Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Big Gay Long Cat's Guide to the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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of it, leading to those bits of that do exist to be endlessly repeated, recycled and requoted until the context that originally made it so unique and, yes, funny has long since been lost.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…

Mostly Harmless

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…

Saturday, 17 March 2018


The BBC's long-awaited sequel to their groundbreaking 1969 documentary series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (Not That One) has controversially opted for the lesser used sequel naming convention first popularised by the Alien movie franchise.

The nine-part series is split between three different presenters, with Simon Schama taking all the odd numbered episodes, Mary Beard parts two and four, and David Olusoga the remaining parts. I was not acquainted with Olusoga before seeing him in this, but I was very impressed by what I saw - particularly the episode First Contact, which was centred on Captain Picard's unresolved issues with the Borg art inspired by the clashes between different cultures - in the future I will be looking out for other series presented by him.

With hindsight Simon Schama seems the obvious choice for main presenter, with his 2006 series Power of Art practically being a dummy run for the style used in his episodes of Civilisations - especially apparent when the subject matters cross over, such as when Caravaggio, Rembrandt or Van Gogh (each the subjects of a Power of Art episode) make their appearances in this.

Civilisations does a remarkably good job at counterpointing the original Civilisation without too much overlap. While the old series was (almost exclusively) focused on the culture of "Western" Europe and America, the new one goes global. Sadly, with only nine parts to cover the whole of history and the whole of the world, there is obviously not enough room to cover everything - I think music, which was a big part of the old series, misses out the most.

The biggest issue with the series, however, is that once you have noticed Simon Schama's eccentric way of pronouncing the word mountain "mounTAIN", you can't unnotice it.

Since Lord Clark's original series came out there have been multiple versions of the spin-off computer game Civilization, of which my favourite is Civilization V. The new series made sure to reference this by featuring lots of the World Wonders that you can build in the game. I counted Petra, the Terracotta Army, Angkor Wat, the Parthenon, Haigha Sophia, Taj Mahal, Pyramids, Louvre and Eiffel Tower, all of which would get you a very good score!

The entire series is currently available to watch on the BBC iPlayer here.

We shoot them with our Crossbow

The Monkeys With Badges have been distracted from making their spaceship (again) by the arrival of a new book by their favourite historical weapons expect and TV presenter and second-favourite author, Mike Loades!

Saturday, 3 March 2018

From The Earth To The Moon

I'm not normally a fan of "AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!" TV programmes, but the Monkeys With Badges have been watching the 1998 series From The Earth To The Moon, because it is about going into space, and I have to admit it is quite good.

Obviously made off the back of the 1995 film Apollo 13, it comes across as a labour of love by that movie's star Tom Hanks - he not only co-produced the series, he wrote an episode, directed an episode, and narrates the introductions to all the episodes except for one... which he appears in as a main character.

Aside from Hanks, the cast contains many recognisable faces from American films and TV, including Cary "not left handed either" Elwes and Bryan Cranston before he was famous.

Disappointingly, for both me and the Monkeys With Badges, the series skips over the early space adventures of Albert, Ham and Enos to concentrate almost exclusively on the mannys involved in the Apollo missions to the moon, with part one giving a condensed version of the backstory of NASA and setting up the "space race" to the moon after the Soviet Union beat the USA to getting the first manny (not to mention the first doggy) into space.

The best episode by far is part two, Apollo One, which tells the story of the fire that killed three spacemannys and the subsequent investigation into how the fire happened and whose fault it was. Being based on a tragedy, this makes for the most dramatically powerful installment of the series, but also casts its shadow over the later episodes by firmly planting the idea of how dangerous the Apollo space missions are.

This is crucial to the success of the programme, since because it is entirely based on true history then the writers cannot inject peril and excitement where none actually occurred - and the spacemannys themselves didn't want things to be dramatic and dangerous so did everything they could to avoid it!

The series also tries to highlight what dramatic moments there are through its use of incidental music, but in this it is far less successful because throughout the series the music is far too overblown and intrusive - like a lot of what we hear in modern-day Doctor Who and its ilk, the music tries to tell the audience how to feel at any given moment, and as a result it comes across as unsubtle as a sledgehammer.

With the most famous point in the Apollo missions - the landing on the moon by spacemannys Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - coming in episode six, the second half of the 12-part series gets to tell the lesser-known stories of the Apollo missions. That is except for part eight, which avoids too much overlap with the Apollo 13 movie by telling the story of Apollo 13 from the point of view of the media reporting of the mission, as seen through the eyes of two (fictional) news reporters: Emmett Seaborn (played by Lane "New Adventures of Superman" Smith) is the old-school dependable type, having made several appearances in other episodes to deliver required exposition to us via the medium of his news broadcasts, while his rival Brett Hutchings is a sensationalist, lowbrow, tabloid-style reporter. Their conflict is a metaphor for the battle between the two styles of news reporting, with Hutchings sadly but inevitably coming out on top in the end.

Once mannys had successfully landed on the moon once, the media and the American public seemed to lose interest in the Apollo spacemannys, except for when there was a crisis such as with Apollo 13. This led to NASA having its funding cut and the end of Apollo missions to the moon. This hangs over the final two episodes of the series, and leaves us with a palpable sense of disappointment and missed opportunities. The very last episode, Le Voyage Dans La Lune, acts as an epilogue when it goes back to use the making of the 1902 film Le Voyage Dans La Lune as an example of how important imagination was to inspiring the missions that actually went to the moon.

Going from the Earth to the moon seems like a lot of effort, and I for one am happy to leave it to mannys and the Monkeys With Badges to handle the W-word. If I am ever going to go into space, I would like it to be like this:

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Quatermass ii

Robert Holmes is often considered to be Doctor Who's best scriptwriter, partly responsible for shaping the direction the series took throughout much of the 1970s. But his first two scripts for the show, The Krotons and The Space Pirates, are not exactly typical of Holmes's style, and it is only with his third story that he truly arrives on the scene, helped perhaps by the simultaneous arrival of colour for the first time and Jon Pertwee as the brand new Doctor.

I think Robert Holmes must have been a Quatermass fan. While I would hesitate to call Spearhead From Space a "rip-off" of Quatermass ii, it certainly copied some elements - not just those characteristics shared by many 'alien-invasion-by-stealth' plots (as opposed to 'alien-invasion-by-force', the other main type of alien invasion plot that Doctor Who had done multiple times by this point), but in specific aspects such as the hollow meteorites that carry the aliens to Earth in both stories.

The character of Bernard Quatermass seems more of a manny of action in this story than he did in The Quatermass Experiment, not hesitating to personally investigate dangerous situations. I don't know if it seems this way because we only have the first two parts of the original story to judge it by, or if perhaps the recasting of Quatermass prompted a shift in the characterisation, but the end result is that he feels a lot like Jon Pertwee's portrayal of the Doctor during the UNIT years. Maybe it was this that Nigel Kneale objected to, rather than the occasional lifting of story devices?

Speaking of Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who, the most noteworthy guest actor to appear in this is Roger Delgado, playing a journalist in part four. Maybe this is what gave the Master the idea of teaming up with the Nestenes in Terror of the Autons?

"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

All comparisons to Doctor Who aside, Quatermass ii is a surprisingly fast-paced six part serial. It shows fewer signs than its predecessor of having been made in the 1950s, with many improvements in the technical competence of the production, and it is difficult to believe that almost all of it was broadcast live. It is also a great story that still stands up well today, with many twists and turns that, while they may have been imitated, have scarcely been bettered. The scenes in part five with Quatermass and the workers sabotaging the alien life support, and the aliens' subsequent retaliation, are particularly strong.

It was also particularly pleasing to be able to watch a famous television series made all the way back in 1955 without having any knowledge of what would happen in it or how it would end, especially in this age of the internets when it seems I can't go a single week after a new Star Wars film comes out without being spoilered on it.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Quatermass Experiment

This is probably the oldest television programme I shall ever watch. Broadcast live in 1953, only the first two episodes of the six part series survive, although the same story was made into a film version by Hammer two years later and that does still exist to be watched so I know how it ends from that.

The TV version differs from the film in many of the same ways that the Doctor Who TV stories The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth differ from their film versions. Most notably, from the two parts that we can see, they differ in where the rocket crashes - in the film it crashes in the countryside, an isolated location, but on TV it crashes in the middle of London city, leading to scenes consciously reminiscent of the Blitz (which was only 10 years past at the time this was made). It seems that a rocket crashed into a crowded city street was easier to create in a TV studio, while a rocket crashed in a wide open but empty field was easier to create on location.

On the subject of Doctor Who, it seems The Quatermass Experiment's writer Nigel Kneale didn't like Doctor Who and thought it stole all his ideas. While it is hard to ignore that some stories from Doctor Who have elements that resemble those of The Quatermass Experiment - the disappearing astronauts in The Ambassadors of Death, the monster from The Seeds of Doom, and The Lazarus Experiment was not even trying to hide its influence when setting its own climax inside a big church - they are only a few out of many different story archetypes done over the years, and I think it would be tough to detect much resemblance between Quatermass and the serials from the early William Hartnell years of the show.

Four years before doggys first went into space, and eight years before mannys followed them, The Quatermass Experiment showed a British space programme being the ones to put the first mannys into space. This optimistic view of the UK's technological reach and associated status in the world would perhaps be the most lasting influence on Doctor Who, in which the Doctor would normally visit Earth by way of England, where the BBC studios were helpfully located.

The technical limitations of the time this dates from are obvious and inescapable, and the absence of parts three to six is tragic in a way, but this is nevertheless a fascinating look back to the dawn of television science fiction.