Doctor Who and Rosa Parks

Kassidy Crown

How a British television show spreads important messages across the pond


In the more than 50 years that “Doctor Who” has been on TV, there had only ever been male versions of the Doctor — the main character on the British science-fiction program.

Now, with the casting of Jodie Whittaker, the world has been introduced to its first female Doctor Who.

Over the years, the BBC program has had many different alien planets, alternate universes, historical moments and earthly monsters. What makes this show so great is its ability to be versatile while still maintaining its position as a primarily children and family show.

This fact was shown brilliantly in the recent episode, “Rosa.”

The episode is set in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, the day before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man. The Doctor, a time-travelling alien, and her multiple companions are quickly caught up in a mission to ensure history remains on track.

The historical setting of the episode combined with the fact that two of the companions are played by people of color provide ample opportunity to examine racism.

The show uses this context to develop the characters and show the impact of having a modern view in a segregationist society.

Within the first 10 minutes of the show, one companion, who happens to be an African-American man, is slapped for touching a white woman’s arm in attempt to return an item she dropped.

The show continues to exhibit the pressures and realities of racism with segregation on busses, in restaurants, and scenes where the police search for two of the companions.

At one point, hiding behind a dumpster in an effort to keep an officer from looking into their affairs, The Doctor and a companion remark on modern racism and how although there has been a giant reduction in racism since 1955, there is still societal biases and hidden racism present.

They reflect on how far America has come, how in 50 years time we would have a black president and wonder what will happen in 50 more years.

It is an interesting episode, and one of the best set in America. There was a nice balance of history, commentary on past and present realities of people of color, and the science fiction that makes Doctor Who.

What made this episode so effective is that it acted almost as a history lesson on Rosa Parks while still feeling like a sci-fi TV show.

It details events taking place the day of her protest, including the characters in the narrative by having them be the cause of her needing to give up her seat.

It is a great example of character development and what Doctor Who does so well, pushing the characters just to the edge, but not quite pulling them over so that they continue travel with the Doctor, until one day they face the consequences of these reckless adventures.

In this episode specifically, the companions and the Doctor must stay on the bus and watch as Rosa Parks is arrested. One of the companions does not wish to be there as this happens and stands up to leave as more passengers get on the bus.

The Doctor tells him he must stay, otherwise there would be too many open seats, Rosa would not have had to give up her seat, and history would be altered. The companion then ends up being the white man who is standing, motivating the bus driver to force Rosa Parks to give up her seat.

“Rosa” ends nicely with a summary of events that happened after Rosa Parks was arrested, including her receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton.

This British show gives an excellent retelling of an American turning point in history, teaching not only the British, but Americans as well, about how Rosa Parks changed history and helped advance the Civil Rights movement.

This show overall has important things to say, not only for adults, but children as well, both British and American.

It provides an excellent commentary on racism, in general, too.

It educates Americans and the British who may not be as familiar with Rosa Parks and it gives light to the reality many people of color face every day.

Not only does the episode show how far America has come since 1955, it also makes the viewer aware of how much improvement is still needed.