Doctor Who – ‘Rosa’

Series Eleven, Episode Three


Rosa Parks is a historical figure, a real person who really existed, and while it’s quite common for Doctor Who episodes to feature them, in this case the episode is not only named after her, it is mainly her story. The episode begins with her, and the Doctor and companions come into it. But Rosa Parks was quite a remarkable historical figure, as she was a fairly ordinary person who became well known for what seems such a minor action, but which made a positive mark on history.

At the start of the episode it is the 1930s in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) is catching a bus. She pays the fare, and is told she has to get back off and enter at the back of the bus. It is segregated, with the front seats labelled “white”, and the back seats labelled “coloured”. Rosa walks along from the front of the bus towards the seats, and the driver drags her off the bus, making sure to wait until she’s about to board at the entrance on the back of the bus before driving away.

We then go to the same place but 20 years later, 1955, and the Doctor and her friends land here in the TARDIS.

A wealthy looking white couple pass, and the woman drops her glove, Ryan picks it up and goes to give it back to her. The woman’s husband hits him. He then asks Graham if Ryan is his “boy”. Graham answers that Ryan is his grandson, but the last thing the man was thinking is that Ryan was a relative of Graham’s. By “boy” he meant something more like “servant”. Sensing that the TARDIS team “aren’t from around here”, the man gives them a warning – though it’s more like a threat – that Ryan risks being lynched if he gets too close to white people!

Rosa Parks enters, and she attempts to defuse the situation. When the white couple leave, she tells the TARDIS team they have to be careful here. After she introduces herself, Rosa is surprised that they seem to recognise her name. She doesn’t know she’ll become famous at this point. The Doctor works out why. This is the day before the event happened.

Ryan only vaguely recognises the name Rosa Parks, he knows she’s “the bus woman”, and that she was someone his nan Grace greatly admired.

The TARDIS team continue to find out first hand how racist this time and place is. A cafe outright refuse to serve Ryan just because he is black. They are also hostile towards Yasmin. They don’t even know what race she is, they think she is Mexican.

The Doctor is worried about Ryan and Yasmin’s safety, and tells them to go back to the TARDIS. But they decide that if Rosa Parks and others can live there their whole lives they can be there for a couple of hours. But the Doctor is also concerned about doing anything to disrupt a historical event.

The Doctor and her friends find a padlocked suitcase, which contains technology that doesn’t belong in this place or time, so they aren’t the only time travellers here. They soon encounter the other time traveller, it is Krasko (Joshua Bowman). He chases them, but the Doctor eventually confronts him, sensing his weapon is “nearly out of juice”, and they leave him.

They wonder if he is here to kill Rosa Parks, but that idea doesn’t make sense to the Doctor, as if he was there for that wouldn’t he have done it already? He’s waiting for something.

They sneak into a motel through a window. Soon a police officer is at the door. Ryan and Yasmin go to hide in the bathroom. When the police officer enters, the Doctor and Graham pretend they are a married couple. The police officer asks them if they are “harbouring coloureds”. He uses other racist terms while referring to Ryan and Yasmin, and the Doctor tells him she “doesn’t recognise anyone by that name”. The police officer takes a look in the bathroom, but by this time Ryan and Yasmin have escaped.

The TARDIS team later look at bus timetables, and work out which one to get on so they can meet Rosa again. Ryan has to sit at the back of the bus, and Yasmin doesn’t even know where she’s expected to sit. She was allowed to enter from the front of the bus, but does “Coloured” just mean black people or does it mean all non-white people? They don’t even know she’s Asian, they think she’s Hispanic.

They do meet Rosa, and the Doctor goes to sit with her. Rosa explains that if the Doctor sits in that chair, the black people on the bus are going to have to move one row back. The seat may be labelled “Coloureds”, but that’s only as long as there aren’t white people who haven’t got a seat. If there are, the black people will be expected to give up theirs, and this isn’t just what is expected, it’s written into law. It’s not just about segregation, it’s constant systematic reminding that black people are second class citizens here.

When Rosa gets off the bus, Ryan says he will follow her. Rosa and Ryan get talking, and Rosa takes Ryan to a meeting with other civil rights figures. Martin Luther King is there. Ryan doesn’t reveal that he is a time traveller, but he tells Rosa that he believes/knows things will get better. “Not perfect, but better”.

The Doctor encounters Krasko again. He is a former inmate of the Stormcage. He claims he has been released, but whether he has or not he’s been fitted with a neural transmitter to prevent him from harming others. As the Doctor puts it, he’s a “neutered criminal”. The Doctor destroys his weapons. He can’t attack her, but he does try! The reason for him being in this place and time is he wants to prevent Rosa Parks from giving up her seat, ultimately to try to stop the civil rights movement.

Graham, a bus driver himself, goes to see James Blake (Trevor White). Blake is the bus driver who was driving the bus when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. They need to get information out of him. Graham finds out that Blake isn’t working tomorrow. Krasko had the rota changed. He’s trying to make slight differences in order to change history.

The Doctor gets Blake’s replacement an immediate trip to Las Vegas with a backstage pass to meet Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, Graham and Ryan tell Blake there are rumours of black passengers attempting a sit-in, so Blake is more determined to drive the bus. Krasko smashes up the bus that was to be used, so the Doctor and Graham fix it.

The Doctor and Yasmin go to Rosa’s workplace, where she is a seamstress, to get her to mend a coat so she’ll catch the bus at the right time.

The bus also needs to be full, and Ryan tries to round up passengers, but white people don’t want to even speak to him. He encounters Krasko again, and Ryan sends him back
in time using his own device. He doesn’t know where exactly, but as far back in the past as it can go.

Rosa, the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yasmin are all on the right bus at the right time, but it still isn’t as full as it needs to be. Then the penny drops. The TARDIS team have to stay on, and when the moment comes, they CAN’T help Rosa. They can’t give up their own seats or intervene on her behalf, because then they will have changed history, the very thing they were trying to prevent.

Blake says he is going to need the front row of black people to move, as there are white passengers about to come on. All the front row do, except Rosa. Blake comes up to her, demanding that she moves, but she refuses, even when he says he’ll have her arrested.

When they are back in the TARDIS, the Doctor tells her friends that Rosa was recognised for her contribution to civil rights movement and awarded in 1999. Ryan says it’s a shame it took nearly her whole lifetime. Yasmin had already heard from Rosa herself that she’d had to fight hard to even get an education. The Doctor notes that Rosa still had to face tough times, some directly because she took a stand, but she did make a difference and is remembered for it today.

‘Rosa’ was an excellent episode.Very thought provoking. It is set over 60 years ago, which is historical, but not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things. Rosa Parks herself only passed away in 2005, so this about someone who was still alive in the 21st century.

While it is shocking how bad it was back then, racism is still an issue today. A key moment in the episode was where Ryan and Yasmin were still in 1955, but talking about the racism they face in the modern day. Ryan gets stopped by police often, and says he’s glad Grace always taught him to keep his temper and “never give them the excuse”. Yasmin says she gets called racist names often too, but that she can now be a police officer which at one time wouldn’t have been possible. People like Rosa stood for change. Yasmin then says that racists don’t win in the long run. 50 years from the time they were in, the USA will elect a black president.

The episode dealt with difficult and upsetting themes, but it was relatively optimistic, that positive change can be made, that small actions can matter, and that bigots don’t win in the long run.

‘Rosa’ was the first episode of this series not to be solely written by Chris Chibnall. It was co-written by him and Malorie Blackman.

Rightfully, Rosa Parks is who this episode is about, she isn’t just part of the Doctor’s adventure the way it normally goes in historical episodes, this is her story. The episode begins with her life, and it ends with how her life turned out and her legacy. It also doesn’t have the usual Doctor Who theme music on the end credits, but with a song called ‘Rise Up’ by Andra Day.

Vinette Robinson gave a brilliant performance as Rosa Parks. This isn’t Vinette Robinson’s first appearance in Doctor Who however, she previously appeared 11 years ago in the series 3 episode ’42’. She’s originally from Bradford, meaning this episode has three actresses originally from West Yorkshire playing key roles! (Jodie Whitaker and Mandip Gill are the other two).

The Doctor lent a mobile phone to Elvis Presley at some point, and Elvis lent it to Frank Sinatra!

It’s not confirmed whether Krasko was a human or an alien, though it would seem more likely that he was a human. As former companion Bill said about a human villain in
the series 10 episode ‘Thin Ice’, “that’s pretty convincing racism for an extraterrestrial!”

‘Rosa’ was very moving, thought provoking, had a strong and important message, and I think it will be seen as the best episode of series 11.

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