Doctor Who 11x03 “Rosa” Review
Guys, this episode was SO GOOD. I’m talking “pick one episode to show to a friend that has never seen Doctor Who” good. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m so sorry about your poor judgment.
Let’s start with some stats! They’re not boring, I promise.
In addition to being a standout episode judging by content alone, “Rosa” is also groundbreaking on several levels. This is the first episode in all 37 seasons of Doctor Who written by a person of color, only the sixth to be written by a woman, and Malorie Blackman doesn’t disappoint. Her episode is an unflinching look at Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. She’s unapologetic about the blatant (and sometimes shocking) racism shown throughout the episode, making it one of Doctor Who’s most poignant to date.
The episode opens with the Doctor making yet another attempt to land the TARDIS back in 2018 Sheffield, having instead landed everyone in 1955 Alabama (close, right?). The Doctor picks up a signal from some residual space technology, so of course she sets out to find the source. They’re not even off the TARDIS for a minute when Ryan attempts to return a dropped handkerchief to a white woman and is met with a slap in the face by the woman’s husband, apparently offended by Ryan’s gesture so much so that he even threatens him with a lynching.
It’s obviously not something I enjoy watching, but I’m glad that Malorie Blackman didn’t hold back. Showing the slap would have been enough to convey racism and heighten the tension, but it wouldn’t allow the audience (or the Time Team) to fully grasp the reality that Black people in the south faced everyday. I shouldn’t even use the past tense for that one, or even regulate this type of racism to the south. The same day this episode aired was also the day that a Black woman was racially abused on a Ryanair flight because a racist white man refused to sit next to her. So, you tell me, past or present?
Who shows up to save the day? Rosa Parks. After calming the situation by deflecting the conversation to the man’s suit she’s currently tailoring, she scolds Ryan for not being more careful. Emmett Till gets a mention here too — Malorie Blackman, pulling no punches once again.
The feeling of ever present danger never goes away throughout the entirety of the episode; right after meeting Rosa Parks, Ryan and Yaz are refused service at a restaurant because they don’t serve “negroes or Mexicans.” What follows is one of the most well written parts of the episode — the Doctor recognizing her own privilege. She tells Ryan, Yaz and Graham to go back to the TARDIS so she can continue searching for the source of alien life on her own; she acknowledges, out loud, that she is much more safe than either Ryan or Yaz in the situation that they are in right now due to the color of their skin.
It’s great to know that, while it is historic that Whittaker is playing the first female Doctor, they still have a long way to go. It would be easy for the show to pat itself on the back (I’m thinking of one showrunner who definitely would have done this, don’t @ me), celebrating their open-mindedness in making the Doctor female, conveniently forgetting that she is also white and British. Acknowledging this in the context of the show is not only important for us as the audience to see, but it opens up the possibility of a non-white Doctor in the future. It’s nice to know that while they know having a female Doctor is important to a lot of people, they still have quite a way to go.
There is some humor in this episode; Tosin Cole as Ryan does a great job in both the light and heavy moments. Graham and the Doctor also have several great back and forths — “You won’t be [excited] if it’s a bomb” “Don’t kill the vibe, Graham” — is a favorite, as is “You ain’t Banksy” “Or am I?”
Having found the source of the residual space technology — a released prisoner named Krasko who landed himself in the infamous “Stormcage” prison by committing a crime that resulted in the deaths of 2,000 people — the Time Team checks into a hotel (Yaz and Ryan through a window because of the whites only policy). Krasko seems interested in Rosa Parks and has set up shop at the bus depot — what does that all mean? Simple: the space racist is setting out to disrupt history by preventing Rosa from refusing to give up her seat, hoping it will prevent the start of the civil rights movement and keep Black people “in their place.” Yikes.
So, what does the Time Team do? They decide to guard history and ensure that Rosa is able to refuse to give up her seat, thereby setting off the bus boycott and the civil rights movement.
I can’t move on without discussing Ryan and Yaz’s conversation about race. It was a very insightful conversation (thank you again, Malorie Blackman) about what exactly has changed since 1955. Ryan says “This ain’t history, Yaz,” when talking about how he gets stopped by the police more often than his white friends, and Yaz shares the ridicule she faces for being of Pakistani descent and a practising Muslim. We also see Ryan express frustration at always needing to appear calm, no matter what people say or do to him. He remembers how his Nan used to tell him to “never give them the excuse.” They also touch on how far society has come since 1955, mentioning Barack Obama. Putting 1955 and 2018 up against each other was a great choice here: sure, some things have changed for the better, but we still have a long way to go.
Lucky for everyone, our resident space racist is unable to kill or harm anyone because of a device implanted in his brain upon his release from Stormcage. Because of this, he has to make small and deliberate changes surrounding Rosa Parks in order to disrupt the beginning of the bus boycott.
The choice to put importance into small, almost insignificant moves is one of my favorite things about the episode. Even though we’re not rooting for the space racist to succeed, it’s still telling that he can attempt to change the entire course of history by making small changes, like having the bus driver who confronted Rosa take the day off and put a friendlier one in his place. You can change history without killing or injuring anyone, by making choices that might at first seem insignificant. It parallels what Rosa is about to do. She didn’t stage a protest or plan a coup, she simply refused to give up her seat. Did Rosa think that her simple refusal would set of an entire bus boycott and serve as the tipping point for the civil rights movement in America? I’m sure the answer is no. Even if she was anticipating a protest or a reaction, I’m sure she wasn’t anticipating just how far it would go.
So the Time Team finds themselves on the bus with Rosa, having maneuvered around the space racist’s many distractions (and sending him to the far reaches of time using his own device, thanks Ryan) to ensure that everything was historically as it was supposed to be. One catch — they can’t get off the bus and leave Rosa to history. If they leave the bus, there will be enough seats for the white people onboard, thereby taking away the need for Rosa to give up her seat.
So, they sit. As the Doctor puts it: they’re guarding history. That’s one of the many things that makes this episode so special. The Time Team are merely guarding history, not influencing it. No one brought up the possibility of resisting to Rosa. No one convinced her of anything. She’s not an alien (thank GOD), nor is her life influenced by some kind of cosmic event that’s usually around when the Doctor visits. It’s just Rosa being a strong Black woman who thinks she shouldn’t have to give up her seat.
I have to say, the power in this scene is astounding. The whole thing was brilliantly acted, especially by Vinette Robinson (Rosa) and Jodie Whittaker. The conflict that Graham, Ryan, and Yaz feel when the Doctor tells them that they “have to not help her” was apparent.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this episode. It was beautiful, well written, and brilliantly acted. We owe Vinette Robinson and Malorie Blackman a debt of gratitude for this one.