The Child-like Wonder in Cunk on Earth
Existence is a baffling thing. To think about is to immediately veer into philosophical ruminations about the nature of things. Cunk on Earth, a five-episode series humorously traces Earth’s prehistory, civilization, history, and arts up to the present day. Produced by Charlie Brooker, famed director of the sci-fi horror series Black Mirror, together with the deadpan humor of Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk we are taken for a rollercoaster ride of philosophical inquiries and childlike wonder as Cunk, with the help of academics, explain to us history, religion, art, civilization and more.
In the beginnings
In the first episode Cunk explores the early human civilization. It explores the discovery of fire, first cave paintings, and the development of agricultural society until it eventually blossomed into civilization. The show derives its humor from serious discussions that diffuses the seriousness of the situation by using humor. Take for instance,
CUNK: Who invented civilization?
AL KHALILI: Civilization wasn’t something that was invented or something that started abruptly. We talk about civilization once humans started agriculture, once they started building cities and creating laws. That was something that happened gradually in different parts of the worlds rather just being invented suddenly.
So it wasn’t just one man who wanted to remain anonymous?
Cause that was something we shouldn’t go along with if it was.
Cunk tackled Abrahamic religions in this second episode particularly Christianity and Islam. It gets interesting when she asked why as humans we need to believe in something bigger than us. These questions often rolled around during Philosophy class back in high school. The discussion was met with silence which I ascribed to, I would say, ignorance of the possibility that you could question things, concepts, and ideas, that are often, for so long, believed exist all along such as God. The answer then by the academic is that, humans believe in God because believing constitutes a happy life.
Cunk just before the discussion gets academic, immediately dispels the seriousness of the discussion by spitting questions like this.
CUNK: In all paintings of Jesus, he comes in two modes, doesn’t he? He’s either a baby or he’s being crucified. Are there any paintings where he is being crucified as a baby?
ASHE: No. No.
CUNK: Right they missed an opportunity there, didn’t they?
The Renaissance Will Not Be Televised
In this third episode, Cunk begins with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. This meant that texts, primarily the Bible, and other philosophical thoughts, can now be mass-produced and distributed across the world. Cunk then zeroes in on Florence, Italy, the epicenter of what would be known as the Renaissance.
CUNK: Which was more culturally significant the R or Single Ladies by Beyonce?
KEMP: They both have their period. They both have their period. Beyonce, I’m rather fond of but what the Renaissance was trying to do was to reform culture as whole. And whatever Beyonce does, I don’t think she’s quite got that ambition.
CUNK: So, what? The work of a few straight white men just blows Beyonce out of the water?
Cunk proceeds to examine famous artworks such as Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, explore scientific discoveries, philosophies, and revolutionary history.
Rise of the Machines
In this episode we are taken to the invention of machines starting with trains powered by steam engines revolutionizing transportation forever. Most people no longer confined to their respective towns. The invention of trains facilitated mass transportation. Interestingly, this changed modes of relations. Transportation has allowed people to meet other people from far places birthing the phenomenon now called as chance encounters. After trains, then followed, cars, boats, and airplanes. Cunk then explored humanity conquering light, sound, the sky and the road. A little bit later, then came the bit about wars.
In one of the scenes, there’s a startling moment, where Cunk confuses the audience for an earnest expression of sorrow about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
CUNK: It’s comforting to realize that we don’t have nuclear weapons these days?
JACKSON: Well, it depends who you mean by “we”. The British have got nuclear weapons and have recently indeed decided to increase the number of warheads that they possess.
CUNK: (stammers) Yeah, but they’re blanks, aren’t they? They’re full of blanks.
JACKSON: No, not at all. No, no. These are fully capable missile systems with nuclear warheads. Many other states have them. I’m afraid that nuclear war and the threat of nuclear destruction remains very much with us.
Sorrow-stricken, Cunk then proceeds to lengthen the grief enough to pass it on as humorous. Before this Cunk calls war as humanity’s “shame” and questions “What makes us, as creatures, turn on each other like that?”. It’s complicated yet so childishly simple. To ask about the existence of mass destructions is also to question our notions of peace which the show somewhat touches on.
War(s) of the World(s)
In the last episode of Cunk on Earth, Cunk introduces us to Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic also known as USSR. After this, the brewing war between two opposing ideologies of the West and East. Capitalism versus communism. For an almost 29-minute episode, touching on the complexities and nuances of the Cold War would probably take an entire season so we were only left with the bit about the Space Race.
The Space Race in itself was an interesting period of human history. A glance at a world beyond us. One could only imagine, watching on TV, holding one’s breath at the arrival of man in space or landing on the moon.
After this we are taken to the history of computers going to smartphones changing modes of communication forever. The invention of the computers birthed questions such as “are we living in a simulation?”. The present moment is indeed rife with as much as terror also opportunities. Cunk in the end leave us with these questions,
Will we rise to the challenge of climate change? Or the opposite of that? Can humankind learn to exist at peace with itself? Or are all of us right now living through the final hours, minutes and seconds of civilization?
**Prof. Jim Al-Khalili CBE is a professor of Public Engagement in Science at University of Surrey.
***Dr. Laura Ashe is a professor of English medieval literature, history and culture.
****Martin Kemp, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at University of Oxford
******Ashley Jackson is a professor of Imperial and Military History at King’s College, in London
Reference: IMDb | Cunk on Earth – Series Cast
Drex Le Jaena is a writer currently based in Cavite.