Inner Knot: The Art of King Crimson’s Discipline

King Crimson Discipline

The story of King Crimson’s revi­tal­iza­tion for a new decade with the album Dis­ci­pline has been told many times over. The 1981–84 period is usu­ally dis­cussed in terms of per­son­nel, with most com­men­tary mar­veling that no two con­sec­u­tive prior King Crim­son albums had ever before fea­tured the same lineup. No doubt, for a band defined by per­pet­ual lineup changes, it was novel indeed to finally sta­bi­lize around a fixed group of musi­cians. It’s a handy nar­ra­tive hook upon which to hang a record review, but it’s only part of the story.

1981–1984 saw the band unusu­ally focused on a core set of musi­cal ideas. They laid them out in a nearly per­fect the­sis state­ment in the form of their debut album Dis­ci­pline in Sep­tem­ber 1981. This “new” Crim­son was to be defined by inter­lock­ing gui­tar parts (shared at first by two vir­tu­oso gui­tarists, but expanded on later tunes like “Neal and Jack and Me” to encom­pass the full quar­tet), bleeding-edge tech­nol­ogy (drum and gui­tar syn­the­siz­ers, plus the futur­is­tic instru­ment the Chap­man Stick), quirky New York pop ten­den­cies (of the Talk­ing Heads vari­ety), a dash of world music influ­ences (par­tic­u­larly Afropop and Indone­sian game­lan), and com­po­si­tion derived through impro­vi­sa­tion (exam­ples being “The Shel­ter­ing Sky”, “Requiem”, and later most of side two of Three of a Per­fect Pair).

Con­tinue read­ing

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:

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