker’s Doctor. She has an infectious spark of energy, the right amount of moral outrage—a key ingredient for any Doctor—and a strong sense of purpose. With her returns the unabashed do-good Doctor. And in these times, we really, really need that. We need a hero.
A Doctor Who story like “Rosa” could only come about because Chris Chibnall took risks. He hired the first female actor to play the Doctor. He gave her a very diverse group to travel with. And hiring Ms. Blackman, whose fiction explores racism in dystopian settings, brought diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it. We need this type of programming more than ever, with Kraskos trying to reverse generations of social justice history.
“Rosa” represents Doctor Who at its finest.
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