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TV’s Hitchhiker’s Guide’s penultimate episode dined with freaky aliens, then blew up the universe

Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Screenshot: BBC)
Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Screenshot: BBC)

A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

Douglas Adams often said that the germ of the idea for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy came to him one day when he was backpacking through Europe, and was drunk in a field in Innsbruck. Whenever he’d tell that story, he’d usually add two details. He’d say that while he thought it was a funny idea, he didn’t necessarily think he should be the one to flesh it out. And he’d joke that he’d repeated the Innsbruck anecdote so often that he no longer remembered the event itself—just his way of describing it.

So much of the essence of Adams is contained in the above. It speaks to his sense that the things we deem as momentous are often the product of something tossed-off. It nods to his infamous writer’s block, which his friend Terry Jones has attributed to the affable Adams wanting to be in the company of other people and not toiling away in a room by himself. And it’s very much in keeping with the history and nature of Hitchhiker’s to have its origin be repeated, tweaked, and refined.

There is no definitive The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy—or rather, the “definitive” version of the story is often whichever one an Adams fan encountered first. (And yes, that includes the oft-maligned 2005 movie.) What began as a radio show became an album, a novel, a TV show, a stage performance, and a computer game. In nearly every iteration, the premise held fast. An ordinary Englishman named Arthur Dent gets whisked off the Earth just before it’s destroyed by aliens, and hops through the universe with his old friend Ford Prefect, also an alien (and a researcher for the bestselling electronic book The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a sort of manual for navigating the cosmos and life itself). For most of their adventures, they’re accompanied by rakish two-headed starship pilot Zaphod Beeblebrox, his levelheaded Earthling navigator/girlfriend Trillian, and a hyper-intelligent “paranoid android” named Marvin.

The first big story arc involved the search for the question of “life, the universe, and everything”—the answer having already been calculated by a supercomputer as “42.” Adams tinkered with this plot, adding or subtracting some characters, jokes, and story beats. And with his series of Hitchhiker’s novels—still most people’s experience of this universe—the author expanded on what he came up with in his initial flurry of creativity, following the story well beyond what he did in other medium.

Still, it’s remarkable how consistent some elements are in the first stretch of the Hitchhiker’s saga. Even though Adams started it in radio—with scripts written to meet the demands of production, and a story that evolved on the fly—many of the dialogue and comic beats have remained the same from radio to book to TV to movie.

That’s why I’ve always felt the television incarnation of Hitchhiker’s should be better appreciated. Arriving after the radio series and the first two novels, it struck some Adams fans as a copy of a copy, diminished by cheap makeup effects and costumes, and general sense of “been there.” But by 1981 when the BBC TV version debuted, Adams had honed the material much more finely, and had a more confident sense of what the story was about. Also, because the BBC and the author couldn’t come to an agreement on making a second season, the six episodes stand as more of a complete piece than anything that came before or after.

As for the quality of the effects (with one generally agreed-upon exception, which I’ll get to later), there’s a certain era-specific charm to them. They scream “1981” in a good way. The rubberiness and unapologetic fakery ties this show to the likes of the The Muppet Show, Doctor Who, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and even Star Wars—the latter of which featured stellar model work, yet had alien creatures that looked like either puppets or performers in zippered suits. This was exactly where Adams’ sensibility was nurtured: in whiz-bang science-fiction, in absurdist comedy, and in DIY theater.

All of that comes together in episode five of the TV series, which takes place almost entirely in Milliways, an eating establishment startlingly dubbed “The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.” While Hitchhiker’s on TV (and radio) is serialized, it does have episodes that stand out as more contained, where a single sequence dominates. One of these is episode four, where Arthur visits the planet-building factory of Magrathea and learns from the sanguine, literally world-weary fjord-designer Slartibartfast that the now-demolished planet Earth was secretly a supercomputer, meant to derive the ultimate question (to which the answer, remember, is 42). The other is episode five, which opens with our heroes believing themselves to be dead and in the afterlife in the wake of getting blasted to kingdom come by the galactic police in episode four. Instead, they’ve time-shifted to the far distant future of Magrathea, when the land has been transformed into an elegant dining spot, perched at the point in the timeline when everything ends.

Milliways, as explained by The Hitchhiker’s Guide itself, can be accessed via time travel. The restaurant itself moves through time, shifting back right as the universe implodes in a “Gnab Gib.” Diners pay for their meals by depositing money in an account that accrues massive interest over the millennia. All of this is impossible, which is acknowledged in the Milliways slogan, “If you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways?”

A big part of what makes the Hitchhiker’s franchise such a joy is that Adams would take these fun bits of science fiction—Spaceships! Alien warlords! Robots! Time travel!—but rarely fussed around much with “rules” or “plausibility,” except to mock them. Like Arthur C. Clarke, Adams enjoyed converting big, speculative scientific ideas into entertaining, reader-friendly nuggets. The difference is that Clarke explored cutting-edge science through plot, and Adams through jokes.

This was one of the ways Hitchhiker’s resonated with the zeitgeist of the late ’70s and early ’80s in the U.S. and U.K. in particular. It was a time where some of the vestiges of ’60s hippie idealism lingered on in the then-burgeoning geek culture, where shaggy-haired men and women worked to change the world through movies, magic, music, computers, comics… whatever they obsessed over, really. And a lot of them carried over the puckish wit of the Merry Pranksters era.

Adams had a lot of affinity with the world of rock ’n’ roll. He encouraged the BBC engineers to think of the radio series as like a Pink Floyd record, with a depth of sound and a cosmic atmosphere beyond what was the norm at the time. And when he converted the first radio episodes into an LP and a novel, he introduced a character who’d later appear on TV as well: Hotblack Desiato, a “plutonium rock” superstar who plays music so loud that he has to be miles away from the stage himself when he performs it. Episode five of the TV series has a funny bit explaining the physics of Hotblack’s elaborate concerts, as well as the accounting mechanisms that keep him from paying taxes by being legally dead.

More important to the overall theme of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy though is something Zaphod says to Arthur when the latter admits he’s never heard of Hotblack: “Here we are at the end of the universe and you haven’t even lived.” The chronically laid-back Zaphod spends a lot of every version of this story making fun of Arthur for being fusty and inexperienced; and the hero doesn’t get a lot of sympathy either from his fellow Earther Trillian, who plunges into adventure rather than feeling persistently disappointed about all she’s missed. Arthur, meanwhile, sulks through his visit to Milliways, put off by all the wondrous creatures he encounters there—including a beast who’s been genetically bred to enjoy being eaten.

Then again, it’s hard to blame Arthur too much for his inability to enjoy the awesomeness of bopping through the universe when over and over again he meets people who undercut his amazement, and suggest that nothing’s ever all that grand or impressive. Episode five of the TV series is bookended in part by two sequences where “The Book” (a.k.a the show’s narrator Peter Jones) describes existence itself in less-than-flattering terms. It begins by reminding viewers about the Earth’s origins as the most profound science experiment in recorded history—initiated by beings who in our reality looked and acted like mice—then adding that because we Earth humans never knew where we came from, there was no way that anything that ever happened to us could make sense. Later, toward the end of the episode, The Book reveals that through some basic steps of logic, it can be proved that the universe has no population, no money, and no sex… which makes life herein fundamentally meaningless.

That second sequence with The Book showcases the one element of Hitchhiker’s effects that even people who rate the TV series below the other iterations admit is pretty impressive: Rod Lord’s animation, which looks like computer graphics but isn’t. These little cartoons, supported with text, effectively replicate a device that didn’t exist yet: an electronic book. The rest of the show may be weighed down somewhat by rubber monsters and Zaphod’s crude audio-animatronic second head, but the animation—coupled with some stunning matte paintings that make small, spare sets look like vast, elaborately adorned alien habitats—give the TV Hitchhiker’s a distinctive stamp.

It helps too that the cast—Simon Jones as Arthur, David Dixon as Ford, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod, Sandra Dickinson as Trillian, and Stephen Moore as the voice of Marvin—is simpatico with Adams’ original creations, nearly all of whom have been described by people who knew the writer well as representing different aspects of his personality. There’s a very specific tone to the TV Hitchhiker’s, at once snappy and deadpan, and it isn’t quite like any of its influences. It’s not as manic as Monty Python, or as leisurely as Doctor Who. To some extent it most resembles a radio show with pictures, which may have been a function of Adams not being entirely sure how to rework the material yet again for a new medium, or could be chalked up to his confidence that he’d gotten it right the first time.

These characters and what they do really aren’t too malleable, because how they express Adams’ worldview is hard-coded into them—like The Ultimate Question into the Earth and its inhabitants.

Just look at Marvin, who’s terminally depressed because he has a “brain the size of a planet” and is stuck performing menial tasks for people who lack the imagination to ask him to do anything more personally rewarding. Marvin’s a classic “mope” type—like Eeyore in Winnie-The-Pooh—but he earns his woe due to how he’s treated. In this particular episode, the gang re-encounters him at Milliways, parking cars after being abandoned on Magrathea by his time-traveling owners thousands and thousands of years before.

Then contrast Marvin’s perfectly reasonable way of assessing the universe with Max Quordlepleen, the MC at Milliways, who—on-stage at least—claims to be genuinely moved that his restaurant’s patrons can witness the implosion of all that is and ever shall be and still go home and live a normal life, as though they don’t know what’s coming.

In his various Hitchhiker’s endeavors, Adams always seemed to have a little Marvin and a little Max in him. The more that his listeners, viewers, and readers learn about what’s actually in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the clearer it is that The Book itself is as much philosophy as it is reference. It’s a sprawling, sloppily researched history of living creatures making terrible decisions, based on random, inconsequential phenomena. But it sells well because it has the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover, and because its contents seem to suggest that since the universe and all that’s in it are equally pointless, the best thing any of us can do is to stay busy—and, preferably, drunk—until our time’s up.

That is comforting, actually, to realize that every person in every generation has an over-inflated sense of themselves and their era. We always tend to think we’re in the age where everything falls apart, forever. Then we grow old and die on a still-intact planet, and the generation behind us inherits our anxieties.

Here’s something else that’s encouraging: Douglas Adams, a writer famed for responding to deadlines for new pages by resubmitting the ones he’d already turned in, only with fewer words, got to the end of his way-too-brief 49 years having created The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and all its offshoots. He dreaded the work. The work got done. May we all be so accomplished with what we do to keep ourselves occupied.


Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Justice League Unlimited, “The Greatest Story Never Told”