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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A powerful Doctor Who ensures Rosa Parks is the hero of her own story

Illustration for article titled A powerful Doctor Who ensures Rosa Parks is the hero of her own story
Photo: Coco Van Oppens (BBC America)

There’s a moment in The Lord Of The Rings where Frodo tells Gandalf he wishes he didn’t have to live through such hardship. Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” It’s a quote I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from throughout my life, particularly in our recent political climate. And I’m certainly not alone in finding inspiration in sci-fi and fantasy characters. Images of Princess Leia dotted the Women’s March, and quotes from past Doctors serve as mission statements for fighting injustice. There’s something about the heightened context of genre storytelling that seems to make those heroes particularly easy to connect to. Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who pulls the neat trick of offering a heightened genre story in which the ultimate act of heroism is the real-life act of a real-life person. “Rosa” is a powerful celebration of a woman who couldn’t choose the era she lived in, but who—like all of us—could decide what to do with the time she was given.


I’m not sure Doctor Who has ever faced a higher level of difficulty than it did with “Rosa.” I was incredibly nervous heading into this episode because there were so many ways it could fail. It could fall back on the sanitized myth that Rosa Parks was just an old woman who was too tired to give up her seat. It could inject wacky alien hijinks into a politically charged moment of history. Or, worst of all, it could rob Rosa of her real-life agency by presenting the Doctor as some kind of inspirational influence on her actions. But writers Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall are incredibly smart about how they structure the episode. “Rosa” isn’t about the Doctor and her companions changing history, it’s about them guarding the timeline so that Rosa’s heroism itself can change the world.

When Doctor Who first debuted in 1963—just eight years after Parks’ real-life protest—it was explicitly designed as an educational program, and “Rosa” returns to those educational roots in a major way. In addition to conveying tons of information about Parks’ life (even the episode’s 1943 prologue is based on a real event), “Rosa” also educates its audience about the realities of racism in the Jim Crow era of American history. The episode doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to depicting the bigotry Ryan and Yaz experience when the TARDIS ignores the Doctor’s attempts to return them to present-day Sheffield and lands in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama instead. In fact, Ryan is literally punched in the face when he tries to return a dropped glove to a white couple. When we first meet Rosa Parks, she mentions the recent lynching of Emmett Till as an example of the level of violence that can be inflicted on black teenagers simply for speaking to white women. Even that scene has layers of meaning: The real-life Parks cited Till’s murder as an inspiration for why she decided not to give up her seat.

Doctor Who has had other companions of color deal with historical racism before—including Martha Jones in “Human Nature”/”The Family Of Blood” and Bill Potts in “Thin Ice”—but this is the first episode of NuWho that presents racism itself as its central villain. “Rosa” offers an avatar for that villainy in time traveling ex-con Krasko (Josh Bowman), who’s trying to stop the Civil Rights Movement from ever happening by changing the circumstances around Rosa’s act of activism. But he’s ultimately more of a plot device. Instead, “Rosa” is more interested in critiquing the full scope of systemic racism. That includes taking time to depict the details of how segregated buses actually worked—from the way black passengers had to pay their fare at the front and then reenter from the back, to the way non-black people of color like Yaz weren’t even necessarily sure where they fit within the system. Watching Ryan take a seat at the back of the bus, segregated from his friends, viscerally captures the daily indignities so many people faced for so long without offering a simple hero moment where the Doctor swoops in to save the day.

“Rosa” also avoids making the other mistake it would’ve been easy for this episode to make, which would be presenting racism as a thing of the past that we can pat ourselves on the back for overcoming. Forced to hide behind a dumpster in an alley while a cop searches their “whites only” motel room, Ryan and Yaz discuss the racism they still face in 21st century England. Yaz talks about having people call her a terrorist or yell slurs at her, while Ryan notes that he gets stopped by police far more often than his white friends. The scene directly grapples with the complex question of how to appreciate how far we’ve come while still acknowledging how far we have left to go. As optimistic Yaz puts it, “They don’t win, those people. I can be a police officer now because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me. For us. And in 53 years they’ll have a black president as leader. Who knows where they’ll be 50 years after that.”

It’s the moment where the episode feels like it fully snaps into focus, which it also does pretty much anytime Rosa herself is onscreen. In a truly fantastic guest turn, Vinette Robinson projects gravitas, dignity, and a spirit of quiet perseverance while ensuring Rosa feels like a real person, not a looming historical figure. Because the episode wants to avoid having her get too mixed up in the time travel plotting, “Rosa” doesn’t feature its title character as much as I would’ve liked. But Rosa gets sweet scenes with both Ryan and Yaz that help humanize her and allow Robinson to project warmth and humor in addition to the dignity she shows elsewhere.


“Rosa” struggles a bit whenever it moves away from Rosa’s story. The episode either needed to spend more or less time with Krasko, who winds up getting a lot of screen time but never really coalescing into a character. “Rosa” also spends too much time on the logistics of how the Doctor and her companions undo each step of Krasko’s plan, time I would’ve much rather spent with Ryan sitting in on a meeting between Rosa, her husband Raymond Parks, lawyer Fred Gray, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (That also would’ve been a nice time to acknowledge that bus sit-ins had been planned and attempted several times before Parks’ arrest was strategically chosen as a fulcrum around which to anchor the Montgomery Bus Boycott.) Overall, however, those are relatively small complaints about an episode that gets far more right than it gets wrong.

“Rosa” hit me really hard emotionally on my first watch and, on rewatch, I realized that what I’m responding to the most is just the power of Parks’ action itself. Doctor Who has long been a show about celebrating the strength of everyday people, but that usually comes via a big monologue from the Doctor. Having the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham be silent witnesses to Rosa’s act of protest shifts the episode’s lens so that her act is allowed to stand for itself, which makes it all the more powerful. One of the most complex elements of the episode is the moment where Graham realizes he has to become the white passenger Rosa refuses to give up her seat for. “I don’t want to be part of this,” he says. “We have to, I’m sorry, we have to not help her,” the Doctor responds. It feels like a really complex metaphor for privilege and allyship, one I’m still parsing.


I initially wondered if setting Rosa’s protest and arrest to Andra Day’s “Rise Up” was gilding the lily a bit too far, but after rewatching the scene a couple of times, I think it was an excellent choice. The song itself may be an empowering anthem, but it gains complexity when it’s contrasted with the more somber faces of Rosa and the TARDIS team, who know this is just the first step of a long, long battle. “Rosa” doesn’t argue that standing up to prejudice is easy or that historical change happens swiftly. As the Doctor explains, Rosa’s life was still hard, even after she won the victory of desegregating buses. She may have been given the highest of honors when Bill Clinton awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, but as Ryan notes, “It took so long though—her whole life.” Yet in depicting what she chose to do with the time she was given, Doctor Who rightfully renders Rosa Parks a hero as inspiring as any fictional one we could ever dream up. This episode feels like a real statement of purpose for this new era of Doctor Who, and it couldn’t be a more timely one.

Stray observations

  • The episode ends with Doctor and her companions visiting an asteroid named after Rosa Parks, which really does exist.
  • I loved the runner about the Doctor being Banksy, as well as the idea that the Doctor lent a cellphone to Elvis Presley who then lent it to Frank Sinatra.
  • Vinette Robinson previously appeared in the Doctor Who episode “42,” which was written by Chris Chibnall.
  • Krasko served his time in Stormcage, which is also where River Song was a prisoner (and frequent escapee). Like River, he also has a Vortex Manipulator. I’m not quite sure what to make of those parallels.
  • The Doctor has a new shirt this week! I wonder if she’ll wear one color shirt for future-set stories and another for past-set stories, as the Tenth Doctor did with his suit and the Eleventh Doctor did with his bowtie.
  • Both Ryan and Graham spend a lot of time reminiscing about Grace and how much she would’ve loved meeting her Civil Rights heroes.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.