Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Doctor Who 11x03 Recap: “Rosa” (A Powerfully Honest Look at Racism) [Guest Poster: Stephanie Coats]

Original Airdate: October 21, 2018

A lot of the time, Doctor Who is about space, aliens, time travel, and how kindness and cleverness can defeat evil. But sometimes, the show reaches out and touches audiences in an especially poignant and timely way. In “Rosa,” Doctor Who did something extraordinary: it told the historical truth of Rosa Parks without dumbing anything down, without downplaying the fear people of color lived with or the courage it took to stand up to terrifying levels of hatred, and without missing the point that racism still exists today. It was powerful, emotional, and sometimes uncomfortable to watch but so incredibly important.

This is the exactly the episode Doctor Who needed to make.


Rosa Parks just wants to ride the bus home after another long day of work. She pays the fare, but the driver tells her she must disembark and enter through the back to “her” area. She refuses and there’s a brief tussle before she plops herself down in a “whites only” seat. The driver screams at her to get off the bus and, when she does, he drives off without her.

Twelve years later, in 1955, the TARDIS appears in an alleyway. To the surprise of no one except Yaz, Ryan, and Graham, the Doctor is having some trouble taking them straight back home. Or rather, the TARDIS is being her usual stubborn self. While scanning the area, the Doctor picks up traces of Arton energy. The group go out exploring and immediately gets into hot water. Ryan kindly picks up a woman’s fallen handkerchief and receives a hard slap of thanks from her husband. This is 1955 Alabama and they don’t like black men handing white women anything.

Ryan is held back by Graham and Yaz, but it’s Rosa Parks who saves the day by stepping in to defuse the situation. The group is thrilled to meet her, but she has no idea why. She’s not yet the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. The TARDIS team goes to a diner for lunch and discover it is the day before Rosa will famously refuse to give up her seat on the bus. Further discussion is halted when the waitress says they refuse to serve black or Mexican people, the latter incorrectly referring to Yaz.


A man dressed like a T-bird from Grease tries using alien tech to break into the TARDIS but can’t get past the forcefield. Meanwhile, even though they never got lunch, the Doctor and her friends follow Atron energy signals to a bus company and they locate a briefcase hidden by a perception filter. Inside is additional Atron tech. That’s when knockoff Danny Zuko attacks and the group flees. The Doctor confronts the mysterious alien, who is wearing a vortex manipulator, and zaps his Atron-powered gun with her sonic.

Our team regroups in a motel room but are once again interrupted by horrible racism. A cop who has been following them knocks on the door, forcing Ryan and Yaz to hide in the bathroom. The Doctor and Graham stall by saying Graham is Steve Jobs and they’re in town to pitch a smartphone. This gives Ryan and Yaz time to escape out the bathroom window and down the alley a bit. They talk about the pervasive racism in Montgomery and how it still exists in the present in the UK. However, Yaz reminds Ryan it’s better and it will keep getting better as long as we work at it.

Coming together for a third time to try to sort things out, the team is able to determine Rosa’s bus schedule and find her on her usual route home. Ryan follows her off the bus and asks to “join the fight.” She invites him to serve the coffee at a meeting that night that includes Dr. King. Ryan freaks out in the best way.

Elsewhere, the Doctor confronts Danny Zuko for the second time, tricks him into sending his weapons into the future, and overheats his gun. With nothing to threaten her with, he has to listen as the Doctor deduces he was recently released from Stormcage prison and he has a neural inhibitor in his brain to prevent him from harming anyone. She tests this theory by baiting him, but he barely grabs her and is forced to let go. His true name is Krasko and he is planning to upset history by preventing Rosa Parks’ famous moment on the bus in the hopes of keeping people of color from achieving rights and equality. Basically, he’s an alien racist who wants to prevent Rosa and the Civil Rights Movement from instigating change throughout history and throughout the universe.


Using his “in” as a fellow bus driver, Graham chats up the driver from Rosa’s famous future, James Blake. But Blake has had his schedule changed so we won’t be there for Rosa to stand up to tomorrow. Graham reports this to the team and the Doctor tells them their plan is to protect history, to make sure things happen exactly as they’re supposed to.

To that end, the Doctor and Yaz send Blake’s replacement driver on a holiday to Las Vegas. Graham and Ryan show up at Blake’s day trip at the creek, thereby driving him to leave and return to work. Krasko breaks the bus and cancels the route but the Doctor and Graham hotwire another one and deliver it to Blake, who has got to be wondering why these people care so much about a bus route. To keep an eye on Rosa, the Doctor rips her coat and takes it to her for repair, leaving Yaz there to make sure she gets to the bus on time. Ryan has the hardest task: trying to get people, especially white people, to line up for the bus even though he’s black and Krasko has posted notices that the route is canceled.

When he encounters the alien himself, Ryan finally gets to fight back after needing to stay silent and non-responsive throughout every racist encounter in the episode. He uses Krasko’s own temporal displacement device to send him through time and away from Montgomery. Then Ryan boards the bus with the others. Doing a head count, the Doctor realizes they need to remain on the bus to take up enough seats so that Rosa will be asked to move to make room for white passengers.

It’s gut-wrenching and powerful to watch as Rosa quietly but firmly refuses to give up her seat. Blake screams at her, threatens her with arrest, but she doesn’t move. The Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham must remain still and not interfere even though it’s clearly requiring every bit of willpower to do so. The police are called and Rosa is escorted off the bus, nodding gently to Ryan through the window. Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor shows them how even though Rosa’s life was still a struggle after that moment, her courage inspired an equal rights movement that stretched throughout the world and into the universe. 

Final Thoughts: 

  • Doctor Who is at its scariest when it plays on our primal fears and the true hatred, injustice, and racism portrayed in this episode hit home. I would wager every single viewer found this episode deeply uncomfortable because it wasn’t racism happening on another world in another galaxy. It was real life. It happened to people who are still alive today. And it’s still happening.  
  • I’m not the biggest River Song fan but it did strike me as odd that she wasn’t mentioned or hinted about AT ALL in this episode. Krasko was released from Stormcage, where River was imprisoned too, and has a vortex manipulator just like she did. But not a single passing word about her. 
  • In the tradition of the Tenth Doctor, Thirteen’s shirt changed color when visiting the past. Instead of blue, her striped shirt was red. 
  • Ryan, about a mysterious alien suitcase: “Can we open it?” The Doctor: “Is the right question!”
  • Yaz: “Everything here is a fight for you. Do you ever get tired? What keeps you going?” Rosa Parks: “Promise of tomorrow. When today isn’t working, tomorrow is all you have.”
  • After they’re kicked out of the diner, Graham worries they aren’t going to stop for lunch again. That’s a man who has his priorities in the right place. 


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