A Blunt Episode of Doctor Who Harkens Back to Its Educational Core

By James Whitbrook on at

What is Doctor Who about? It has been around for so long, changed into so many things, that sometimes it’s hard to say. Even “It’s about time” – its current tagline – can feel not quite right. But Sunday night’s powerfully forthright episode took the series back to a definition it started with over 50 years ago.

Back in 1963 (just eight years after Rosa Parks’ protest and arrest that fateful December night in Montgomery, Alabama), when Doctor Who was in its earliest days, it was intended to be an educational show for families as much as it was a sci-fi drama. It’s why the first companions to the Doctor – Susan, Ian, and Barbara – were a young schoolgirl, a science teacher, and a history teacher. The time travel ability of the TARDIS was less for visiting alien worlds than it was getting a window into human history – Doctor Who’s very first story is a journey back to 100,000 BC, after all, and not an alien planet.

Although the course of Doctor Who’s own history would be forever changed when the second serial introduced the Daleks (and the wave of “Dalekmania” that came with it), in its earliest days, Doctor Who, especially in the ‘60s, can be defined by serials like “The Crusade” or “The Reign of Terror” as much as it can serials like “The Daleks” and “The Web Planet.” Historical episodes weren’t really about alien threats intervening in the past, but the TARDIS team trying to survive the often volatile time periods they found themselves in.

“Rosa” opens with a tense and bleak statement about what the episode will be dealing with.

Doctor Who has grown and changed so much over the last 55 years, and so have these historical tales – becoming more commonly referred to instead as psuedohistoricals, which lean on sci-fi and fantasy elements more than they do the course of actual history (or an approximation thereof) – a trend that the revived iteration of the show continued with everything from “The Unquiet Dead” all the way to “Thin Ice” and “The Eaters of Light” in the last season. It’s a change that’s seen Doctor Who move slowly further away from its original intentions as an educational piece of entertainment into a story of monsters and aliens, but it’s also given Doctor Who the sci-fi gift of allegory, where fearsome rubber monsters and the ails of alien societies become stand-ins for commentary on our own – that classically Who-y blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

But last night’s episode, “Rosa” – set during the catalyst of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts that would mark a major step forward in the American Civil Rights movement – stripped away much of the artifice of Doctor Who’s essence to make a bold and powerful return to that original educational remit. And it was more than just about dealing with as serious a subject matter as segregation. Written by Malorie Blackman, “Rosa” pared the show down to its simplest, truest core of all: It wasn’t about stopping an alien creature, or handwaving about a fancy gadget (as much as Jodie Whittaker clearly relishes waving a sonic screwdriver about) while spouting technobabble. It was the Doctor and her friends, navigating a dangerous time to stop a man – a simple, hateful man – from changing a moment in history. A moment that, most importantly of all, they were simply witness to rather than one they paradoxically inspired (which would’ve been particularly disastrous for the show when comes to portraying such serious subject matter).

The Doctor and her friends find themselves unwelcome the minute they step out of the TARDIS.

The lack of Doctor Who’s typical artifice with psuedohistory put the actual tensions of the 1955-set episode into a stark, and often uncomfortable (intentionally so) relief. From the minute a white man assaults Ryan, a black man, for simply trying to return a dropped glove, to the way the episode repeatedly framed white figures of authority – from bus drivers like James Blake to the police – as opposing, dangerous elements for the Doctor and her friends to overcome, “Rosa” is an exercise in a tragic, raw tension. That tension is framed through the lens of not just Parks’ own struggles, but also through Yaz and Ryan’s sudden and harsh confrontation that travelling back in time as a person of colour is not as magical as it might first sound. With no aliens or space magic to hide behind, it confronted a disgusting reality with a profound bluntness Doctor Who has pretty much never seen before.

Some of that bluntness could, at times, come off as being too on-the-nose. The contrivances that Yaz and Ryan just so happened to be in a class at school named after Rosa Parks, and that Graham knew James Blake as the driver of the bus Rosa protested because the departed Grace brought it up in relation to his own career as a bus driver, felt like clunky bits of narrative shorthand so the episode didn’t need to spend too much time laying out the basic facts of the Bus Boycott – something it then proceeded to do so anyway by having the Doctor write out a big list of Rosa Parks facts on her motel wall/impromptu whiteboard. But that heavy-handedness can be forgiven when it’s in aid of clearly and repeatedly delivering the lesson that, well, racism is hateful and bad. That’s it, that’s the lesson! It shouldn’t be a hard one to teach...and yet, it took Doctor Who 55 years to teach it so openly.

Team TARDIS engages in a bit of Bansky-ian fact-finding.

Of course, Doctor Who has always been heavy-handed about social and political issues in the past – from the Daleks as stand-ins for the Nazis, to “Kill the Moon” and its oblique attempt at a commentary on abortion, Doctor Who has never not been a show that addresses these issues. But “Rosa” poignantly tore back the layers Doctor Who has typically wrapped these discussions in, to make its message as stark and clear as possible: sometimes the bad guy isn’t a tin-foil-covered alien from the planet Fnarg who just so happens to also be a racist. Sometimes the villain is just a racist.

That the lack of pretense around dealing with a subject matter like race meant that “Rosa” did not get to treat it as a purely historical issue, either. In depicting Krasko, our time-hopping murderer/white supremacist villain of the week, as a being from the far future rather than of Rosa’s time or even ours, is about as subtle a way as “Rosa” got to highlighting that racism is a struggle that must be perpetually fought and resisted, well beyond 1955 Alabama. But it also was much more explicit on the manner for good measure too, with a stunning scene between Yaz and Ryan as they reflect on how everything from the war on terror to how stop-and-frisk policing actively targets and perpetuates racist hatred against people of colour. In its undistilled simplicity, “Rosa” pulled no punches on an issue Doctor Who has previously pulled plenty of punches on (although not always, literally speaking).

Ryan and Yaz reflect on how far (and how little) the struggle against racism has come since 1955.

It’s a huge step for how the show has dealt with race in its modern era – almost surprisingly huge, given that Yaz and Ryan are the third and fourth primary companions (fourth and fifth, depending on how you designate Mickey) of colour in Doctor Who’s post-2005 revival. Both Martha Jones and Bill Potts’ first experiences of time-travel-while-black (in “The Shakespeare Code” and the previously mentioned “Thin Ice,” respectively) were handwaved in a matter of lines – each coming to a similar conclusion of “ignore it, the past’s not as different as you think” – acknowledging the issue while never critically engaging with it in an explicit manner for the audience. They were moments of wanting a pat on the proverbial back while never actually having to deal with the raw, uncomfortable discussions that could come. Discussions that weren’t relegated to what happened on screen, but surrounding the production as well. Blackman, who co-wrote this episode with showrunner Chris Chibnall, is the first black person to write an episode of Doctor Who – and joins a list of women which previously included just eight credited for writing the series in its entire 55-year history. If there’s anything “it’s about time” applies to with this episode, well, it’s that.

But this latest episode confronted as much as it could head-on, from the white privilege both the Doctor and Graham received, to the moment of Rosa’s protest itself (even if being witnesses to it also heart-wrenchingly cast our heroes as participants in an act of institutional racism). The fact that “Rosa” did as much as it did in an hour is a vital, brilliant step forward for how the show addresses social issues like this. This is something Doctor Who should always be doing, even if it took “Rosa” stunningly baring it down to its most basic of components to do so. Almost 55 years ago to the day, Doctor Who had a remit to educate and entertain. To see it doing so in such a stark and unrelenting manner as it did last night was a beautiful reminder of that half-a-century-old intention.

The Doctor’s coat dramatically fluttering in the wind? Good. The Doctor confronting a space racist? Even better.

Assorted Musings

  • One area “Rosa” only briefly gets into is Parks’ history with activism before the operation to protest Montgomery’s segregated buses – if you’d like to know more about her work with the NAACP before and after the events of the episode, the U.S. Library of Congress has a digitised collection of letters and files from Parks’ life available online.
  • While trying to ensure Blake keeps his work shift on the bus, Graham notes that “we don’t do that” when it comes to segregated public transit in the UK. While he’s technically right, the UK did actually have a bus boycott of its own in 1963 in Bristol, protesting the racial discrimination of denying black people the right to work as bus drivers in the city – a fundamental movement that paved the way to the eventual establishment of the Race Relations Act in 1965 and 1968. You can celebrate UK Black History Month by learning more about it here.
  • In an otherwise deeply serious episode, it was nice to have the moment of lightness between the Doctor and Graham about whether or not she’s secretly Banksy. The Doctor is definitely Banksy.
  • Given that Krasko’s weapon merely displaced people in time instead of killing them, the fact that Ryan used it on him makes it seems like the space racist (spacist?) has a chance to appear in future episodes. That has the potential to rob “Rosa” of a little of its blunt education, but hopefully if Krasko does re-appear, he’s dealt with just as explicitly as he was here.
  • This was understandably a very strong episode for Ryan in particular of the companions, so I’m still hoping Yaz gets some much-needed focus in next week’s creepy crawling “Arachnids in the UK,” which will feature Yaz’s mom, judging by the “next time on” trailer. As someone who can’t watch Return of the King without either skipping every Shelob sequence or fast-forwarding through them with my eyes clamped shut, the thought of more development of Yaz is just about the only thing I’m looking forward to.