A strange case where the episode itself matters less than the standards you decide to apply to it. What, exactly, do we want out of “Doctor Who meets Rosa Parks”? What is this supposed to do? A lot of us, myself included, reacted with a measure of wariness to, really, the whole affair. There are a lot of very obvious ways to do this wrong, and very little sense of how you’d do it right. The news that it’s by Malorie Blackman was comforting, but the fact that Chibnall saw fit to rewrite a black woman on Rosa Parks was ominous, and Blackman’s absence from the publicity and relative silence about the episode on Twitter seemed a bad omen.
In light of that, the easiest emotion to feel about the episode itself is relief. This is tightly constructed and coherent in ways previous episodes haven’t been. The character work is appreciably more lively. As a technical object, it’s vastly improved over both of the episodes before it. And despite a few clumsy moments, most obviously the bathos of the “they even named an asteroid after her” sequence, this is mostly considerably more subtle and intelligent than one might have feared. In an episode where the “don’t screw it up” stakes are high and the bar for doing so even higher, the Chibnall era has once again acquitted itself.
None of this, however, answers the question of what we want out of this. The nature of Jodie Whittaker’s casting means that the Chibnall era is essentially unable to even pretend to be apolitical, but this is the first time it’s really stepped up and owned that role. And yet as a framework for talking about race in Doctor Who, Rosa Parks is profoundly limited and, in its own way, lazy. The racism is displaced onto a foreign country, the historical figure is easy to remain hagiographic about, and the targets are soft as can be. In three weeks time we get Doctor Who doing the partition of India, a concept whose politics are equally overt, but that feels dangerous and uncertain in entirely different ways—ways in which it’s a lot less clear what the show is even going to say. Here there’s never really any doubt what the basic political angle is going to be.
Of course, it’s not as though “racism is bad” is an unnecessary message in 2018. Far from it; it’s hard to think of a period in the program’s history where an overt anti-racism stance is more vital. But there are unquestionably framings of that stance that have a hell of a lot more teeth than this possibly can. Yes, the treatment of Ryan throughout the episode (and to a secondary degree Yaz) is viscerally upsetting, but it’s also framed entirely as “look at those people in the past.” They just as easily and justifiably could have hurled racist abuse at him in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. They’ll be perfectly able to next week. The fact that this is unthinkable (regardless of whether it’s a good idea) tells us a lot about how limited a confrontation with the brutal materialism of racism this is. Rosa Parks, as mentioned, is as safe a civil rights figure as is possible, and they predictably went for the tamest presentation of her. (Of particular note, the Martin Luther King cameo; Parks had significant disagreements with King on tactics, and favored Malcolm X later in life.) And the entire notion of a celebrity historical about the civil rights movement is limited, necessarily treating the status quo as a triumphant accomplishment no matter how much dialogue is inserted about how there’s still work to be done. Even if said dialogue hadn’t been overtly pro-cop, the entire approach pales in comparison to, say, doing an afrofuturist story. Indeed, there’s something depressingly blinkered about projecting anti-black racism in to the far future instead of projecting black culture into it. Doctor Who could have done Black Panther. Instead it did a defanged civil rights hagiography. And yes, we have to accept partiality from Doctor Who. It’s never going to go far enough or be good enough. But ultimately, “have better politics than a Marvel film about a heroic king” should be doable.
But the episode stands up to this line of critique far better than it might have. Of particular and satisfying note is the way in which it furiously rejects a white savior narrative. There is no scene where Rosa gratefully thanks the Doctor for showing her how to stand up for herself. More to the point, in the episode’s most fascinating sequence, the Doctor and company are forced to engage in active complicity with racist discrimination in order to accomplish their goals. Rosa’s arrest is portrayed as something awful and unpleasant to witness, not as an act of glorious heroism. That’s smart, and puts this several cuts above most of its genre. I’ve seen people on Twitter say this should be taught in schools, and yeah, actually, it wouldn’t be bad for that.
Ultimately, though, the answer to my question is inevitable. I woke up today to the news that my government is considering stripping all legal recognition of my gender and implementing genetic tests to identify people like me and take away our civil rights. The question of what I want out of Doctor Who when it tackles the story of a civil rights hero isn’t abstract, and actually it’s not really about desire either. I need a story that can save me. I need a story that can save my brothers and my sisters; the ones who are actually dying out there. Who are being murdered for looking at the wrong person, who are suffering without necessary medical care, or who just can’t take another day of being afraid someone will beat them for having to pee.
Instead I got a story about small changes that might have significant effects some day. A story that blatantly says that the people upon whose neck the boot is resting cannot be saved right now and are going to endure a hard and difficult life, and whose prize is that the next generation can be slightly less brutalized by the police and maybe even allowed to be one. That views small acts of defiance as the whole of worthwhile individual action. A story whose limits and constraints are painfully, brutally clear and placed not so much as walls to pen me in as doors slammed shut in my face.
Rosa is fine. There is basically nothing wrong with it as a fifty minute chunk of television. It’s probably the best episode of the season, and next week I’ll probably bother to figure that out. It’s well-made and at times deeply fascinating and compelling. There are weeks where that’s enough. Hell, being this good, in some detached and vaguely objective sense, would have been more than enough last week.
But for a story aired on October 21st, 2018 that trumpets these ambitions? It’s not even close. This is a show that has over and over again shown me worlds where a righteous lunatic doesn’t so much stare down oppression as burn it down. That could have, this week, shown me a trans woman demonstrating how to end reigns of cruelty and brutality. That could have shown me worlds where minorities thrive and flourish instead of celebrating the demise of one that’s incrementally worse than the one outside my window and prophesying that the fuckheads making it so would be the ones to survive long into the future. That could have done anything—because that’s still the entire fucking point of this goddamn show that I love. Doctor Who could have imagined a better world. It didn’t even try. There are other standards you can apply to it, and if you did and got something out of this I’m genuinely happy for you. For me, not even The Twin Dilemma or The Celestial Toymaker left me feeling as empty and hollow and beaten as this did. This is the worst I’ve ever felt after an episode of Doctor Who. I’ll probably forgive it for that someday. But right now I just can’t.