This first episode of (the rebooted series of) Doctor Who begins with Rose Tyler on her way to work at a department store. She stays behind at the end, and encounters some mannequins that have come to life. (These are called Autons, although we are never actually told that.) The Doctor grabs Rose’s hand and tells her to run.
Rose’s boyfriend, Mickey, gets replaced by a plastic version of himself and begins smashing up a restaurant. The Doctor steals the plastic Mickey’s head, leading him to the place where the living plastic is being controlled from: the London Eye. The controlling force, the Nestene Consciousness, decides to launch a full-on attack, sending mannequins on a killing spree.
The Doctor has some anti-plastic with which to destroy it. Sadly, he gets grabbed by a baddie and has his anti-plastic confiscated. Luckily, the baddie who confiscated the anti-plastic stands near the edge of the hole it needs to fall down. One kick from Rose (who was skilled at gymnastics as a child) sends the baddie tumbling down, along with the anti-plastic,saving the day.
The Doctor invites Rose to join him on his travels. She says no. Then she says yes.
The main theme of this opening episode is the collision of two worlds: the alien and the normal. Almost everything we see serves to show just how alien the Doctor is and just how normal everyone else is.
The “normalness” of Rose
Rose is established in such a firm stereotype that at first glance she looks more plastic than the Autons she encounters on the late shift at work. She is the quintessential “normal girl,” with whom we “normal” viewers can identify.
She lives at home with her mum. He bedroom is messy. She doesn’t have any A-Levels. She works in retail. She has a boyfriend whose only interest in her seems to be her body. Even when she encounters aliens at the end of the day at the department store, the reason she is left behind on her own is that she’s been left with the Lottery money. If this was all there was to Rose, I couldn’t bear to watch any more.
But over the course of the episode, Rose breaks free from her stereotype with some genuine depth of character. She is brave in the face of danger. She persists in questioning the Doctor when he doesn’t want to give her an answer. She takes initiative in visiting Clive, the man presented as a conspiracy theorist but whose conspiracies are actually correct. And at the end of the episode, when she faces a choice between a “normal” life with her useless boyfriend and the opportunity to travel around all of space and time with the Doctor, she chooses to travel.
(Mickey, the useless boyfriend, is also very “normal,” but he has no depth whatsoever. From a narrative point of view he seems to exist only to show us that Rose has more depth than it seems at first. When he is replaced with a plastic alternative, it’s no surprise that Rose doesn’t notice.)
The “alienness” of the Doctor
The Doctor fits another stereotype: the emotionally aloof man who seems utterly oblivious to human concerns. When he first meets Rose, he treats her as an inconvenience: it’s only as an afterthought that he introduces himself to her. They only reconnect when he arrives at her house on the hunt for a plastic arm, and they only talk further then because she insists upon it. When Mickey is replaced by a plastic avatar, Rose is concerned that he might be dead but the plight of the original Mickey hasn’t registered as a concern for the Doctor. (Though, to be honest, discerning viewers will have sympathy for the Doctor’s point of view.)
So the Doctor misses the really important things of life, of relationships between people, and loves, and losses. But, he would argue, the human race misses the really important things of life, of cosmic battles between good and evil.
Rose: You’re on your own?
The Doctor: Who else is there? I mean, you lot, all you do is eat chips, go to bed and watch telly. When all the time underneath you there’s a war going on.
Through throwaway lines and half a conversation, we soon learn that the Doctor is no stranger to war. While the silly little humans were watching TV and scoffing their faces, he was in the thick of battle. He is not just a traveller, but a traveller with a past.
Rose: Are you the police?
The Doctor: No. I was just passing through. I’m a long way from home.
Few of us would be convinced with this kind of answer. Indeed, Rose seems singularly incurious when faced with enigmatic and evasive responses to her straightforward and, frankly, reasonable questions. The Doctor is hiding something – something that the Nestene Consciousness seems to know all about. We don’t hear that side of the conversation, but we do hear the Doctor’s response to what sounds like an accusation:
That’s not true. I should know. I was there. I fought in the war. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t save your world; I couldn’t save any of them.
For now, that’s all we know. The Doctor fought in a war. Worlds ended. He tried to save them, but couldn’t. And he feels must defend himself against false accusations about what happened.
This is a Doctor with secrets. It is not just his biology that is alien, but also his experiences. News about him is well-known among alien lifeforms like the Nestene Consciousness, but the only human who has paid him any attention is Clive, with his dodgy website and grainy photos. If the Doctor seems totally aloof from the concerns of humanity, it’s because humanity is totally aloof from the concerns of the Doctor.
The alien needs the normal
The genius of Rose’s “normalness” is how it connects us “normal” viewers with the story. It doesn’t just function as the means by which we can identify with the adventures we are about to go on; it also functions as the means by which we can identify with the heroics we are about to witness.
This is the first doctrine in the theology of Doctor Who: the alien Doctor needs the help of normal humans in order to save the world.
The dramatic peak of the episode comes as the Autons are advancing on an unsuspecting public, including Jackie, outside a shopping centre somewhere in London. Meanwhile, the Doctor is somewhere underneath the London Eye in the grip of an Auton. His phial of anti-plastic that would destroy the Nestene Consciousness has been snatched from him. There is nothing he can do.
But there is something Rose Tyler can do. With a nod to her lacklustre academic performance at school, she reminds us that there are some life skills that are more important than those learned in a classroom.
No A-levels, no job, no future, but I’ll tell you what I have got—Jericho Street Junior School’s under-sevens gymnastics team. I won the bronze.
And with that she swings Tarzan-like towards the Doctor and kicks an Auton, along with the anti-plastic, into the Nestene Consciousness. The implication is that a third-placed medal at primary school is all you need to save the world. The moral of the story is that you, too, can be a hero.
In narrative terms, the Doctor does little of significance all episode: Rose finds the lair where the Nestene Consciousness is hiding and she single-handedly defeats it. If it hadn’t been for Rose, the world would have been overrun with walking, talking plastic. Thank goodness for “normal” people like Rose Tyler.
Jesus our normal alien
Like any hero, the Doctor is something of a Messiah figure. He turns up right on cue and rescues the world. In the battle of good and evil, he wins the victory.
Yet as we have seen, it is the humanity (or the “normalness”) of Rose Tyler that was crucial in this episode. Admittedly, the Doctor’s alien knowledge and Sonic Screwdriver helped to deliver them to the final showdown, but it was the human intuition and down-to-earth practical-mindedness of the human Rose that secured a victory against the Nestene Consciousness.
To put it another way, it was the combination of the alienness of the Doctor and the normalness of his companion that meant they could save the day together. What kind of Messiah is the Doctor? A fairly deficient one, if you want your Messiah to be effective all on his own.
Compare him to Jesus Christ, who embodies both alienness and normalness in his person.
He is fully God and fully man. It is his “alienness” that makes him an effective saviour, being the perfect and spotless sacrifice for our sins. And yet it his “normalness” that makes his salvation effective for normal people like you and me, being the means by which he associates himself with our condition and pays the price for our sins on our behalf. By uniting himself with us in his normalness, he unites us to himself in his alienness.
Jesus does what the Doctor could never do. For while the Doctor can step into our world and walk among us, he relies upon other people to provide the humanity needed to save the human race. He needs Rose to tell him to show concern for Mickey, who could have been killed. He needs Rose to think up a rescue plan when he was being held by the Auton. He needs Rose to travel with him, because he cannot save the world on his own.
He is a hero, yes, but on his own he is not enough. The lesson of this episode is that our saviour must be alien, rescuing us from enemies we know nothing about and are powerless to fight on our own. But he must also be normal, loving and caring and thinking creatively.
In the world of Doctor Who, this is why the alien Doctor needs a human companion. But in the world of Christian theology, this is why it is so crucial that humanity is made in the image of God: what makes us truly human originated with the person of God himself. And when Jesus our Messiah came to save us, he assumed our human condition alongside his divine condition in order to unite us to himself. He can do in the one person what the Doctor can only do with the help of a human companion.
In our adventures with the Time Lord and his human companions, we must bear in mind the God-Man who achieved in the one person what the Doctor could not do alone. Thank God for Jesus, our normal alien.
Doctor Who Doctrines
- The alien Doctor needs the help of normal humans in order to save the world.