Rosa is an episode that draws strength from the diversity of the Doctor Who cast to tell a story that embraces all their stories and experiences.
Ally. Activist. Leader. Witness.
It’s fair to say that Rosa is the story in this season of Doctor Who where the format of four TARDIS travellers comes into its own. Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall combine to produce a script that makes balancing the needs of four leads seem effortless. But more than that, it’s one which would have been significantly lesser with any single one of them missing. Diversity and inclusivity are often talked about in terms of mere representation. The simple idea that everybody should see some aspect of their own experience on screen. And that no section of society should be shut out of the cultural conversation.
But Rosa succeeds in much more than that. It uses Doctor Who’s diversity to examine a potent and difficult issue from four different angles at once. And its message is powerfully amplified by not just dividing the it into ‘this is story of your experience’ versus ‘this is an opportunity to learn about the experience of others.’ In this episode we see the unbreakable strength and passion of those fighting for their own rights. And we see a path along the delicate tightrope of being a good ally and witness from outside those communities.
The Doctor is the Ally
Of all our characters, it’s probably her to whom her role comes least naturally. Being a ‘white knight’ figure – a member of a privileged and powerful group of outsiders who sweeps into solve another communities’ problems for them – is pretty much the usual mode of storytelling in Doctor Who. Even as far back as 1963 the Doctor was having arguments with then companion Ian Chesterton about it. Ian was firm that the Thals’ struggle for their lives and liberty had to be owned by the Thals themselves. That it couldn’t be just a facet in the Doctor’s own wider war with the Daleks. Since then she’s mastered the art of dropping into a society she knows nothing about, identifying the local underclass, and upending the entire system before teatime.
Even Blackman’s own Doctor Who short story, The Ripple Effect, gently touches on this. It suggests that maybe the Doctor doesn’t want a truly equal and just universe. Because then they wouldn’t have anyone to be a show-off hero for.
Doctor Who, as a program, largely gets away with this because both bad guys and good guys are aliens. Or else, particularly in the 20th century episodes, both oppressors and oppressed are played by English accented white people. But most of all because the Doctor is a hero. She saves the day, What sort of early evening science fiction adventure show features a hero who demures that beating the aliens and saving the day isn’t really her place. And we wouldn’t want her any other way. But still…
Historically, even when the Doctor does take a step back, it feels like a cheat. In Kill the Moon, Clara even calls him out on it – livid that obviously her ‘choice’ wasn’t truly a choice; it was a test.
The Doctor fully acknowledges the dangers faced by her friends
But the Doctor has come a long way by the time of Rosa. Gone is the person who once blithely suggested that people of colour just ‘walk around like they own the place.’
Instead she’s instantly worried and concerned for her friends’ safety in 1950s Alabama and offers them the safety of the TARDIS. But even more importantly she doesn’t order them back to the ship. She immediately accepts their decision to stay and help Rosa Parks. She never forgets that this is Rosa’s life, and that she is merely a guest star in it. And she’s mindful of the fact that it is Ryan and Yaz’ futures on the line. That she’s on hand to help them in their battle as needed.
The Doctor never seeks to take agency from Rosa, or her own friends
This bleeds through the script even in small ways. It’s Yaz and Ryan who come up with the details of Operation: Rosa Parks. Yaz comes up with the lottery plan and Yaz keeps Rosa occupied until the proper time (maybe the Doctor knew she wouldn’t be able to restrain herself from gushing inspirational speeches at the poor woman). It’s Ryan who comes up with the plan to invade Blake’s (cough) ‘safe space’ but the river and force him back into town by the simple power of his blackness. And it’s Ryan who ensures the bus is full and it’s Ryan who ultimately deals with Krasko.
Some have questioned why the Doctor doesn’t judge Ryan for fooming Krasko into the distant past. I suspect it’s because this is one instance where the Doctor actually recognizes the limits of her moral authority. Krasko’s ultimate plan to destroy the future of Ryan’s entire community. He aims to keep them in servitude for thousands of years to come. The Doctor perhaps realizes its not her place to police Ryan’s response to that.
The Doctor’s most heroic deed in Rosa is to resist her own impulse to act
The Doctor’s greatest contribution to Operation: Rosa Parks is to do nothing. And, mainly through Jodie Whittaker’s fantastic performance, we see the cost of that. As Blake yells and abuses Rosa, as Rosa holds fast with quiet resolution, Whittaker’s face is a mask of concentration. Every muscle under strain despite her seated posture. This is the Doctor resisting every instinct in her soul, and every strand of DNA in her body. This is the Doctor not gutting every shred of Blake’s self image with a few well chosen words, not staring him down, not sonicing his bus so it repeatedly slaps him about with its doors while blaring Mambo No. 5 from the radio.
This is the Doctor as ally. Taking her place not as the star of Doctor Who, but as a guest in Rosa Parks’ story. She’s supportive from the wings but gives the hero space to be the hero of her own story.
Ryan is the activist
We see Ryan’s anger and frustration at both the horrors of the world he finds himself in and the fact that the echoes of them linger in the present day. And we understand his anger due to the undeniable brutality and bigotry we see him face. His initial ignorance about “the first black woman to drive a bus” isn’t just a fun comedy moment. It’s also an important starting point for his journey. We know that Ryan has a certain amount of anger at the world. At his Dad for running out on him. At himself for his Dyspraxia. At ‘the Feds’ for stopping and questioning him out on the street much more often than any of his white friends. But it’s largely directionless. Most of the time it lands on Graham for reasons I suspect the younger man doesn’t really understand.
Ryan’s story see him gain purpose and direction
What Rosa, both the episode and the woman, do for Ryan is to harness that frustration to a purpose. She inspires him from the moment he meets her. When he skips off the bus it’s clearly not just to find out more about Krasko’s plan or to protect Rosa from attack – he wants to learn more about her and the intense sense of purpose she gives off. Tosin Cole continues to add layers to his performance as Ryan with every episode, and his moving from outrage at his treatment, to gushing fanboy love for Dr. King and Rosa Parks, to his steel in facing Krasko are a revelation.
By the time the night is out he’s sat in on a NAACP meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King. By the next day he’s out on the street, yes as the Doctor’s companion, but also as an activist conducting a counter-operation against an imminent racist intervention. And maybe he doesn’t wind up punching a Nazi in the face, but zapping one back to the dawn of time must be almost as satisfying. When Rosa quietly nods to the rapt Ryan through the bus window, it’s not a simple act of reassurance. It’s a passing of the torch. And it will be interesting to see how far Ryan carries that torch in future episodes.
Yaz is the leader
Or rather leader in waiting. She joined the police because she believes in her own ability to make change and the system’s ability to let her. Despite suffering racist slurs aimed at her Pakistani heritage. Despite being nineteen and therefore born in the year 2000 – meaning she was only one when history shattered and she started having to live in a ‘post-9/11 world.’ A world where people yell ‘terrorist’ at her and her family in the street. But where she really wants to be is in charge.
Yaz is the visionary and, in some ways, the idealist. She’s more optimistic about the future than Ryan – predicting even greater bounds in the fight against bigotry to be made in 21st century than I the 20th. She also believes in her ability to change the system from within, rather than resist it from the outside. She joined the police, often finding herself protecting and serving the same people who give her abuse. But for her that’s a stepping stone to the day she assumes a leadership role and puts the world to rights. If there’s a companion most likely to return one day when the Seventeenth Doctor discovers they’re now a major national figure, then it’s Yaz.
Mandip Gill benefits hugely from this extra focus on Yaz this week. She has a deft ability to mix Yaz’ inherent optimism and joy with her deep professionalism and perfectionism. It makes it feel like the character is coming into her own.
Graham is the witness.
He hates the inequities in society yet never forgets that despite that he’s still an unwilling beneficiary of them. “I’m so ashamed,” he says at one point when his grandson is forced to sit at the back of the bus while Graham himself has to ride up front. “I don’t want to be a part of this,” he says at another as armed police escort Rosa off the bus because he’s standing without a seat and she had one.
And yet he knows that he is a part of it, and that he has no choice but to be a part of it. It’s his role to bear witness, to feel that shame, and to acknowledge it. It’s Graham’s understanding of all this, his acknowledgement of his own privilege as the TARDIS’ token middle aged white straight guy, that enables him to use that privilege so effectively in support of his friends.
Graham repeatedly and unambiguously claims Ryan as his grandson throughout the episode. I don’t believe he doesn’t understand exactly what he’s doing. When Emmett Till was lynched he was snatched right from the arms of his family. But the Till family were black. The prospect of doing something to Ryan right under his white grandfather’s nose gives just a little pause to those in conflict with Ryan. Is the trouble that would come with violence against Graham worth the satisfaction of violence against Ryan?
For many viewers, it’s Graham’s face in the climatic scene that resonates with them
But it’s also true, and Graham also surely knows, that by loudly proclaiming himself as part of a mixed race family, as having a black wife, he places himself in some danger. When otherwise he would be in none whatsoever. Graham massively increases the danger to himself even though it can only decrease the danger to Ryan a tiny amount. In its way it’s Graham’s own answer to the moral question the Doctor set in The Doctor Falls – the belief that it’s the sacrifices you’re prepared to make to do the right thing when they probably won’t make a difference anyway, that defines your morality. He also knows he’s the only one who can lead the invasion of Blake’s fishing spot and needle him into leaving.
For many watching on Sunday night, it’s Bradley Walsh’s ashen face and perfectly underplayed distress in the final scenes that resonated with them. Because Graham understand the system and his place within it, and the power that gives him to bear witness and to leverage his privilege to protect others. And though that, maybe others in such positions can understand their own.
Rosa would be a weaker story without any one of our TARDIS crew. Through its variety of viewpoints it not only reflects the experience and history of one part of the audience but filmly puts another part in the role of witness and demonstrates how to fulfill that role and obligation in their own lives.
The Doctor Who adventure continues…
Doctor Who continues this Sunday at 6.55pm GMT on BBC One and at 8pm EST on BBC America with Arachnids in the UK by Chris Chibnall. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien), and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair). Arachnids in the UK guest stars Chris Noth, Shobna Gulati, Tanya Fear and is directed by Sallie Aprahamian.
“Something’s happening with the spiders in this city.” The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan find their way back to Yorkshire – and Yaz’s family. Only something is stirring amidst the eight-legged arachnid population of Sheffield.
The first three episodes of Series Eleven, plus the ten previous seasons, are all available on iPlayer’s Doctor Who page.