Last week I implied that this would be Doctor Who doing Quantum Leap, and that is exactly what it’s done.
What I didn’t add was that Quantum Leap was a really excellent show. I remember a few episodes vividly, not the specifics so much as the feelings, the real danger it felt like Sam had leapt into, dealing with the attitudes of history toward the people he’d become, the risks posed by the possibility that he might fail to keep time on track, the risks to his person posed by the people who hated the face everyone saw except us. Sometimes the show was funny, but often it was tense with the realities of how horribly people treat one another.
And that’s what “Rosa” does: it puts our four friends in terrible danger, menaced by nothing more or less than Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s. The Doctor has been threatened by guards and cops and heavies of all shapes and species; there have been many futures where everyone seemed to want to kill the TARDIS crew. We’ve been to many deadly pasts, from prehistoric caves to revolutionary France to Nazi Germany. None of them has ever felt quite as immediate, quite as close to the bone, quite as palpable and unnecessarily cruel as this one. Maybe it’s just the ease with which we can imagine this happening again in America today, the suspicion that there are places (probably even in Alabama) where we really haven’t come much farther than this. Maybe it’s that the cruelty is not generalized, not indiscriminate ruthlessness like you get on Androzani Minor or Varos, not coming from a blank metal mask like a Dalek’s or a Cyberman’s. Maybe it’s that our team is suddenly not entirely incongruous, exceptions dropped out of time, but faces that the white people of Montgomery can process and think they understand, and treat with contempt and hostility not because those faces seem strange but because they seem familiar, and lesser.
And it’s not just bigotry from the past, but also from the future: Krasko, a criminal from the 78th or 79th century, time-travels all the way back to the 20th just to knock time out of joint — again, not out of some generalized urge to meddle (like the Monk or the Master) or for any material gain (like the Rani) but specifically because it’s a time when African-Americans started to change the circumstances they were in. It’s almost absurd to think this would matter in these specific terms to someone almost four times as removed from our point in history as we are from ancient Rome — and yet isn’t there the same absurdity about the racists of 2018, their yearning for past white supremacist eras so pathetic, so fetishistic and foolish? Krasko not only gives the Doctor and company a reason to be here, something to fix, but he also blocks us from regarding the unflinchingly ugly racism shown in “Rosa” — the white man who slaps Ryan to “protect” his wife, the woman who refuses to serve him or Yaz in the restaurant — as a relic of the past, something we’ve all moved past. It may always be with us, even 5000 years hence, and we’ll always need to be prepared to stand in its way.
- This was technically a celebrity historical, gauche as it is to contemplate: an “oh my god, it’s Rosa Parks!” episode of the same kind we’ve had about Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Vincent van Gogh, and Winston Churchill. In fact, it’s a two-for-one if you count Martin Luther King. It sets the future bar for this type of episode pretty extraordinarily high.
- I’m trying to recall if Malorie Blackman is the first person of color to write a Doctor Who episode. She is certainly one of very few women to do so, and pretty definitely the first woman of color.
- I can’t say enough how excellent these four leads are. They all had jobs to do this episode that were extremely difficult and subtle, and I really can’t think of a single quarrel I’d raise with how they did those jobs.
- The only real quarrel I have with the episode is the accents. I knew going in I wouldn’t believe a single one of them (which probably means at least one was real; I haven’t checked), and I didn’t. It didn’t matter in the least, of course. This episode could have been ridiculous, and it was so wonderful, and I believed it in all the ways that mattered.
- I couldn’t help being nervous about what kind of damage Krasko might have done in the past, depending on where he’d been sent to. Hopefully he just got bitten in half by a dinosaur.