Sunday, July 23, 2017

Six times nine = Forty-two

I rewatched the six half-hour episodes of the old 1981 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV show, inspired by this article. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years or so.

It was better than I remembered. Why did I remember any part of this less than fondly? I think it's because the last time I really paid attention to this story in any form, I was immersed in an adolescent smart-alecky culture which so overused lines and gags from the Hitchhiker's Guide that they became stale. The cure for this turned out to be a decade of not revisiting Douglas Adams's work, which gave the old gags new freshness.

The basic storyline by the late Douglas Adams is well-known: middle-class Englishman Arthur Dent survives the destruction of Earth at the hands of dull interstellar bureaucrats due to his friendship with alien Ford Prefect. He and Ford eventually fall in with celebrity criminal Zaphod Beeblebrox, who happens to be vaguely related to Ford ("We share three of the same mothers"), and fellow Earthling Trillian, a woman he not only once knew but had something of a romantic interest towards. The utter improbability of their meeting again is lampshaded to perhaps the most epic degree I have ever seen in fiction. In the following episodic storyline, Arthur learns some highly disquieting things about the Earth, the Universe, and the origins of the human race.

The TV show was based on an original radio series from 1978; this radio series was also adapted into a series of novels, which is probably how most people nowadays get introduced to the story. From a book reader's perspective, the plot of the six TV episodes roughly corresponds to most of the first book (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and about half of the second (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

The special effects of the TV show get criticized a lot. I think this is unfair. Yes, Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head is one of the all-time great special effects failures, made worse if you know that apparently they had genuinely hoped it would look cool. But apart from that, the special effects actually stand up rather well, when you remember that we’re talking about 1981 effects technology on a TV budget. And the Guide ‘animations’ are a triumph of design. I particularly liked how an epic space battle between vast fleets of warships was represented as an early-1980s video game.

It’s also true that Trillian was played as a ditz and dressed in Space Cheerleader uniforms. But hell, if we're going to be honest, if anything it’s even worse than that. Remember the original Star Wars trilogy’s infamous three female characters with dialogue? (Apart from Leia, Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma were the only women who got to say anything in the three movies.) Well, I just realized for the first time that apart from Trillian, the only woman with any lines at all is that female Golgafrinchan nincompoop in the final episode. Both are played by Americans, so we’ve got the oddity that we never hear a woman with a British accent.

But of the show’s massively male-dominated cast, I have to say they generally did a good job, with David Dixon’s performance as Ford Prefect as the standout. (That said, I also liked Mos Def’s very different interpretation in the 2005 movie, so maybe I’m just a Ford fan.) Simon Jones makes Arthur Dent more assertive than I remember him, which is hilarious given that he has no control over anything that happens to him at any point. Marvin’s silly robot suit kinda grew on me, and I even came to like the goofy, generic sci-fi look of the background aliens. Lots of silver reflective clothing and gratuitous goatees.

In the end, I appreciated the dark nihilistic black comedy of the whole thing. Other media -- the novels and the radio series -- continue the story, but as far as the TV show is concerned we’ve got these six episodes and that’s it. So we have no reason to believe Marvin survives his fatal plunge into the sun. Arthur and Ford are going to spend the rest of their lives on prehistoric Earth, and are not too happy about it. We’ve met a whale that gained self-awareness just in time to die tragically and messily, and a sentient head of livestock (played by the Doctor!) who cheerfully offered himself up as meat and then committed suicide off-screen. This universe is bleak and that is wonderful.

All in all, a solid 3 hours or so of retro British TV.

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