This year award-winning author Malorie Blackman joins the Doctor Who writing team to tell the story of civil rights legend Rosa Parks. But what can her past work tell us about her approach to this important episode?
This weekend sees the return of that essential element of Doctor Who – the celebrity historical. Its focus is on a very worthy subject – the quiet, dignified heroism of Rosa Parks. Parks was the 1950s seamstress who sparked a political revolution when she broke the racist laws of Alabama by patiently, politely, but absolutely unequivocally, refusing to get off a bus just so a white patron could take her seat.
Yet it’s undeniable that telling the story of Parks’ heroism in a Doctor Who context presents challenges. Yes, you’ll have people who argue that Doctor Who shouldn’t be critical of the systemic racism of 1950s America. They’ll say it was ‘of its time’ and shouldn’t be judged by modern standards. Or perhaps argue that the racist police and politicians were actually, shall we say, ‘very fine people.’
And those people should be made sit in the corner and watch the whole of Doctor Who from 1963 again. In the hope that maybe the fundamental message of the show sinks in this time.
But it also has to be careful not to become the episode where ‘The Doctor Solves Racism’. Or the one carrying a message of ‘Thank Goodness We Don’t Have Racism Any More, Eh?’ That requires a writer of skill, experience and a full mastery of the issues with all their complications.
Fortunately, if any modern British writer can pull it off, it’s Malorie Blackman, OBE.
Malorie Blackman is long established as one of Britain’s finest authors for young adults
Blackman is one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent writers of colour. She’s also simply one of Britain’s best novelists full stop. Since 1990s horror science fiction anthology Not So Stupid since written over sixty books. The Children’s’ Laureate from 2013 to 2015, she has specialised in books for children. But this body of work stretches all the way from picture books to the kind of ‘Young Adult’ novels that bear that title because they target the concerns, interests and lives of people in the teens and early twenties. Novels that are otherwise as sophisticated, intelligent and emotionally gut-wrenching as anything you’ll find in the ‘Literature’ section.
Noughts & Crosses, published as Black & White in America, is a five-book sequence of novels that remains one of Malorie Blackman’s most well known and potent series. They’re set in an alternate history dystopia. A world where the segregation of the 20th century South not only still exist but are standard across the planet. With the twist that, in this world, the industrial revolution came to Africa first. Where it was African nations which therefore went on to build global Empires based on conquest and enslavement. Now, in the series’ 21st century, every country is controlled by the elites ‘Crosses’ of African descent as part of a federal planetary super-state while the fair skinned ‘Noughts’ are kept as a suppressed underclass by any means necessary – economic, educational or legal.
Noughts & Crosses tackles issues of racism head-on and is one of the most celebrated Young Adult series of all time
The series uses this flipping of history to explore complicated ideas like racism being merely a means to an end. An empty doctrine built by the determination of those in power to stay in power. It also examines how the indoctrination of young people with the false belief in their own racial superiority is itself abusive. And the moral complexities of trying to keep your soul as a member of an underclass. Of the rage of living in a world that never lets, you win fairly, and a system gamed against you.
Noughts & Crosses has won many deserved awards and praise. It was also included in the BBC’s 2003 Big Read list – voted on by the British public – as one of the 100 best books in history (sandwiched between Memoirs of a Geisha and Crime and Punishment).
Since Noughts & Crosses concluded in 2008 with final book Double Cross, Blackman has edited Unheard Voices, a book of poems and stories marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Among dozens of other projects, she also produced the frankly should-be-compulsory-reading Boys Don’t Cry. In which a seventeen-year-old single father struggles and finds his feet at the expense of his university ambitions.
Blackman has previously written the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary short story The Ripple Effect
Blackman also has solid credentials as a Doctor Who fan. In 2013, she wrote The Ripple Effect, a short story where the Doctor and Ace fall into an alternative universe. One where, to the Seventh Doctor’s intense suspicion, the Daleks are the good guys. It appeared first in the 50th Anniversary collection Eleven Doctors, Eleven Stories (later incorporated into Twelve Doctors, Twelve Stories). With a certain inevitability, it’s also shortly a part of the Thirteen Doctors, Thirteen Stories book. She’s been a regular viewer of Doctor Who since the days of Jon Pertwee. But even before that saw the Peter Cushing films during their cinema run. And she’s been a long time advocate for a female Doctor.
Rosa is not Blackman’s first television work. In the 1990s she contributed scripts to Bykers’ Grove as well as adapting her own novel Pig Heart Boy (about a teenager struggling with the notoriety of being the world’s first pig heart transplant recipient). Her Doctor Who script is being followed by contributing to the TV adaptation of Noughts & Crosses, where former Doctor Who writer Toby Whithouse (School Reunion, The Vampires of Venice) will be leading the scripting process.
Remarkably, Malorie Blackman is the first person of colour to ever write for Doctor Who in its thirty-seven seasons. It’s fitting, perhaps, that the story of Rosa Parks be told in Doctor Who by a woman staging a quiet, dignified revolution of her own.
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 Rosa by Malorie Blackman. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien), and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair). Rosa guest stars Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks and Josh Bowman as Krasko.
“If she can live here her whole life, a couple of hours ain’t gonna kill me. They ain’t gonna kill me, right?” Montgomery, Alabama. 1955. The Doctor and her friends find themselves in the Deep South of America. As they encounter a seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks, they begin to wonder: is someone attempting to change history?