Hmm. I watched episode 3 of the new Doctor Who series with deep unease. The episode ‘plays’ with US civil rights history, ‘using’ the 1955 incident in Alabama that involved Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. The resulting ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’ was one of the key moments in the ending of segregation in the US.
In the episode, an intergalactic white supremacist called Krasko (also a mass murderer, just so that we’re clear he’s properly bad) is trying to change Earth history by introducing a series of small and apparently random changes. The Doctor and her chums set out to preserve/restore history. It’s like an episode of that old series Quantum Leap, in many ways.
Unsurprisingly, the episode entitled ‘Rosa’ has caused a bit of furore in the press. Arguably, the episode is revisionist, retells the moment via an enlightened ‘white saviour’ and is infantilising/exploitative. The ending of segregation in the US is depicted as having come from a small set of accidents and trivial incidents. Oh dear.
These problems exist despite the fact that the episode was actually written by Malorie Blackman, the British woman of colour who was Children’s Laureate 2013-15 and who holds an OBE. And it is clear that the episode is well-intentioned, educating a young UK audience about how others have suffered so that they might have certain freedoms, ticking the BBC’s strategic boxes of wanting to be ‘a global educator’. The episode does carry emotional impact and succeeds in describing Rosa’s bravery.
Inevitably, however, the episode never feels entirely authentic or persuasive. Everything is treated with a light touch and humour abounds – I’m really not sure the ‘tone’ is right for dealing with complex and often painful social issues, issues that are still causing society much heartache and grief (with the recent Windrush revelations, what is happening on the US-Mexican border, etc).
So, the episode attempts something brave (and even heartfelt), but it is extremely problematic in implementation, some might argue. It’s something of a misfire, perhaps, so only scores a 7 out of 10 from me.