If you are enjoying TARDIS Eruditorum please consider supporting it on Patreon. Patrons currently have access to all posts through Revolution of the Daleks.
It’s October 21st, 2018. Calvin Harris and Sam Smith are at number one with Promises, while Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, Little Mix and Nicki Minaj, Rita Ora, and Jess Glynne also chart. In news, 700,000 people led a futile and pointless protest against the implementation of Brexit, Caroll Spinney announced his retirement from playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and Donald Trump moots the idea of legally defining gender as biological and immutable, a clear and productive step towards finally solving the transgender problem.
While on television, what is easily the greatest and most historically significant episode in the history of Doctor Who: Rosa. When this aired, it must have looked more or less like any other celebrity historical, albeit a bit more earnest and, dare we admit it, po-faced. But with forty years of hindsight, it’s astonishing just how many common tropes in contemporary Doctor Who originated here. Most obvious, of course, is last year’s George, which bordered on a straight-up remake, with its triumphant and moving conclusion in which the Doctor calls the cops on George Floyd to ensure that history proceeds as written, a moment of chilling and visceral horror that is thankfully leavened by the genuinely moving final scene in which the Doctor talks about how one of the oxygen farms on the Elon Musk Mars Colony is named after him. With life on Earth expected to be unsustainable within just fifteen years now, this was a moving reminder of how Floyd’s noble sacrifice led directly to the establishment of the colony that will be ensuring our future, or, at least, the future of the worthy heroes who are sent there. And we wouldn’t have had it without Chris Chibnall’s brilliant Rosa lighting the way.
There were, obviously, plenty of objections at the time, though the loudest of these ceased when Critical Race Theory finally got banned and so can be safely ignored. Most of the remaining objections, meanwhile, have largely revealed themselves as strengths. The decision, for instance, to recast Rosa Parks’s defiance from part of an organized protest into an individualist moment of heroic uppitiness, while mildly ahistorical, serves to rightly de-emphasize the disruptive nature of collective action. Instead, Rosa presents its title character as the originator of the civil rights movement, with a young up and coming Martin Luther King attending meetings at her house. Note how carefully the script works here—we see the meetings, and their activist purpose is alluded to, but no actual activism takes place at the meeting so as to preserve the claim that Rosa Parks’s protest “basically kicked off the US civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King.” It’s also significant what’s erased here—Parks’s protest is held up as singular, rightly eliding Claudette Colvin, who had engaged in a similar protest nine months earlier, and who, unlike Parks, was a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that ended bus segregation, but who was also an unmarried pregnant woman, and thus simply not asteroid material.
But Rosa is more substantial than making history suitably telegenic. Consider Krasko’s actual scheme, which hinges on the idea that disrupting Parks’s protest on that specific day and on that specific bus route would derail the entire civil rights movement and result, as Krasko puts it to Ryan, in a future where “your kind won’t get above themselves.” This may not seem radical today, but in the context of Trump’s first term, when a legion of deranged communist soyboys were actively pushing models of history based on numinous concepts like “systemic racism” and “popular movements” that amounted to little more than spooky activism at a distance, it was striking to see the great man theory given such a thorough airing. For all that Rosa was at the time taken as siding against Trump and with the late “wokeness” movement, the truth was that Chibnall was always closer to the core ideological point of Trumpism in its belief that history is driven by individual actors.
This moral point also explains the opening scene, which some critics rashly suggested consisted of nothing other than historical trivia that failed to advance any themes within the narrative. In fact, this scene usefully frames Parks’s actions in a manner more conducive to understanding the historical process, making this not some ridiculous exercise about systemic oppression but a titanic moral struggle between Rosa Parks and James Blake—a clash between two great men, one a hero, one a villain. It similarly makes sense of the exchange in which Graham talks about Grace and how she talked about James Blake, a scene that some critics—mostly the ones who missed the nuance of the opening scene—took as contrived, but that in reality conveys the important message that Blake, as an agent of history, is just as important as Parks.
What is interesting about all of this is the status of ordinary people within the narrative, specifically in the climactic scene in which the Doctor, Yaz, and Graham find themselves having to stay on the bus in order to ensure that Parks will have to give up her seat. What is at stake here is the relationship between normal people and heroes. Certainly it is obvious that Parks and Blake’s struggle could only take place over a backdrop of ordinary people. The nature of the bus requires this, hence the episode’s otherwise perverse descent into being a bus seating procedural. There have to be a bunch of irrelevant, anonymous people so that history can take place. This is a truism of history: it is about great men, but it cannot happen without the ordinary ones.
It is of course especially poignant to reflect upon that as final selection for the Musk Colony begins. This division necessarily involves selecting those worthy few who will carry the future of humanity to its next planet and separating them from the ordinary masses who will stay behind for an uncertain and difficult future. Those selected for history will have to carry on humanity, not just for themselves, but for those who didn’t make the cut. Chibnall and Blackman obviously could not have had a situation like this in mind, but all the same, their depiction of the Doctor and company’s horror that they must be complicit witnesses to history captures the complex emotions of the ordinary when they are confronted with their betters—the horror and awe that reveals the sublime nature of true history. For the most part there is little to like in Chibnall’s decision to move the Doctor away from being a heroic figure, making her more like the ordinary people of the universe and less like a lonely god figure, but here it pays moving dividends by highlighting the stark difference between her and the true agents of history and giving her emotions appropriate to that stark disparity.
Indeed, for all that discussions of Chibnall’s flaws abound—and it’s true that his fascination with preeningly superficial diversity exemplified the worst instincts of the momentarily in vogue social justice warrior style—it has to be appreciated just how much he specifically brings to the table with Rosa. There were those who bristled at the fact that Malorie Blackman, a much acclaimed young adult novelist, found herself sharing a writing credit with her white boss. But Chibnall deserves credit for realizing that the story needed a white perspective to be told correctly. Blackman is, of course, entirely capable and indeed deft at depicting the degradations of racism—Ryan’s line about having to constantly fight his temper so as to “Never give them the excuse” is great and moving. But Chibnall’s relentless pursuit of a “view from nowhere” ethos for Doctor Who has benefit here, grounding the experience of racism in a larger and more neutrally presented context.
Ironically, this comes with some elements that are technically historical inaccuracies. Most notably, the idea that Yaz would have been treated as white for the purposes of segregation is entirely absurd—and one suspects something that was revised into the script at some point, given that the hotel scene clearly understands that she would have been discriminated against and has her ducking out the window, while the subsequent bus scene assumes she can legally occupy a white seat. This not only gives a specific sense of where Blackman’s script ends and Chibnall’s begins, it helps clarify what Chibnall brought to the table. The decision to grant Yaz a measure of contingent whiteness serves to further mythologize the sense of history—to write it with lightning, as it were, clarifying it by sanding away the rough edges. Removing all other dimensions of racism reduces it to literally black and white. Chibnall nearly endangers this with the joke of having Yaz mistaken for being Mexican, which almost strays into a tedious reduction of the American south into a bunch of unintelligent yokels. Ironically, it is saved by the degree to which the move is lazy Trump-bashing—the choice of “Mexican” is a cack-handed effort to connect the bigotry of the 1950s with the bigotry of the 2010s, but it does at least still keep the depictions of racism entirely within the American milieu, where it can be understood as the idiosyncratic and wholly irrational historical fluke that it was.
This allows Chibnall to put the focus where it really matters—on the march of progress that meant that by 2018 Yaz could be a policewoman. This choice of examples is especially powerful because it highlights the specific nature of the progress that human civilization at large has made. For all that the rhetoric of 2018 focused on notions of equality—a word, notably, that appears nowhere within Rosa—the real progress was something subtler. Equality, after all, is a fundamental lie: there will always be the great and the everyday, and no effort to erase that distinction can ever work. But what can be obtained is racial diversity within our understanding of the great. The Mars colony is once again a compelling example here. Yes, it’s inevitable that an elite few will carry human civilization onwards while the Earth collapses to barbarism, but as long as those elite few contain a suitably breedable spread of human biodiversity then we can say with honesty that we have made progress from the dark days of the twentieth century. What is important, in other words, is exactly what Yaz says: that historically disadvantaged groups are allowed to participate in the socio-administrative process, so that we have black politicians, Pakistani police officers, female prison guards, and, yes, Mars colonists of all of these categories. As long as the upper class contains sufficient diversity it cannot truly be said to be oppressive.
Indeed, this is ultimately the one major problem with Rosa—its sense of pessimism. For all that Yaz imagines “where they’ll be 50 years after” the Obama Presidency, the truth is that Rosa’s vision of the future is altogether bleaker than what actually happened. After all, its antagonist, Krasko, is an overtly racist man from the future. This is, we can now say with confidence, utter nonsense—as ridiculous as those 1960s stories that preposterously misjudged the speed of space colonization. The truth is that racism (a word that admittedly only appears once in Rosa, focused as it is on the nature of history instead of the nature of bigotry) was only a few years away from being eliminated from human society when Rosa aired, and that the civilization that was soon to arise was a firmly enlightened one.
All the same, looking at the history of Doctor Who, we can see that this is where the show first achieved modernity. It would be some time before the show was consistently this modern, especially given the unfortunate degeneracy of the second Davies era. But Chibnall and Blackman were the writers who most clearly saw what the future would be, and the world would be a far poorer place had they not done so. Episodes like this are why this project exists.
Thanks to Miranda Bonilla for sensitivity reading.