In The Ghost Monument, we got our first taste of space travel this season and in Rosa, we see it again. There was some trepidation about the way the historically white and always British show would deal with the American Civil Rights Movement but overall they handled it quite well if lightly and we got to see some more great character interactions which are proving to be the backbone of this season. As always, spoilers following the picture.
Rosa opens 12 years prior to the current timeline where we see a younger Rosa Parks getting on a bus and being told by the driver she needs to get off and get back on through the back entrance. She refuses at first but eventually gives in and before reaching the back door the bus takes off without her.
Flashforward to 1955 Montgomery, Alabama where the TARDIS has landed in yet another failed attempt to get Ryan, Yaz, and Graham back to present day Sheffield. This time the TARDIS has detected traces of artron energy, the energy it runs on, and refuses to travel anymore until it’s investigated.
1950’s Alabama is not a friendly place if you’re not white which Ryan is reminded of immediately when he tries to return a dropped glove to a white lady. He gets slapped and threatened by her husband for his troubles. Luckily, Rosa Parks jumps in to smooth things over and warns the quad about what happened to Emmet Till. She tells them to get out of town for their own good but the artron energy is around her and it’s the day before she refuses to give up her seat on the bus sparking the Montgomery bus boycott.
Sitting in a bar they are once again confronted with the reality of segregation when they are kicked out because Black people or Mexicans, referring to Yaz, aren’t served there. Ryan claps back “good, because I don’t eat them” but they vacate.
The Doctor tries to get them to go back to the TARDIS since as a white lady it’s easy for her to move around but Ryan and Yaz refuse. Since while they can leave and Rosa Parks with the rest of the people of color during this time can’t we are given a clear taste of why they’re companions. They go to a bus depot where the artron energy signal is concentrated and find a briefcase full of future tech.
There’s a mysterious white dude with a terrible southern accent wandering around Montgomery. He tries to get into the TARDIS and is stalking Rosa Parks. He shows up just as the quad is going through the briefcase and attacks them with his temporal displacement weapon and warns them to get out of town.
They can’t go back to the TARDIS since they know he has eyes on it so instead they book a motel room and sneak Yaz and Ryan in to break down what they know. They don’t get very far before the police come knocking on the door sending Yaz and Ryan back out the window to hide by a dumpster.
While Graham and Thirteen distract the officer who is once again warning them to leave town, Yaz and Ryan have a heart to heart about the racism they still experience because while things are better, they certainly aren’t perfect. Ryan talks about how he’s stopped by the police far more than his white friends and how Grace taught him to hold his temper and never give them an excuse. Yaz reveals her dad told her the same thing and how she gets called a Paki on duty and a terrorist on the way home from the mosque. But Yaz is more positive about the future, that the actions that are happening right now are what pave the way for her to be a police officer now and that the future will be even better.
Once the officer has left they go back to consolidating knowledge. Graham knows the bus driver who drove the infamous bus is James Blake because Grace had told Graham he better not be like him when they first met. This sparks a conversation about how things would be if Grace was still with them and Ryan says if she was here she’d start a riot which is probably accurate but it still would’ve been amazing to see her perspective of all this.
The quad splits up to gather intel on Rosa, where she lives, where she works, and which bus route she takes. They go to check the bus routes and Yaz doesn’t know where she’s supposed to sit since she was let on in the front. Graham and Thirteen are feeling a bit of white guilt since Ryan clearly has to sit in the back. They do happen upon Rosa’s bus and the Doctor engages her in conversation while Rosa schools her on how things work. A white woman can’t be sitting in the colored section because that just means it becomes the white section and everyone who is Black are sitting there will have to move back.
Ryan gets off when Rosa does to follow her and she confronts him wondering if he’s a spy. Ryan insists that he’d be a terrible spy since he can’t even tail someone properly and Rosa agrees and invites him to her home where there’s an NAACP meeting taking place with her husband, Fred Grey, and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who Ryan is particularly awed to meet. Ryan talks about how much his nan loves him and we see how much being in this room full of Black heroes affects him. Then it’s Ryan’s turn to reassure Rosa that things will get better and that the fight is worth it.
The rest of the gang have split up too. Yaz compiles a timeline for Rosa’s day. The Doctor goes to confront their mystery man, Krasko is a criminal with a neural implant that keeps him from harming people, a lot like Spike in Buffy. He drops a hint about how tiny actions cause big changes in the future, butterfly effect and all. He and the Doctor have a bit of a showdown and she ends up with his temporal displacement weapon. Graham goes to talk to the bus drivers and discovers that the routes have been changed so James Blake is going fishing instead of driving his route. Once they all meet up again they realize that what they have to do is guard the natural events of history so nothing stops Rosa from standing her ground on the bus.
The Doctor and Yaz go and tell the replacement bus driver he’s won tickets to see Frank Sinatra in Vegas but only if he leaves right now so he can’t go on shift. Graham and Ryan go to Blake’s fishing spot and play grandfather and grandson getting him good and mad about interracial relations and then drop a line about a bus sit-in which sends Black back to town. To make sure Rosa leaves work on time to make the bus Yaz and the Doctor brings her Thirteen’s coat to be repaired and Yaz waits while Rosa is fixing it.
Krasko has been busy too and has smashed up the bus supposed to be driving the route. Ryan races to tell people that the bus is still coming and to wait for it to make sure the bus stays crowded while the Doctor and Graham go and steal another bus for Blake to drive. Yaz and Rosa have a conversation about the promise of tomorrow and Yaz reveals she’s a police officer and wants to be in charge. Rosa is proper appreciative of her goals.
Things are rolling, the bus is on the route, Yaz is hurrying Rosa up to finish her repairs and Ryan has managed to get most of the people on the bus when he runs into Krasko who is blocking the route with the car. Krasko reveals that white supremacy is still alive and well in the future and he wants to stop “[Ryan’s] kind” from getting above themselves by derailing the Civil Rights Movement. Ryan is having none of it tho. He took the temporal displacement weapon from the Doctor when they split up and uses it to send Krasko back to the past. Ryan adorably lays out his next steps out loud, “move the car, clear the route, find the bus and Rosa Parks will change the world.”
Everyone is on the bus but they’re still three passengers short of where they should be so the gang has to stay on the bus to make sure there are enough white passengers so Rosa is forced to move thus becoming part of the historical moment.
The episode ends with Rosa being arrested while Andra Day’s Rise Up plays in the background as the Doctor brings them to an asteroid named after her because Rosa Parks changed the universe.
There was a lot to praise in this episode and I think everyone was pleasantly surprised at how well the episode went. It wasn’t perfect of course and there was a lot left out regarding Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement but it wasn’t anywhere near the Very Special Episode disaster people feared. For more about this episode, I highly recommend reading episode writer Malorie Blackman’s essay on what’s different from history and this twitter thread from Leslie Mac. I do think there was some acknowledgment of the deliberation of the act, Yaz mentioning Rosa didn’t want to stay sitting just because she was tired, the NAACP meeting, but the episode definitely wasn’t explicit enough about it and it was a strange premise since the fact is if it hadn’t happened that day it would’ve happened another. For more perspectives from Black women on this episode listen to the TARBIS episode on it.
Personally, my favorite part was how it showed the difference in how non-Black people of color (NBPOC) and Black people are treated. Yaz was still clearly discriminated against and never allowed to forget she’s brown but it was Ryan who was the primary target throughout the episode. There’s a tendency to equate racism against NBPOC with that against Black people and to lump all brown/Black people into the nebulous POC to avoid confronting the fact that there IS a difference in how blackness is treated.
Grace’s presence was sorely missed although I did love how Ryan was able to work through his feelings of loss by meeting these historical figures. We got to see more of Ryan and Yaz’s personalities which were great. Ryan’s earnestness and goofiness, Yaz’s determination. The whole 21st century sensibilities are alive and well in a future where aliens are common is extremely odd to me and felt kind of forced as a reason for the episode.
Airs every Sunday for American audiences on BBC America at 8 PM EST, and are available for streaming the next day.