Returning to an element of Doctor Who established in 1963 — an alien world sci-fi story followed by a historical episode — The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends land in Montgomery, Alabama on the eve of a major historic event. But as the show has not done a pure historical tale since the 1960s (more on that in a moment), a threat from out of time hopes to dash Rosa Parks’ small, but epoch-changing action out of existence. And that threat intends to do it by using equally small actions.
The third episode of the season, “Rosa,” is a challenging and sometimes devastating episode which plays to one of the more uncomfortable truths of time travel: it not particularly safe for non-white people to visit the past. Legends of Tomorrow confronted this by having Jax (Franz Drameh) see slavery first hand, Timeless also took on the difficulties a black man would face traveling in Earth’s history and in “Rosa,” Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and the Doctor find themselves in the reality of an organized and blatant form of institutionalized racism. While “Whites Only” signs are the largest and most omnipresent aspect of the system in place in Montgomery (and, indeed, the rest of the American South at the time), the team encounter the ways small things like sitting in a bar or pointing out someone dropped an article of clothing was an invitation to violence. And if not direct physical harm, the was still an almost pathological need to impress upon People of Color that they are other and “unworthy” of respect.
And while “colored” had a very specific meaning at the time, as the episode points out, the inability of white folk to discern any difference between a theoretical Mexican and Yaz’s Pakistani heritage is key to understanding the sickness our quartet of time travelers face here. Indeed, even Graham and The Doctor are blind to how pervasive and terrible segregation really was.
At the same time, in a brilliant scene between Yaz and Ryan, the show reflects on how much work still needs to be accomplished. While overt systems of oppression like segregation have ended in Westernized nations, there are more shadowy aspects of institutionalized racism alive and well in 2018. Consider Ryan’s mention of comporting himself while walking down the streets of his own town and the outward prejudice Yaz faces despite being an officer of the law. While we have the absolute reality of an African American President of the United States, there is still widespread and willful contempt of people for obscure reasons of skin color, gender presentation, sexual orientation and religious observance. These attitudes, which border on pathology, and the systems propping them up cannot be defeated with a sonic screwdriver.
Sadly, Doctor Who also accepts the reality that the sickness of racism will survive into (at least) the 51st Century. Though The Doctor mentions Krasko’s (Josh Bowman) time disruptor is set to send things to the 79th Century, the mention of the Stormcage and the Vortex Manipulator means his hate crime occurred three thousand years from now. Even his plan to end the progress made in the 20th Century by disrupting Rosa Park’s (played here magnificently by Vinette Robinson) refusal to give up her seat on that bus reflects a hatred — and a disease — past down across generations.
Confronting overt racism is strong story material. In fact, “Rosa” could have hit all of its points without the presence of a sci-fi threat. As mentioned up top, Doctor Who‘s original format saw The Doctor and his companions journeying to historical events like the French Revolution, the Jacobite Rebellion and other key aspects of Western European history. An early story, in which The Doctor (William Hartnell), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian (William Russell) travel with Marco Polo to the court of Khublai Khan is said to be one of the great Doctor Who stories. Sadly, copies of the story no longer exist and attempts to reconstruct it only hint at its quality. Another, in which the team end up in the heart of the Aztec Empire, sees The Doctor warning Barbara about imposing her values over the Aztec culture. A key element of these “historicals,” as they came to be called, was their straight-faced presentation. Instead of creatures looking to upend the timeline, The Doctor and any allies he met along the way faced homegrown threats: an ambitious general looking to use European incursion into Manchuria as an opportunity to overthrow Kublai Khan, Maximilien Robespierre’s apparent bloodlust, and so on. While many of these antagonist were manifestations of the same sorts of greed or shortsightedness, they derived from the time period of the story.
The historicals were abandoned entirely in 1966 with “The Highlanders” (another story which no longer exists on film or video). By then, producer Innis Lloyd noted viewership dropped during historical stories and ticked up again when The Doctor and his companions went to a sci-fi realm. In lieu of the past, Lloyd leaned on bringing sci-fi threats to modern-day contexts; a concept his successors as producer would double down on by stranding The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) in a 1980s which looked remarkably like 1971. When The Doctor finally visited the past again in 1972’s “The Time Monster,” a sci-fi threat would prove to be the antagonist. Though, it should probably be noted, The Doctor visited Atlantis in that story, making its historical context suspect. Nonetheless, with the exception of 1983’s “Black Orchid,” every subsequent trip to Earth’s history featured an alien and/or time-traveling force at the heart of the conflict.
Ultimately, the inclusion of a sci-fi baddie serves a salient point in “Rosa.” The vileness of racism lives on into the far future and never stops presenting a danger to peace across humankind. But considering strong moments like Rosa’ confrontation with bus driver James Blake (Trevor White) at the beginning and end of the episode, the cop rousting The Doctor and Graham at the motel, and the outward hostility Ryan and Yaz faced in just about scene, the sci-fi element was the least necessary part of the episode. Doctor Who could have made a pure historical for the first time in nearly 50 years with “Rosa.” And considering the story they were telling, it would’ve been justified. In fact, it would be interesting to see the current production team and cast tackle a pure historical. Meanwhile, “Rosa” balances out a quality historical tale with the demands of a sci-fi show, even if it leaves us a little bit sad as racism turns about to be an enemy we can never completely vanquish.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.