Douglas Adams's 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' exists in so many different media by this stage that it can be hard for the newbie to know which version to tackle first. If you've only ever seen the movie you may think that it's all a bit overrated and you'd be right to do so, as although the film looked great and had some fine performances, the story was a mess. If you've only read the books, you're missing out. If you've only seen the TV series and you liked it, you're in for a treat. The original radio series is not only the best way to do Hitch-Hiker but certainly the best thing its author ever did.
The original radio series was written and broadcast in 1978, with a second series a couple of years later. These suffered, perhaps, from Adams's habits as a writer (he was a compulsive rewriter and could never finish things) and the BBC's habits as a producer. At the end of writing the first series, Adams wound it all up very conclusively because he assumed that a second series wouldn't be commissioned. However, a second series was commissioned, and he had to go through some incredibly tortuous writing to get the story going again. At the end of the second series, he left it deliberately open-ended because he assumed that the BBC would immediately commission a third series, but they didn't. So the original radio series has the effect of coming to a natural end halfway through, then grinding back into motion again and finishing in a rather unsatisfying way. For all that, the first two series are the real gold: brilliantly witty, astonishingly inventive and full of unforgettable moments. These are the reason why Hitch-Hiker fans tend to be obsessive. Adams's best jokes stick in your mind and change the way you see the world: a restaurant at the end of the universe; a starship powered by the fact that it's infinitely improbable that you could pass through every point in the universe simultaneously; a coffee machine that tries to second-guess what you really want to drink by reading your mind; lifts that know what floor to pick you up from before you've decided to go there; a permanently depressed robot...
The cast was great. Simon Jones, an old college friend of Adams, was endearingly bewildered as Arthur Dent, the Earthman who is whisked away from our planet seconds before it's demolished (one of the underlying and most elusive moods of Hitch-Hiker is a pervasive melancholy about the pointless destruction of things; the show starts with Arthur's house being demolished, then his whole planet is blown up, and by the end of the first series the final destruction of the universe has become something that people watch while they have dinner). Geoffrey McGivern is his manic alien friend Ford Prefect; Mark Wing-Davey is Ford's ever-so-cool cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox; the great British character actor Richard Vernon is wonderfully deadpan as a gloomy planet designer named Slartibartfast. One of the best performances is one of the least conspicuous; Peter Jones as the voice of The Book, or the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself, providing useful bits of connecting narrative and helpful nuggets of information about the baffling variety of stuff in the galaxy. (One of my favourite jokes is a Book aside about a form of currency which consists mostly of giant triangular rubber coins several thousand miles along each side: you can't exchange them for any other currency because the banks refuse to deal in 'fiddling small change'.) The Book works as a character because he makes you think that somebody out there knows exactly what's going on, and Peter Jones's marvellously reassuring voice helps a lot in that respect, although the story goes that while Jones liked playing the Book he found the whole thing rather confusing, so it's part of the mystery of acting that he sounds so authoritative.
In 1992 the BBC talked to Adams about a third series based on the third Hitch-Hiker novel, but nothing came of it. He was too busy with other things and they weren't interested enough. After his tragically early death in 2001 the BBC finally pulled its corporate finger out and producer/writer Dirk Maggs was commissioned to adapt the last three Hitch-Hiker novels as three separate series. He managed to secure most of the original cast, although Peter Jones and Richard Vernon were among those who had passed away since the second series more than twenty years earlier. (Their replacements, respectively William Franklyn and Richard Griffiths, were exemplars of the established Hitch-Hiker tradition of hiring veteran character actors to play roles that need natural authority. One of Maggs's good jokes is the initial transition between Peter Jones's voice and William Franklyn's, which is done as if the Guide had a new voice system which is still in beta mode.)
It has to be said that series 3, 4 and 5 are not as great as the first two. They suffer from being based on Adams's later Hitch-Hiker novels which lack some of the sparkle of the earlier ones - although even Adams's lesser books are still better than a lot of other attempts at comedy science fiction. It doesn't help that Maggs is, I think, a bit over-reverential towards his source material, but then a lot of the most vocal Hitch-Hiker fans are very much of the don't-change-a-syllable school and they probably think he butchered the books. But some of Maggs's attempts to preserve Adams's writing are at the expense of characterisation: for example, at one point in the third book, it is mentioned in passing that Slartibartfast had planned to spend his retirement learning to play the 'Octaventral Heebiephone', but that this was a 'pleasantly futile task since he had the wrong number of mouths'. Maggs saves this joke but gives it to Slartibartfast himself, who remarks at one point in series 3 that 'I planned to learn to play the Octaventral Heebiephone, a pleasantly futile task since I have the wrong number of mouths'. In context this isn't as funny, not only because it seems to be an overly detached way for a character to talk about himself, but also because Slartibartfast makes this remark at a moment of great stress and high action, and the remark yanks you out of the moment.
One benefit of having the later books dramatised is that the performers got to stretch themselves a bit. In the original series, Simon Jones as Arthur spends most of his time (as Jones himself once put it) 'whingeing his way around the universe looking for a cup of tea', but in the later series Arthur has to go partly mad, learn to fly, fall in love, lose his love and discover all sorts of things about himself that weren't there the first time round, in the course of which we get to hear what a fine actor Simon Jones really is. Martin Freeman in the movie was a more 21st century Arthur, less Oxbridge and more normal bloke, and none the worse for that. But since there probably won't be another movie, Freeman may never get another chance, and in the meantime Simon Jones has made the character his own.
Some of the best jokes are in the later series, such as the sparkling aside about a spaceship powered by bad news (which I won't spoil because it gets funnier as it goes on). But Adams admitted that the last book, in particular, was written during a fairly bleak time in his life and it feels like it. Dirk Maggs comes into his own here, rewriting and restructuring things so that the radio series has a more open-ended and optimistic finale than the books, in accordance with Adams's own stated intention of writing another Hitch-Hiker book someday.
Nevertheless, it gets darker and more pessimistic as it goes on. In the beginning, Adams's targets - insofar as such a basically cheerful writer had any - were bureaucracy and computers. He changed his mind about computers after buying his first Apple Mac, but his distrust of bureaucracy, which he dramatised as the pathologically petty and cruel Vogons, grew into full-blown contempt by the end of the saga. Other writers who've had a go at the Hitch-Hiker universe haven't quite captured this: the Vogons in the radio series are an unstoppable force for evil, whereas in the movie they're bumbling idiots who clock off from doing bad things whenever it happens to be lunchtime. When Eoin Colfer was recently commissioned with the blessing of the Adams estate to write a new Hitch-Hiker novel, he did a generally fine job but he included a nice Vogon, which is arguably missing the point. On the other hand, it does suggest that Vogons, like every other species in the universe, evolve, which Adams (a great mate of Richard Dawkins) would probably have liked.
As one early reviewer noted, Adams is not great at plots. The most purely pleasurable bits of Hitch-Hiker are the digressions, the halts, the asides, and not so much the story. The story in series 3, adapted from the third novel 'Life, the Universe and Everything', is in fact an adaptation of an unproduced Doctor Who script that Adams had written years earlier, and it shows: if you look hard at Trillian during her encounter with the Krikkitmen, you can see the Doctor's attitude and verbal style showing through.
Still, the technical achievement of all the teams that made the various series is amazing. The late Geoffrey Perkins produced the original radio series and he and his crew did an incredible job on a very tight budget, all without the benefit of things like digital audio which we now take for granted. Dirk Maggs has the same kind of loony inventiveness, and in a nice nod to his predecessor he gave Perkins a funny cameo as Arthur's boss in series 4. And Maggs gets some fabulous performances out of his own semi-regular rep company, such as Rupert Degas as a terminally cool galactic judge. Read more ›