Indispensable preface – this is written by a clueless white person. With that out of the way …
History is a matter of narratives.
There’s no such thing as an objective historical progression from point A to point B – history is framed by stories, by people interpreting the data and shaping it into a form that makes sense. And this is not something you can opt out of. You were born with privilege? Well, like Graham in this story, even if you “don’t want to be part of this”, tough luck. You’re born in a certain country? You’re going to have to deal with you belonging to this country, and to its historical weight and legacy. Your skin is a certain colour? Good luck escaping the baggage there – because people’s understanding of history is based on sometimes very crude constructs: if you’re a black person of Senegalese origin living in France, for instance, chances are Rosa Parks’ actions had a really rather limited effect on you and your family; but people will still put your existence, and the historical facts of your existence, in relation to her, because symbols are easier to understand – and by extension, you yourself are going to have to try and understand how she fits with your personal history and life.
“Rosa”, as an episode of television, stands as a complete revolution as far as historical episodes of Doctor Who stand. We’ve had “let’s stroll throughout History”; and we’ve had “let’s dramatize History through the pageantry of celebrity-driven stories” – two genres that, even though the latter saw its official codification very much arise, for better or worse, with Gareth Roberts’ work, do intermingle quite a bit: see for instance the over-the-top Nero in “The Romans”, clearly copied from Peter Ustinov’s performance in 1951’s Quo Vadis; or the borderline fetishistic awe “The Crusade” has for the, admittedly rather impressive, acting skills of guest starts Jean Marsh and Julian Glover. But we’re not in either category – we’re not even in “Vincent and the Doctor” territory, its clearest stylistic predecessor, with pop music-driven finale and all, who, as lovely as it was, clearly was reframing historical events to convey a message, with the Doctor actively intervening as a supportive friend to Vincent.
So what does “Rosa” actually do? The reactions to it might give us a clue. The more populist sides of the fandom, those that seek intelligent escapism in Who above everything else, praised it as a piece of uplifting, inspirational storytelling. The few racists who watch Doctor Who, because there are always some of those, saw it as anti-white propaganda (generally hiding that behind a “why isn’t the white supremacist more sympathetic? That would have been better writing”). The far-left crowd condemned it as a shameless adhesion to the Great Men of History theory, and as centrist, toothless revisionism.
In other words – everyone saw what they wanted to see.
Because “Rosa”, at the end of the day, isn’t so much building a narrative as it is about building a narrative. In a way, it had to be – Doctor Who isn’t an international show, not yet at least, its British roots are sturdy: the perspective we are seeing is the one of a British black woman – who probably wonders what exactly Rosa Parks means to her. As the characters do here. The episode is a mirror for the characters, and by extension the audience, a surface onto which they can project their own politics, beliefs and insecurities. It has been praised for “opening up a debate”, “starting a conversation”, and while that’s noble, the most fascinating – and also, most original – thing about it is this new form of audience-text interfacing.
Of course, the narrative they do end up constructing is one that rather does veer towards emotional grandstanding and a positivist “slow, incremental progress”, although it is worth noting it doesn’t erase Rosa’s active participation in political activism, nor the fact her struggles and resistance were brewing for a long time, and not just something that magically happened one day. But that makes sense – because Who is a rather fundamentally optimistic show. Even if you try to dig through its most politically angry moments, it’s rare to find an entirely nihilistic take – Andrew Cartmel’s “Warhead”, who embodies rather well the desperate cyberpunk screed, still ends up with the bad guys defeated and a happy couple of psychic teenagers finding love together.
But the story isn’t pretending that it’s anything else but what the characters choose to believe: if you need an example, just look as Tosin Cole’s acting during that scene where Yaz talks about Rosa’s actions allowing her to be a cop. There is some major, serious scepticism to the proceedings – even the final asteroid reveal, which does rather tip-toe on the line separating the affecting from the maudlin (although it is a nice continuation of the very Who theme of human bodies and identities evolving to become one with the stars, something beautiful and alien), is tempered by the episode remarking it took Rosa a lifetime of hardships to get any recognition. And there’s also the fact that, while the Doctor doesn’t challenge that idea, the greatest believer in the Great Men of History theory in the story is the literal white nationalist, who thinks that the entire span of black history can be reduced in one precise chokepoint.
Oh, and there’s the coat, of course. I’ve seen some of my former coreligionists thinking that it was beautiful that the Doctor’s clothing would bear forever the stitches and work of Rosa Parks, and that is completely true. Also true is the fact we end up with a white woman whose clothes where made by a black underclass – the episode doesn’t even show us the Doctor paying her for her work.
Everything in that story, bar Rosa herself, in her human, delicate little life, essentially turns out to be an ideological construct built by one character or another. Why? Because History is arbitrary, and scary, and dangerous – and the only thing we can try to do is do our best to make sense of it. It might not be perfect, or completely ideologically pure, but it’s raw and painfully human. Seeing Doctor Who acknowledge this, especially in a moment where we are confronted with the full size and scope of history’s brutality and weirdness, means a lot.
That’s where the structure of the story really comes in: it’s not a linear progression towards stopping some kind of evil; but rather a painstaking, finnicky hunt for the details of history. Characters end up researching, sitting in rooms, reading newspapers, like a bunch of students preparing for an exam – trying to gather facts, trying to piece together a version of history that makes sense. And, I might add, failing – it’s all a series of coincidences, and in the end, the day is won through sheer dumb luck more than anything else: there’s no good reason for the suffering of Rosa Parks, there’s no good reason for white supremacist fuckheads to be lasting millennia into the future, there’s no good reason for racism and oppression. And, of course, because the episode does rather draw the parallel between two inspirational black female figures: there was no good reason for Grace to die. The Absence that haunted the previous episode is still there, lurking within the cruelty of both general History and personal Stories. And the only way for it not to drive you mad is to build something worthwhile on top of it.
That’s where Rosa Parks sitting on the bus comes in, really. It’s less a turning point for black people, a Major Event of history – and more of a personal victory. An individual act of affirmation, of fighting the darkness and void by proclaiming who you are and who you want to be. A woman creating a narrative. Making meaning. That’s what is celebrated – that’s why you get a pop song in there.
Which is, much like Grace was, what the Doctor wants to be – and can be, now. Twelve was a character who tried to be kind above anything else, but the mere fact this “be kind” is a command he had to state out loud does rather indicate it was a struggle – he was stopped from fully reaching his potential by his own privilege, his own history. Thirteen does not have those things: she is vulnerable as few Doctors were before – he punched racists in the face after telling them they should go to the same gentlemen’s club; she looks genuinely terrified in front of ordinary racism and of cops framed like alien monsters. But because of that, she can also act in a way that’s small, and deliberate, and incredibly efficient – her takedown of Krasko feels filled with an energy, and, yes, violence you wouldn’t have expected from her predecessors.
This aesthetic of personal acts of resistance on a small scale also affects Ryan, who shoots down the time-travelling racist, offering some nice contrast with the previous episode’s Call of Duty scene. Which is, in its own quiet way, a powerful statement, condoning the right of a black man to defend himself in front of oppression; but is also him affirming his own specific view of his history: racism should belong to “the past”, and he makes that a reality, by zapping Krasko to the Stone Age.
Admittedly, maybe this approach is flawed. Maybe Who really should be an open, angry political screed, a call to revolution. It could pull it off. “Rosa” ‘s refusal of offering definitive answers is frustrating, in a way, and you could make a reasonable case for that lack of engagement being centrist cowardice. But the way it weaves its threads is unique, and touches some deeply human complexities – as River Song, whose shadow also hovers around the story through the Stormcage mention, put it herself: “only in darkness we are revealed”. If we can find some humanity in the nonsensical violence of history, some shard of personal meaning …
Then, it’s worth it.
… Isn’t it?
I don’t know.