What do Doctor Who and Back To The Future have in common?
Sure, they’re both about eccentric scientists and their time machines, but when it comes to Doctor Who episode Rosa, there are few more specific parallels to be drawn – a couple of them relatively superficial and one a little more important…
First there’s the timing. In 80s movie classic Back To The Future, Marty McFly drives his DeLorean into Hill Valley, California, on 5th November 1955. The Tardis, meanwhile, arrives in Montgomery, Alabama, just weeks later on 30th November 1955.
Of course, it being the same year, attitudes to race are similar, and while Back To The Future doesn’t quite show us the out-and-out racism of segregated buses or a black man being hit for daring to speak to a white woman, the point is made when black busboy Goldie Wilson is told “a coloured mayor of this town? That’ll be the day!”, and when the racial slur “spook” is used to refer to a black musician.
It’s interesting too, that series 11 of Doctor Who is the first time we’ve had a character (Bradley Walsh’s Graham) who regularly calls the Doctor “Doc” – just like Marty does to Doctor Emmett Brown in Back To The Future.
But there’s a more significant similarity between Rosa Parks and BTTF, and that’s the missions the characters find themselves on.
Marty McFly arrives in 1955 and immediately bumps into his future mother Lorraine, who develops an instant crush on him. That threatens to change history by preventing her from becoming romantically involved with Marty’s would-be dad George, meaning Marty and his brother and sister will cease to exist.
To fix this, Marty and the Doc have to get the original timeline back on track, ensuring that all the key components – George going to the Enchantment Under the Sea school dance, then finding Lorraine and knocking out bully Biff Tannen in front of her – are in place so that George and Lorraine will finally share their all-important first kiss on the dance floor.
In Rosa Parks, the timeline has been deliberately rather than accidentally sabotaged by Krasko, but the principle is the same. The Doctor and co must ensure that all the elements required for Rosa to make her stand on the local bus – by refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger – are guided back into place before the appointed time.
Rosa must get the bus driven by James Blake, the same man who forced her to use the rear entrance 12 years earlier in 1943; the bus must be full enough of black passengers so that there is no room for her to sit down in the ‘coloured’ area, and full enough of white passengers so that there is no space when another one gets on.
Like Marty and the Doc, the Doctor and her friends are trying not to change history – or to interfere too heavily – but simply to make sure it happens as it is supposed to.
And both cases demonstrate the potentially huge repercussions an apparently small moment in time can have as it echoes down the years – even if Rosa’s story may be just a tiny bit more significant than Marty McFly’s.