Douglas Adams: What a Wonderful World

Despite being the osten­si­ble pro­tag­o­nist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is remark­ably out of con­trol of his des­tiny. Through­out, he sur­vives var­i­ous calami­ties equipped only with only a Babel fish, towel, and implau­si­ble hap­pen­stance. But most of its cast of char­ac­ters are equally adrift in a sense­less uni­verse: Zaphod Bee­ble­brox is the ulti­mate irre­spon­si­ble slacker, just hang­ing out as the uni­verse unfairly hap­pens to pro­duce every­thing he needs. Ford Pre­fect just barely clings on to a dead-end travel writ­ing gig in the back­wa­ters of the galaxy. Mr. Prosser and Prostet­nic Vogon Jeltz are mere salary­men dis­pas­sion­ately dis­patch­ing their duties, too jaded even to evilly enjoy their cat­a­clysmic impact upon oth­ers (the sym­bolic mir­ror­ing between these char­ac­ters was laid bare in the orig­i­nal radio series, where they were both por­trayed by the same actor — curi­ously not the case in the TV show, when it ought to have been triv­ial to do like­wise, con­sid­er­ing how much alien makeup was involved).

If the many mis­for­tunes that befall Arthur seem mean­ing­less, and his escapes equally arbi­trary, maybe it’s because Adams was one of the world’s most famous athe­ists. He was friend and match­maker to out­spo­ken debunker of super­nat­u­ral­ism Richard Dawkins — indeed, he intro­duced to him to his future wife Lalla Ward (who played Romana dur­ing Adams’ tenure on Doc­tor Who, and is still revered today as “the lord high queen of the nerds” by Top­less Robot). It would be extremely con­ve­nient to draw con­nec­tions between Dawkins and the Hitchhiker’s char­ac­ter Oolon Colluphid, were the chronol­ogy not so incon­ve­nient: the series was writ­ten long before Adams dis­cov­ered Dawkins’ book The Self­ish Gene, and before they became friends after Dawkins wrote Adams an admit­ted “fan let­ter.” Colluphid, of course, wrote the highly influ­en­tial and con­tro­ver­sial tril­ogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Great­est Mis­takes and Who is this God Per­son Any­way?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God — an oeu­vre only slightly less pointed than Dawkins’ own.

Lalla Ward and Richard DawkinsDou­glas Adams the match­maker: Doc­tor Who star Lalla Ward and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Richard Dawkins

Absorb­ing Hitch­hik­ers’ in prose, on stage, TV, or radio has long been the first baby step for many cur­rent and future athe­ists. The first few moments of all ver­sions of the story fea­ture numer­ous gags about God, the most well-known of which involves the infa­mous Babel Fish. When I first read the novel as a kid, I was of course pleas­antly grossed out by the notion of stick­ing a fish in your ear. Whether or not a child reader grasps the overt allu­sion to the bib­li­cal Tower of Babel, most would be versed enough in sci­ence fic­tion to rec­og­nize that Adams was mock­ing the accepted con­ven­tion that Eng­lish is spo­ken through­out the uni­verse. Star Trek and Doc­tor Who both made off­hand com­ments to explain the lan­guage bar­rier issue in pseudo-scientific man­ners, which is per­haps the health­i­est nar­ra­tive approach — why get bogged down in tech­ni­cal­i­ties, which only get in the way of telling a good story? But Adams decided to con­front the con­ceit head-on, and not only sub­vert it but also take it to a star­tling philo­soph­i­cal con­clu­sion. In lit­er­ary the­ory, this would be a case­book exam­ple of decon­struc­tion. Here’s the rel­e­vant excerpt from the orig­i­nal radio show:

The Babel Fish is small, yel­low, leech like, and prob­a­bly the odd­est thing in the Uni­verse. It feeds on brain­wave energy, absorb­ing all uncon­scious fre­quen­cies and then excret­ing tele­path­i­cally a matrix formed from the con­scious fre­quen­cies and nerve sig­nals picked up from the speech cen­ters of the brain; the prac­ti­cal upshot of which is that if you stick on in your ear you can instantly under­stand any­thing said to you in any form of lan­guage — the speech you hear decodes the brain­wave matrix. Now it is such a bizarrely improb­a­ble coin­ci­dence that any­thing so mind­bog­glingly use­ful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have cho­sen to see it as a final clinch­ing proof of the non-existence of God.

The argu­ment goes some­thing like this:

I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and with­out faith I am noth­ing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead give­away isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so there­fore, by your own argu­ments, you don’t. QED” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly van­ishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy” says Man, and for an encore he proves that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most lead­ing the­olo­gians claim that this argu­ment is a load of dingo’s kid­neys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Coluphid mak­ing a small for­tune when he used it as the cen­tral theme of his best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.

Mean­while, the poor Babel Fish, be effec­tively remov­ing all bar­ri­ers to com­mu­ni­ca­tion between dif­fer­ent cul­tures and races, has caused more and blood­ier wars than any­thing else in the his­tory of creation.

– The Orig­i­nal Hitch­hiker Radio Scripts, Dou­glas Adams, p29-30

The Babel Fish from the BBC Series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Guide entry on The Babel Fish

The above excerpt is from The Guide itself, the book within the book (another gift to lit­er­ary the­o­rists). The Guide is full of use­less infor­ma­tion, when not out­right incor­rect, but one won­ders if Adams was wist­fully imag­in­ing a more advanced alien soci­ety pos­sessed of greater sec­u­lar wis­dom than our own — one in which even lowly travel guides take it as a given that there is no Fly­ing Spaghetti Mon­ster, Invis­i­ble Sky Daddy, or Ceil­ing Cat watch­ing over us. What is espe­cially remark­able is how eco­nom­i­cal the above excerpt is. It’s ele­gant, con­cise, and above all, funny. In only a few lines, Adams co-opts two com­mon the­is­tic argu­ments into a log­i­cal equa­tion that ≠ God: so-called “irre­ducible com­plex­ity” and the ulti­mate get-out-of-any-argument gam­bit, faith. To him, faith and belief aren’t enough when it comes to the really impor­tant questions:

“Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irra­tional, arro­gant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for sev­eral rea­sons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a cara­pace for the pro­tec­tion of irra­tional notions from legit­i­mate ques­tions, how­ever, I think that the word has a lot of mis­chief to answer for […] I am, how­ever, con­vinced that there is no god, which is a totally dif­fer­ent stance.“
– Dou­glas Adams, inter­view with Amer­i­can Athe­ist, quoted in Dou­glas Adams and God — Por­trait of a Rad­i­cal Athe­ist by Nico­las Botti

To the above, I say “can I get an amen?” The word “belief” is appro­pri­ate for mat­ters of super­sti­tion, but not for mat­ters of sci­ence. The self-professed “rad­i­cal athe­ist” we hear from above is con­sid­er­ably more gen­tle and breezy when he play­fully tweaks reli­gion in Hitchhiker’s. But it’s easy to imag­ine how these books might incite the ire of the eas­ily offended Reli­gious Right cur­rently dom­i­nat­ing the US polit­i­cal scene. That is, if they were literary-minded enough to sit down and actu­ally attempt to read a book — any book — which clearly they aren’t. Con­sider how the Monty Python film The Life of Brian was famously protested against for pre­cisely the wrong rea­sons. Its detrac­tors assumed the film mocked Jesus (when it is in fact quite respect­ful), but failed to rec­og­nize that the Pythons’ true tar­get was orga­nized reli­gion itself. This also fas­ci­nated Adams:

“I am fas­ci­nated by reli­gion. (That’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent thing from believ­ing in it!) It has had such an incal­cu­la­bly huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it rep­re­sent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep pok­ing and prod­ding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fas­ci­na­tion is bound to spill over into my writ­ing.“
– Dou­glas Adams, inter­view with Amer­i­can Athe­ist

The same Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ists that decry the osten­si­ble witch­craft at the core of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Pot­ter books (whether they acknowl­edge Rowling’s own Chris­t­ian faith or not) would surely object to the capri­cious, overtly god­less uni­verse in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is set.

Speak­ing of literary-mindedness, for a man who wrote for the all-ages adven­ture pro­gram Doc­tor Who, Adams incor­po­rated very lit­tle actual phys­i­cal vio­lence into Hitchhiker’s. It’s inter­est­ing that when Arthur and Ford are tor­tured on the Vogon ship, the means is not water­board­ing, elec­tro­cu­tion, or soli­tary con­fine­ment, but rather the read­ing aloud of poetry. For all the power of lan­guage to harm, Arthur and Ford are unable to talk their way out of their predica­ment. This sug­gests that in the Hitchhiker’s uni­verse, lit­er­a­ture is either obscure and irrel­e­vant (as seen in some of more unhelp­ful Guide entries, or when Arthur fails to enlighten some cave­men with a game of Scrab­ble), or out­right hos­tile (such as the afore­men­tioned Vogon poetry, and the offi­cial doc­u­ments that doom Arthur’s house and planet to demolition).

Adams had diverse inter­ests beyond tweak­ing the noses of the­ists, and incor­po­rated many gags into Hitchhiker’s that would appeal mostly to physi­cists and sta­tis­ti­cians. Two things in par­tic­u­lar that pre­oc­cu­pied him were meta­physics and com­put­ers, and he was able to put them together in the Deep Thought sub­plot. Curi­ous humanoids out­source their philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions to a sen­tient super­com­puter tasked with cal­cu­lat­ing the answer to life, the uni­verse, and every­thing. The answer “42” is just as mean­ing­less as the ques­tion “what do you get if you mul­ti­ply six by nine?” Accord­ing to my read­ing, math­e­mati­cians might make sense of this equa­tion if cal­cu­lated in base 10 — AKA the dec­i­mal sys­tem — and gam­blers would rec­og­nize 42 as the sum of all sides of a pair of dice. Unfor­tu­nately, these clever math­e­mati­cians and gam­blers would be no closer to an under­stand­ing of the uni­verse as any­body else. The pur­suit of the answer and then the ques­tion wasted bil­lions of years and immea­sur­able lives. Thus in one sin­gle plot twist, Adams pins a don­key tail on entire reli­gions and whole schools of thought — they’re not just absurd, but also extra­or­di­nar­ily harmful.

The sup­posed irrev­er­ent nature of British humor is a tired topic among Amer­i­can geeks that came of age quot­ing Monty Python and Doc­tor Who in out­ra­geously fake accents — even the most crass gags (I’m think­ing here of Mrs. Slocomb’s tales regard­ing her “pussy” on Are You Being Served) sound more witty, sophis­ti­cated, and eru­dite to us when spo­ken in for­eign accents. Here’s Adams on this very topic (regional humor that is, not cats):

“I think too much is made of the dif­fer­ence between US and UK humour. I don’t think there’s a dif­fer­ence in the way those audi­ences are treated. […] There are things the British think are as Eng­lish as roast beef that the Amer­i­cans think are as Amer­i­can as apple pie. The trick is to write about peo­ple. If you write about sit­u­a­tions that peo­ple rec­og­nize then peo­ple will respond to it.“
–Dou­glas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Ricky Gervais enjoys a pint at The Golden GlobesRicky Ger­vais enjoys a pint at The Golden Globes: “…and thank god for mak­ing me an atheist.”

The alleged great divide between Amer­i­can and British humor came back into relief again recently as Ricky Ger­vais closed the first of his Golden Globes host­ing gigs in 2011. Most of his allegedly uncen­sored celebrity barbs turned out to be merely tired stabs at low-hanging fruit (cer­tain Sci­en­tol­o­gists are gay, Char­lie Sheen is a junkie, Hugh Hefner is an old creep that gets laid more than you ever will, etc.) that only resulted in more rolled eyes than bruised egos. But what upset out­wardly pious Amer­i­cans most was his clos­ing quip “…and thank god for mak­ing me an athe­ist.” Any­one given to appre­ci­at­ing Adams’ cock­tail of absur­dism, logic, and phi­los­o­phy would rec­og­nize Ger­vais’ brand of humor here. Unfor­tu­nately, the loud­est voices in the cur­rent Amer­i­can land­scape are holy rollers with per­se­cu­tion complexes.

Per­haps Adams’ athe­ism was the moti­va­tion behind his per­sonal appear­ance as an arche­typal mod­ern man expe­ri­enc­ing an exis­ten­tial cri­sis in the begin­ning of episode two of the Hitchhiker’s tele­vi­sion series. If you believe Neil Gaiman, Adams stepped in sim­ply because the orig­i­nal actor was stuck in traf­fic that day, but I pre­fer to imag­ine a greater sig­nif­i­cance. Just as Radio­head would later employ Mar­vin the Para­noid Android as a metaphor for the themes of para­noia and depres­sion in their acclaimed album OK Com­puter, Adams plays a name­less every­man beset by the mod­ern con­di­tion. Tak­ing the long view of some­one edu­cated in evo­lu­tion (which an alarm­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans believe to be more sci­ence fic­tion than actual sci-fi), he decides that it was all a mis­take for life to leave the oceans in the first place.

Marvin the Paranoid Android from the BBC series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMar­vin the Para­noid Android, look­ing a lit­tle more chip­per than usual

But there’s a note of opti­mism to be had at the end of the series, which thanks to the won­der­ful nar­ra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of time travel in sci­ence fic­tion, is not really the end but rather the begin­ning. Arthur, Ford, and the unde­sir­able dregs of an ancient humanoid civ­i­liza­tion land on pre­his­toric Earth and inter­min­gle with brutish cave­men (inter­est­ingly, very much the same thing hap­pens at the con­tro­ver­sial con­clu­sion to the 2003-09 TV series Bat­tlestar Galac­tica, except much less funny). The series signs off with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Won­der­ful World” — which works as both a sar­cas­tic com­ment on humanity’s hum­ble, decid­edly not divine ori­gins (we’re descended from inter­bred hunters & gath­er­ers, hair­dressers, and tele­phone san­i­tiz­ers) but also as a sin­cere com­ment on Arthur and Ford’s begrudg­ing friendship.

Thanks for read­ing Part Three of The Dork Report’s look back at Hitchhiker’s. Catch up with Part One, on its highly improb­a­ble leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influ­ence & legacy.

Fur­ther reading:

Dou­glas Adams and God — Por­trait of a Rad­i­cal Athe­ist by Nico­las Botti

Amer­i­can Athe­ist inter­view with Dou­glas Adams

Offi­cial BBC site:

Offi­cial Dou­glas Adams site:

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: 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:

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:

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


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.

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