Rizwan Virk

@rizstanford

Dr. Who, Rosa Parks, Timeless, and the Fate of the “Colored” Time Traveler

The new Dr. Who series, which featured Jodi Whitaker as the first ever female Doctor (Timelord), had a bombshell of an episode this week, called Rosa.

The Doctor and her British companions, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham, went back to Alabama in 1955 to make sure that Rosa Parks wasn’t prevented from her now legendary act of civil disobedience of refusing to give up her seat on the bus.

The episode has been almost universally reveiwed as “powerful” and “emotionally impactful” and I have to agree. This isn’t technically a review, but an issue the episode brought up that a tech hacker and sci fi fan like myself has spent a lot of time pondering.

Photo: BBC America

In what I consider a heartbreaking scene, having arrived in this town in the past, our erstwhile time travelers sit down in a restaurant to have a meal. The people in the restaurant, including the staff, all seem uncomfortable. When our team wonders why, they explain: “We don’t serve Negros or your Mexican friend here,” says the waiter.

I mean, for those of us that have seriously thought about what we would do if we time travelled, this is almost always the first thing I imagined I would do. Time travel will make you hungry. While Ryan (who is black) gets discriminated against in the bus and the restaurant, they don’t quite know what to make of Yaz (who is of Pakistani descent) — leaving her guessing about where she’d fit in.

This episode has brought up a fear that I’ve long had about Time Travel. What would it be like for me, as a non-white person, to go back in time in American History??

Ok so you’re thinking — time travel isn’t real, so it’s completely irrational for me to have a “long held fear” about time travel, isn’t it?

As an uber-fan of lots of science fiction, an aficionado of American history, and a believer that scientists might actually turn what seem like sci fi tropes into real technology someday, it’s something that deserves a little bit of consideration. I would like to go back to many points in American history myself!

The fear, which I had never really articulated to anyone, was confirmed in the recent NBC time travel show, Timeless, which has a alot in common with this week’s Dr. Who Episode. It’s the first science fiction show I recall with at least one black member of the team (Rufus, played by Malcolm Barrett) who actually has to deal with these kinds of issues.

Timeless was one of the first time travel shows to seriously address being “colored” in American History

Rufus says in one of the first episodes of Timeless: “I am black, there’s literally no place in American history that would be awesome for me”.

OK so i’m not black. Like Yaz, i’m of Pakistani descent, and as she explains, there weren’t a lot of those in the South in those days — most likely people would be confused and have no idea how to deal with me.

It might seem silly to some, but I’ve wondered how, if I were to travel back in history to somewhere in the US or Europe (which, having grown up in the US is much of our history lessons were focused on), how would I even get a meal? (Ok another problem is where I would get money for the meal, but that’s an issue all time travelers would have!)

I thought about it when I watched the Terminator (even though they only went back to 1984) but the movie got me thinking about Time Travel seriously. I thought about it when I watched 11/22/63, in which the main characters travel back to the early sixties to save JFK and end up in Texas. I thought about it when I watched Captain Kirk and Spock travel back the early sixties in Star Trek, or Picard and Data go to San Francisco in the 1890s in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I thought about it when Michael Chrichton’s heros in the book Timeline travelled back to Medieval Europe.

Speaking of medieval times, I thought about it in elementary school when I read “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels that involved time travelling back to medieval times. The choices that they presented really would only be choices for white people who went back in time.

I thought about it during our senior year of high school when Marty McFly (which character I played at our homecoming parade)and Doc Brown (who was a scientist that I aspired to be like since I was going to MIT after graduation) went back to the 1950s and then even more so when they went back to the Wild West!

For that reason, most time travel shows assume the time traveler is likely to be white and don’t need to deal with issues of race. Timeless was one of the first shows to address this issue in any serious way— in addition to travels in the twentieth century, Rufus and his team go back to the nineteenth century — to the time of Lincoln as well as to San Francisco in the second half of the century, as well as the 1700s and revolutionary war times. They usually have to come up with some excuse why a white woman (Lucy, played by Abigail Spencer) was traveling with Rufus — either he was a slave or a servant or some such explanation.

The prioblem with traveling back in American History for someone like me is not just a matter of avoiding the South. Speaking of San Francisco and Califoirnia, they had their share of racism. When I bought a house in the Bay Area, the CCRs for the house and the neighborhood explicitly said, “No one except a member of the White or Caucasian Race, other than servants, can live in this house.” and these were written in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights act in the 1960s and the Housing related laws passed in the 1970’s — 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed — that it was illegal to do this.

Back the to the Future

Until now, I’d say that Timeless does probably the best job of any time travelling movie or show of dealing with these types of issues with episodes that included the Lone Ranger (who was based on a black cowboy), and with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

And god forbid if I was to travel back in time and get stuck back there. What would I do? In another creepy scene in the Dr. Who episode, our time travelers have to smuggle in the black and brown members of their team(Ryan and Yaz) into the motel room because, well,“that’s not allowed”!

And what if Rufus or Yaz (or me, for that matter) were to go back in time and fall in love with a white person?? What if, like Doc Brown, I fell in love with a white school teacher? You actually don’t need to go that far back in history to see some of the issues we’d face, you’d only need to go back a few decades. I have had black and Asian friends tell me stories from the 1990s and 1980s tell me stories from rural and suburban America that make my blood curl.

OK, so back to Dr. Who and Rosa, which showed many of the daily indignities of being “colored” in the South not that long ago. Yaz takes an opitmistic view in the episode when they are discussing the fact that racism still exists in 2018. She pionts out that in 53 years, there would be a black president, and who knows what it will be like 50 years beyond that!

She fails to mention, perhaps wisely given the optimistic message they are trying to send, that in 61 years, the guy who got on national TV and built a political movement around the fact that the first black president wasn’t a real American citizen as far as he was concerned, then got elected President!

This is of course, all speculation, but for those of us who take our science fiction and history and science seriously, it’s something that all serious time traveler aspirants should think about!

In fact, one of the leading physicists who is working on building a time travel device right here in the USA, Ronald Mallet, from the University of Connecticut, is black.With advances in science and technology in China and India and the increasingly anti-immigrant sentiments here in the US, it’s not a given that whoever invents the first time travel device will be white. God help them if they go back in history to a place like the good old U S of A!

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