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: www.douglasadams.com

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

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:

 

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

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report: