Yes, yes, Don’t Panic and all that. One of the biggest problems with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is that there is not actually all that much of it, leading to those bits of that do exist to be endlessly repeated, recycled and requoted until the context that originally made it so unique and, yes, funny has long since been lost. This has made a lot of people very unhappy and been widely regarded as a bad move, particularly by the estate of Douglas Adams, which may explain why they eventually allowed another author to write a sixth Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel. There is another theory which states that they just wanted the money.
Anyway, here are some of my deep thoughts on the various incarnations of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The original radio series
Made in 1978, a good vintage for British science fiction, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came along just as all of popular, mass-media sci-fi was being forced to reinvent itself in the wake of Star Wars. Completely unable to compete in the realm of special effects, what could TV sci-fi such as Doctor Who offer instead? With The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (who was working on Doctor Who for the BBC at the same time as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was in production) seemingly offers the answer that on radio the SFX budget is bigger than the biggest thing ever and then some. In several important respects, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seems like a reaction to the state of Doctor Who at the time, with both Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox sharing some of the Doctor’s not-quite-human-not-quite-alien characteristics. Except of course that they are both cowards whose first reaction to danger is to run away, or else hide behind Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive sunglasses. Arthur Dent then, in this simile, is obviously their Companion, although it is Trillian who more closely resembles the Doctor’s actual Companion at the time, Romana.
While the radio series came first, and so may rightly be regarded as the definitive version, it was not the first, nor even the second, version I encountered, coming after the TV series, novel adaptations and even the audiobook adaptations of the novel adaptations. As an inevitable consequence of this, whenever I listen to the first radio season (the “Primary Phase”) I feel there is something slightly off about it, especially the bits with the Haggunenon which never made into any of the subsequent versions. And while I would never fault anyone for thinking of Geoffrey McGivern as the best Ford Prefect, I think for me he will always lose out to David Dixon simply because I saw the TV series first.
Because it never got a TV adaptation (and indeed large parts of it never made it into any of the versions that followed), I have always found the second radio season (the “Secondary Phase”) to be more interesting. The cast dynamic is quite different from the Primary Phase for much of it – Zaphod becomes essentially the main character for large sections of the plot, and there’s no Trillian. The second half of the season contains some really good bits and new characters, including John “Bilbo Baggins” Le Mesurier as the Wise Old Bird and Rula Lenska’s Lintilla – the moral dilemma around her cloning being a rare instance of one of Adams’s genuinely clever and insightful sci-fi ideas that still seems fresh after all these years because it has not been rendered over-familiar through being reused.
Over-familiarity through reuse is, alas, the legacy of much of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it can have the effect of dulling its brilliance. The best jokes suffer the most from this, but also those bits of the work that have passed into popular culture – often in a distorted or simplified manner, for instance “forty-two is the answer to the meaning of life.” No, that’s not it! Forty-two is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. If you’re going to mindlessly reference a thing, at least get it right!
There is however one aspect to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that remains consistently and perfectly wonderful no matter how many times I hear it, and that is the sublime theme music.
The first two novels
The book The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a more-or-less straight novelisation (not 92 million miles away from the Target novelisations common to Doctor Who stories of this time – they are even of comparable lengths) of the first four episodes of the radio series. I think I’m right in remembering that the only major change comes at the climax on Magrathea where our heroes are saved by Marvin instead of being blasted forward in time by the explosion, which allows the book to end in something other than a direct end-of-episode cliffhanger situation.
With The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Adams starts really playing around with the structure. Instead of moving the characters direct from Magrathea to the titular restaurant, as the Primary Phase did, we instead get a lengthy (70 pages) section from the Secondary Phase with Zaphod on the Frogstar encountering the Total Perspective Vortex and Zarniwoop, then on to Milliways and the resumption of the Primary Phase plot – except with the Disaster Area stuntship (as later seen in the TV version) in place of the bits with the Haggunenon.
As well as the physical paperback books, these novels were also available as audiobooks on cassette tape read by Stephen “Marvin” Moore. While I’m not sure I would go back to these now I have access to the full-cast Primary and Secondary Phases, they were pretty good substitutes back in the day, and Moore did an excellent job at all the voices – this is high praise, by the way, considering how iconic Peter Jones is as the voice of the book.
The TV series
My very first exposure to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was via the BBC TV series from 1981. I can imagine that, if it was not your first experience of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it might not live up to your expectations considering that the visual effects budget on display here is vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly smaller than that supplied by your own brain when listening to the radio or reading the book (or even, if we’re being brutally honest, the one supplied by Hollywood for the movie). However, as it was my first then I didn’t have any expectations. Also I was very young, and that covers for a multitude of faults.
The TV series ambitiously (and perhaps unwisely) attempted to create as close an approximation to the Primary Phase as it could. Looking back on it I am amazed it stands up as well as it does, on a technical level it is for the most part easily comparable to other BBC sci-fi of its era: charming and it does the job, if not exactly competing with Lucasfilm. Zaphod’s second head is the only truly noteworthy failure, but what else could they have done? He had to have a second head, he’s Zaphod Beeblebrox, man!
But then you have the Guide animations themselves, they stand out on a whole other level and would be an impressive achievement even with today’s technology. (The secret is to not use CGI, guys.) Not only are they technically brilliant, but they are crammed with visual gags that need a sharp eye or multiple rewatches to pick up on everything. To me, this is what makes the TV series the best incarnation of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Life, the Universe and Everything
The third novel is probably the best of the books. Partly because it is an original novel rather than an adaptation, so doesn’t have a preceding radio series that you can compare it to (there is of course a radio version, but it is an adaptation of the book not the other way around), but mostly because I think it has the strongest story. Supposedly Adams originally intended the plot for Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen (which was never made, although Russell “The” Davies did later use the idea of a bomb for destroying the entire universe in 2008’s Journey’s End, and Steven Moffat used the idea of the entire universe being destroyed except for a single planet in 2010’s The Big Bang), and you can still see the traces of this in Life, the Universe and Everything if you look – most obviously in the fact that the story revolves around a threat to the universe that only our heroes can stop, which is a bit of a departure from the themes and scope of the earlier instalments.
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
It seems the fourth novel is not generally well regarded, perhaps because it is so unlike what had come before – Zaphod and Trillian do not appear at all, and most of it is set on Earth. This latter fact undoes what had been one of the central tenets of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy up until this point, which is that the Earth has been demolished and Arthur and Trillian are its last survivors, forced to wander the galaxy having adventures and being confused. So it is understandable that this book stands apart from all the others. The Earthbound humour within it is more whimsical fantasy than science fiction, closer to what Adams would do in his Dirk Gently stories, with rain gods and Arthur and Fenchurch’s repeated improbable meetings and business with packets of biscuits and so on.
The way I think So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish does work is as an epilogue to the series, giving Arthur Dent a happy ending after all he has been through. Fenchurch, despite the retcon that she is the girl siting on her own in the prologue to the very first novel, is a new character and a bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the claim the book makes that “this is her story” doesn’t quite ring true when we have been following Arthur Dent for three previous novels and we still see things from his point of view in this one, but the depiction of them falling in love with each other (and that is fundamentally what this book is about, so yet another way in which it is different from the others in the series) works really well, in a way I wasn’t able to appreciate when I was younger. In fact I think it was hearing the romance brought to life by Simon Jones and Jane Horrocks in the 2005 radio adaptation that turned around my opinion of this one.
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish also gives a happy ending to Marvin, which is surely all the proof we could ever need that this was intended as the conclusion to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Sadly, it was then followed up by…
Despite the name, the fifth book does irreparable harm to the legacy of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Starting by undoing the happy ending of the previous book in a very mean-spirited way, and ending bleakly with the destruction of the Earth (again, only this time with Arthur Dent still on it), I disliked Mostly Harmless the first time I read it and my opinion has not changed. There are some good bits, true, such as the Domain of the King (although Elvis was better used by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in their Good Omens, published two years before Mostly Harmless came out), and especially the stuff with the Guide Mark 2 – effectively making the book a villain for the first time, and an awesome one at that – but the tone is just so nasty throughout that it is impossible to enjoy as a whole.
The final part of the radio “Quintessential Phase” goes some way towards redeeming the book by adding an epilogue that ties up the series in a far neater and more satisfying way. Seeing as it all began on the radio, I’m happy for it end that way as well.
The Hollywood movie
Actually I quite liked it.
Oh yes, I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective.
The Hollywood movie of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is of course the third worst in the universe. Its defenders on the internets often seem to start their pre-emptive defence by pointing out that the new bits and changes from the plot of the Primary Phase/TV series/novels were mostly written by Douglas Adams (as though Adams had never written anything less than perfect, see Mostly Harmless or, better still, don’t) when those bits are the least of my objections… in fact they’re the best bits in it. There are two main problems I have with the movie. First, it is utterly soulless, feeling focus-grouped and designed-by-committee (and so the reason the new bits are the best bits is because we don’t have the superior older versions to compare them to); and secondly, Martin Freeman is utterly miscast as Arthur Dent, making this the first of three franchises he has been shit in.
And Another Thing…
I haven’t read it, and I don’t have any real intention of ever doing so.
Now I don’t, in principle, object to an author other than Douglas Adams writing The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s funny how these things work, isn’t it? I don’t reject Blakes 7 episodes not written by Terry Nation, nor Doctor Who when not story edited by David Whitaker. I don’t even reject Sapphire & Steel that isn’t by P J Hammond, which is perhaps the closest comparison seeing as he wrote five of their Assignments out of six.
No, the reason that I don’t want to give And Another Thing… a go is that, well, I have yet to hear of any good reason why I should. Maybe things would be different if it had come out accompanied by rave reviews, or if I knew of any other cats who spoke highly of it or recommended it as worth my while.
I’m not familiar with any other books by Eoin Colfer, so I’m not lured in that way either. Is it telling that there have not been any more Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books from him after this one?
Speaking of things that are telling, there are not many cats in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but there is one who lives in the shack that belongs to the ruler of the universe…