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The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy (2)

After the cult success of its first series, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy returned to Radio 4 on Christmas Eve 1979. I remember listening to it when it went out, and I've always thought of that episode as the Christmas Special. Actually there's nothing Christmassy about it, it's the same length as all the other episodes, and it picks up pretty much where the first series ended. Nowadays, it's just bundled in as the first episode of Season Two, which was broadcast a couple of weeks later in January 1980. It’s a sign of how big HHG had become that it made the cover of that week's Radio Times...

The fact that Douglas Adams jettisoned or repurposed so much of the Series Two material in the later books suggests he wasn’t happy with it, but at the time I thought it was great, and it still contains some of my favourite sequences.

It opens with Zaphod  arriving on Alpha Centauri to visit the headquarters of Megadodo Publications, publishers of the eponymous Guide. When we last saw Zaphod he was busy being eaten by a restlessly-evolving creature that had just turned itself into a carbon copy of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast, but he explains that it then evolved into an escape capsule. Marvin the android has escaped too, and has also found his way to Alpha Centauri. As for Trillian, we are told she has also survived, but has been ‘carted off and forcibly married to the president of the Algolian Chapter of the Galactic Rotary Club.’ And that’s the last time she is ever mentioned. I‘m not sure if she’s been written out because Susan Sheridan was unavailable, or simply because Adams couldn’t think of anything to do with her. (I suspect it might be the former - when Rula Lenska arrives as Lintilla later in the series some of her dialogue sounds as though it could have been written for Trillian.) But in the three and a half episode gap between Trillian and Lintilla there are no women in HHG at all, and I don’t think you have to be a radical feminist to find the absence of female voices a bit off-putting. Apart from anything else, it would add some variety to the minor characters - there's no reason why the mega-freighter captain or the Frogstar officer shouldn't be women. But the awkward truth is that a lot of the comedy that was presented as ground-breaking and progressive in the ‘seventies was pretty much a boys’ club. I remember mentioning this to one of my comedy-writing chums at college, who said, ‘Ah, but women aren’t funny.’ I hope Douglas Adams wasn’t that dumb, but the fact remains that HHG is as nerdily all-male as the prog rock bands that inspired it.

The first couple of episodes feel a bit scattergun, though not in a bad way. Zaphod has arrived on Alpha Centauri after a dream told him to seek out a character named Zhaniwhoop. No sooner has he got there than the Megadodo office block is attacked by spaceships which wrench it from the planet’s surface and carry it off to the Frogstar, ‘the most totally evil place in the galaxy’. (Marvin’s stand-off against a massive Frogstar battle-robot is perhaps his finest moment in the whole show, though I’m also fond of the moment when someone asks him how he is and he replies, ‘Never better.’ (Pause.) ‘Still very bad though.’) Once at the Frogstar, Zaphod is shoved into ‘the Total Perspective Vortex’, which is supposed to obliterate his mind by showing him how utterly insignificant he is compared to the scale of the universe - instead, it simply confirms to him how cool he is. All of this is quite funny, packed with good performances and laced through with long and amusing digressions by Peter Jones as the book, but it’s hard to tell where it’s going.

But not to worry - the Vortex vanquished, Zaphod somehow retrieves the Heart of Gold spaceship, rescues Ford and Arthur from prehistoric Earth and continues his quest for the mysterious Zhaniwhoop. But almost immediately he comes under attack by Vogons and Arthur’s spat with the Heart of Gold’s drinks machine ties up its computers so that it can’t escape. As Vogon missiles close in, Zaphod holds a seance, and the curmudgeonly spirit of his great-great-grandfather sorts things out. Does a seance really fit in the HHG universe? It doesn’t exactly not fit, but it still feels a bit like cheating. This is Hitch-Hiker’s at it’s most sketch-show-ish, leaping from one comedy set-piece to the next with barely any narrative to tie them together.

Finally, the Heart of Gold materialises in an icy cave high above the surface of a planet whose name I could never catch - apparently it's called Brontitall. Slipping (literally) out of the cave, Arthur discovers that it’s part of a fifteen-mile-high marble statue of himself throwing a plastic cup during his row with the drinks machine in the previous episode. A colony of giant, miserable birds lives in his left ear, and their leader - played to perfection by John le Mesurier - explains how said row appeared to his ancestors as a vision in the sky and encouraged them to rid themselves of all their annoying domestic robots. (The vision was presumably a side-effect of the Heart of Gold’s improbability drive, which may be the most elegantly blatant device for explaining away literary coincidences ever.) 

The annoyingness of the robots and talkative gadgets which fill the galaxy is a recurring Hitch-Hiker's theme which reaches its climax in the drinks machine/Brontitall sequences. If anything, these bits have got funnier with the passing years; Adams nails exactly the combination of unctuous chattiness and complete incompetence which makes our dealings with modern corporate culture so dispiriting. Most of the automated ads and emails which ping into my inbox could have come straight from the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Broadcast as one decade gave way to another, HHG partly looks back towards the glum public-sector bureaucracy of the 1970s (Prosser, the Vogons) and partly forward to the yuppiefied, consumerist 1980s, correctly spotting that the future was going to be just as irritating and inconvenient as the past, but in different ways.

Irritating robots, it turns out, were not Brontitall’s only problem, as we discover in the final two episodes. Making his way to the ground, Arthur meets three archaeologists called Lintilla (they’re clones), who are trying to find out why the planet’s civilization collapsed and the survivors evolved into birds. The answer, it turns out, is the Dolman Saxlil Galactic Shoe Corporation, whose sales techniques brought about the 'Shoe Event Horizon', making it economically impossible to build anything but shoe shops (the same process, it is hinted, is at work on Oxford Street). The corporation’s minions are still hanging around. While Arthur and the Lintillas flee from their ‘foot warriors’, Ford and Zaphod find their way into a derelict spaceport, and discover that everything we’ve heard so far has been happening in an artificial universe created by Zhaniwhoop - less of a cop-out than having them wake up and find it was all a dream, but only just. Reunited with Arthur, they zoom off to talk to the man who really runs the actual universe - Stephen Moore, playing a mild-mannered acid-casualty type. Arthur learns in passing that Zaphod ordered the demolition of the Earth, and departs in a) a huff and b) the Heart of Gold, leaving Ford and Zaphod stranded. “Will there ever be another series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy?” asks Peter Jones, as the closing theme kicks in. “Find out - if you can!”

But there never was. Instead I listened again and again to my hissy cassette recordings of the original shows. They always left me feeling thoroughly entertained and inspired, but also oddly unsatisfied.

I think the problem - and it’s the same problem that left me feeling oddly unsatisfied at the end of the original series - is that we, the listeners, have much more fondness for the characters and their universe than Douglas Adams did. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide may have a brain the size of a planet, but it doesn't have much heart: that '1970s nihilism is always lurking, reminding us that everyone is a fool, all achievements futile, all happiness fleeting or delusional. It's interesting to compare it to Terry Pratchett's books, which are the heirs to HHG in some ways. Pratchett seldom rises to the really inspired heights of lunacy which Adams could reach, but he has a genuine fondness for his creations, and obviously enjoys writing about them. Also, when you start a Pratchett book you can be sure he's going to tell you a story. Douglas Adams is more likely to lose interest and wander off half way through.

I still love HHG for its energy, and the way it piles wild invention upon wild invention and makes it all sound superficially plausible. I love it for its cast, who all sound as if they’re having fun. But listening to it now, it doesn’t often sound as if Douglas Adams was having much fun. It sounds like hard work. I’m grateful that he stuck at it at least for long enough to create these eccentric, unique, infuriating radio shows, just when I needed them.

The original Hitch Hiker's Guide series, 'The Primary Phase' and 'The Secondary Phase' are available for download or as CDs from the BBC. Three further series are also available - the ‘Tertiary’ ‘Quadrilateral’ and ‘Quintessential’ Phases. They feature a lot of the original cast, and are just as well produced, but they are based on the later books, and although they have their moments I found them rather a sad shadow of what went before.


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