It's Funny, Isn't It? (The Pirate Planet)


It’s September 30th, 1978. Between now and October 21st, three people will be murdered by Bruce John Preston in the Australian town of Mount Isa, numerous people will die in Cambodia following a Vietnamese invasion, and an unknown number of people die in the African National Congress following an attempt to poison 500 people to kill an unidentified infiltrator. Also, Frederick Valentich dies in an aviation accident shortly after encountering what he described as an unidentified flying object, Jacques Brel dies of cancer in France, the world comes closer still to the eschaton, and The Pirate Planet airs on BBC One.

In The Pirate Planet, Doctor Who presents one of the most confused central metaphors of its long and generally confused history. The concept is admittedly ingenious: Zanak, a hollow planet that materializes around other planets and then consumes them in their entirety. On top of that, as is gradually revealed over the course of four episodes, all of this exists to feed power to the elaborate machines keeping the tyrannical Queen Xanxia alive and with a facsimile of her youthful body. So on the one hand we have a brutal metaphor for capitalist/imperialist expansion and the way in which it leads to devastating destruction purely for the benefit of a handful of parasitic elites.

On the other hand the final episode, in which Douglas Adams creates an added source of tension by establishing that Zanak’s next target is Earth, comes dangerously close to misunderstanding the entire affair. Suddenly the subject of the metaphor becomes a curiously guiltless victim of it. More to the point, however, this collapse of a story largely concerned with metaphor into a story in which the Earth is in imminent peril serves to highlight the fact that the central conceit—a planet that consumes other planets for wealth—dramatically misses the reality, which is that planets consume themselves.

This is doubly interesting when taken in the context of Douglas Adams’s larger career. Adams is an extremely easy writer to like—a jaw-dropping prosesmith with one of the wickedest senses of humor in literary history. And yet it is hard not to come to the conclusion that his reputation was helped enormously by the fact that he died in 2001. A brief perusal of Adams’s social circle, after all, does not turn up a long list of people who have enjoyed cancellation-free dotages. Instead you get people like Richard Dawkins, rightly pilloried as a racist, sexist old windbag, or Monty Python, whose surviving members seem increasingly determined to become edgelordy Brexiteers who complain about how people are easily offended snowflakes. Douglas Adams, meanwhile, has spent the time in which his friends have squandered their own reputations keeping quiet and, for that matter, only taking a slight dent to his productivity compared to the last decade or so of his life.

But even if he’s avoided sticking his foot in it, he remains fundamentally a technophilic humanist. He admirably had more of an environmentalist streak than many in his cohort and wasn’t nearly as invested in utopianism as many, finding more of interest in computers than space travel. But in this regard he was ultimately just slightly ahead of his time, fitting smoothly into the generation of smug idiots following his that took the creation of a general artificial intelligence as the door to their imagined techno-utopia instead of faster than light travel.

But Adams is a useful figure to think about all of this in light of precisely because he was always relatively disinterested in utopia. Instead Adams wielded a curiously nihilistic streak, as evidenced by his best known work, in which he imagines the Earth being casually destroyed for the most specious of reasons while suggesting that the universe is a sort of dadaist joke best explained by the number 42 and a deeply unknowable question leading to that answer. Adams, unlike Holmes, largely sees the universe as a bleakly and oppressively meaningless place—note the “space is big” speech and the total perspective vortex in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He remains interested in the perspective of the common man within this, but is far less inclined to give him a sense of dignity. Adams’s everyman protagonists are more likely to flail helplessly at a truly insane world than to figure out crafty ways of operating within it.

Adams accompanies this with a curious disinterest in many of the moral standards of science fiction. One of the ideas that went into the early drafts of The Pirate Planet came from his experience of East Berlin—he imagined a story in which the Doctor found a corrupt dystopia that was nevertheless keeping its citizens happy and well-fed, presenting a moral dilemma in whether to bring it down. Although the final script went in very different directions, there’s still artifacts of this visible, most notably in the character of Balaton, who spends the first episode and the opening of the second arguing that all of this talk of rebellion is a terrible idea, that life as it is perfectly nice, and that it’s dangerous and destructive to try to change things. The plot obviously doesn’t go this way (and it’s hard to imagine the more pure East Berlin-inspired version of the story wouldn’t have gone the same way by having the Doctor ultimately try to overthrow things, since that’s the way in which you actually have a plot), but it’s remarkable that this viewpoint gets expressed at all.

Despite all of this, however, The Pirate Planet has one of the most striking moments of moral clarity of the Tom Baker era. The sputtering, uncomprehending rage with which the Doctor explodes at the Captain, first horrified that “you commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that's almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it” and then flustered as he demands “then what’s it for” is in many ways the most relatable interaction between the Doctor and utter evil in the course of the series, capturing almost exactly the emotional state generated by looking at fascist propaganda and philosophy and trying to understand the “reason” within. (The quote never fit into Neoreaction a Basilisk, but I was thinking of it almost constantly while contemplating the nuances of Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land.)

But it’s notable that evil, for Adams, is not best captured by the actual destruction or cruelty caused by Zanek’s operation—one need only look at the bathetic thud with which the line “Bandraginus Five, by every last breath in my body, you'll be avenged” lands to see that his heart is not actually in cruelty and exploitation. (Unlike Holmes, notably.) For Adams, it’s specifically the uncomprehending horror of it—the sense of absurd pointlessness of it. In this regard, the fact that the answer to the Doctor’s flummoxed question is “it’s for a piece of petty revenge against a mad queen who’s equally pettily chasing immortality” fits the larger point being made. Evil, for Adams, isn’t defined by harm but out of an aesthetic sense of its unnecessary sadism.

This shines some light on Adams’s cohort, particularly the way in which they proved so disappointing and how that relates to their triumphs. On the one hand, after all, what Adams identifies here is insightful. A very real part of the horror of late capitalist collapse is the sheer excess sadism of it. “The cruelty is the point,” as one popularly shared think piece puts it. In a very real sense, after all, it is not enough to ransack planets in pursuit of profit. It is not enough to have more money than it’s possible to spend. It’s not even enough to have power beyond the point where an alternative is possible. At the end of the day, none of this matters without some act of petty, bullying dominance. None of it counts unless there’s a victim and the victim knows it. If nobody is left sputtering about the pointlessness of it then it doesn’t really have a point. Adams gets this, as, to be fair, did a number of his contemporaries—Monty Python is rich with appreciation of the sadism of power.

And yet there’s also a cavernous blind spot here. For all the perceptiveness involved in identifying cruelty as a defining aspect of evil, the fact that it’s viewed as a formal structure instead of in terms of actual harm is, in the end, disastrous. Ironically, Adams’s insight only offers empathy for the sadists, whose desire for crass and bullying acts of domination is understood even as it’s reviled. Victims—people living with the boot on their neck—simply don’t really register. They’re not interesting, and in practice that translates into Adams not caring for them. He cares more, in fact, for well-off people who are superficially benefitting from the exploitation and with how understandable it is that they go along with it than he does for people who are suffering. It’s no surprise that this approach, in others, leads to an eventual cratering failure to take seriously the objections of marginalized people who say “this is hurting me.” It’s cruelty that’s interesting, not pain.

But this points at broader prey than the late career deflation of many of Adams’s cohort. Because this isn’t just a failing of a particular group of smarmy male Oxbridge graduates, but a failing of comedy in general. The real problem, after all, is that people who are suffering aren’t funny, but abusive fuckwits are. This exposes a fundamental lie at the heart of many of comedy’s pretensions. Its alleged social utility, after all, is that it allegedly speaks truth to power. Like most lies, this is not entirely wrong.  As Adams demonstrates, comedy is a laceratingly effective way of highlighting the absurdity of power. But in all of this there is one truth that comedy cannot tell—a cutting jibe it cannot make. It cannot say that power is not the center of the narrative. It cannot disrupt the heroic narrative of the great men of history. It can rewrite the story as bleak absurdism, yes, but it cannot actually tell a different story.

This is not to say that comedy of the oppressed cannot and does not exist. Of course it does—one can go find it if one wants, the same as any other art by marginalized people. But within the hegemonic discourse of entitled white men, comedy has no special standing as a revolutionary practice. It has no more ability to disrupt or undercut the systems of power than publicly funded sci-fi adventure. Perhaps with sufficient vigor and motivated reasoning one might find some isolated example of an individual tyrannical bigot being brought down in part by the efforts of comedians. But one will find exactly zero instances of a larger system of oppression being usefully challenged by comedy. More likely, what one will find is that comedy has repeatedly normalized the idea that power is supposed to be corrupt, absurd, and stupid, and that while one might complain about this, there’s no realistic prospect of changing it. Indeed, one might find that what happens is that comedians make jokes about planets that are ruled by universally hated reptilian tyrants, but where the people inevitably vote for the lizards anyway on the grounds that “if they didn’t vote for a lizard, the wrong lizard might get in.”

Meanwhile, the world continues much apace, a thin and parasitic shell of wealthy sociopaths rapidly sucking it dry of the very prospect of sustaining life. Maybe this is what always happens; one can easily imagine that if Douglas Adams were alive today he’d make jokes about the Great Filter and how it’s some completely mundane aspect of capitalist existence. Maybe there is some sort of alternative lurking in the shadows—a way things could be that isn’t this. It’s difficult to say. What’s clear is this: none of this is even remotely funny.

Thanks for the support. I look forward to having some Last War in Albion to share with you.


D.N. 8 months, 3 weeks ago

"...or Monty Python, whose surviving members seem increasingly determined to become edgelordy Brexiteers who complain about how people are easily offended snowflakes..."

John Cleese and Terry Gilliam, yes.

Eric Idle and Michael Palin, no.

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prandeamus 8 months, 3 weeks ago

For all that you have said recently about this series being hard to write, El, I very much value the following sentence:

"More likely, what one will find is that comedy has repeatedly normalized the idea that power is supposed to be corrupt, absurd, and stupid, and that while one might complain about this, there’s no realistic prospect of changing it."

I'm not sure I fully agree, but I will take up the challenge of considering it. Thank you.

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Christopher Brown 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Dang. And here I was hoping to get an analysis of all the nihilistic themes of The Horns of Nimon (for real) and get a doom-laden take on Anthony Read (slightly more sarcastically).

Nonetheless, this has been a fantastic series, and this was a huge high note on which to end it. I'm sorry that it turned out to be an unsatisfying project, but I assure you the effort wasn't wasted. Best of luck with your upcoming projects which I hope will give you the creative satisfaction you're looking for.

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Christopher Brown 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Just a thought that an in-depth, erm, reading on Anthony Read probably is worth doing; it would certainly be the contrarian move, and thus probably worth exploring.

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Christopher Brown 8 months, 3 weeks ago

"Adams, meanwhile, has spent the time in which his friends have squandered their own reputations keeping quiet and, for that matter, only taking a slight dent to his productivity compared to the last decade or so of his life."

While we're on that train of thought, I'd make some comment about Terry Jones not saying anything offensive for the last few years, but I'm not sure how it'd land.

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Greg S. 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Reposted from Patreon comments:

Thank you so much for this El. I think this is my favorite of all your commentaries, owing largely to me being an enormous Douglas Adams fanatic ever since I first read The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel in 1982. (Being from the US, I hadn’t heard the radio show yet.)

I think the reason I enjoy Adams’ fiction so much is because it always portrays a worldview that is perfectly aware that everything that happens in the universe is based entirely on random chance, but it is hard to escape the feeling that the universe has it out for the individual personally. (Mildly amusing aside: it wasn’t until today, when I checked online to make sure I was using the correct phrase, that I realized “have it out for” and “have it in for” have the exact same meaning. I chose “out” for aesthetic reasons.)

I quite enjoyed your thoughts on comedy’s power to actually effect positive change. It reminds me of a quote from another comedic hero of mine, Tom Lehrer. In latter day interviews he responds to questions about if his satirical songs might have helped bring about positive change with: “I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the ’30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler.”

Congratulations El. If Dalek Eruditorum had to end, it is nice that it ended on a strong note. The sentence “Douglas Adams, meanwhile, has spent the time in which his friends have squandered their own reputations keeping quiet and, for that matter, only taking a slight dent to his productivity compared to the last decade or so of his life” made me both laugh and admire the mind that wrote it in the same way that the best Douglas Adams wordsmithing does.

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Jarl 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Oh this was a lovely way to go out. I was a bit upset about not getting to see some of your nihilistic takes on future episodes, but only in the long term. In the short term, I'm totally fine taking a break from this kind of work during this kind of apocalypse. And to have such a superb breaking off point, I love it. 100%.

The joke about Adam's productivity in particular feels... wholesome. Like the end of the world is worth it for that.

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wyngatecarpenter 8 months, 3 weeks ago

"what one will find is that comedy has repeatedly normalized the idea that power is supposed to be corrupt, absurd, and stupid,"
And so we have Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Johnson first became widely known to the British public as a result of his appearences on a satirical comedy panel show. Nigel Farage also made a few appearences back in the days when he was just the leader of fringe party pursuing a minority cause.

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John G. Wood 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Just wanted to add my thanks for all you have published here to date - it's no exaggeration to say you've changed how I see the program. I'm sorry DE is coming to an end (at least for now), but I'm looking forward to the next volume of TE and the next chapter of LWiA. Take care of yourself!

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