Is the Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” already one of the series’ most misunderstood? Almost two years ago, the Doctor urged his companions Amy & Rory not to live up to the title of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, for the vaguely-explained sci-fi reasons that changing history doesn’t always work out for the best. The Doctor defeated the devil before, in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series 2. Here he has no compunctions in also killing god.
I’ve now listened to three fan podcasts debating the merits of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and was frankly surprised to discover the episode has been met by Doctor Who fandom with ambivalence at best, and outright derision from the rest. I would certainly not try to defend it as an instant classic, but it certainly does not deserve to be counted among the abysmal failures like “Fear Her” and “Last of the Time Lords”. In fact, I would argue it’s worthy of praise for daring to say something potentially very controversial. Perhaps it doesn’t say it very well (as evidenced by the fact that none of the participants in those three podcasts so much as broach the topic), but at least it’s a story that strives to be more than the usual Doctor-defeats-an-alien-invasion routine (not that there’s anything wrong with that routine — as a lifelong fan I love that routine!).
Out of all the various opinions voiced by the hosts of Radio Free Skaro, Verity, and Two Minute Time Lord, I align most with Chip of the latter, who was pleased the show still has the potential to be surprising. But everyone, even Chip, failed to even address what I took to be the major takeaway from the episode: the Doctor essentially rescued a civilization from a parasite they worshipped as a god. He freed a society from their self-defeating religion, and they thanked him for it.
Writer Neil Cross is famous for the grim BBC series Luther, and his script for Doctor Who was generally much lighter. But “The Rings of Akhaten” was about something very important, in a way that the series does not often attempt. I would classify it broadly in the same league as “Vincent and the Doctor”, where science fiction tropes were employed for a thinly-veiled metaphor of a particular aspect of human existence. Just as “Vincent and the Doctor” used time travel and invisible monsters to explore the topic of depression and suicide, “The Rings of Akhaten” used asteroids, interstellar mopeds, and angry space mummies to make a point about the detrimental effects of religion.
After watching the episode, I fully expected the fan conversation to be about how the show overstepped by taking on the negative affects of faith and religion. I expected many to take offense for daring to go there. But instead, it got called “dumb” and “stupid”, and Radio Free Skaro even dubbed it “The Borings of Akhenaten”. I suppose it raises the questions of what people want or expect from Doctor Who, which would seem to be plot, story, and character development. Anything beyond that (such as allegorical explorations of deeper themes like faith and religion) might as well be invisible. A good piece of science fiction ought to excel in both areas, so it seems “The Borings of Akhenaten” falls down on both fronts: none of the podcast hosts thought to mention the topic of religion (imagine talking about “Vincent and the Doctor” without mentioning depression!), and on the practical side, the plot particulars might not hold up to much scrutiny. But since when has Doctor Who ever been about hard sci-fi and airtight plotting? Any fan that demands that stuff probably ought to be watching Star Trek.
I don’t think I’m reaching at all in my interpretation here. This has to be one of the most thinly-veiled metaphors in Doctor Who history. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) begin their adventure explicitly discussing the society’s religion. He briefly explains how their belief system works: a giant orb in the sky, known as Grandfather, is worshipped as a vengeful god. A priesthood has long placated it via song, until today.
Clara wondrously asks, “Is it true?” For of course, she just rode across space and time to her first alien world, so it would’t be much more of a stretch to ask if, yes, the giant ball of gas in the sky (which the hosts of Verity memorably compared to Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin) might actually be a god that demands offerings of precious memories. The Doctor pauses, smiles, and then replies “It’s a nice story”. Again, it’s not subtle: the Doctor is saying that what these people believe is a god is actually just a thing. Many, many times before he’s unmasked the supernatural: the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” were robots, the ghosts in “The Unquiet Dead” and the devil in “The Satan Pit” were aliens, etc. There is no real supernatural in the Doctor Who universe.
I’ve put all of this very broadly to try and keep this post short, but my point is that the episode was far from “dumb”, “stupid” or “boring”. For better or for worse, it took on some complicated questions about religion. It also made me wonder about what it is the Doctor does to the civilizations he rescues. He has a long history of freeing groups from oppression, often leaving at the end of the story having totally and utterly upended the status quo. Here, the Doctor frees a people from their self-destructive religion. It’s not a perfect metaphor for atheism, for in a sense this god is real — not actually a god, but real. Atheists would point to the tyranny of organized religion, which is the work of fellow humans.
John Lennon asked in “Imagine” that we consider a world without countries or possessions, and heaven or religion. The alien civilization in “The Rings of Akhaten” has an economy that derives directly from their religion: just as their ersatz god feeds upon emotional memories, they pay for goods and services with objects imbued with sentimental value. The Doctor destroys both of these things: not only their god but also the very meaning behind their currency.
This alien culture, as far as we see it in this episode, is defined by only two things: its religion and its commerce. All we see of them is a marketplace and a religious order. So, in rescuing them, the Doctor takes away everything that we know about them. And they’re happy for it. Surely that’s the interesting thing about this episode, right?
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 you’re just joining 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 Two, on its influence & legacy.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
If you’re just joining 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
You’re 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 & legacy, and Part Three, on the friendly topic of atheism.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., the second Dr. Who feature film, follows Dr. Who & The Daleks by one short year, and clearly betrays where the public’s interest lay at the time by ditching any mention to Dr. Who in the title. The first film largely disregarded the TV show’s premise and continuity, and the sequel similarly plays fast and loose with its own predecessor. Dr. Who has yet another young female relative, a niece named Louise? Why does she call her uncle “Doctor”? Did Barbara elope with that twit Ian?
Otherwise, the screenplay is loosely based on the original 1964 TV serial “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” starring William Hartnell. It follows the original farily closely, especially in the early seqences showing a war-ravaged London and the iconic image (well, to Brits, anyway) of a Dalek rising out of the Thames (actually better realized in the original – here they cut away from a Dalek head poking out of the water and back to it fully emerged).
It’s just barely slightly better in terms of action and spectacle (the Dalek flying saucer isn’t half-bad, considering), but nevertheless just as mind-numbingly stupid. Let’s start with the title. Why is it set in the future? Everyone’s dressed in 1960s clothing, with contemporary rifles and cars. If there’s nothing to be gained, it might as well be set in present day. Plus it would be that much more of an exciting thought for kids to to imagine an invasion might happen today rather than next century.
Look out, Robo-men! Why did the Robo-men take off their helmets and suddenly become human again when the Doctor simply orders them to attack the Daleks? And why do they scream like little kids? Why do the Daleks have fire hydrant guns? Why do the Daleks only take male prisoners? What do they do with the women?
Of course, there’s also the music. After another set of pointless psychedlic opening titles, a sequence depicting a bank robbery is set to… Beethoven? WTF? After that we get a generic lighthearted score, determinedly whimsical even when Dr. Who discovers a corpse. Incidentally, this Doctor is badass. Crossing the countryside on foot, a Robo-Man orders him to halt. The Doctor shoots him and turns right back to the map. “As I was saying…”
And finally, why did the Daleks invade England? The “magnetic influence of the North and South Poles” is located under Watford, of course!
Dr. Who & The Daleks is the first of two feature films based on the classic BBC TV series Doctor Who. They are, as the fans say, “non-canonical,” and thank god for it. The TV series was a true all-ages affair; typically enjoyable for children, but with extra layers of subtext for grownups (or at least attractive ladies for the dads). But this movie is dumbed down to the point where it’s dull and condescending to even the youngest audience member.
Screen legend Peter Cushing plays “Doctor Who” (in the movie, that’s apparently his actual name) as a silly old (human!) man, a harmless mad scientist. The other characters don’t fare well either. The original TV incarnations of Ian and Barbara were both intelligent and capable, employed in the noble profession of school teachers. This Ian is a total prat, serving mainly as comic relief, and Barbara is reduced to a screaming plot device.
Other things grate to longtime fans (it’s “the TARDIS,” not just “TARDIS”!) and regular viewers alike (the music is wretched). Truth be told, cheesy effects and silly technobabble are actually great pleasures to be found in the original series, but the extra money spent on the movie must have gone to the wrong places (the sets and extra Dalek props, evidently). The advanced Dalek technology includes lava lamps (I’m not kidding). And make up your minds, Daleks, is it a neutron or neutronic bomb?
And finally, if it’s pitched so low, what are the moral lessons it has to teach youngsters? Based on what The Doctor has to teach the naive glam-rock aliens threatened by the Daleks, don’t trust anyone who claims to want to help you. Instead, fight and kill them.