Vinette Robinson will play Rosa Parks in the current season of Doctor Who. In December of 1955, at the height of racial discrimination and segregation, Parks became an iconic figure in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. As a result, Parks took her place in history alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Doctor Who’s time-travel element has often led to the show delving into the past, with The Doctor previously coming to the aid of such historical figures as Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Season 11 of Doctor Who officially premiered last night, with Jodie Whittaker serving as the first female to take on the iconic role, alongside a host of new “friends”. To say this season was highly anticipated would be an understatement. The casting of Whittaker received as much derision as it did praise when it was announced. Whittaker’s fun and thrilling first episode served to silence many doubters, however, drawing acclaim from critics and fans alike. The episode ended on a huge cliffhanger, as well as a taste of things (and guest-stars) to come.
Alongside Alan Cumming and Mark Addy, Robinson stood out prominently. Recent casting announcements led to much theorizing regarding a Rosa Parks episode, but new showrunner Chris Chibnall confirmed the rumors at NYCC. Though Chibnall neglected to mention casting, Robinson’s costume in the montage is extremely telling. Chibnall also confirmed that Rosa Parks will feature in the still-untitled third episode.
Until now, Robinson was probably best known for her role as Sgt. Sally Donovan on BBC’s Sherlock – which was co-created by fellow Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. She also starred in an installment of Black Mirror. Playing such a prominent and iconic figure as Rosa Parks, however, is sure to garner a lot more attention and scrutiny.
It’s easy to see why the show would choose to visit this time-period and characterize such a landmark figure as Rosa Parks. As far as things have seemingly come since she stood her ground on the bus, the subject of race remains very much a prominent issue at the moment. Besides, with The Doctor now inhabiting a female form, and exploring what that means, especially the context of Earth, it makes sense she would be drawn to other empowering, female heroes in order to find guidance.
Whilst Doctor Who has mostly served as a light-hearted romp through time and space, it has often touched on more resonant emotional themes and social issues. It remains to be seen what threat will have to be warded off in the episode but it’s hard to imagine something as outlandish as a giant alien wasp in this case. That just wouldn’t work alongside such serious real-world issues without overshadowing or undermining them. Something unseen, potentially fuelling tensions would be a better option. Then again, somebody trying to change the past to influence the present could also be a good bet. It would certainly be a way of analyzing modern issues of white supremacy and privilege through the lens of the past and with more fantastical concepts, as all great sci-fi should. Whatever the case, with Chibnall’s apparent commitment to diversity, in both the lead and the POC supporting characters, there’s hope that the issues will be addressed with the necessary sensitivity.
Doctor Who season 11 continues next Sunday with ‘The Ghost Monument’ at 8pm/7c on BBC America.