Doctor Who headed back in time in Sunday’s episode, written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall. But there’s no cute look at Christmas with Dickens or craziness with Shakespeare here. Instead, this diverse group of friends go to 1950s Alabama, where diversity does not exist.
The horror of our recent history is something the show usually references and pokes fun at but never properly explores. We’ve laughed as River Song mocked Nazis and Rory put Hitler in a cupboard, after all.
In ‘Rosa’, however, the history is not played for laughs. As they walk around, something tiny and innocuous happens: a woman drops a glove. Ryan doesn’t hesitate. He sees it fall and picks it up. He says, ‘Excuse me’ and he goes to hand the glove back to the woman. But this is 1950s segregated America and the woman is white and Ryan is black. And all Ryan gets is a slap in the face from the woman’s husband for trying to touch her. A nearby black woman intervenes and manages to defuse the situation. And once the white couple have gone, she introduces herself: Mrs Rosa Parks.
After this incredibly shocking and rage-inducing opener, the episode goes from strength to strength. Because Ryan cannot react. He knows he can’t. He has to keep his calm, just like his Nanna taught him. Don’t give them an excuse. Even the Doctor can’t react. And there’s very little that can shut the Doctor up. It’s abundantly clear that they all want to just scream but they are fully aware of where – and when – they are. They know the importance of staying under the radar.
But they stick together, mostly, and try to solve the mystery at hand. They get refused service at a restaurant. They’re forced to smuggle two of their party through the window into a motel that is for whites only. Ryan has to sit at the back of the bus and be called ‘boy’ and ‘negro’, while poor Yas struggles to figure out where she’s meant to sit, seeing as she’s neither white nor black and therefore entirely alien to the locals.
At one point, a police officer walks into their motel room, while Yas and Ryan are hiding outside, and asks the Doctor if she’s harbouring a ‘mongrel’. Yas and Ryan, meanwhile, consider the everyday racism they both encounter. Yas says that she is called ‘Paki’ when called to a domestic or ‘terrorist’ on the way home from mosque. Ryan is stopped far more than his white friends when driving.
The whole episode is uncomfortable and difficult and it only serves to strengthen the power behind it. This is not supposed to be easy. At one point, when Ryan goes off alone, I was more scared for him than I think I’ve ever been for a companion – and they’ve been to some scary places over the years! I was also overwhelmingly pleased for him when he got to meet Martin Luther King Jr. You could see just how much this meant for him. You could see the pride he had in that room of his own blackness, something that had been so terrifying and degrading to him moments earlier on the back of that bus.
The real gut-punch comes at the very end of the episode when the Doctor realises that they have to stay on the bus while Rosa makes her protest. They have to stay. And, more importantly, they cannot intervene, no matter how much they might want to. They have to do nothing while Rosa makes her stand because it is her fight, not theirs. The catalyst for Rosa making that infamous stand was that there were too many white people needing seats, so she was asked to move. And if the Doctor and the gang get off then that won’t happen.
So they watch – and we watch – as she politely but firmly refuses to move. And the bus driver shouts and threatens her with arrest and she tells him to go ahead. Then the police arrive and escort her off the bus. And throughout all of this, the four of them sit there and do nothing.
It would be easy to feel despair or as though little has changed. But Doctor Who’s message of hope remained. Life was hard for Rosa, the Doctor explains, and for many like her, but her act made real change happen. Because the tiniest event can change the world. One person. One act. That’s sometimes all we need.
Doctor Who Series 11 returns this Sunday on BBC One. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow.