Ytterbium – Eastercon 2019 Talk: The Genius of Rosa

Posted: May 2, 2019 in Uncategorized

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After being asked to make this talk available, I have opened a SoundCloud account and thanks to the excellent Chad, have an audio recording of the session available. You can get an exclusive first ever reading of my new novel WIP there as well, but that is not the focus of this post and so this will be my one and only plug of a thing some distance from more tangible existence at this point.

And so, here is some kind of transcript of the talk I gave on April 21, 2019!

I introduced myself, but most of that stuff is available via older posts here or on social media pages elsewhere, so I’ll try not to repeat that one too much. And then I got on to the main focus of the talk, which I framed around answering some questions which came up from an older discussion I had. These were:

  • Why was this such a strong episode?
  • What good things did the show achieve with this episode?
  • Does it succeed in its aims?
  • Which events from the episode were true?

I also had a sub-category I nominated as ‘F.A.Q.s’ because they were some of the criticisms I saw a lot. And I guess didn’t agree with. So I used them to assist with the talk! They went thus:

  • ‘But what about that Quantum Leap episode?
  • ‘This is bad sci-fi’
  • ‘The villain was rubbish’
  • ‘The message was a little heavy-handed’
  • ‘The message was simplistic’

Before getting into it, I mentioned two facts about the airing of the episode that I found important to note. First, that it was initially aired in early October 2018, which happened to fall within Black History Month UK. The second, on that same note, was despite that, this was one of the episodes clearly commissioned with the US audience in mind as well. The main event of course was one which resonated internationally. Needless to say, I pointed out then, and do again now, that there will be spoilers for the episode Season 11, Episode 3, ‘Rosa’. I also pointed out that as the main spoiler was that the real-life event went ahead, I would note that there are probably worse spoilers to be caught out with.

So Let’s Get on the Bus…

Rosa bus

The episode opens in 1943, Montgomery, Alabama. If you ever wanted an ideal example for an opening chapter setting the scene, this is it. It answers several of the questions in and of itself straight away. I invited the audience to take a look at the bus, how it’s set up, how deliberately oppressive the entire scene looks. And to take a good look at that driver too. That first couple of minutes shows the systematic racism Rosa has to face just to get on the bus, let alone find a seat, let alone sit on it. It sets a mood for the audience immediately. And the first true and accurate details are in effect here. She deliberately sat in a ‘white’ seat in order to pick up her purse. (Thanks, E.K!)

The next scene shifts 12 years later, in 1955, exactly the same place. The team find their initial premise for investigation in the way of rogue Artron energy, a similar emission to that the TARDIS gives out. But it can’t be them, of course; they’ve only just arrived. In the town, a white couple are seen walking with the woman dropping a glove. Ryan attempts to give this back to her. He is rewarded for his efforts with a hard slap to the face.

Are you paying attention yet?

That’s what is being asked of you, dear audience member at this point. It also doesn’t break the Fourth Wall, rather than dragging you through it. Whether you like it or not now, you are one of the team members. Which you identify with most is up to you, but there’s no going back now.

Rosa Dr and Friends.jpg
Watch how they each react. And very soon, it is down to Rosa herself to rescue them with some fast talking. She knows the ‘rules’. She knows her place. Ryan doesn’t. This sets up the first seed of outsiders, of passing privilege and gives an opportunity to tell the story of Emmett Till’s murder.

Krasko
It’s just after that in which the ‘villain’ rocks up. He seems to have an ‘everyman’ air about him, which is inherently unusual, as that is so often attributed to more heroic protagonists. Although the Doctor notes the tech he has acquired, she also does something quite subtle and important throughout the episode, which is to label him ordinary, nothing special, from the start. She constantly does it when he’s around. And he is not important to our audience education either. So we’ll get back to that.

Graham and Grace

While the team our pooling their knowledge of where they are, the others find themselves amazed that Ryan doesn’t know who Parks is. ‘She’s the bus woman, right?’ he states. ‘The first black woman to ever drive a bus.’ It’s a strong impact point because not only is that not true, but Rosa wasn’t even the first black woman to have made the protest that she had.

We’ll come back to that later. Because a second interesting point comes up very shortly afterwards. Grandfather Graham responds with, ‘Your nan would have a fit right now. How could you have been in a class named after the woman and not know who she is?’  He has learned all about Rosa Parks from his deceased wife Grace which we discover he did very early in their relationship. The true brilliance of this comes from something not mentioned in the episode. Something I learned answers his own question in a way by offering a question back. The answer being, ‘how do you, a British bus driver, not bring up the Bristol Bus Boycotts of 1963 here? Or at any point during the episode?’

bristol-bus-boycott-1963

Yas even says, ‘her arrest started a boycott of the buses in Montgomery.’ Even this doesn’t trigger that knowledge with Graham. But this is surprisingly understandable. I had only heard of it relatively recently myself, and if you didn’t already know, I’m within a demographic of people who would have found it incredibly beneficial to have found out about this at school.

Their investigation takes them into a cafe, and with it, further direct discrimination. ‘We don’t serve Negroes’ – the waitress rather venomously snipes at Ryan. Who responds:
‘Good. Cos I don’t eat them.’ The line has been spoken by and attributed to several 20th century figures including one Muhammad Ali, so it is great to have been positioned here!

That same waitress assumes Yasmin is Mexican, so she  gets the same refusal of service and ‘othered’ but the subtle trick being played here is that there is a delay on focus until after they go for Ryan. It’s a second use of passing privilege but this time nuanced differently into tiers of racism as a construct.

Then very shortly after, the Doctor, notably having a female presenting incarnation for the first time ever, observes, ‘it’s easy for me here. It’s more dangerous for you.’ It’s a clever placement of words when unpacked. Followed by yet another: ‘You can walk away from all this.’ To which the response comes:
Ryan: ‘Rosa Parks can’t.’
Yas: ‘Rosa Parks doesn’t’.

Who is in the best place to be able to walk away from this of everyone? Who is largely ignored by the public of Montgomery unless he chooses to interact? That would be Graham. Even though he is by definition also an outsider here, as a foreign visitor also out of his time. His privilege as a white male is well highlighted here, that he is the only one who *doesn’t* talk in that particular part of the scene, and when he does next, the one thing he mentions is about being peckish. It’s the most minor issue anyone has in the scene and is cleverly highlighted as someone who can see and hear what is going on but doesn’t deal with the impact of it here.

We move on. And oh, look, it’s this guy again…

Krasko and Rosa

He encounters Rosa in a form of confrontation, but we the audience might well wonder why all he does, all he seems able to do, is to act in a menacing manner. He puts on a local accent and blends in with the locals. To an extent. The Doctor calls him out again on being basic, and also rubbishes his equipment, dismissing the Vortex manipulator as ‘Cheap and nasty time travel.’ She really rubs that one in, in fact. And some time into the show, we don’t even have a name for him, or any idea of what he’s really up to. There is *literally* nothing special about him. Again, this is kind of the point.

“What do we know about Rosa Parks?”

Yas studies

A well-placed exposition scene sets up exactly what it needs to. Like Yasmin mentioning the part about the claim of her not standing from being tired from work despite the fact that this was a falsehood:

“People always said that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” – Rosa Parks in ‘My Story’

It’s also a hint of one of the ways we know about the level of organisation behind Rosa’s protest. Again, we’ll get back to this!

Mason_(Rosa)

We move on to a real mix of dangerous suspense and dark humour when the police come knocking at the door of the motel room they are using as a hideout. One might note a writer’s acknowledgement of previous Doctor/companion relationship dynamics because they play the moment for cringeworthy awkwardness between Graham and The Doctor. Which is also funny because of items of relationships between previous Doctors and ‘companions’ of their time. Note, Season 11 has quite specifically moved from speaking of ‘companions’ and now goes for ‘friends’ where possible.

motel.jpg

So after that scene we have what I consider a pivotal piece of dialogue between Ryan and Yasmin. They’re out of time, but what we heard from Ryan about 1955 is something I can tell you I’ve heard and still hear far more recently.

 

Yas and Ryan

 

The entire conversation serves to reinforce an important point already made. Whoever that guy in the leather jacket is, he really ain’t the Big Bad. He just serves it. It’s much bigger than any one individual, it’s all around, and it’s not restricted to that particular point in time. Not at all.

Yas responds perfectly too. Her experiences are remarkably similar. Watch the scene if you haven’t already.

motel opener

“This isn’t history here, Yaz. We’re hiding behind bins…I’m having to work so hard to keep my temper every second here. I could have slapped that guy back there,as soon as we arrived. Thank God my nan taught me how to keep my temper… Never give them the excuse.’” – Ryan

Blake

 

Remember him? First scene. Bus driver. His name’s James Blake. ‘Blake the Snake’ as Graham lets us know. Blake drove both on the 1943 day in the opener and also on the day of Rosa’s protest. So this is another accurate detail. And in the latter case, a deliberate choice of driver to target. And so it’s right and proper that the Doctor and team revisit their own version of that scene. It gives you, audience member, another chance to look around the systematic oppression. Around the layout of the bus. Around the structure of who gets to sit where, if at all.  The Doctor and Graham just sit down.  Ryan gets a perfect, however understated line. ‘This is me. On the back of the bus.’ And it’s an understandably despondent statement which has made its way into generally villainous parlance since. Yas has a key spot here though. Where does she sit? They make the point that they still assume her to be Mexican, but the lets her on at the front. There is media out there to suggest it’s likely she’d be in the same position as Ryan in actual fact, but that would have robbed us of a chance to revisit the passing privilege mentioned earlier. The whole scene is a bit of a revision summary to see if the audience are keeping up, in fact.

Another tiny but critical point in the scene order is that after Ryan’s defeated observation, Graham, mutters, “I’m so ashamed.” Then louder, “You shouldn’t have to do this.” It shows he has come on a way in understanding since the initial lament of absent food.

Then the Doctor agrees and apologises to Ryan, despite it being part of their plan at this point. That’s important. But I’d implore in that scene observing Yasmin. Watch her face, where she looks, the camera’s emphasis. The turn order of all of this happening is stunningly executed. “The driver let me on at the front of the bus,” she says. “What does that mean for where I sit…’does ‘coloured’ just mean “black” in 1955?’

Then look at Ryan’s face. It’s as if he’s just had his soul ripped out.

End of the revision session: a perfectly delivered spot for the purpose of pointing out the absurdity of race as a construct and a selective  convenience for those who choose to wield it. And finally, Rosa gets a line of explanation for something us, the audience, may not have already known. “Ma’am, if you keep sitting there, we’re all going to have to move.” All of that in less than one screen minute. Not easy to do at all.

 

Krasko

26 minutes in and we STILL don’t know this guy’s name! We do find out he’s a ‘Stormcage’ escapee (sounds like something else, but we’ll skirt over that) as his prison tattoo gives away.

He casually mentions that he was there for murdering 2000 people. It’s not even just a lack of remorse, he deliberately understates and then revels in the full extent of his confession. The date of writing is May 2019. And that admission strikes shockingly poignant. Do we get to call him a terrorist? Does he even deserve to be named? I’ll leave that to you to decide. Just before the 29 minute mark though, he makes more effort to reveal his motivations a little more. The audience also find out that he hails from the 79th century and there are still nasty racist folks out there. For him though, his era  “…is where things started to go wrong.” We finally have a name for him though, Krasko. “Don’t like it,” says the Doctor, dismissing him again. We talked about this already.

He doesn’t say how they go wrong. But he does at least critically let us know what he’s about.

“I’ve had a little time to think, and I realised that tiny actions change the world.”

“History changes when tiny things don’t go to plan.”

Compare this to a later quote from Blake speaking to Graham at the pool table.

“Just the way it is. No matter how much they complain. Ain’t gonna’ change.”

Krasko and Ryan

 

Ryan’s fortunes take a turn for the better after he has suffered so much up to now. It starts with yet another very clever but super subtle note. He follows Rosa, uncomfortable at the thought of doing so (this whole thing is a conversation for another day). However, he gets to go somewhere very important. Important for him, and for the audience getting to know some people in that room. That, there, is Dr Martin Luther King who probably needs no introduction if you have read down this far. The other two male African-American males in that room might need a bit more lead in. Rosa’s husband is just referred to as ‘Parks’ in this scene.  Rosa was an active member of the NAACP who did lots of secretarial work for them and also attended communist meetings with her husband. (thanks, E.K!)

Ryan and Martin Luther King

Fred Gray gets an introduction too. We don’t get much about him, but he’s done some big work in the legal profession, for the Civil Rights movement and is definitely another true element of the story.

Fred Gray

Ryan is quite literally in The Room Where It Happens. If you see how much his eyes light up, I can tell you I’d have behaved exactly the same as he did over there.

Rosa and Husband

Yas – ‘Everything here’s a fight for you. Don’t you get tired? What keeps you going?’

Rosa – ‘Promise of tomorrow.’

Something we do find out once he takes his proper position is that despite the Doctor’s many put-downs, Krasko isn’t stupid. It’s easy for us to call those with ideological differences stupid. But doing that doesn’t prevent them at their most harmful. To deal with his damage, The Doctor and her crew have to be smarter. Time and again, he proves to be enough of a step ahead that they all have to react to his multiple adjustments. And that’s just it – the main antagonist he may not be, but nor is the Doctor here to save the day. She and her team are just there to make sure the person who is there to do it, does.

This prompts my most direct response to the earlier question claiming the Quantum Leap episode, [S1 Episode 7: The Color of Truth]  was better. Before we get into bigger comparisons and my big, ‘hmmm, I dunno…‘ spot, a simple narrative difference is that Sam’s entire remit differs from the Doctor’s in that he interferes with and changes history in almost every episode. Critically for this episode of Doctor Who, all the Doctor does is ensure this essential point in time (note, *not* a fixed point in time such as Vesuvius in The Fires of Pompeii, S4 Ep2) goes ahead. Vesuvius_Erupts

It’s more of a lynchpin point under threat in the episode. That for me struck very poignant. We find ourselves at a crossroads. We have the power to fix this. We also have the ability to break it even more. It is changeable. Krasko knows this. Ask me again about whether or not he’s a good villain?

Ryans_Heroes_Highlight_-_Episode_3_Doctor_Who_BBC_America (2)

What that allows is for Ryan’s day, already massively improving, to be given yet another major boost: the opportunity to exact retribution against the one person he can. To do this, it is interesting that Ryan gets to deliver Krasko’s reckoning. He gives Krasko one last chance to cease before he does.

Krasko of course refuses. “And your kind won’t get above themselves…stay in your place.” That’s really quite interesting, because it isn’t a statement followed with anything immediately contemporary; it sows a seed of hope to a reader, which we were talking about.

And…AND, Ryan calls back to the scene with Yas and his keeping his temper. He is a stone cold MF as he delivers quiet, stylish justice. And just like that, an anachronism sent back (in a touch of mild comedy again) to the settings dialled back as far as they can go. Maybe the Stone Age.

And so finally, back to the bus one last time. Were the Doctor and Friends were part of the deus-ex-machina just by sitting on a bus? No, not really–they were just sitting on the bus. They could have been anybody.

Graham refuses the call.gif

Ryan is an important component and once again, Graham gets a suitably poignant spot. ‘I don’t wanna be part of this’. Again, that’s to the audience, I think, to some extent. And note, he doesn’t get to run away and think about the sandwich he didn’t have this time around. They do not miss a beat with the episode cues, I think.

In The Moment, Rosa makes eye contact with Blake before settling on the exact form of her protest. Which wasn’t planned in advance. I noted at the talk that I had been lucky enough to have caught Tommie Smith give a talk last year, and one of the things he spoke about was that on the very morning of his own iconic protest, he didn’t know exactly how that protest was going to happen, just that there was going to be one. Family providing gloves, Black Panthers being there; it all came together. Tommie noted it as a critical moment during a time when a number of factions all ultimately were heading in a similar direction, but couldn’t quite agree on the path or ultimate destination. They chose particular symbolisms.

The personal element seeded earlier was important, as was the NAACP gunning directly for Blake in full knowledge of his previous history with Parks. The staging is important.

Blake – “If you don’t stand, I’m going to have you arrested.”

Parks – “You may do that”.

True to the event.

And in case you were wondering who Tommie Smith is, you probably already know. Him, John Carlos, and Peter Norman. They all played a big part in history.

Panthers

I was saying at a different programme item that I was really happy that Doctor Who dialled back to its essence in Season 11 as a children’s/family show, and I believe the episode was covered with a great deal of maturity. There are some things that we could argue all day long on regarding whether some parts could have done differently and how, but it’s important to remember the episode was never written as a final word on Rosa Parks or the Civil Rights movement. Use it as quite the opposite, in fact, in that it is a great place to start a discourse. Got some inaccuracies you want to check up on? Fine, by all means. But I think the things they may have tweaked for reasons of a 50 minute narrative were very much for the right reasons.

The brave stand of Rosa Parks is one which will be long remembered in history.  Specifically chosen as the face of this part of the movement by the NAACP and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). They’re still fighting even now. She wasn’t the first, and a matter with such protests is not knowing exactly how they’re going to go. –We remember the famous images now, but they started off in a very different way.  Rosa was chosen. James Blake was chosen. And between these things, history was made. You’ll never forget her name. It is the first that will likely come to you when talking about this bus boycott. And the bit about the asteroid is also true.

Asteroid
But before you leave here, I would invite you to remember some other names. Take a look at these faces. Aurelia Browder, , Jeanetta Reese, Susie McDonald:

Susie McDonald

Mary Louise Smith:

Mary Louise Smith

and Claudette Colvin:

220px-Claudette_Colvin

…were amongst the names of the first to sit down protest on the Montgomery buses.
So, say what you like about it in terms of how you thought it went, but the important thing is to be talking about it. About these things. And maybe that way it brings in a new set of people to be able to do stuff about it too.

Some final things:

Remember what I mentioned about Quantum Leap earlier?Not going to go into that much longer but there are other reasons that the episode comparison doesn’t really fit, well, it’s not _actually_ a Rosa Parks story, for one. It’s probably closer to Driving Miss Daisy. Let’s not get into that now, eh?

QLRace

Besides, why can’t both exist without the need for comparison? Different things.
What I will say is that it was recorded 20 years ago. The film, Detroit, was released in 2017, set in 1967. So despite Yas and Ryan stating it will get better, we’re still needing to talk about it. So I’m not buying that ‘the villain was rubbish’ statement at all. If you want to hear how Rosa is the hero of the story, there is an excellent article on that one too.

Also, did you know that Malorie Blackman, Mark Tonderai and Segun Akinola (all pictured below, are between them the first black writer, director, and composer to work together on a Doctor Who episode in its 55-year run? 

If not, you do now!

 

I have some quotes from friends in response to some of the earlier questions too:

“The fact that the villain is from the future, and has explicit racist motivations, was a nice touch – it helps re-enforce the fact that this is still a problem (as well as the conversations the companions have).”
“Great history lesson wrapped in entertainment. We all loved it.”
“One tiny thing in the episode that had a larger-than-expected impact was that while I’d kind of understood the segregated seating… the fact there were actually two doors I’d never twigged before.”
“I think the directness was necessary. It is sad, uncomfortable, unacceptable part of reality now, and it was much, much worse then. I see no reason why to be subtle about it.”
“I thought it was very clever how they had it so the Doctor and team’s job were kept in the background to keep history on course. It meant that Rosa was the Hero of the show, and didn’t belittle or take away from her actions by having the Doctor actively step in.”
“Bad sci-fi? It was excellent sci-fi! It examined alien experience within our own world, examined levels of oppression, had a bad guy working around artificially implanted restrictions, Ryan making a morally questionable but understandable choice, potentially lethal environment that couldn’t be fought via conventional means. Honestly I watched it and was reminded of stories Star Trek wanted to tell and tried to tell but fell short.”

So there you are. Until next time, have fun and play nice!

Opening Credits

Comments
  1. A C says:

    Many thanks for a thorough write-up of your great analysis of this outstandingly excellent episode 💙

    Listening to the recording of your talk at Ytterbium, and hearing the excerpts you played, on extra point did occur to me: I felt there was a hint of (I think it is called) ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ in what I think of as the ‘Rosa theme’ in the episode music – if you know what I mean?

    • Thank you!
      And what a great question too 🙂
      I’m not sure I picked up on Fanfare for the Common Man (though your comment inspired me to go listen to that fab song again!), however the one the song that does get used at the end of the episode is Andra Day’s Rise Up:

      Given that the 1977 Emerson, Lake and Palmer song in question though does have elements of composition which don’t sound too far away from the original Delia Derbyshire rendition, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if there had been some overtones, though who could say! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75V4ClJZME4
      That’s a question for Segun Akinola really, but as I understand it, the intention was to dial back to the show’s roots, so I’m in no doubt that rubbed off here!

  2. Marzie says:

    This post led me to your reading at WorldCon! I was so sorry this episode didn’t win. It was powerful.

  3. Oh wow! This tells me I should consider posting more often 🙂
    Thank you for coming to my reading, hope you enjoyed it and will be around for later drafts 🙂

  4. […] location. Iain and Janet Clark (both exhibiting in the art room that was located in Point), Ed, Russell Smith and me. I knew there was something story based about to happen when Iain walked up to the desk and […]

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