Saturday, July 10, 2010

Geek Gospel #1: The Beast Below

As this is my first, "Geek Gospel" I will explain its purpose. Basically this is where I take a narrative of some genre that a geek would be familiar with (television, internet sketch, book, short story, comic, etc.) and I use it to illustrate some truth. I am using the second episode from the fifth series/season of DOCTOR WHO as an extended analogy explore how different people respond to God.

So here's my friendly reminder/disclaimer-No analogy is perfect, I am not calling this article or anything in it a literal gospel, and I am not assuming that the episode was written with this analogy in mind.

"The Beast Below," sees the eleventh Doctor taking new companion Amy Pond for her first bout in space. If you haven't seen the episode yet this is your SPOILERS warning (this episode is available on itunes and amazon on demand).


The start of this episode is prefaced with a foreshadowing poem recited in a recording of a child that goes as follows: "A horse and a man, above, below/One has a plan but both must go/Mile after mile, above, beneath/One has a smile and one has teeth/Though the man above might say hello/Expect no love from the Beast below."

    The Doctor and Amy encounter the Starship UK, a spaceship containing the entire nation of Great Britain. Sometime in the future the earth suffers such devastating solar flares that every country on earth is forced to evacuate into space. Built into the ship are some rather menacing monitoring devices called "smilers" that look like fortune telling booths at carnivals, with glossy wooden faces molded into a set expression.

    The smilers are not surprisingly the sadistic enforcers in a nation that the Doctor declares to be clearly "a police-state," and he and Amy split up to discover as it were what is rotten in the state of Britain. Amy is placed in a voting booth and is told by the person on screen that she will be shown the truth about the Starship UK which is her right as a citizen. Before her on the consul are two lit up buttons, one marked "PROTEST" and the other marked "FORGET" and she is given the option to either forget what she sees immediately after she learns the truth or to protest it. She watches, receives the information in sped-up time and finds her hand on the forget button in a matter of seconds (a neural device has already wiped the memory from her mind based on her choice). This matters because the Doctor and Amy learn that with the exception of a few dissenters who get flushed, the entire nation votes every five years to forget the truth that they know rather than live with it.

    Through another series of events the Doctor, Amy, and the Queen of Britain, Elizabeth the tenth, end up in the tower of London where the truth about Starship UK is revealed to all of them. The ship they are in could not possibly travel in space and they were the last nation on the earth beginning to burn from the solar flares. In the midst of crying children and agony, hope appeared to them "like a miracle" in the form of a Starwhale-which is exactly what it sounds like, a whale that can swim through space. It is an ancient creature, and its species was known for guiding first space travelers safely through asteroid belts. It is the last of its kind, and yet desperate to survive the British people captured it, built their ship around it, and now torture it by sending an electric impulse into the pain center of its brain to force it to move forward.

    Now that she knows the truth the Queen is given the option to press two buttons like those in the voting booth-to forget or to abdicate. If she chooses the second option the Starwhale will be released, the ship will break apart and her people will die in space. The Doctor decides to modify the electric pulse to make the Starwhale brain dead so the starship can continue it' voyage but the beast will suffer no more pain; an act he recognizes as murder. He does this because his only other alternatives are to let the Starwhale continue to be tortured, or release the Starwhale and let an entire nation of people die. But before the Doctor can finish his work Amy grabs the Queen's hand and makes her hit the abdicate button. Which results not in the Starwhale leaving but instead in the ship's speed doubling. Amy explains that the Starwhale didn't appear by chance, but rather came purposefully to earth, drawn by the suffering of their children to save them.


Let's start with the Smilers. These monsters, like any that are worth their salt, are only so terrifying to us because they resemble ourselves. They are in fact creations made by the builders of the Starship UK and they represent the duplicity of man-a smiling outward face and an inward capacity for violence that can emerge at any time. They represent the sin nature of man both symbolically and literally since the entire Starship's citizenry puts on a normal public face when, in fact, once they reach adulthood and vote they all have knowledge of the horrible exploitation of the Starwhale and by forgetting are consenting to it.

The voting booth, I would suggest, represents how a person reacts when confronted with their sin. Sin when looked at in honesty is emotionally disturbing because it recognizes the pain we cause others and that we are responsible for that pain. So ultimately what do we do? We can protest and face the consequences of our sin, or we can choose to forget our sin in order to go on with our daily lives.

    When we sin, we can harm others or ourselves, but ultimately we are sinning against God because we are harming His creation that He dearly loves. The Starwhale is a symbol of God in this analogy-ancient, benevolent, and self-sacrificing. Also the Starwhale is a literal salvation for the British people taking them from the eminent destruction of the solar flares and continuing to ensure their survival in space.

    The treatment of the Starwhale is also very telling of our treatment of God. Instead of recognizing the Starwhale's arrival as a response to their suffering and a voluntary savior, the humans see it as a source of power to serve their own ends. They capture it, build around it and manipulate it in order to go where they desire. The poem in the elevator built by the ships builders clearly identifies the man and beast roles they have assigned. The man is the one who smiles (again connection to the smilers) and who has the plan, but the poet warns "expect no love from the beat below" maintaining that the Starwhale has no valid will or capacity for love, it is a dumb beast and a power source and nothing more.

    And we can express the same attitudes towards God as we make Him over in the image we want him to be. God creates us and dies for us on the cross so that we can have salvation, but we don't want to meet God, we just want to utilize Him. All human beings, Christians included, are capable and guilty of this. We see God as the power source and we build our own concepts, our own beliefs and desires around him and pray for what we want to happen. We have already decided for ourselves what the best course of action is and we become angry with God when our lives do not go well under our own direction. But even as we do this, like the citizens of the Starship UK we are haunted by our guilt and the sense that something is terribly wrong with our lives.

    As the Starwhale is being deliberately hurt by the humans who justify their actions in the name of survival, it literally suffers for hundreds of years and continues to love mankind. This is illustrated in the episode by the whale's refusal to eat the children and desire to interact with them (via tentacles). In the same way although we have and continue to hurt God by our refusal of Him and our sin against Him, He continues to love and give to us. Amy Pond marvels that all the years of suffering just made the Starwhale kind, and so we should marvel also at the nature of God, who describes himself in Exodus 34 as merciful, gracious, longsuffering, abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.


Choice to Forget (Agnostic)

    Those who realize the suffering we are causing God and others by our sin typically chose to forget. The nation of Britain in this episode does exactly that. What is scary is that although they choose as a society, ultimately it is an individual choice. Every citizen is alone in that voting booth, and it is between their conscience and themselves when they choose to forget. Forgetting the issue of God's existence, side-tabling it so that we can continue living our lives as they currently are, is a pretty fair definition of Agnosticism.

    The American Religious Identification Survey given in the U.S. in 2008 found that twelve percent of those surveyed considered themselves either agnostic or atheist. A similar BBC survey conducted in the UK and other nations in 2004 found that twenty-five percent of Britons never prayed, but thirty percent of all atheists surveyed (of all nations) admitted they prayed sometimes. This is the most recent and reliable data I could find that illustrates how many people today choose to be agnostic rather than commit to atheism or God. Going back to the episode, even characters we love and believe to have good hearts, such as Amy and Queen Elizabeth have chosen to be agnostic. But this choice is not without a price, as the entire nation and any who choose to forget go through their lives with subconscious guilt, shame, and a sense that something is not right. The good news is that all it takes is one decision to turn from an agnostic into a true believer (as Amy bravely demonstrates).

Choice to "Kill God" (Atheist)

    The Doctor represents that good party of intellectuals, perhaps educated more than the common citizen, who can't stand seeing the pain they are witnessing, so they choose to kill the idea of God. In the episode, the doctor chooses to "kill" the Starwhale by making it brain dead out of mercy; in contrast, I would submit that atheists "kill" God out of mercy towards themselves. Most professed atheists place the emphasis on the rationality of their beliefs, or how their minds and their thoughts lead them to their conclusions about life. But we can't divorce the emotional component from any belief, no matter how rationally we choose to live our lives because we are still human. Unless you are extremely callous, and here I would submit that atheists are not, it is very emotionally painful to live in a world with so much evil and suffering. And to live with the idea that a sovereign living God allows such suffering because He allows humans to exercise free will and all the consequences said will produces (murder, child-slavery etc) is incredibly difficult and painful.

    To look around us today and believe that God has a greater plan of redemption, and that He does and will champion the oppressed takes real faith in Him and His will. But the Doctor doesn't recognize the Starwhale as capable of goodwill towards men, or even necessarily a will of its own since he concludes if he releases it then it will flee like a dumb beast. So the atheist also refuses to consider how the will of God comes into play, or if they do consider it they judge it as "not good enough" since they would choose better for mankind. And that's what the kind-hearted atheist proceeds to do-enact his or her own will on every given situation as ethically as they possibly can. But as the Doctor's judgment call towards the Starwhale illustrates, our best can still be wrong. Acting as ethically as he can to preserve lives and to stop pain, the doctor is still by his own words, committing murder and losing his own soul/identity, as he declares that after he has finished he will have to "find a new name because I won't be the Doctor anymore."

Choice to Trust (Believer)

    The bible declares that "God has chosen the foolish things of this world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty" in I Corinthians 1:27. This means that salvation is made not for those who society considers strong or wise, but for the humble and powerless. No one is in a weaker position of power than Amy in this episode. The moment she understands what she consented to when she voted to forget (she recognizes her sin) she apologizes and repents. The Doctor then callously implies he shouldn't have expected better of her because she is after all "only human." Although badly delivered, there is truth in his statement, humans can fail, all humans can sin.

    What you don't know if you haven't seen the first episode of the series is that Amy is an "abandoned child." Her parents are gone from her life, she lives with an Aunt who ignores her, and the Doctor shows up when she is a child, promises to be back in 5 minutes and doesn't show for 12 years. Now in the second episode, her trust in the Doctor to accept and forgive her is disappointed again.

Yet it is her continuing childhood pain and her position of weakness that allows Amy to identify with the children present and to recognize the truth-the salvation the Starwhale offered all those years ago when it came to earth and still offers. She thinks of the fact that the Starwhale won't eat the children, and watches it playing with them (tentacles though a hole in the floor) while still in pain, and comes to the conclusion that the Starwhale does have a will and a heart that loves.

    Amy makes the choice that no other human (or timelord) has been able to make-to give up her own will and place herself entirely at the mercy of the Starwhale. And it is a big risk. Her trust has already been placed in others and devastatingly disappointed. But she looks at the nature of the Starwhale and takes the leap of faith. In turn, the Starwhale saves the citizens of the Starship UK, both literally preserving their lives and emotionally freeing them from the guilt of having to continue in their sin. The Doctor is also saved from sin, from having to commit the act of murder that would have taken his identity. Moreover, the speed of the ship doubles as soon as the Starwhale is released, why? Because its will is greater than theirs and it had the best in its heart for these people all along. God's heart towards you and I is the same.


    Dear reader, consider: will you chose to forget the reality of your sin and a God who suffered for you and desires to save you? Will you Kill God by turning Him into a distant idea, or dinky supernatural power source meant to serve your own will and intellect? Or will you chose to abdicate the throne in your heart and give it to Him, trusting that He will save you and take your life in directions greater than you could ever imagine? (I Corinthians 2:9). What will you do with the Beast below? I will end my post with the poem that Amy recites in voice-over at the conclusion of the episode:

"In bed above we're deep asleep,

While greater love lies further deep,

This dream must end, this world must know,

We all depend on the Beast below."


  1. Great review! Your observations are truer and deeper than the basic spiritual parallels I observed while watching the show!

    Some extra thoughts came to me as I was reading:

    1. You were keen to notice that the Doctor represents a false belief and needs saving. This is refreshing because so often in the past series, he has been depicted as a savior-like deity himself: the highest moral authority, omniscient of time, constantly saving humanity; he was even the inspiration for a kind of religion that ended with everyone on earth praying his name to imbue him with power during a finale. While the character has also been depicted as flawed, these themes made me uncomfortable and even made me consider no longer watching the show, since Jesus is the Savior and the Lord is the only true God and I couldn't bear for the main protagonist to be shown as supreme. So to see the character's flaws and for him to recognize his own limitations within the plot brings a more realistic view of the hero and of heroes in general. I should say that this was also brought to light at the end of Waters of Mars, but it was nice to see it in a Moffat episode.

    Also, I was struck that the entire culture of Starship UK is due for some inevitable changes because of Amy's actions. Liz 10 recognizes this as she casts off her mask with the promise of "no more secrets..." I can just imagine the frantic worry and confusion of those on board: What will happen to the Smilers and the voting booths? How will the people be controlled if not by fear? How will they feed the Starwhale? These are not impossible problems and the free life is worth it, but I can't help but think it will be a challenge for the citizens to adjust to a new way of life. Similarly, putting your faith in Jesus initiates change and repentance, which is not always pleasant or easy. The new life that God has planned for us is undeniably better than the confusion and fear that were part of the old life, but changing takes effort and discomfort and we risk the displeasure of others who are okay with living a lie.
    Just some thoughts. Thanks again for the thought-provoking post!

  2. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments Beth!