The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: From Radio to TV

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV poster

British viewers may not blink twice, but it is always interesting for this Yank to note the privileged billing given to screenwriters in BBC programs. The opening credits for the 1981 serial The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy prominently hail “By DOUGLAS ADAMS” directly below its dramatically rocky logo, overshadowing the cast, directors, and producers. This is certainly not the case for typical American television productions, which tend to bury the lowly writer’s credit in type so small and fleeting that it’s hard to spot even if you’re looking for it. Shows tend to be popularly known more for their cast or sometimes the corporation that produced it (exhibit A: the hard-earned prestige status enjoyed by HBO). A precious few creators may have become known commodities in their own right, such as the rare cases of Chris Carter (The X-Files), J.J. Abrams (Lost), and David Simon (The Wire), but by and large writers remain effectively anonymous on American television.

Aside from BBC standards and practice for onscreen accreditation, and the fact that the Adams name itself had become a brand, one could argue that he merited such recognition for sheer work ethic alone. Between 1978 and 1981, Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least five times: as a radio play, novel, record album, stage show, and television series (granted, some of these were collaborations, but the point still stands). All this while serving as script editor for the 17th season of Doctor Who, which entailed supplying three of his own scripts (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, and Shada) in addition to heavily rewriting many others. The Doctor Who tradition of divided loyalties would continue well into the 21st century as showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat would moonlight on Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Sherlock. The only possible conclusion to draw is that doing Doctor Who is evidently easy, and provides lots of free time for extracurricular activities. I’m sure Russell and Steven will agree, right guys?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe opening credits of the BBC TV production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy assert that the original radio series is the definitive article.

By all accounts, including his own, writing would not seem to have come easy for Adams. The sustained creative frenzy that produced Hitchhikers in all its forms would have burned any normal person out. That he pulled it off proves he may not have been a normal person, but it made him a more financially comfortable man that indeed never met another deadline again: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Indeed, Hitchhikers’ runaway success afforded him the wealth to buy as many Apple Macintoshes as he wanted, and to take his sweet time adapting and extending the Hitchhikers universe into more novels, audio books, an influential text-based hypertextual computer game, and a stage show.

I personally consider the books to be definitive, mostly because that’s how I happened to first experience the story. In fact, it was years until I learned that its original incarnation as a radio series so much as existed. Writer Gareth Roberts, an expert on Adams-era Doctor Who, observed that the first two Hitchhikers books aren’t technically novels, but essentially novelizations of his scripts for the radio show. Further bumping the books down the hierarchy of relative definitiveness, the opening credits of the TV series proclaim it’s “Adapted from the BBC Radio Series” even though it followed the novel, which itself roughly corresponding to the first four radio episodes. Got that?

The first episode was a (very expensive) pilot, and could very well have been all we have today. Even after a full series was commissioned, each subsequent episode begins with a cleverly done recap, typically featuring excerpts from the titular Guide that segue into a resolution of the previous episode’s cliffhanger. The integration of animation into the live action footage reflects Adams’ highly digressive writing style, now de rigueur to audiences raised in an online, hyperlinked culture. Perhaps the sole element of the TV series that everyone can agree is excellent is the faux-computer animation, which was actually created manually using traditional cel animation techniques by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyAn example of the ersatz “computer” animation created outside the BBC by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Neil Gaiman dedicates Chapter 13 of his book Don’t Panic, about the Hitchhikers phenomenon, to the painful production of the television series. Indeed, it seems to have managed to disappoint just about everyone: fans, critics, the BBC, and at least two warring factions on the creative team, including (and perhaps especially) Adams himself. He had wished to involve his trusted collaborators John Lloyd and Geoffrey Perkins, but all three were shut out by entrenched BBC TV lifers that looked down their noses at mere radio people. Further dooming things, production was handled by the BBC’s Light Entertainment division, despite the Drama department having all the experience and know-how anyone could ask for after having handled many years worth of Doctor Who serials.

Gaiman documents a high state of tension between producer/director Alan Bell and seemingly everyone else. Bell was reportedly skilled at bringing productions in on time and under budget, but less interested in story or directing actors. Gaiman quotes many veterans of the original radio series that felt Bell’s direction and staging was often artless and unsympathetic to the unique material. The pedestrian-looking resulting program must have stung, as the original radio team had all shown considerable technical ambition in realizing the unprecedented sound design of the radio series (Geoffrey Perkins details the extraordinary labor it took to create virtually all of the voice and sound effects from scratch in the book The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts — contrary to what one might assume, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop didn’t contribute much). A second series was commissioned, but Adams’ standoff with Bell contributed to its cancellation before it came anywhere close to beginning. Bell claims Adams missed his script deadlines as usual, and Adams counters he simply would not start writing until negotiations concluded to include Perkins and Lloyd as advisors (this is a brutally condensed version of the whole sad story, available in full circa page 84 of the first edition of Don’t Panic). I take Adams’ side on this one, as my career as a web designer has made me all too familiar with the pitfalls of beginning work before you have a contract.

The pilot episode opens on a rather decent model landscape of a quaint English village, complete with ersatz sunrise. This bucolic scene is, of course, not long for this world. We soon meet Adams’ archetypal everyman Arthur Dent, played by Simon Jones, who actually resembles Douglas Adams in stature and coiffure. Athur’s home and home planet are about to become casualties of two coincidental bureaucratic mishaps. As if Arthur didn’t have enough to deal with this dreadful morning, his pal Ford Prefect outs himself as being a roving reporter for the eponymous publication The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, hailing “from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse”. Incidentally, everyone’s favorite star — once they learn how to pronounce it — is itself expected to explode “soon”. But Ford, if he’s out there, may rest easy, for in the minds of astrophysicists, “soon” means anytime between now and 1,000,000 years hence. Perhaps the exact date is available on a slip of paper in a subbasement of a Vogon planning commission office somewhere in the galaxy.

But back to the TV series. Much of the radio cast reprise their roles onscreen, and it certainly plays that way. Its prose origins are betrayed by a few recognizably overwritten scenes, such as when Arthur and Ford redundantly describe the hallucinations they suffer in episode two, as if the audience couldn’t plainly see them for themselves. The downside is that the TV series comes across like an abridged greatest hits compilation of Adams’ most quotable lines (“Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so”). The upside is… well, it comes across like an abridged greatest hits of the most quotable lines (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”).

While the outdoor location work is grounded in reality, the studio-shot sequences are theatrical in presentation, with long takes staged against traditional three-walled studio sets. The non-naturalistic lighting often works against the story, especially as Ford squints by the feeble light of a match to locate a plainly visible light switch in the brightly illuminated bowels of the Vogon ship. Arthur (who had admittedly just been through a lot) is unimpressed with the “shabby” vessel. Knowing the author and context, this word choice is very likely an ironic comment on the art direction. To be fair, later sequences are staged more dramatically (such as the forced-perspective gangways surrounding the massive supercomputer Deep Thought).

If you want to argue about how Hitchhikers looks on television, I think that sci-fi on the small screen ought not to be judged in terms of what was on the big screen at the time. Doctor Who still gets a lot of grief for its dodgy production values, but recall that it premiered in 1963, long before the stylistic and technological special effects breakthroughs showcased in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979), so it’s a bit unfair to judge, isn’t it? It’s only a rather recent development that the production qualities of science fiction on television began to match the sorts of effects you can see in feature films. In this viewer’s opinion, the current best-of-breed visual effects on television haven’t yet topped Battlestar Galactica (read The Dork Report review), which featured outer space dogfights that matched or exceeded what is routinely showcased in Hollywood features — perhaps even by what is arguably the highest-profile genre series currently on the air, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMark Wing-Davey (and the faulty animatronic head that cost more than his fee) as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As was (and is) the case with Doctor Who, you have to take the good with the bad. Is there any point critiquing Hitchhiker’s dodgy special effects, even considering the year (1981), medium (television), and budget (low)? Insofar was anyone could have predicted audience expectations, they likely tuned in more to savor Adams’ priceless words and ideas, not state-of-the-art spectacle. Here’s original producer Geoffrey Perkins on the topic of the paradoxical limitations and freedom of the radio drama format, and the unexpected repercussions when the serial was later adapted into other media:

“The line about [Zaphod’s] extra head was put in as a little extra throwaway joke which was to cause enormous headaches (sic) when the show was transferred to television. The extra head cost about twice as much as Mark [Wing-Davey] himself (though he thinks that was fair enough because it gave a better performance than he did!). In fact much of the time the head didn’t function properly and used to loll on his shoulder looking up at him, often ending up being operated by a man with his hand up Mark’s back.”
–Geoffrey Perkins, The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, page 50

It’s interesting, and I think significant, that he uses the word “transferred” to describe the adaptation process. At the time of the publication of the radio scripts in 1985, Perkins and Adams still viewed them as the definitive article.

Thanks for reading Part One of The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influence and legacy, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.


Official BBC site: www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers

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1 thought on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: From Radio to TV”

  1. Good stuff! I’m looking forward to parts II-VI of your trilogy. Also, I clearly need to get Don’t Panic!

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