Thursday, April 11, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: The Pirate Planet (2)

[Patreon Supporters have already read all five parts of this essay, and are currently reading my deep dive into Stones of Blood. Why not join them?]

Douglas Adams is a big name. A really big name. It's hard to overestimate just how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly big his name is. I mean, you may think that "the Philippine army's retreat from Rejivic" is a terrific line, but that's just peanuts to Douglas Adams. Listen.... 

[This has been done before. Ed.]

The Pirate Planet catches Adams on the cusp of his success. It was transmitted between 30 September and 21 October 1978: the novelisation of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy was published on October 12th. When Episode One started, Adams was the up-and-coming writer of a "cult" radio show. By the time Episode Four came to an end, he was a best selling author.

The writing of the two works are rather hopelessly intertwined. The Pirate Planet was green lit just after the pilot episode of Hitch Hiker was recorded: Adams would have been working on the final Doctor Who scripts while the radio show was being made. Watching the Pirate Planet today, it's hard to avoid the sense that Adams is referencing his more famous work. The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy is so vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big [Stop it. Ed.] that innocuous expressions, two digit numbers and bathroom accoutrements, have taken on disproportionate significance in relation to it. In Episode Two of Pirate Planet, the Captain threatens Kimus with torture, and the Doctor tells Kimus not to panic. A reference to the words printed in large friendly letters on the cover of the most wholly remarkable [I won't tell you again -- Ed] or merely the Doctor engaging in some typically flippant understatement?

"Standing around all day looking tough must be very wearing on the nerves" says the Doctor to two of the Captain's guards as they escort him along the low-inertia corridor. "Long hours, violence, no intellectual stimulation." This obviously recalls Ford Prefect's speech to the Vogon Security Guard in the Hitchhiker pilot, although it is not (as is sometimes said) a direct quote. (What Ford says is "Do you really enjoy this sort of thing? Does it give you a full satisfying life? Stomping around, shouting, pushing other people out of spaceships?") And the two contexts are very different. Ford is genuinely trying to persuade the Vogon to question his life-choices and let them go; the Doctor is just making disdainful conversation with a couple of goons.  Tom Baker delivers the lines in such an off-hand way you could easily miss them.

Certainly, Adams wasn't above planting in-jokes in his works. In Destiny of the Daleks (1979) he will show the Doctor reading a book by one Oolon Celuphid (a frequently referenced off-stage character in the Guide.) And he named the lead singer of Disaster Area after a Camden Town estate agent. But in this case I don't think he is hiding easter eggs. He isn't even recycling jokes. He's just being Douglas Adams, writing in Douglas Adams' idiom. There are bound to be verbal echoes:

Captain: The whole infrastructure of quantum physics was in retreat!
Marvin: Pausing only to reconstruct the whole infrastructure of integral mathematics in his head...

Doctor: Lying in the street exactly where I wasn't expecting to find it.
Narrator: They hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don't.

Doctor: I'll never be cruel to a particle in an accelerator again.
Arthur: I'll never be cruel to a gin and tonic again.

The shouty Captain is not so very far removed from Prostenic Vogon Jeltz ("I appear to have just wiped out half my crew") and, indeed, to the security officer on the B Ark; and the idea of the planet Earth being wiped out, in passing, because the Captain needs a supply of Quartz makes one think of hyperspatial bypasses and games of four dimensional bar-billiards.

But more nebulously, the whole thing has a very Douglassy feel to it. When the Doctor needs to get into the Captain's base he uses, not the sonic screwdriver, but a safety pin, explaining that the more sophisticated a defence system is, the more vulnerable it is to a simple form of attack. I don't know if that's actually true: does Fort Knox really suffer from burglars with masks and crowbars? But this was the era of farm boys, torpedos and exhaust ports. The Captain is finally brought down by someone literally putting a spanner in the works. (The Mentiads use telekinesis to smash the power generator with a wrench.) This could almost stand as a motif for Douglas Adams philosophy: a techno-prophet who maintained a healthy cynicism about technology. 

I would baulk a little at describing the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy as "comedy". The BBC initially regarded it as a "drama" because comedy is by definition filmed in front of a live audience with laugh tracks. It is certainly very funny indeed: but rewatching the much-maligned TV version recently, what struck me was not the jokes (which I had heard before) or the special effects (which are not very good) but the sheer breadth of vision; the number of over-the-top idea that are lightly tossed out in each thirty minute segment. It's a story which starts with the destruction of the earth and ends up in the stone age, managing to take in artificial planets, the fall of the galactic empire, and the secret of the universe en route. But you have to already like science fiction to find it funny: mundanes were on the whole baffled by it.

After the destruction of the Earth, poor Arthur Dent winds up on a planet which constructs other planets: indeed, in one of the series' central ironies, it turns out that the Magratheans originally created the Earth. A planet which makes planets is a great SF idea: but Magrathea is itself essentially mundane. It's an expensive business providing luxury items to clients who want new planets for the most trivial of reasons. In the same way that he satirised the Internet before the Internet quite existed: so he preempted Thatcher's "loadsamoney" economy by almost a decade.

It's a kind of conceptual illusion. Look once, and you see something big and cosmic out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (In some versions, Marvin plays Thus Sprach Zarathustra for Arthur's benefit.) Look again, and you see a shady 1980s property company. The destruction of the earth is essentially trivial: it was "demolished" rather than "destroyed", like a pretty cottage in the way of a road-widening scheme. But the earth turns out to be more significant than we realised: it was created as part of a project to discover the meaning of life. Except that the meaning of life (not to mention the universe, and for that matter, everything) turns out to be pretty silly; and the extra-dimensional beings mainly want to know the Answer so they can make witty jokes about it on chat shows. And they present themselves as white mice. Everything is simultaneously bigger and smaller than you thought: life on earth has a point, but it's a pointless point; life the universe and everything have a meaning, but its a meaningless meaning.

But it isn't quite a parody or a skit. Deep Though is definitely funnier than the Eternals, or the Monolith, or Cthulhu, or the Fendahl, or any of the other beings who have turned out to be "behind" human history all along. But Deep Thought does the space-god thing better -- more imaginatively, more evocatively -- than all the entities who have done it seriously. Nowadays, when we see Captain Kirk encountering a computer that thinks it's God, which he does about one week in three, we don't say "That's the serious thing of which the Hitch-Hiker's Guide was a parody". We say "Douglas Adams did that better."

The Pirate Planet doesn't have the same breadth of imagination as Hitch Hiker. But it inhabits the same conceptual space. One could perfectly well imagine Arthur Dent on Zanak or the Doctor on Magrathea. The Captain is absurd: but he's terrifying because he's absurd. There is something pleasing and frightening about the idea that the Earth might be wiped out in passing by a silly man cos-playing Captain Hook. And there's an underlying Dawkinsianism at play. (This was before Doug and Dick became besties.) We think we're jolly important on our planet, but from the universe's point of view, we barely register.

Hitchhiker and Pirate Planet -- and the whole aborted masterpiece of Season Seventeen -- speak to a world where the 1970s are passing, and the 1980s are struggling to be born: the moment before the internet and the home computer boom; before we put phones in our pockets and mainstreamed geekery.

Douglas Adams was big. Really big. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, Sue Lawley couldn't help noticing his BMW and his Rolex watch. Neil Gaiman knew both Terry Pratchett and Alan Moore: but he said that Douglas Adams was the only bona fide genius he ever met. 

And he started out writing for the daft little TV show we love so much.

Serious face.

I currently have 62 Patreon followers, paying me very roughly £80 dollars per article.

Every single follow is a huge vote of confidence and massively appreciated; as, indeed, is every comment and every reader. (I am reminded of aline by favourite singer/songwriter: “It still blows my mind each time they let me play to anyone.”)

However, it remains true that I lost about five followers during March, on top of the ones I have lost since the beginning of the year, and any further drop in followers would be A Little Alarming.

I reduced the amount of hours I work on my day-job in 2022 specifically to spend more time writing; and Patreon remains my primary income stream.

I am only semi-serious when I say that I think my political writing drives people away. Certainly people have walked away (and in some cases stopped talking to me altogether) because of my shockingly right wing / shockingly left wing views. But I am sure it’s mostly because Times Are Hard and setting up monthly payments is a certain amount of hassle.

I also have to consider that I have over the last twenty years said absolutely everything I have to say on absolutely every subject, and that it is time to start looking for another hobby. I turn out to be quite good at singing sea shanties, for certain values of "singing". And obviously the Trolls said a long time ago that I had simply lost my marbles.

It’s definitely the case that if I find my Patreon followers go UP this month when I start writing about Doctor Who again, I am more likely to write about Doctor Who (or start some other Great Big Geek project). I set up a little Readers Poll for Patreon Supporters, which seems to show that the engaged followers are basically fine with me going off on one about Woke from time to time.

Coming this month:

I am writing my way around the 1978 Doctor Who story Stones of Blood, including a wild digression about Ley-lines, stone-circles and evangelicalism. I am hoping to do another Video Diary before too long. 

If this is even slightly interesting, do please consider clicking on the little button and pushing my follower back up to a healthy 70 or so. 


Andrew Ducker said...

When I re-read the HHGTTG series a decade or so back, it became much more clear to me that it was, underneath it all, very depressing. Funny, but the humour of "Look at the world/universe, it's so ridiculous, and every attempt to bring meaning to it fails because people are deep-down a bit rubbish."

The only point at which Arthur is actually happy is the end of book 4, and then that's taken away before the start of book 5.

Gavin Burrows said...

"Funny, but the humour of "Look at the world/universe, it's so ridiculous, and every attempt to bring meaning to it fails because people are deep-down a bit rubbish."

'Adams was writing Absurdist literature' is a hill I would be prepared to die on.

Andrew Ducker said...

Absolutely, no disagreement here.