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Doctor Who Brings History to Poignant Life With Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks meets the Doctor in an emotionally charged episode.

Doctor Who season 11 episode 1 review

Doctor Who has made some incredible historical episodes in its time. From “Vincent and the Doctor” to “The Girl in the Fire Place,” the show has a way of bringing historical figures and eras to life in a way that reach into our hearts and remind us that they were just human beings trying to survive (even when there’s a healthy dose of aliens and science fiction added in).

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For Rosa Parks, we come to see that her stance on her famous bus ride home was just the beginning.

What’s especially poignant about this episode is that this is the most diverse group the Doctor has ever had traveling with her, and while she could theoretically run around Montgomery, Alabama and not be attacked on the basis of her skin, she’s still a woman in the 1950s. Pair that with the fact that she has Ryan, a young black man, and Yaz, a Pakistani woman, with her, and she is threatened to leave the city immediately.

If you remember back when David Tennant’s Doctor went to Shakespearean England with Martha, and Martha pointed out that she can’t just walk around like the Doctor, the show has, at times, explored racial discrimination across the ages. But compare that instance to how the Doctor reacts as a woman—she might not have been confronted about her companions by the citizenry if she were also a white man. Graham and a male Doctor could have existed and probably gotten away with everything a lot easier than Thirteen did.

Graham’s storyline is telling, as well—a white man who continually calls Ryan his grandson, even though Ryan still fights against it, could have easily lied throughout this episode. Often, companions on Doctor Who will lie to fit whatever story the Doctor needs to fix their current problem. So in Alabama in the 1950s, Graham could have gotten away with a lot of alternate stories, but still, whenever someone asked about Ryan, he made a point to say that he was his grandson. He never shied away from Ryan or Yaz and did whatever the Doctor told him to do.

He also had a great line that really drove home both his role and the Doctor’s:

Yaz: We’re here. We’re part of the story. Part of history.
Graham: No no, I don’t want to be part of this.
The Doctor: We have to. I’m sorry. We have to not help her.

Graham is one of the “good guys,” an older white man who openly told the racists of Alabama that Ryan was his grandson. However, the episode brings to light that despite how “good” he is,  he’s still a white man at a time in American history where they could get away with murder. Privilege and racism don’t just disappear because any given individual is a good person.

So when the time comes for Parks’ stand against James Blake, Graham wasn’t uncomfortable being there—being the reason she had to fight—but the reality is that Rosa Parks wasn’t fighting individual white people, but whiteness as an institution, and because of that, even Graham is a part of the system. Every white person who rode that bus was responsible for Parks’ oppression, and the fact that the Doctor and Graham couldn’t say a word reflected how white people let that injustice go on in their silence, whenever they didn’t actively take a stand.

The episode is already being lauded on Twitter. Not only is it only the sixth Doctor Who episode written by a woman, but it is the first to be written by a woman of color—both things we’re simultaneously happy about and disappointed that more progress hasn’t been made by now.

What’s incredible is that this is one of the first episodes where the Doctor didn’t say a word about who she was. She didn’t tell Rosa she was a Time Lord. She didn’t show Rosa Parks the TARDIS. At the end of the day, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat all on her own, not because she was inspired by the Doctor, and not because anyone had to force her to do it. She did it because she knew it was the right thing to do.

This is going to be remembered as one of the greatest episodes from the show, and after 37 seasons, that’s quite the feat. This is a new era of Doctor Who, and we’re here for it.

Many fans of the show took to Twitter after the premiere to talk through their emotions, reflecting on Rosa Park’s journey and the importance of the episode.

And, as this Twitter points out, the TARDIS as a police box wasn’t addressed but there are still incredible moment throughout the show that commented on racism and how we view it in today’s world.

While the episode was poignant for me, we should take the time to hear from the black American community of Doctor Who fans. This is their history being told through a black British lens, and while it may hit for some, it may not for others, and it’s important to listen to black voices as we process this episode.

From the writer of the episode, Marjorie Blackman:

Tell us what “Rosa” got you thinking about and feeling in the comments.

(image: BBC)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh.

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