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.…