The budget was minimal, the special effects indigent by today’s standards, and at no point did a computer come near the many animated sequences. The acting is occasionally a bit dodgy.
Typical BBC Sci-Fi, one might say.
Well yes, but then again: no.
With Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, rapidly dubbed H²G², sci-fi had at last become sufficiently mature to laugh at itself. The hero is neither dashing nor bold, he answers to the unbearably ordinary name of Arthur Dent and wears an increasingly battered dressing-gown instead of a spacesuit or uniform; the aliens he teams up with are shallow and self-regarding rather than desperate, romantic rebels; the villains are frequently merely brainless, unlovable bureaucrats.
And of course, there’s Marvin the Paranoid Android, with a brain the size of a planet, chronic depression and a terrible pain in the diodes down his left side. H²G² rapidly became a comedy classic, a reference for all who would come after.
H²G² started life as a radio series, the TV version being its second incarnation. Radio is a medium which makes great use of the listener’s own imagination and is notoriously difficult to translate to screen or stage. In the case of H²G² this was to a great extent achieved by clever use of a narrator: the Guide itself. Plus, of course, some rewriting. Every version of H²G² ever produced during Douglas Adams’s relatively short lifetime is at least slightly different from the others, and since Adams was an accomplished radio and TV scenarist as well as a novelist this resulted in each publication being suited to the medium in which it appeared. Indeed, Adams is perhaps the only writer to have produced equally well-conceived and funny versions of his work in radio, TV, and book form. The long-anticipated and, unfortunately, rather disappointing (despite a few good gags) film which finally came out in 2006 doesn’t count, I’m afraid, as although Adams worked on it in the early days, he doesn’t seem to have had much influence on the final product; partly, of course, because he died unexpectedly in 2001.
Anyway, the DVD. Actually, it’s a 2-DVD set, one with the 6 episodes of the first (and alas, last) TV series, the other with the relatively copious extras. The sound has been remastered for stereo, although any weirdo purists who want the original mono sound also have that option. If, unlike me, you don’t know the books practically by heart you might want to use the subtitles option, as Eddie the Shipboard computer isn’t always very audible; otherwise I have no technical gripes.
Blind testing on my younger daughter produced laughter in all the right places. We can therefore safely assume that the humour is as fresh as ever.
The extras on the DVD include extracts from features run by the BBC on H²G² over the years, some of them being used more than once, so the real amount of additional material is less than it first appears. There are some interesting interviews with actors, directors, and technicians that give a good glimpse of what it was actually like to work on the series. Among them, for example, is a delightful passage showing how cherubic soundmeister Paddy Kingsland and his colleagues solved the knotty problem of producing the sound of 2 million robots singing the Sirius Cybernetics Corp’s company anthem a flattened fifth out.
- Simon Jones, the Original Arthur Dent, Discusses the Upcoming Hitchhiker’s iOS App! (wired.com)
- What is so special about the number 42 (wiki.answers.com)