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: