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New Who 11.3 Rosa

I have been around and about all over the place lately, racking up a week-long trip to Romania followed by two successive weekends in Whitby and Warwick. Weekends are when I tend to write LJ / DW posts, so I now have a huge backlog of things to write about caused by being busy doing interesting things in exactly the time I might otherwise be writing about them. But things are calming down now, I am back on top of work and my first weekend at home in almost a month approaches. So I'm ready to start catching up on myself, and step one in that is apparently getting up to date with Doctor Who posts. Obviously Rosa in particular is long past now and many people have written lots of interesting commentary on it, so I will just stick to a few points which particularly struck me.

I spent quite a lot of time thinking about how Doctor Who deals with history in the run-up to giving a Classical Association paper on the topic in 2010. I never published that - indeed, it was never really intended for publication - but I covered the core points in this post on my real-name blog. Broadly, the series has always operated on the unspoken assumption that the Doctor cannot be seen to be changing known Earth history, because that would break the fantasy that it is taking place in our real world. But the character's development, by the time Troughton took over, into a hero who travelled the universe helping people was incompatible with this, because such a figure would naturally seek to right historical wrongs on Earth, thus changing the course of our history. Hence the evolution of the 'pseudo-historical' story, in which the Doctor saves the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat and preserves the history we know - see e.g. The Shakespeare Code.

That's essentially what we have here, but the reason for preserving the core historical event of Rosa Parks' arrest is emphatically not the abstract one of preserving history for its own sake, but the socially-driven one of wanting to preserve the improvements for BAME people and their status which it brought about. Likewise, Krasko, the 79th-century time traveller actively wants to undo those changes, and has targeted a pivotal moment of historical change as a way of achieving that. That makes this episode all about contested histories. In real life we debate the details of what happened at a particular moment in history, what it really meant at the time or later on, or (in extreme cases such as holocaust denial) whether it really happened. And where people's rights, status or identities are contingent on the historical interpretation chosen (as is almost always the case with history, in fact), those debates can get very heated. In this episode, with time travel added into the mix, we essentially had a heightened allegorical version of those debates - what would happen if one way of 'winning' the debate would be to go back in time and change the actual history to suit your line of argument?

As a historian, I really liked that idea, but precisely because I found it so powerful and so close to many of the issues I see and engage with professionally, I would ideally have liked it to be given a bit more space. I wanted to know more about Krasko's social and cultural context and his thought processes. Was he an entirely lone wolf, or did he see himself as acting on behalf of a large fascist contingent? What is it about 79th-century society that has given rise to his actions, and what in particular does he anticipate will come of undoing Rosa Parks' arrest back in his own time-line? Has he even over-fetishised Rosa's action, to the extent that he is in fact entirely wrong that erasing that one act will undo all of the progress which collectively came out of the Civil Rights movement? The effort which the Doctor and her companions put into stopping him from changing anything implies he is right about the significance it will have, but I would have welcomed a line or two somewhere about social and political change not being entirely contingent on a particular person on a particular bus at a particular time.

All of that makes me sound a bit grumpy about this episode, but only really because I felt it was actually a very impressive approach to a sensitive historical event, and would have loved to see it nudged just a notch or two further along towards excellence. For a family-oriented TV entertainment show, though, it did about as well as could reasonably be expected with both historiography and of course the primary focus of racism. I thought it was particularly important to have included the conversation between Ryan and Yaz behind the bins about the racism they personally experience on a regular basis in the 21st-century UK, which did acknowledge that a single act by Rosa Parks didn't magically solve all racism, not to mention hopefully prompting some white viewers who haven't done so before to empathise with the everyday experiences of BAME people.

Overall very good, and because of the point at which it came in the series, very reassuring for those of us who have been worried about how this sort of material might be handled in a show which doesn't have a particularly brilliant track record with minority and underprivileged characters.

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