White Saviour? Doctor Who’s Rosa Parks

Jenny Barrett         November 2018

Approaching the anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to leave her seat on a segregated bus in 1955, the BBC’s long running science fiction TV drama, teaches a lesson about the past, but does it avoid the White Saviour myth? 

In episode 3 of the eleventh series of Doctor Who, broadcast on 21st October 2018 and titled ‘Rosa,’ a core predicament of time travel – the requisite to preserve the sanctity of history – is presented to the Doctor and her companions on discovering that their latest journey through time has placed them in Montgomery, Alabama. It is 30th November 1955, the day before the momentous action taken by African American seamstress Rosa Parks, when she refused to move from her seat on a segregated bus to allow white passengers to be seated. When it is discovered that a white supremacist time-traveller aims to prevent Rosa’s actions on 1st December,[1] the team unite their skills to ‘keep history in order,’ as the Doctor says, ‘no changing it, just guarding it against someone who wants to disrupt it.’ History, she explains, ‘is very delicate,’ and so their task is to ‘guard’ Rosa’s actions, which are known to have played a central part in the mobilisation of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and is celebrated as a key moment in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States.

The episode deals with racism head-on as a topic of discussion whilst offering an abbreviated summary of Parks’ life achievements, one that wisely acknowledges her as a seasoned activist before the historical incident itself took place. It was co-written by Executive Producer Chris Chibnall and Children’s Laureate of 2013-15, Malorie Blackman, the celebrated Black British author of Noughts and Crosses and other works for children and young readers. The involvement of Blackman in itself is a sign that the episode was designed to educate and inspire younger viewers to discuss racism, both historical and contemporary. As well as making Parks a living, breathing character on-screen, two of the Doctor’s companions have also been on the receiving end of racism: Ryan, a young black British engineer (Tosin Cole), and Yaz, a police officer with Pakistani heritage (Mandip Gill) discuss their experiences in 21st century Britain while hiding from a Montgomery police officer, sitting by a dumpster – literally sitting with the rubbish.

So ‘Rosa’ is more than telling Parks’ story; it’s about encouraging a contemporary (mostly) British (mostly) young audience to recognise the timelessness of prejudice both through the reconstruction of a historical event and through empathy with relatable characters.

Even when racism is not the topic of conversation, the shallow focus shots regularly have secondary characters staring at the multi-racial group; they are surrounded by prejudice. Signs declaring ‘Whites Only’ are often visible outside bars and restaurants. To build context further, there are moments of exposition that have a pedagogic function, including Parks’ reference to the racially-motivated killing of 14-year old Emmett Till that she had campaigned about through her role with the NAACP. And for viewers with scant knowledge of the era, the Doctor takes a board-marker to a motel wall and asks ‘Right! What do you remember about Rosa from school?’

But more to the point, had Ryan and Yaz not been the Doctor’s companions in this history lesson, it would have been an entirely different message. An all-white team would have veered into the myth of the White Saviour, having a narrative dilemma resolved by morally and racially ‘superior’ white characters.[2] In fact, ‘Rosa’ walks very close to the wire, something Doctor Who has been accused of before. Susana Loza argues that since 2005’s revival of the series, ‘the show is framed and filtered through the Doctor’s cosmopolitan, colonial, and colorblind gaze,’ essentially that of the white privileged.[3] On the one hand, the Doctor – regardless of the recent gender change – is still a white alien who frequently visits strange planets, akin to the adventurous colonizer. ‘Rosa,’ on the other hand, resists the series’ reputation of ‘colorblind liberal humanis[m]’ and confronts racism overtly. There are no proxy characters standing in for the enslaved, as Loza identifies in a number of episodes, instead there are the historical figures of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., met before their actions led to their renown, who are treated with awe by the characters from contemporary Britain.

Had the episode only explored these extraordinary people’s lives, and the team’s only task had been to ensure that Rosa ‘got on the bus,’ this still could have been another White Saviour story. But both Ryan and Yaz experience racist assaults from white citizens of Montgomery (Ryan is threatened with lynching and is physically attacked, Yaz is described as ‘Mexican’ and both are excluded from white social spaces), meaning that their task is legitimised, instead of coming across as a white character’s patronising, paternalistic benevolence. The inclusion of protagonists from two different ethnic heritages who are openly abused through racist language and violence by white characters acknowledges white racism and shows Black and Asian characters resisting it (even though this story compartmentalises this racism in a Southern state of the U.S). Only by this decision does the narrative closely avoid the charge of ‘subtly rewrit[ing] historical events so that white colonisers, paternalistic controllers, and meddling interlopers seem necessary, relevant, and moral,’ an accusation which is levelled at the White Saviour myth by Matthew Hughey.[4] Had the episode been written only by Chibnall, it could have been dismissed as ‘a way for well-meaning whites to absolve themselves from their lingering guilt’, an accusation that Loza levels at David Tennant’s Doctor.[5] Instead, Chibnall, as Executive Producer, chose to include Blackman as co-writer; this is not a white man’s tale.

Clearly, the topic is current. Racism matters. The broadcast came two days after a white passenger on a Ryanair flight was recorded racially abusing a black woman, and despite the urging of other passengers was allowed to keep his seat while the female passenger was moved.[6] The irony of the incident, so closely followed by the broadcast of ‘Rosa,’ wasn’t missed by commentators.[7] As the episode makes clear, and as responses to the programme have demonstrated, racism still thrives,[8] and continues to make headline news.[9]


Jenny Barrett is Reader in Film Studies and Popular Culture at Edge Hill University, UK. She is the author of a forthcoming essay ‘Should it Not Therefore Be Banned? Screening, Broadcasting and Studying The Birth of a Nation in the UK,’ in McEwan, Paul and Melvyn Stokes (eds.) In the Shadow of The Birth of a Nation: Race, Reception, Remix (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).


[1] He is a criminal who has been released from a prison named ‘Storm Cage,’ a reference no doubt to Stormfront, the white supremacist online community.

[2] See Hernán Vera and Andrew M. Gordon, 2003, ‘The Beautiful White American: Sincere Fictions of the Savior,’ Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).

[3] Susana Loza, ‘Remixing the Imperial Past: Doctor Who, British Slavery, and the White Savior’s Burden,’ Doctor Who and History Critical Essays on Imagining the Past, Fleiner, Carey and Dene October eds., 2017, Jefferson N.C., McFarland & Co. Inc., p.49.

[4] Matthew Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014, p.65. Also cited by Loza, p.56.

[5] Loza, p.55.

[6] Caroline Davies, ‘Woman “shocked and depressed” by racist attack on Ryanair flight,’ Guardian Online, 22nd October 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/oct/22/passenger-filmed-racist-tirade-on-ryanair-flight-to-show-world Accessed 02/11/18

[7] See Adam Miller, ‘Doctor Who fans in tears after learning truth behind the final scenes of Rosa Parks episode,’ Metro, 23rd October 2018. https://metro.co.uk/2018/10/23/doctor-who-fans-in-tears-after-learning-truth-behind-the-final-scenes-of-rosa-parks-episode-8065810/ Accessed 24/10/18.

[8] See Mike Cole, ‘Doctor Who’s timely challenge to racism, hatred and Donald Trump,’ The Conversation, 1st November 2018, https://theconversation.com/doctor-whos-timely-challenge-to-racism-hatred-and-donald-trump Accessed 02/11/18

[9] Andrew Buscombe, ‘Midterms 2018: Outrage as Trump releases “racist dog-whistle” advert featuring Luis Bracamonte,’ Independent Online, 2nd November 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/midterms-2018/trump-racist-commercial-new-ad-willie-horton-midterm-election-luis-bracamontes-caravan-a8612676.html Accessed 02/11/18