A couple of weeks ago, I gave you an unranked list of 10 British Science-Fiction TV Shows you could watch this summer, and last week, I took a longer look at one of those, that being the 1960s surrealist masterpiece, The Prisoner. If that series exemplified a story that only could be made in the 1960s on television, the series I’ll be discussing this week is one of the most versatile stories and properties in all of British science fiction. The six episodes which began airing in January 1981 actually represented the fifth separate medium to do a version it. I’m speaking, of course, about the television adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Adams’s undisputed masterpiece began life as a radio program of six episodes in March of 1978. Adams by that point had already been a jobbing comedy writing, even getting the rare distinction of being one of only two writers not in the main cast to have their work showcased on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (in episode 45, a sketch called “Patient Abuse”). The radio program was hailed by critics and became immediately popular with audiences. While Adams was working as writer and script editor for Doctor Who, he was also adapting the radio show into a novel and a stage show, both of which came out in 1979. It also became two stage productions in 1979 and 1980. So, by the time The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy television series came out, the title was already a bonafide cultural touchstone.
The series proudly bore “by Douglas Adams” on the opening titles and didn’t even credit the director Alan J.W. Bell, who also produced. This was a show based around a now incredibly successful writer and was a story that was familiar to many already. The BBC initially thought the lofty science fiction ideas and set pieces and the constant narration (of the book itself) made the project unfilmable, but the series ultimately would become a ratings smash and went on to win a Royal Television Society Award as well as several BAFTAs. So there, nay-sayers.
The series follows the unfortunate and fantastical events that befall hapless Englishman Arthur Dent (Simon Jones) who, at the beginning of the first episode, is trying to have his house not bulldozed in order to build a highway. Through some red tape, he’s able to stave off the building for a day with the help of his friend Ford Prefect (David Dixon) who convinces the workman to lie down in front of his own piece of machinery. Ford has something important to say to Arthur and it can’t wait: Ford is an alien from another planet, the Earth is about to be destroyed to make room for an interstellar highway, and he wants to bring Arthur with him into space so that they don’t die. Kind of a hard thing to wrap your head around, certainly while you’re still in your pajamas. It’s this opening that sets the tone for the whole series; an Englishman is more concerned about his house being torn down than about his planet being destroyed.
Because Arthur has never traveled anywhere outside of Earth before, Ford gives him the titular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book which gives its reader information about anything and everything he or she might encounter in space. This is where the genius of not only the television program but of the whole concept really comes into focus. The Guide is a great way to quickly get the audience up to speed on things, but also a way for us to experience the inner workings of Douglas Adams’ brain. The Guide, which is voiced by the narrator Peter Jones, will begin talking about some creature or event we’ve never heard of (with vectrographic animation to go along) and it will eventually become a passage about life or religion or the meaning of everything.
Take the very famous bit from the first episode concerning the creature The Babel Fish, a means for people from different planets and tongues to understand each other. (skip to the 24 second mark please)
I can listen to that minute-ish piece of storytelling over and over again and never get bored with it. It’s such a funny and weird notion that could only have been dreamed up by someone like Douglas Adams, who had a mad and genius mixture of Stephen Hawking and Monty Python rolling around in his head.
Speaking of heads, Arthur and Ford are eventually rescued from death at the hands of the bulbous Vogons (after being read atrocious Vogon poetry) by the starship Heart of Gold, a ship stolen by Ford’s semi-half-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox (Mark Wing-Davey), a two-headed, three-armed narcissist who fancies himself Elvis or someone. He’s incredibly vain and shallow and doesn’t give much thought to those around him, but is also quite charismatic and weirdly likable. Also aboard the ship is Trillian (Sandra Dickinson), a woman Arthur once met at a party, who is a brilliant astrophysicist and mathematician who nevertheless doesn’t have a problem dating the vapid and self-centered Zaphod. And, of course, there’s also Marvin the paranoid android (voiced by Stephen Moore), basically an even more depressed and metal Eeyore.
The series follows the first radio series incredibly closely and even stars most of the same cast (Dixon and Dickinson being the two exceptions). This is one of the rare examples I can think of where a radio show, which can by its very nature be anything it wants since the visuals are all in the listener’s imagination, is adapted to screen so directly. The BBC’s effects department did a brilliant job of making everything work and the ships and aliens believable, or as believable as they should for a show like this. In episode 5, they even make a pre-Fifth Doctor Peter Davison (then married to Dickinson) nigh-unrecognizable as a big-like creature that is to be the main course at a dinner and who wants more than anything to be eaten (this upsets Arthur pretty spectacularly). If someone hadn’t told me that was Peter Davison, I never would have guessed it. Would you?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as an entity is probably one of the most perfect science fiction concepts ever constructed, and one of the most continually humorous things you could read/listen to/watch. Though there were subsequent novels written and radio series made, the 1981 set of six episodes were the only television adaptations of the material to date. A second series was bandied about for quite some time, but it was eventually abandoned.
Douglas Adams sadly died in 2001 at the startlingly young age of 49 but had sufficiently made his mark on popular culture and on British science fiction. He was very closely involved in the adaptation of the series to feature film but passed away before it even reached the shooting stage. It was released in the spring of 2005 to lukewarm reviews. It was perfectly fine, but it was changed somewhat. For pure, unadulterated Adams, you need look no further than the TV series, which dares to answer the Ultimate Question two episodes before the end. Guess it wasn’t that “Ultimate” after all.
Next time, we’ll be looking at one of the creepiest shows ever made, the stark and eerie Sapphire & Steel. But, whatever you do…