The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Influence & Legacy

Douglas AdamsDouglas Adams and the answer to life, the universe, and everything

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted and extended into virtually every media yet conceived by humankind — if more advanced species elsewhere in the galaxy are able to plug the story directly into their brains, they haven’t yet shared the technology with us earthlings. Back on Earth, Adams personally wrote the radio series (which many of those involved consider the definitive ur text), novels, a television series, and computer game. Although nowhere near the level of cultural saturation of its rough contemporary Star Wars, it is fair to state that it is something personally beloved by millions, but also a rather valuable franchise that placed quite a burden upon its creator. Like George Lucas, Adams spent the rest of his life shepherding and protecting, and yes, profiting off Hitchhiker’s.

Before and after Adams’ untimely death in 2001 — not that there is such a thing as a timely death — Hitchikers enjoyed a complex parallel existence in stage shows, licensed merchandise (including towels and rubber duckies), and additional written works by other authors. The now-superstar author Neil Gaiman’s second book Don’t Panic — only slightly less humble than his first, a Duran Duran hagiography — was a combination biography of Adams and history of Hitchhiker’s as a whole, cleverly written in a reverent pastiche of Adams’ own style. DC Comics adapted the original stories into comics form 1993-1997, after which things went relatively quiet until a 2005 feature film failed to catch on with American movie goers. Director Garth Jennings’s movie has many flaws, the largest of which may simply have been showing up too late to the fading Hitchhiker’s party. But much of the casting is inarguably excellent, particularly Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent and the voices of Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman as The Guide and Marvin the Paranoid Android, respectively (read The Dork Report review). The movie may have failed to reignite fan fervor at its peak, but the neverending trilogy got even longer when the Adams estate posthumously authorized a sixth prose novel by Artemis Fowl creator Eoin Colfer in 2009.

Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich, Martin Freeman, Mos Def, and Zooey Deschanel in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyGetting the band back together for the 2005 feature film

But the vast influence of Adams’ original works is incalculable. I can’t speak to his influence in his home country, but he was an integral component of the holy trinity for a particular strain of Anglophile geeks growing up in America in the 1970s and 80s: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the holy Doctor Who, forever and ever amen. Rolling Stone magazine gave away 3,000 free copies of the first novel in 1981, guaranteeing countless young unsuccessful bands called Disaster Area, one successful band called Level 42, and a generation of college kids heeding Ford Prefect’s sage advice to enjoy “Six pints of bitter, and quickly please, the world’s about to end.” The BCC television comedy Red Dwarf is a direct descendant (albeit, if anything, even more bitterly bleak and nihilistic). As a cultural institution, Hitchhiker’s was still hip enough in 1997 to inspire the Radiohead song title “Paranoid Android”.

Adams, together with fellow imp Tom Baker, forever stamped Doctor Who with its signature blend of hard science, absurdist humor, and barely submerged darkness. The ideal recipe is still debated to this day, perhaps most evident in Christopher Eccleston’s particularly bipolar vision of the character as swinging wildly between anguished and giddy — at once grieving his complicity in the death of his entire species, but not so despairing that he couldn’t fall in love with a cute young blonde earthling named Rose Tyler (The Doctor! In love! Almost as unthinkable as the romantic misadventures that would befall Arthur after the largely sexless early installments of Hitchhiker’s). But in 1979, for those British fans that preferred wit & whimsy over reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, they could switch the telly over to BBC Two to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Peter Davison in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyFifth Doctor Peter Davison appears as The Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

As my frequent Doctor Who asides above prove, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without a few detours into Whovian matters — not least because Fifth Doctor Peter Davison famously cameos in the television series as the exceptionally rare (and chatty) steak served at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I first read the novels as a kid, completely unaware of their radio or TV incarnations. I quite literally pictured Ford Prefect as The Doctor (specifically, the highly eccentric Tom Baker’s unforgettable performance as the Fourth Doctor). When my local PBS affiliate finally ran the TV series, I was quite disappointed to find that David Dixon is very nearly the physical opposite of Baker; and not nearly as… well, alien.

David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyDavid Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

Trillian, who appears for the first time in episode two, was another huge disappointment. Whether by her own acting choices, contemporary cultural mores, or the whims of a randy costume department, actress Sandra Dickinson pitches the character as even dumber and more sexed up than a typical Doctor Who companion, which is really saying something (thankfully, 21st Century Who Girls generally enjoy much more substantial characterization). She and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox both sport exaggerated American accents that make me scratch my head as much as our silliest mock British accents must irritate actual Britons (addendum: I have since learned that Dickinson is actually American, so I don’t know what it means that her accent sounded fake to me). Dickinson would later marry Davison, and their daughter Georgia Moffett would in turn wed actor David Tennant (making the Fifth Doctor the Tenth Doctor’s father-in-law — and this is without any real-life time travel). It’s as if Adams is still working beyond the grace as the behind-the-scenes matchmaker keeping it all in the Doctor Who family — and I haven’t even gotten around to discussing Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins yet.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker in Doctor WhoDouglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 1: Lalla Ward and Tom Baker

But the single greatest repercussion of Hitchhiker’s has nothing to do with Radiohead songs, the relative eccentricity of Doctor Who leading men, or spinoff merchandise. It is, simply, the Apple iPhone. Allow me to be approximately the millionth person to point out that the eponymous guide itself has since become a very real thing, collecting lint in the bathrobe pockets of millions of Earthlings. It took a number of iterations of numerous interlocking components for it to happen, and it’s not hard to imagine that Adams was a direct influence on the visionary nerds that invented and assembled them. Computers were networked together in the 1960s, an infinite number of Ford Prefects began to crowd-source Wikipedia in 2001, and then devices small enough to carry all of this around began to appear in the 1990s (I remember really lusting after the magical Palm VII, which was capable of retrieving your email out of thin air). These elements finally came together in 2007 with the first truly usable portable information device, Apple’s iPhone — an invention I’m sure Adams would agree is more useful than even the towel. Wikipedia’s theoretically infinite hyperlinked database full of persistently and instantly available information proved about as reliable as the Hitchhiker’s Guide, loaded as it is with dense entries on fripperies like where to find the finest Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, while having little comment on an entire lifebearing planet like, say, Earth. To quote the first edition: “Harmless.” Second, extensively revised & expanded edition: “Mostly harmless.”

Peter Davison and David Tennant in Doctor WhoDouglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 2: David Tennant and father-in-law Peter Davison

So what is it that makes Hitchhiker’s so enduringly popular? It’s not too difficult to decode its DNA: Adams’ involvement in Cambridge University sketch comedy groups, his writing collaborations with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and his appreciation of classic science fiction (particularly Kurt Vonnegut and the British institution Doctor Who). But Hitchhiker’s is not a sequel, parody, adaptation, or pastiche of anything in particular. Although it plays with many tropes of science fiction, it was a genuinely new thing. Adams had the following to say of American TV audiences, but I think it’s valid as a universal statement:

“Audiences in the US (through no fault of their own) are treated as complete idiots by the people who make programmes. And when you’ve been treated as an idiot for so long you tend to respond that way. But when given something with a bit more substance they tend to breathe a deep sigh of relief and say ‘Thank God for that!'”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Adams gave people something with a bit more substance, and they seized upon it. His ideas were so original that Adams spent most of his latter career patiently explaining where they came from. NPR’s Marc Hirsh has a more pessimistic take, equating James Cameron’s recent announcement that he would only make films set in the Avatar universe to the trap that Adams found himself in:

[Adams] spent the last 23 years of his life, starting from the original 1978 radio broadcast, continually rewriting the same story over and over for different media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the different iterations, I can’t help but think that that’s an almost tragic waste of talent.
— Marc Hirsh, NPR (via Neil Gaiman)

True, he must have been frustrated to not be able to move beyond Hitchhiker’s for most of his career, but one need only look at bookstore shelves today to see almost everything he wrote still happily in print, including two novels in a new series starring holistic detective Dirk Gently. Writing and managing the Hitchhiker’s empire was evidently a slow and painful task for him, and he wasted a lot of time struggling to bring Hitchhiker’s to BBC TV and Hollywood, with mixed results. But outside of his nominal career as a writer, he would seem to have lived a rich life full of close friends (including luminaries as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Dave Gilmour), good deeds (q.v. his book Last Chance to See, on endangered species), and thinking deep thoughts.

Thanks for reading Part Two 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 One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.

Official Douglas Adams site:

Official BBC site:

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Don’t Panic! Turn your iPhone into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy free wallpaper Don't Panic

Don’t you wish you could turn your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as seen in the eponymous series of novels by Douglas Adams? Of course you do! Install these free wallpapers, open up The Guide, grab your towel, stick out your Electronic Thumb, and hit the spaceways. But do try to avoid Vogon vessels…

iPad with retina display iPad iPhone 4 iPhone 3 & iPod Touch

iPad 3
with retina display

iPad 1 & 2
1st or 2nd generation

iPhone 4
with retina display

iPhone 3
3G, 3Gs, or iPod Touch

Need help? The Iconfactory has an excellent FAQ.

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Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified movie poster


Objectified finds its thesis in a quotation from one of history’s prime industrialists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether intentional or not, speaks to whoever put it there.” In other words, everything we select, purchase, and interact with, was first designed and manufactured by a skilled artisan. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their product might become a part of your life. Director Gary Hustwit’s previous documentary feature Helvetica (read The Dork Report review) was a celebration of typographers and graphic designers, and inspired laypeople to recognize the long history and great labor that went into the typefaces they use every day on their computer screens. Similarly, Objectified profiles the often unknown industrial designers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in ObjectifiedJonathan Ives’ inner sanctum. After conducting this interview, Apple had the filmmakers shot.

Apple’s resident guru Jonathan Ive is perhaps the most famous design auteur featured. Ive is probably the second most famous person at Apple, justly acclaimed for his singular design aesthetic that first caught the public imagination with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, deceptively “simple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a principle born out in Ive’s work. Knowing inside and out the particulars of different materials and manufacturing is just part of designing a product’s externals. Ive brandishes precision-tooled parts from a disassembled MacBook Pro to illustrate that Apple spends an enormous amount of time and resources not just designing their products, but also the custom machines and processes necessary to mass produce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in ObjectifiedNaoto Fukasawa rethinks the CD player.

Objectified spends some considerable time on the topic of sustainability, a responsibility that regrettably only recently entered the industrial designer’s job description. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incredible anecdote of the difficult process of developing a new toothbrush. When the product is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vacation to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a discarded IDEO toothbrush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her product had become pollution.

Objectified necessarily makes a brief detour into interaction design (this brief digression would be worthy of a film unto itself, but in the meantime, the curious can refer to Steven Johnson‘s 1997 book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate). When we interact with most analog products, their form follows their function. As a thought experiment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s function simply by looking at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many products of the digital age, the outward form factor gives no clues as to the function. Thus, interaction design was born with the Xerox PARC graphical user interface. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have popularized the touchscreen, which likely signals the beginning of another sea change when peripherals like keyboards and mice will be revealed to have been a temporary evolutionary bump, now marked for extinction.

still from ObjectifiedAwww yeah, designers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a computer, hard drive, and camera. Tellingly, the Objectified Blu-ray edition has no menu structure at all. You put it in, it plays, and the supplementary features follow immediately after the closing credits. It’s a completely guided, linear experience that speaks to the film’s elevation of the creator over the consumer.

Official movie site:

Must read: A Hurricane of Consumer Values by Alissa Walker

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