In “The Beast Below,” episode 2 of the 5th series of the new era of the long running British science fiction show Doctor Who, the Doctor and his new companion Amy Pond travel to the future and find themselves on board a starship that contains all of the English population, a moving diaspora necessitated by the earth becoming uninhabitable. The Doctor and Amy realize that something is amiss aboard the ship, and begin investigating what may be awry. They discover that the ship, rather than being powered by a traditional engine, is being carried on the back of an alien creature known as a star whale. In order to make the star whale support the ship, the humans in charge are sending electro-magnetic shock waves into its brain, effectively torturing it. The Doctor faces an impossible choice: free the star whale and kill everybody aboard the ship, or allow the commanders to keep abusing the creature. As the Doctor prepares to cut off the star whale’s higher functions, making it into a vegetable, Amy stops him and frees the star whale. To the surprise of everybody on board, the star whale continues to carry the ship. Amy explains, telling the Doctor that “The Star Whale didn’t come like a miracle all those years ago. It volunteered. You didn’t have to trap it or torture it. That was all just you. It came because it couldn’t stand to watch your children cry” (1). This episode demonstrates the cruelty that governments, specifically the British government, are capable of in the name of the greater good while simultaneously depicting enormous empathy in the face of brutality.
The UK has a long history of subjugation and violence. In the centuries of the existence of the British Empire, those in power committed genocide, created concentration camps, and allowed nations under its control to die by famine (2). Encountering an unknown creature and deciding to force it into subservice by means of pain unfortunately fits right into the history and practices of the British Empire. This episode serves as an allegory for the very real history of the UK in the worldwide arena, taking the nation’s behavior and applying it to extraterrestrial beings. While the notion that those enslaved would continue to serve their overlords even without torture is troubling, the episode’s message of kindness in the face of viciousness is a deeply moving one.
This science fiction tale functions as a vision of a universe ruled by empathy rather than cruelty. The actions of the star whale speak to the potential of a gentler way of existence. This fits in line with sci-fi’s potential of creating alternate modes of being. In “On the Poetics of Science Fiction,” Darko Suvin claims that “In the 20th century, SF has moved into the sphere of anthropological and cosmological thought, becoming a diagnosis, a warning, a call to understanding and action, and-most important-a mapping of possible alternatives” (3). This episode serves as an indictment of previous subjugation, while pointing towards a future of collaboration based upon a shared desire for the happiness of those in pain.
While the message that those subjugated will continue their own enslavement due to the desire to save an endangered population,, the notion that there are those so filled with kindness as to serve others to save children from dying is a beautiful one. While this episode does not take its’ critical approach to the policies of the British Empire to the extreme by having the star whale simply free itself and kill everyone on board, it gestures to a way of being motivated by empathy rather than cruelty in the face of self preservation. The tale of the star whale is a lesson in the power of treating others with compassion, and the power that comes from deep love.
- “The Beast Below Quotes.” Planet Claire Quotes, PlanetclaireTV, 10 Sept. 2015, https://www.planetclaire.tv/quotes/doctorwho/series-five/the-beast-below/.
- Osborne, Samuel. “5 Of the Worst Atrocities Carried out by British Empire, after ‘Historical Amnesia’ Claims.” Independent, 5 Mar. 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/worst-atrocities-british-empire-amritsar-boer-war-concentration-camp-mau-mau-a7612176.html. Accessed 29 Mar. 2022.
- Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” Science Fiction Criticism, vol. 34, no. 3, Dec. 1972, pp. 372–382., https://doi.org/10.5040/9781474248655.0018.