The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
It’s 42 years, getting on for 43, since the TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ radio series, then novel (and later, much later, movie) first aired, and I get the impression, innovative animation of the Guide aside, that it’s generally regarded as the lesser of those initial three versions. The radio incarnation is always preeminent for purists, while the novel allowed Adams to indulge himself (along with the first of many opportunities to rewrite rather than create). On TV, though, limited to a BBC budget and the now-increasingly strong whiff of repetition, it had its work cut out for it. I came to the small-screen version first, which may be why it remains my favourite, warts and all.
Just about everything here is carried off more winningly than it would be when the movie finally crawled to the screen in the wake of Adams’ wake; that really was tired. Indeed, the TV version aired when Adams mania was still at a peak; by the time his third in the five-book trilogy the following year, there was a sense of his exhaustion with the whole thing creeping in, hence turning to an old script (Dr Who and Krikkitmen) for plundering. (Yes, I know there’s a sixth, but I’m ignoring the Eoin Colfer effort, as writing an Adams novel would be akin to writing a PG Wodehouse one; you could do it, but it would be very silly. Not coincidentally, Wodehouse was his major cited influence aside from Doctor Who).
Over familiarity and imitation has rather worn out Adams’ appeal in some quarters, in not dissimilar manner to the way Monty Python can be over-exposed. There’s also that he undoubtedly stuck with his cash cow for much too long, turning on fan favourites (Marvin) and reluctantly birthing sequels that didn’t really make anyone, himself included, very happy (Mostly Harmless). There was the occasional breath of fresh air – The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul might be his best work outside of the first couple of Hitch-Hikers – but he mostly got side tracked by anything and everything, including those deadlines whooshing by and the opportunity to write, rewrite and generally spend far, far too long getting that Hollywood corruption of past glories off the ground (one might suggest it would be the death of him, depending on whether you put it down to the gym, the coronary artery disease, the rounds of studio meetings, or all of the preceding the combined with the Californian climate).
You’ll find those who object to various choices in the (re-)casting – David Dixon and Sandra Dickinson over the radio’s Ford and Trillian – and there are even rumours it was producer Alan Bell’s preferences in this area that cooked the goose of a prospective second TV series (which would have followed the plot of what became the third novel). Adams offered veiled criticisms of Dickinson’s natural accent and the Marvin design, but both seem entirely fitting to the production. Sure, Mark Wing-Davey wears Zaphod’s second head like a Long John Silver stuffed parrot, but there’s a certain lo-fi appeal to the same. Simon Jones’, Peter Jones’ and Stephen Moore’s contributions are note perfect, but it’s also worth mentioning Martin Benson (Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz), Richard Vernon (Slartibartfast) Valentine Dyall (Deep Thought) and Peter Davison (displaying a comedic versatility beneath layers of prosthetic piggery that you’d never really see again, outside of being himself).
Much of Adams’ humour is distilled through contrast, of the familiar with the absurd. He extrapolates mundanity to cosmic proportions, both through the reactions of Arthur and more especially the penchants of human foibles, systems and constructs lent a galactic range. Hence the travel guide, destroying the Earth for a bypass, or Magrathia going into hibernation for stocks reasons (and Hotblack Desiato being declared dead for tax ones). If very ’70s-80s obsessions like digital watches are a recurring gag, so are evergreens like bureaucracy, psychiatry, booze (orama), dietary ethics, cosmetic surgery and the essential insanity of loud rock music.
Philosophical obsessions are the series’ most abiding fix, though, whether highlighting the misery money brings, the desire to distil some meaning from life (in the face of Adams’ deep ambivalence over the prospect), personified – or not – in Oolon Coluphid (ruminations on God, intelligent design). But scientific ones are granted equal scepticism/bemusement (the development of AI, the concept of time travel, theories of (im)probability and the dependability of mathematics).
The real star attraction, however, is the Book. Or rather, the animation for the Book. The crutch of the radio series is turned from a potential lead weight drowning the translation to a different medium into a shining virtue. Even just the “printouts” accompanying the Book’s voice can achieve this, but the graphics themselves range from the simplistic template (Ford or Arthur, say) to the wondrously intricate (the Babel Fish). And often too, the hilariously inventive (the poetry section).
Adams was, obviously, a science-fiction buff and knew innately how to extract laughs from the largely unyielding arena of SF comedy (keep trying, Steven Moffat). Much of that is down to the marriage of conceptual and linguistic flair. Not for small reason has his comedy of contrast been labelled Adams-esque when pointing a finger at perceived cheap imitators. Yet you can readily see how he got his tone from by consulting Wodehouse (some will also suggest he was raiding Kurt Vonnegut). It’s just that you need to add to that the Python-influenced capacity for the preposterous “punchline”.
So when he describes the operation of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, it’s one who readily grasps the way time travel simply doesn’t translate from theory to practice in any kind of intrinsically satisfying way. Likewise, when he explores computing, it’s as a budding technophile (and soon-to-be Mac advocate), someone who sees the humorous potential in programming on levels from the most basic to the vast. Thus, humans are, on the one hand, semi-evolved simians, on the other biocomputers designed to distil the most complex calculation ever. They are not, however, wholly remarkable, unlike the Book, because that would be to invest them with some degree of divine favour.
Being mock-apocalypse, Adams doesn’t tend to favour the terrors of technology. While the most “tech” thing in the series, the Babel Fish, is also adjudged to be the deadliest, it’s a feat of evolution that proves God doesn’t exist (so further tipping the scale in terms of its positives). Robots are awarded the benefit of human quirks – despondency in Marvin, perkiness in Eddie – but that doesn’t extend to a yen for wiping out mankind.
AIs, then, aren’t something to be particularly perturbed by, even if they have, per the story, been ultimately responsible for our existence. Deep Thought, built to provide the answers God isn’t around to deliver, even uses some “needlessly messianic” language while instructing that he cannot give the seekers who constructed him everything they want, but he knows a computer that can. As the series’ presiding AI, however, Deep Thought is instilled the potency and oversight of a minor deity or maxi oracle, consulted by scientists and philosophers alike. One might perceive in him the potential for the strictly scientific to don the regalia of the devout.
Adams is inherently reductive in his approach to any concept, no matter how far out, hence his immediately puncturing Arthur’s bubble of always thinking something sinister was going on beneath it all (“That’s perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone has that”). The link between this and “stress and nervous tension” – that is, attacking the metaphysical strictly from the perspective of nuts-and-bolts philosophy, considering religion in terms of its edifice and paraphernalia rather than reaching for the essence behind it – perhaps explains how easy it was for him to be headhunted by professional atheism grifter Richard Dawkins.
There’s Adams the Pink Floyd fan, Adams the farsighted computer buff – when everyone else was shrugging over the unwieldiness of the Mac – and Adams the environmentalist (although, that arose more from a concern for endangered species than Greta-esque militancy). On top of which, he was also eager to fly, proudly, the flag of “radical atheist”. Dawkins, the deluded author of The God Delusion, would recognise Adams – the latter introduced Lalla Ward to the born-again atheist – as “possibly [my] only convert” to atheism.
Interviewed by American Atheist for its Winter 1998-99 edition, Adams’ notions of God actually come across entirely rudimentary ones. That is, the personhood of a Biblical depiction, which, if that’s as far as one’s thinking on the subject has developed, will understandably elicit conceptual discontent (hence his professing that, if he discovered there was such a being, “I think I would choose not to worship him anyway”, as if supplicating oneself is a conditional clause). He professed to having been a committed Christian until, as a teenager, he heard a street evangelist and “realised he was talking nonsense…”. Subsequently, he became an agnostic.
Adams was, he said, “extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe and everything to put in its place”. He was ripe for the right flavour of indoctrination, then, like many a seeker plucked by a cult group (at least L Ron Hubbard’s colours, as a science-fiction writer, were clear to any with a modicum of discernment). He’d read some Dawkins in his early thirties (making Hitch-Hiker a product of his agnostic phase, essentially; perhaps, like John Cleese and shrinks, restricting oneself to an ordered system saps the creative juices). For Adams, Dawkins’ evolutionary biology was a delayed Road to Damascus “and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place”.
Like any considered but not that considered devotee, Adams comes armed with a fancy-sounding pitch. He doesn’t disbelieve in God. Rather, “I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one”. He then, as icing on the cake, compares the burden of proof to that of the composition of the Moon: “My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me ‘Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid’ – then I can’t even be bothered to argue”. Which is reasonable, as an intelligently designed universe in which the Moon is actually a plasma body and part of the firmament (or between firmaments even) would doubtless result in his own major intestine leaping straight up through his neck and throttling his brain.
This, however, is the key facet of being comprehending enough to hold forth with erudite, astute and cogent opinions, yet insufficiently percipient to realise how extensively one’s conceptual framework is predicated on an ordained paradigm that may be predominately artificial. Inevitably, establishment-approved intellect engenders a diminishing superiority and maintenance of one’s territory, such that those in Adams’ circle who did believe in God were older “and (to be perfectly frank) less well-educated ones. There are one or two exceptions. (I nearly put, by habit ‘honourable exceptions,’ but I don’t really think that)”.
For all that loftiness of that interview, though, it’s the inquiring, fired-up and less-rigid Adams of Hitch-Hiker, an Adams who isn’t so self-serious that he can’t puncture a concept from any side, that is most appealing. As such, when he tells his interviewer “I am fascinated by religion. (That’s a completely different thing from believing in it!) …What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it?” it’s an entirely legitimate avenue of inquiry (particularly since he isn’t wrong to be curious; the apparatus has, largely, been imposed upon the populace, just as fashionable atheism has been introduced to usurp it).
It’s very clear there’s no room for the spiritual in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for all the constant talk of God, meaning and the nature of existence; it’s very literal, reflected in the way it utilises language to convey the superficial, frivolous and explicable – even where it’s considering the deep, solemn and inexplicable. Which is perhaps why the series’ final note of bittersweet melancholy is derived less from Adams’ writing than the soundtrack accompanying it – its most “spiritual” impulse is setting the ending to Louis Armstrong’s almost-hymnal What a Wonderful World. It inscribes a degree of poetic irony to the answer to the meaning of everything being not only a random number, but also the question instigating it being, by implication, arbitrary. Anything less would be enough to make you want to stick your head in a bucket of water.