Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on Doctor Who, “Rosa,” written by Malorie Blackman & Chris Chibnall. Spoilers, obviously.
The latest Doctor Who episode, “Rosa,” is a deft balancing act in terms of narrative, character, optimism, and cynicism.
Yes, the Doctor and her companions find themselves in the midst of an important moment in history, and yes, they take actions during that moment. But the episode is very careful to frame their actions in terms of the surrounding incidents, not the major act. The battleground between the Doctor and time-traveling criminal Krasko is the happenstances that aligned to facilitate the singular moment of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move; a full bus, a particular driver, a schedule running on time. The history remains hers alone.
At the same time, the reality of being in that moment and letting history run its course is portrayed as a type of trauma to those who have the benefit of foresight. Graham, in particular, will have to live the rest of his days knowing that not only was he forced to watch Rosa Parks being oppressed and do nothing — despite the deep meaning that Parks and the bus boycotts held for him and his late wife — but he now exists in the snapshot specifically as an older white man who was being leveraged as a cog in that oppression. When he says “I don’t want to be here” it’s both that he can’t bear to watch and that he can’t bear to be mistaken in any way as supportive of the injustice.
The moments of conversation involving Ryan and Yaz, however, speak to the struggle of maintaining any sense of faith in the capacity for social change. Dr. King’s “arc of the universe” is never quoted so specifically, but it is woven into the tapestry here. Ryan is open to hearing that progress is possible but never loses sight of the fact that he lives, daily, with the threats of racism even in modern Sheffield, much less in Jim Crow’s Alabama. Yaz is not naive about the adjacent prejudices she faces, but she nonetheless remains determined to chisel away at the wall in front of her, telling Rosa Parks that her ambition as a police officer is to one day be in charge of that function.
But we also have the future represented by Krasko, who comes from sometime in the 79th Century or beyond. The Doctor recognizes him by his wrist tattoo as a former prisoner of a Storm Cage, and he admits with no remorse that he had previously been sentenced to this intergalactic prison for crimes that killed 2000 people. But despite this extraordinary horror, he’s also painfully ordinary, a man who has chosen to use his freedom from prison, despite the limitations of his neural implant, to try and put black people “in their place,” starting back at this moment in 1955.
“This is when it started to go wrong,” he seethes, and the episode is telling us two things: (1) that five millennia into the future the social structures of white supremacy have been decimated if not wholly eradicated and yet (2) men like Krasko will still exist, trying to revive the old hate and blaming other people for their own horrendous character flaws.
“Rosa” doesn’t rest on any laurels of a brighter tomorrow that could be offered in a show where the protagonists are able to travel anywhere in space and time. It reminds us that this fight may seem endless but that it’s nonetheless still worth fighting. It also reminds us that even in the presence of a fantastical being like a near-immortal Time Lord, the fight is often best left in the hands and spines of mere mortals, making the most of an opportunity, taking a small but perfect action that sets off the tremors that change a landscape forever.