[This review contains some minor SPOILERS!]
I missed out on “Rosa” the day it aired, due to my attending a comic book convention. I heard an earful about it before I finally got to watch it, however. How it was too preachy. How ever since The Doctor became a woman the BBC was now the PC. So it goes.
These complaints are utter twaddle for anyone who knows anything about Doctor Who, of course. Every incarnation of The Doctor has been the textbook example of a social justice warrior. The Doctor’s greatest enemies have largely been fascists obsessed with racial purity and eliminating anyone who is different than them. The fact that Doctor Who’s racists resemble angry potatoes in blue armor and giant trash-cans with plungers rather than chinless neckbeards whom one suspects became white supremacists because they don’t tan well does not mitigate the fact that there’s little effective difference between a Dalek and a Proud Boy in terms of ideology.
Given that, the astonishing thing about “Rosa” is not that it is an overtly anti-racist story at a time when overt racism is becoming more acceptable in some circles of society. What is astonishing is that it has taken Doctor Who this long to do a story about racism on Earth.
The story is Time Travel Science Ficton 101. A racist from the far future gets his hands on some time travel technology and decides to go back and “fix what went wrong” by preventing Rosa Parks’ famous bus ride protest. Thankfully, The TARDIS picks up on this and refuses to leave Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 until The Doctor and company do something about the approaching problem. It’s a fairly standard set-up but where “Rosa” becomes something special lies in two unique things that writers Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall do with the script.
First, the villain has no motivation beyond simple racism but he is not an idiot. It’s easy for some people to dismiss racists as uneducated rubes and rednecks or being confined to a certain locality (such as The American South), forgetting that racism exists in all regions and classes. Killing Rosa Parks is too easy and too flashy and the villain subverts the lesson we teach to children about how little acts of kindness and courage can change the world, by using little acts of destruction and subterfuge to stop Rosa Parks’ bus ride from ever occurring in the first place. This leaves The Doctor and company scrambling to deal with a host of small-scale problems, such as the racist bus driver who was destined to call the cops on Rosa Parks being given the day off.
The other thing “Rosa” does well is examine the issue of racism through the eyes of The Doctor’s companions while subtly lampooning the inherent stupidity of racism in several small ways. Yasmin is perhaps the best example of this, as she hangs a lampshade on the fact that a woman of Pakistani heritage with a British accent doesn’t fit neatly into the American South’s binary system of “White” or “Colored” and how nobody makes a fuss about her getting on at the front of the bus but the darker skinned Ryan is forced to use the entrance at the back of the bus.
The episode’s strongest moment may be the scene where Ryan and Yasmin discuss the different forms of racism they deal with every day in modern England and how while things have gotten better over the past 70 years, racism is still a problem. Ryan is cynical, of course, agreeing that while he won’t get yelled at for speaking to a white woman today, he still gets stopped by the police more than his white friends. Yasmin is quick to point out that not all cops are racist, however, and that for all the slurs she endures because of her race and religion that she is still allowed to serve her community as a police officer – something that would likely have been impossible had it not been for Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement.
Is “Rosa” preachy? Perhaps, but I fear if it is preachy that it is preaching to the choir. Then again, in a time when American politicians are once again openly identifying themselves as Nationalists, maybe it is time for our decency to become as overt as their racism? In any case, “Rosa” is a fantastic hour of television and the first undisputed classic of Chris Chibnall’s tenure as show-runner.