Thursday, 12 April 2018

Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Part Four

Mags turning into a weredoge gets Captain Cook a high score from the audience. He tries to give the Doctor some exposition but the incidental music is going as crazy as Mags (maybe it is being performed by another weredoge?) and it is very hard to make out what the Captain is saying.

The little manny in the audience's eyes glow. The Doctor escapes from the ring but Mags chases him (doggys like chases). He goes up to the three audience members and all of their eyes glow now and this somehow causes the Doctor to fall back into the ring. He is only saved when Mags turns upon Captain Cook and the Captain goes

Ace and Kingpin look in the space bus for the missing piece of the medallion. The bus conductor robot tries to kill Ace, but when Kingpin finds the missing piece he gets his memories back. He remembers the robot has a self-destruct button and gets Ace to press it. Instead of simply going "blargh I am ded" the robot goes

Mags scares the clowns so she and the Doctor can get away. The mannys in the audience "want more" so the clowns turn on the Ringmaster and Morgana, making them do a disappearing magic act. Then all of the clowns do the thing with their hands.

I somehow don't think the Ringmaster and Morgana will be coming back. It's like Paul Daniels' 1987 Hallowe'en special all over again!

The mannys in the audience want the Doctor. He goes back so Mags can run away, and the clowns chase her (doggys like chases) in their scary black death car.

When the Doctor goes back into the Circus he goes into a special effect and winds up in a different sort of arena - one that is old and stone and not the Circus from before. The three audience members are still there, but they also look very different - made of stone with sinister faces.

The Doctor recognises them as "the gods of Ragnarok."

It makes sense that there are three gods of Ragnarok because there are three cat gods: Ceiling Cat, who sees all; The Maker of Cats, who made us into cats out of socks; and The Hoff. Nobody knows why The Hoff is the third cat god, but he is. Unlike religious mannys, who worship their gods, we are cats so we merely acknowledge our gods as equals.

The gods of Ragnarok are obviously bad gods because they use their giant eye to watch things from below, like Basement Cat does, while Ceiling Cat watches from above and is a good cat.

"I have fought the gods of Ragnarok all through time."
says the Doctor. While you might think that the Doctor has never met the gods of Ragnarok before now, remember that everything in this story is a metaphor for something else outside the story, including the gods. The gods say
"Entertain us!"
"Entertain us or die! So long as you entertain us you may live."
"When you no longer entertain us you die!"
The Doctor does magic tricks for the gods. They shoot some pewpewpews at him, but they don't kill him yet. They say
"You are nearing the end, Doctor."
"You are on the brink of destruction, Doctor. We want something bigger, something better."
This gives us a clue as to who the gods represent in the show but, just as this story has been doing throughout, I'm going to hold back on revealing the answers for now...

Mags meets up with Ace and Kingpin. Ace lures the clowns to where Chekhov's Bellboy's robot from part one is, and because she has the remote control now she can has it turn its pewpewpew eyes upon the clowns.

Five clowns come out of the clown car, which is not that many really but what can we expect on a BBC budget?

Ace, Kingpin and Mags steal the clown car to get back to the Circus quickly. The gods make Captain Cook come back to life as a zombie and he steals the medallion from Kingpin just before he can throw it down the well to where the Doctor is.

Ace and Mags together knock it out of Zombie Captain Cook's hands so it falls into the well, where the Doctor catches it and uses it to reflect the gods' pewpewpews back upon them. The gods and the "Dark Circus" (as Kingpin calls it) collapse, so the gods must have been load-bearing baddys.

The Circus tent explodes behind him as the Doctor walks away, not looking at it.

Kingpin and Mags decide to make a new Circus, one that can't possibly go wrong, mew. They invite the Doctor and Ace to join them but the Doctor declines, and the last line of the story is him saying
"I find circuses a little... sinister."

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a flawed classic. It has great and memorable baddys, and a plot which manages to be both an exciting mystery and, at the same time, an allegory for Doctor Who's place in the world at the time when it was 25 years old. It is a fresh and original story, and a fine way to conclude the anniversary season.

It isn't perfect - the mystery is so slow in playing out its hand that the first half of the story can be quite hard to follow at times, and this is not helped by the incidental music intruding on some key lines of dialogue.

There are a lot of characters who get introduced quite quickly - some of them only existing to get killed off or to provide some early exposition - with the result that they end up quite broad and one-dimensional. The character of Whizzkid is an example of this, as well as being an unnecessary and unwelcome caricature of Doctor Who fans.

"It was your show all along, wasn't it?"
Ace asks the Doctor. The gods of Ragnarok are the BBC Management. They can't kill the Doctor while he is still entertaining, not even though they want to, not even though he is their greatest enemy and stands against everything they believe in. They want "something bigger, something better" and yet are prepared to sit there while the Doctor performs his low-budget magic tricks one after another.
And then by the time they try to kill him off, it is too late.

Despite the TV series getting cancelled the following year Doctor Who is, of course, still with us - and by that I don't just mean the new series that came back to BBC TV in 2005. Target novelisations of the TV stories were available before they began to be released on VHS (and later DVD). In the 1990s they would be repeated on the satellite channel UK Gold, allowing cats and mannys who were too young to have seen them on the BBC to watch them and become fans that way. Plus there were many original book stories, comic strips, Doctor Who Magazine and Big Finish... and all that before the internets truly came along!

By its 25th birthday in 1988 Doctor Who had grown to be far more than just another TV programme. It was The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Part Three

Ace is locked in a room with Bellboy where she learns he made the robots, including the random pewpewpew robot from part one. Or maybe it is not so random after all? Maybe it is Chekhov's Pewpewpew Robot? Now past the halfway point, it seems we are beginning to turn the corner in unraveling the mystery as Ace starts to get the backstory of the Circus from Bellboy.

The Doctor makes a break for it and runs away from the clown robots, so they immediately turn on Captain Cook and capture him instead. The Doctor meets Deadbeat and talks to him, then Deadbeat takes the Doctor to where Ace and Bellboy are. Bellboy says Deadbeat's name is really Kingpin.

Morgana, the clown and the Ringmaster all argue about what to do, and we see that they are all scared of failing the secret masters they serve.

Now back in the cage, Whizzkid talks to Captain Cook about the Circus, saying
"Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested."
Because he is a FAN. Do you see what they did there? Whizzkid is a fan of the Circus but he also acts like a stereotypical fan of Doctor Who itself, whom the programme makers have decided to have a go at like Number Two in Fall Out "turning upon and biting the hand that feeds him."

This petty and unwarranted attack continues as Captain Cook tricks Whizzkid into going into the Circus ring before him:
"Oh, yes, of course. I mean, there's no real danger, is there? Really?"
"Only for those without resource or imagination or panache. I'm sure you have all those qualities."

Do you get it? Is the programme making itself blatant enough? It is saying that fans lack all three of these qualities themselves, and so they have to get them vicariously from watching the Circus or Doctor Who. I'm only surprised they did not go the whole distance and have Whizzkid's appearance be that of a stereotypical Doctor Who fan as well. But Whizzkid is a manny, he is not a long cat, nor is he made from socks.

Kingpin and Bellboy both have missing memories so they can't tell the Doctor and Ace everything about what is going on in this story, which is important for the story's pacing because it helps preserve some of the mystery for later.
"It's this place, you see. It does things to you."
says Bellboy, to give an excuse for this laser-guided amnesia.

The Ringmaster does another rap to introduce Whizzkid to the Circus ring. Like Nord he gets nil points and then pewpewpewed, with only his glasses remaining for the Ringmaster to hold up.

The Doctor, Ace and Kingpin escape while Bellboy stays behind, and when the clowns come he makes the robot ones kill him while the real clown does more business with his hand. This buys the others precious time needed for them to escape.

The Doctor, Ace and Kingpin go down to the cave with the eye and they see that Kingpin's medallion has an eye on it so they know it is important and related to the eye in the well. But the medallion is borked and so they have to find the missing bit before they can progress this plot any further. The Doctor gives himself up so that Ace and Kingpin can go look for it, and also so that he can be present in the end-of-part-three cliffhanger scene.

The Ringmaster does yet another rap, but this one is shorter than the ones he did before, subtly suggesting that he is running out of ideas and so hinting that it will not be long before he ceases to be entertaining and the Circus masters will then turn on him.

The Doctor, Captain Cook and Mags all go out into the ring together. Captain Cook makes them create a moonlike lighting effect that causes Mags to transform into a weredoge and the Doctor to make a face. Cliffhanger!

Part three is a really good episode in which all the setup of the first two parts starts to pay off at last, while still keeping much back for the grand finale next time.

However, the scenes with Whizzkid just seem mean-spirited and spiteful on the part of the programme makers. His presence in the story adds very little - only another victim for the Circus - while at the same time he seems out of place in this sci-fi universe and thus it detracts from the show's credibility.

Whizzkid sets a sad and unwelcome precedent for geeky characters in the new series of Doctor Who to be caricatures of Doctor Who fans, such as those we see in Love & Monsters or Day of the Doctor (in these examples they are actual fans of the Doctor, not of a proxy like the Circus is here). I have to wonder why the producers feel the need to do this, what is it that is gained by baiting and insulting your show's fans to their faces?

We will probably never know the answer for certain, but to guess at it we could do worse than considering that, if Whizzkid is a stand-in for fans of Doctor Who (which he is) and the Circus is a stand-in for Doctor Who the show (which it is) then the stand-ins for the producer must be the Ringmaster... a character forced to perform again and again for an insatiable audience, rapidly running out of ideas and secretly longing to escape before their inevitable end at the pewpewpews of their uncaring masters.

Little wonder, then, they are so insecure that they see any criticism, no matter how constructive or well-meaning, as an ad manninem attack upon their person and hence respond in kind. The fans and the producers both have a deep-seated love for the show - it is The Greatest Show in the Galaxy after all - and ought to be on the same side, but they have been divided and set against each other by the secret masters of the Circus.

So just who are these secret masters and what do they represent? We will have to wait to find out in the final part of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Part Two

The clown waves at the Doctor and Ace to beckon them into the Circus. He is always waving his hands around, perhaps BRIAN BLESSED told him to do it?

They go inside, and Ace almost walks out again straight away after encountering the terrible gypsy stereotype that is Morgana. It just goes to show that if Li H'sen Chang had turned to out to have been John Bennett in yellowface all along within the confines of the programme then they might have gotten away with it.

It is very dark inside the Circus. There are three mannys in the audience besides the Doctor and Ace, so the sounds as though the Circus is packed full of many mannys clapping must be an illusion. Again this is an illusion inside the show itself, and not just the BBC saving money. This is an important distinction, and it is vital that we note that this is deliberate or else the whole show might look to us like a chronically underfunded TV programme on its last leg.

The Circus show begins with some clowns doing acrobatics and then the Ringmaster comes in and does another rap. He wants the Doctor to perform in the Circus and he starts rhyming in response to whatever the Doctor says. Ace has a bad feeling about this, sensibly enough, as do I - the rhyming quickly gets annoying... but then it is supposed to be annoying within the story, to put the other characters off balance mentally so the Ringmaster can assert dominance over them.

The clown notices that Ace has Flowerchild's earring, but she refuses to tell him where she got it. Ace runs away and the clown sends the other clowns, his robot minions, to chase her.

The Doctor is put in a cage with Captain Cook, Mags and Nord. Outside of the cage is Deadbeat, a manny whose "mind's completely gone" according to the Captain. The clowns come to take Nord away.

While escaping, Ace hears Morgana and the Ringmaster talking. Morgana wants to get away like Bellboy and Flowerchild (well, like them only more successfully) but the Ringmaster and the clown are in charge and she is afraid of them... or of someone or something else that we haven't seen yet.

Nord is killed by some sort of pewpewpew when he fails to entertain in the Circus ring, scoring nil points from the audience jury, but we don't see exactly what happens because this story is still letting its mystery out slowly. We only glimpse what happens from the Doctor's point of view in the cage, and then we see the Ringmaster hold up what is left of Nord.

A new character arrives at the Circus. He is called Whizzkid (according to the credits) and he annoys Morgana because he is a fan of the Circus and is enthusiastic about being in it. The Doctor and Mags escape from the cage by clubbing the robot clown guards using juggling pins, but Captain Cook stays behind.

Ace is still trying to escape from the Circus, which seems to be bigger inside than out just like the TARDIS, so this is harder than it first appears and even cutting through the Circus tent only gets her to another part of the Circus. She is caught by Deadbeat and the clown.

The Doctor and Mags are the ones on the loose inside the Circus now, and they find some stones with carvings on them which add another layer of mystery to whatever is going on here. The stones lead into caves and then to a pit where the Doctor sees an eye, suggesting that we may be in for a Lord of the Rings crossover. Captain Cook and some robot clowns turn up to capture them, confirming that Captain Cook is not just useless, he is actively working for the baddys! This revelation is the end of the episode.

A lot happens in this episode, but because there is so much mystery going on it is quite confusing and not much of it makes sense in isolation - we shall have to wait for the as-yet-unrevealed details of the plot to become revealed to us in the remaining episodes before it will all make sense in the end.

I hope. Mew.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Part One

"Now welcome folks, I'm sure you'd like to know
We're at the start of one big circus show
There are acts that are cool and acts that amaze
Some acts are scary and some acts will daze
Acts of all kinds, and you can count on that
From folks that fly to disappearing acts
There are lots of surprises for the family
At the greatest show in the galaxy!
So many strange surprises, I'm prepared to bet
Whatever you've seen before... you ain't seen nothing yet."

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is the last story in season 25, and what better way to celebrate the show's 25th birthday than with a self-referential title, a show within a show? It stars Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace, and begins with a rap performed by the Circus Ringmaster, which concludes with him looking directly into camera and addressing us watching at home, telling us that we "ain't seen nothing yet" in a similar way to how the Doctor occasionally wishes us "Merry Christmas" or lets us know that even the sonic screwdriver won't get him out of this particular situation.

This is a brave opening, considering that we know nothing about the Ringmaster or the Circus at this stage, but it succeeds as a hook because the final line, and the Ringmaster's look, hints at something sinister going to happen.

The next thing that happens is that one of the Space Mouses from Blakes 7's Stardrive shows up with a big space motorbike and an even bigger space helmet, driving around on a planet looking for Avon or, failing that, the Circus.

The Doctor and Ace get involved in the story when an advert for the Circus materialises inside the TARDIS. It plays like something from out of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or maybe it is just that the similar rhythm of this story's title has already made me think of that? The Doctor is keen to go, and Ace is convinced by a simple bit of reverse psychology playing on her fear of clowns.

To demonstrate that, in this instance, Ace's coulrophobia isn't irrational at all, back on the planet we see Bellboy (played by Christopher Guard, who was Marcellus in I Claudius) and Flowerchild running away from the Circus pursued by a scary black death car driven by a clown. I hope that later on we will see lots and lots of clowns come out of it.
The car has electric windows that were futuristic back when this was made.

The TARDIS arrives and the Doctor and Ace meet the Space Mouse, he is called "Nord, Vandal of the Roads" and he decides not to join their group at this time. Meanwhile Flowerchild finds a space bus where she gets killed by a dangerous robot bus conductor.

Then the Doctor and Ace meet Captain Cook (played by the oddly named T P McKenna, who was Ex-President Sarkoff in Blakes 7's Bounty) and Mags. There is a moment of excitement when a robot wakes up and shoots pewpewpew blasts at the Doctor and Mags until Ace hits it with a spade. This scene is largely padding but it does serve to show there is something strange up with Captain Cook when he does nothing to try to help them.
Similarly in the following scene, when they all go aboard the space bus with the robot conductor on it, Captain Cook is useless again until the Doctor makes the robot pewpewpew itself.

Ace finds Flowerchild's earring and keeps it for later, indicating that by this time Ace is familiar with how point-and-click adventure computer games are supposed to function.

Bellboy has been captured by the clowns and taken back to the Circus. Captain Cook and Mags get to the Circus and go inside while Bellboy is being punished for running away. When Mags sees this (we don't, but from the reactions of the other mannys who see it, on top of the earlier desperation of Bellboy and Flowerchild to get away, we can tell it is something bad) she screams.

Ace hears the scream outside the Circus, and it makes her even more hesitant to go inside. This leads to a rather unusual sort of episode ending, as the Doctor and Ace are deciding whether or not to go into the Circus to face the danger that we - but not they - are aware awaits them, with the Doctor keen to enter but Ace unwilling. And so the last line is the Doctor saying
"Well? Are we going in or aren't we?"

Ending with them on the threshold of the Circus, with the peril still lying in wait rather than menacing them directly, means that we are left on an intriguing moment rather than an outright dramatic one.

Part one of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is almost entirely setting up for the rest of the story. There are a lot of characters to be introduced, and the Doctor and Ace did not even meet all of them by the end of the episode. This makes it especially hard to judge part one in isolation, because it feels like very little has happened so far - a feeling exaggerated, maybe, by this story following immediately after two that were both much faster paced because they were only three-parters.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Quatermass and the Pit

Inside the mind of every Doctor Who writer there is a race memory of Quatermass and the Pit.

The final installment of the 1950s sci-fi series by Nigel Kneale had parts of it taken and used in multiple Doctor Who stories, without any of them quite going so far as to copy the plot outright.

The Daemons is one of the most blatant, including as it does an archaeological dig turning up an ancient spacecraft, whose alien occupants are horned, and who have influenced the development of humanity, and whose technology is sufficiently advanced as to be taken for black magic.

Image of the Fendahl also prominently features ancient aliens, as well as a skull far older than it should be. Also the pentagram on the Fendahl skull is reminiscent of the pentacle marking inside the spacecraft from the pit.

If Robert Holmes took a few ideas from Quatermass ii for his Spearhead From Space, it is not too much more of a stretch to see the influence of Quatermass and the Pit in The Ark in Space, not only in the insect design of the Wirrn being a bit like the aliens from Quatermass and the Pit, but in the way that the Doctor and Harry find one long dead as the ending to an episode. There is also the small matter of the Doctor using a device to see into the dead Wirrn's brain, which resembles the (somewhat convenient) machine that Quatermass uses to see the race memory of the aliens.

Doctor Who and the Silurians (one of the best Doctor Who stories evar, it has Paul Darrow in it!) features a race memory buried in the minds of mannys so they go mad when they see the Silurians. Although in  a clever twist on Quatermass and the Pit, instead of mannys being Martians, it turns out that Silurians are Earthlings.

Considering that Doctor Who and the Silurians is from the same season as Spearhead From Space (influenced by Quatermass ii) and The Ambassadors of Death (influenced by The Quatermass Experiment), that only leaves Inferno out of Jon Pertwee's first season as the Doctor - and while I see it as a bit more of a stretch than the other three, you could consider the mannys digging up an ancient substance that influences their minds and makes them go on destructive rampages as a reflection of the events in Quatermass and the Pit.

Also throughout season seven, the Doctor's relationship with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT more closely resembles the dynamic between Professor Quatermass and the military (and in particular Colonel Breen in Quatermass and the Pit), with this never more apparent than when they are actively in conflict with each other in Doctor Who and the Silurians. It can be easy to forget this when you are used to the more comfortable "UNIT family" dynamic seen from season eight onwards.

Beyond the 1970s, where the majority of stories influenced by Quatermass seem to be found, in The Curse of Fenric the "evil from the dawn of time" Fenric has been waiting in his container for mannys to find him and wake him up. And by the time we reach The Satan Pit in 2006 there is a very real question of whether Doctor Who is still being influenced by Quatermass or if it is now simply being influenced by earlier Doctor Who that was influenced by Quatermass.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of building up suspense before paying it off. There is very little peril for the characters until near the end of part four (of six), only a long, slow build of mystery as the fantastic premise is established for us. When the peril does arrive, it escalates quickly until the whole of London is threatened at the climax.

The structure is similar to that of The Quatermass Experiment, but with much of that earlier series missing we lose out on being able to experience this effect there - the film version is not long enough to substitute in this respect - and Quatermass ii has a more conventional structure (with hindsight of the direction most TV sci-fi would take) of revealing much of the threat early so we then watch our heroes struggle against it.

"We are the Martians."

With a premise as strong yet fantastic as "mannys are Martians really" it is no wonder that this series proved so memorable, and as an allegory for immigration it remains as topical now as it was 60 years ago. It pulls this premise off by playing it absolutely straight, with total conviction from the actors - a real strength of all of the Quatermass serials.

André Morell is great as Professor Quatermass, although at first I found myself missing John Robinson (who played the part in Quatermass ii) since he doesn't remind me of Tiberius from The Caesars. Morell is ably assisted by a new self-sacrificing Companion, Dr Roney the Canadian archaeologist, proto-Indiana Jones and part-time inventor of convenient plot devices.

While the machine for seeing into mannys' brains is almost one sci-fi contrivance too far, it is used extremely well, with the brief footage of the aliens fighting each other being all the more effective for its brevity. The alien design is great too, and their first reveal makes for a fantastic end-of-episode cliffhanger.

The three Quatermass serials each features an original method of alien invasion that allows every one to stand out in its own way. My favourite of the trilogy (in as much as it is possible to fairly judge between them when so much of the first story is lost) is Quatermass ii, which I thought had the most exciting story, but all three are great and stand the test of time.

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.