On "Rosa" - 'Doctor Who'
How Britain Avoids Its Uncomfortable Role in Racism
At the end of last year, British TV was introduced to the new face of Doctor Who with its first-ever female actress, Jodie Whittaker, as the leading protagonist. Being a person who’s generally interested in the discourse of popular culture, as well as being a veteran “Whovian,” this was something that really intrigued me. It pushed many questions to the front of my mind about the show and its agenda in a way that I never considered before as a sci-fi loving pre-teen. What sort of messages were to be made about diversity and inclusivity? Were they ready for the potential backlash that could come from it? To be honest, after a while these questions fell from my mind and public interest shortly after the announcement; the UK government’s falling to pieces and I had a history essay due to think about. But it was one day recently, after stumbling upon my favourite childhood show, that Doctor Who came to the forefront of my mind once more but for some less than comfortable reasons.
It was the third episode of Series 11, “ROSA,” that was the first episode with this new cast that I had ever watched. In this episode our heroes have found themselves in 1955 Alabama where they end up orchestrating and witnessing the moment when Rosa Parks is thrown off the bus, starting a chain of events that led to the famous bus boycotts led by Martin Luther King Jr., who they happen to meet along the way. The message here is very clear: everyone should be treated equally, regardless of what they look like, and it is our responsibility to be a part of that change. Even the Doctor’s companions are very diverse, with two of them being people of colour, one of them being a Grandpa, which was also moving away from their typical "older man and his side piece" relationship we’re so used to seeing. It’s not hard to connect the dots and see what role each plays in trying to tackle the nuances of experiencing racism and appreciating legacies for change. So why did this episode leave such a sour taste in my mouth? Why did this show, when it’s clearly trying to send a message about equality and justice, leave me feeling a bit deflated when as a Black woman it should be making me feel empowered and inspired? It took me a few days to come to terms with it, but I think I finally have an answer that I feel is worth sharing.
The truth is, this is just another example of Britain having the chance to shed a light on its own problematic past and reflect on it. And, unsurprisingly to me, British popular culture has completely dropped the ball. Let’s be real, this show is about an over 100-year-old regenerating alien that flies around space and time in a blue police box. Am I supposed to believe that it is completely beyond the realms of possibility that our adventure could not have taken place in the MANY examples of racism and oppression that have taken place in Britain over the past decade? In 1963, we had our own homegrown Bus Boycotts in Bristol that were a result of Black and Asian people being barred employment on Bristol Buses. It would have saved the Doctor eight years and hundreds of miles if this BBC produced show had simply stopped trying to deflect racism away as an inherently “American issue.” It reminds me of being in secondary school when having the study of American Slavery was up for debate, whilst British imperialism and their role in slavery was never even part of the agenda.
To be fair, this is not just the fault of the writers and producers of Doctor Who. In fact, that episode was very much the result of years of historical deflection. When it comes down to it, Britain really needs to accept that in many ways, the history of imperialism and Transatlantic slavery have proven that Britain walked so that America would run. You could even say that they are very much running the same race. My current undergraduate career at Bristol University has meant that I walk around parts of the campus, areas of the city, and through monumental buildings that are all inherently linked to British men with a hand in slavery. Names like Colston, Wills, and Burke are commemorated for donations made to their city that were intrinsically linked to the detriment of a whole race of people. Go to port cities across the country—Liverpool, Portsmouth, Glasgow—and you will find the same. And, unfortunately, dedicating about five minutes at the beginning of a lecture to highlight a university's "controversial past" really does not and DID not cut it for me.
Honestly, I think the moment that really irked me about this episode is when the Doctor’s elder companion, played by Bradley Walsh, is talking to the Alabama bus driver and says that they don’t do these sorts of things "where he’s from." Well, friend, that might be true for you in your 21st-century context but for British history that certainly isn’t the case. Britain’s hand in the construction of racism as we know and experience it today is something that should not be ignored. It is a hand that at the height of its Imperial influence, was spread over a third of the world and was justified under the guise of white racial superiority. And so, when given the chance to talk about racism, wrapping it in a star-spangled bow and casting it off to some distant land is not only disappointing but does nothing to facilitate real change in this country. Instead, all it does is acknowledge that even though discrimination does exist, Britain has somehow earnt the right to stand on a moral high horse about racism, rather use the platforms we have to try and do better at home. And that just cannot sit right with me.