Starring Simon Jones, David Dixon, Sandra Dickinson, and Mark Wing Davey, and featuring the voice of Peter Jones
The BBC version of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” presents the universe not as filled with wonder, but as a silly place, filled with selfish, petty, bureaucratic bunglers, powered by machines that don’t work right. The occupants of this universe take upon themselves ridiculously oversized and doomed endeavors that, if they’re lucky, fail spectacularly. If they’re not lucky, their enterprises putter on for millennia without end, long after they are no longer useful, and long after officious and petty-minds have taken over.
In its way, “The Hitchhker’s Guide” is as cynical, satirical, and subversive as Voltaire’s “Candide,” and its two-pronged attack is thoroughly British. First is the sense of futility surrounding everything: all sentient endeavors, human or otherwise, are doomed to failure. The world explodes, the universe ends, entire planets are built to satisfy rich bastards, and a three-million-year old experiment is destroyed one day before its completion. Second is Adams’ extreme Englishness in the face of supernatural catastrophe, embodied chiefly by the hapless wandering Earthling Arthur Dent. Caught in his bathrobe and pajamas, Dent’s response to the end of the world is to have a “little lie down,” and he is always in search of a cup of tea.
If there is as explanation for the intense futility of Adams’ universe, it is in the inherently unordered nature of the cosmos, combined with everyone’s fanatical devotion to his own sense of order, long after that order has failed. If planets will be destroyed and innocent lives thrown out of airlocks, let us at least be polite about it, and not go kicking and screaming into the void. The ideas of “progress” and “civilization” are Adams’ victims, not so much in any specific way, but just to say that we shouldn’t be too proud of ourselves. The other victim of Adams’ satire are the pretensions of science-fiction, a genre often in atheist, self-congratulatory awe of humanity’s ability to “reason.” Adams would probably scoff and snort at “reason” and realized that sci-fi is in need of being taken down a notch or two, in a loving way.
The BBC “Hitchhiker’s” was originally aired in six episodes and has since had various incarnations on home video, including a VHS edition that edited the six episodes together into a seamless piece. The BBC’s masterstroke is that all the special effects are amazingly bad. The two-headed man’s second head is clearly a balloon with a mask on it. The talking robot is circa 1950. Everything looks like a model. How could the cosmos be as sloppy and haphazard as Adams wants it to be if a billion dollar FX company makes it? Fans fearing that the new big screen adaptation—due in summer 2005—will reduce Adams’ insanity to just another “Independence Day” FX celebration should take heart that the minds behind it have endeavored to mix the state-of-the-art with “Dr. Who” cheese.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide” follows Arthur Dent (Simon Jones) from one bad day to another. He wakes up to find his pleasant English cottage threatened by bulldozers, followed by the entire Earth being obliterated by cosmic bulldozers, followed by his being thrown into the vacuum of space, followed by his using a spaceship that can travel through all the points in the universe at once, followed by a pocket dimension where planets are built, followed by a trip to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, followed by…well, you get the idea. It’s one damn thing after another, one peril after another. Dent learns that Earth was built by a species of extra-dimensional superbeings as an experiment, he learns that crop circles are the result of bored rich kids with fast spaceship, and he meets robots and aliens and rock bands that are so loud that they destroy stars with their music.
He is joined chiefly by Ford Prefect (David Dixon), an old friend of his who turns out to be an alien stranded on Earth for fifteen years after a weekend trip that went wrong. Aboard a spaceship powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive, he becomes a reluctant member of a crew headed by an old girlfriend (Sandra Dickinson) and the two-headed former president of the universe (Mark Wing Davey), now on the run from the law. If you have trouble getting into the character of the two-headed guy, the key is that he’s proud to learn he’s been voted the worst dressed sentient creature in the universe multiple times. He’s also the inventor of the best drink in the cosmos, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, which Adams describe as “the alcoholic equivalent of mugging.”
(The Infinite Improbability Drive runs on the notion that any object can instantaneously move from any point in the universe to any other point in the universe, but that the probability of this happening is astronomically low. The Infinite Improbability Drive hedges these odds, allowing it to move almost infinite distances instantly, and turn missiles that are attacking it into whales or potted plants.)
But the real star of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” is Marvin, the Paranoid Android, a robot given a human personality apparently only capable of depression, pity, regret, and body aches. “I’ve seen the sunrise,” he moans. “It’s rubbish.” He is walking, frowning proof that all comedy is built on cruelty and sadness. Oh God he’s funny.
Narrating the festivities is Peter Jones as the voice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a cut-rate intergalactic travel guide with the words “Don’t Panic!” written on the cover. Jones, like the rest of the leads, played the same part in the BBC radio production of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” which runs about four times as long as the television version. The radio production, long as it is, is of course a shortened version of Adams’ 5-book trilogy (no, that’s not a mistake, that’s how Adams wanted it). Each successive production is an enormous compression of its predecessor, culminating in the forthcoming feature film. Adams has a superhuman ability to tie absurd details from one book to a larger feature in a novel he wrote twenty years later. The end results include Dent’s ability to outsmart gravity and Marvin becoming older than the entire universe by several times over.
Naturally, you couldn’t possibly cram all this into three hours, but the BBC miniseries uses Jones’ narration and several delightfully low-fi animated sequences to capture the sense of Adams’ tangents and verbose wanderings. So often sci-fi writers come across as hopeless braggarts, begging us to congratulate them on the world they have created. The miniseries captures Adams’ tone, which is not boastful at all, but simply a criticism of an exaggerated version of the real world around him, couched in a deeply ironic and British love of wordiness. Just remember to set up the audio correctly on the DVD, or you might end up watching “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” sans narration, which, admittedly, has a minimalist charm to it.
Producer-director Alan J.W. Bell gives the series a loose, jazzy, and inane feel. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” is not one thrill after another, but one hilarious disappointment after another, as Dent’s—and, therefore, our—illusions are stripped away one by one. “The Guide” is not wholly cynical though. We realize that our endeavors, stances, and choices are literally unimportant in the grand scheme of a doomed universe. But as Dent and Ford walk off side-by-side into the countryside at the series’ end, as Louie Armstrong serenades us, we realize that if we cannot control our destinies and all we pride is ultimately stupid, we should at least treasure what we do have. We should take joy in our friendships, in a sunrise, or in a beautiful day, because we never know when space bulldozers might take it all away.
Finished Monday, March 28th, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Friday & Saturday Night
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