Last night’s episode of Dr. Who, in which the Dr. and her merry band went back in time to meet and protect Rosa Parks from a time-traveling rogue white supremacist from the future, absolutely shattered TV boundaries and thoroughly nailed its unabashed, bold, and beautiful progressive colors to the mast.
It blew my head off completely. I feel like I’ve never seen anything like this on TV before, and certainly not within the world of Dr.Who. Where before it was always frivolous, empty, frothy escapades with a pointlessly manic Doctor, whizz-popping like LSD balls in a tombola through time saving the world and/or universe from epochal threats, this thing was REAL.
In history class as a student I used to often think – ‘Why can’t they make this into a movie? At least a TV show? Engage us with emotion, people, characters, a compelling story arc – rather than dry recitations of dates.’ Well, mostly I just said – ‘Why can’t they make it a movie?’ but the rest of it was inferred.
History should be exciting. It should feel visceral and real, like it matters, because it does. The past made the present. But when you’re hip-deep in a debate about the Corn Laws or the Bodyline Controversy, you’re not feeling how it matters. It doesn’t seem to. It’s deadly dull. History class teaches us, or at least it taught me and my pals, that history is outdated. Past its sell by date. A waste of time.
Dr. Who just flipped that on its head. I’ve never felt a connection to Rosa Parks as deeply as I felt while watching that episode. And not only to the past, but to a better future also. They tied her struggle to our struggle today in ways everyone can understand, whether its to young kids hearing the P-word in the playground, to young black guys getting pulled over by the police more often than their white mates, or to me, an adult white guy thirsty in the febrile Brexit atmosphere for some shot of optimism – some hint that the multicultural, diverse world I dream of is really coming.
Dr. Who is bringing it.
From the off they were hitting on all cylinders. Within minutes of the episode starting, a real racist white Southerner screamed at a frail-looking older black lady, and another punched our young black hero Ryan in the face. There was real pain there for both of them, real humiliation, real anger, and real restraint.
That’s not typical Dr. Who territory. Normally it’s weeping angels, end of the world scribbly things, aliens with ridiculous faces but normal human bodies, mannequins, and other things that may give you a jump scare, but won’t really dig in and make an impact. There are no punches in the face, no immediate violence. It’s all grand gestures and massive stakes, but you don’t ever look straight into the unyielding face of hate.
Now we have. And that’s good. More than anything else right now, with Trump spewing incitements to violence and the press under assault and non-whites seeing massive spikes in race-hatred against them, we need the Dr. and her gang to face down such evils with tolerance, reason and measured, civilized resistance.
I loved the chat Yaz and Ryan had. I couldn’t believe how up-to-date and real their concerns were, transposed into this usually ‘safe’ sci-fi space. Their talk felt like a beautiful, earnest lesson being handed down by the Dr. Who team. Like a mom or dad talking to their kid, explaining a horrible reality while hoping it would keep changing. The show is explaining us to ourselves, and we all need to hear this.
I admire enormously the way the plot played out. I was concerned, briefly, that they would go the ‘fun’ time travel route of having our heroes somehow be responsible for Rosa Parks sitting on that bus. Something they did inspired her, perhaps. That would have been a horrible mistake. What Rosa Parks did came from her, and her world, and the people around her. So I absolutely loved it when the Dr. clearly stated her thesis for the future, and for the show – ‘Protect the timeline’.
Yes! Warts and all. Because the timeline is in evolution. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Protect it, conserve it, and watch it progress.
I’m keen to see this Dr.’s view of the future. I want to see the dystopias that could happen if we take certain paths. I want to see the beauty of her values played out.
As for the plot, I loved the push toward non-violence. I loved that all the characters were given something meaningul to do. I love the Dr.’s sense of humor, and how she isn’t pointlessly frantic, flapping around like a headless chicken – just at times urgent. I loved the Banksy jokes, and the way the Dr. shut down Graham’s criticisms, and the clever series of problem solving, and boy, just everything,
Sets. Acting. Plot. Story. The scene on the bus at the end, when we feel Graham’s agony that he has to be part of the problem for Rosa to get her chance, was just beautiful. His pain matters also. It’s not the main pain – that belongs to Rosa of course. It’s her life that will suffer the most. It’s her getting frog-marched to jail. Yaz and Ryan are impacted more directly. But everyone is hurt by this cruelty – Graham’s pain is different because he feels complicit. He is white. He is male. And he hates the cruelty of those like him.
Again – it is Rosa’s story. The show ended with me inspired. As the Dr. projected to the future, with the asteroid named after Rosa, and Clinton giving her the medal, I welled up.
This is what I always loved so much about Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yes of course, I loved the stories, and the settings and characters, but most of all the world. This future where every alien race works and lives together equally, where there are still issues to address – such as the sentience of Data – but so many issues are settled. Men walk around in mini skirts. People of different races are partners. A United Federation of Planets!!
And here we are, arguing about leaving the EU. It’s pathetic. We’re all in, and we should all be in it together. Come on. Now Doctor Who has picked up the flag and is charging across no mans land. I am champing at the bit to run at her back and make this world real. Let’s do it together!