It’s so hyped that I don’t even have to mention it on this site. It’s a beloved sci-fi series that started way back in the 70’s when a rag tag crew of misfits in a tiny ship were trying to evade a powerful interstellar fleet bent on planetary destruction. After a couple of missteps that fans have generally found to be embarassing and unfortunate, this series is ready to bring back the wonder and thrills of space adventures and finnicky robots on the cusp of its 40th anniversary.
That’s right: The Hitchhiker’s Guide is coming back to radio! And this time, it’s an adaptation of … Eoin Colfer’s authorized sequel. Um, yay?
I haven’t read And Another Thing… yet, despite having purchased the book and having it stare at me back from the bookshelves for the past 10 years. I imagine it’s surrounded by a field of ennui. I also made the mistake of reading the plot synopsis, and it was decidedly not a very Hitchhiker-esque plot.
However, if the radio show is anything like the ones fines for So Long and Thanks for the Fish and Mostly Harmless, it might prove to be something of an improvement. Or at least a good excuse to hear Simon Jones reprise his role as the practical and often bewildered Arthur Dent again.
If you’d told me twenty five years ago (around the time I first discovered the Hitchhiker’s Guide books) that the original source material was a radio show, I would’ve called you a liar and a scoundrel. This was before the days of Wikipedia, remember —- the real life Hitchhiker’s Guide —- so I really had nothing to go on beyond the assumption that this was a book. Why wouldn’t it be the source material? Seriously, when has a book adaptation of a previous work ever been any good? Is Peter David’s Batman Forever novelization secretly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius?
Well… it turns out that when it comes to Douglas Adams media isn’t linear and all formats are fair game. “It’s important to remember that the relationship between different media tends to be complementary,” he said in a 2001 interview with BBC. “When new media arrive they don’t necessarily replace or eradicate previous types…. What usually happens is that older media have to shuffle about a bit to make space for the new one and its particular advantages.”
I downloaded the original radio shows (available where Audible books are sold under the titles “Primary Phase” and “Secondary Phase”) shortly after I’d discovered my error. To my delight, I enjoyed it. A lot. The radio shows have supplanted the book as the new “canon” Hitchhiker’s Guide for me. It’s tightly plotted and well-performed. Plus you can’t beat that “Journey of the Sorcerer” music intro (which is reprised on both the TV series and the movie).
Hitchiker’s Guide entries make more sense wen spoken through the dry deadpan delivery of Peter Jones. He could be talking about a small fleet that’s swallowed by a tiny dog. The story is given serious gravity, not unlike David Attenborough narrating a matter-of-fact series of events on a BBC documentary.
I devoured the radio series on a long flight to Europe over the summer. The cast chemistry was fantastic. Some book readers complain that Dent often comes across as a mean jerk, and Ford Prefect is unlikable. Not so when Simon Jones and Geoffrey McGivern are dunking on each other. The dialogue is the same. The difference is the delivery. Jones and McGivern project a warmth where it’s obvious they really are friends, and dialogue that can come across as snide is, instead, the sort of trash talk that you can only get away with when you’re so close to the the other guy that you know he won’t be offended by it.
I also remember not liking Zaphod Beeblebrox at all for being needlessly abrasive. Mark Wing-Davey takes a lot of the edge off by giving the guy a chill, stoner vibe. It takes the edge off those “ape-man” cracks.
The sound engineering, too, is quite amazing as well. One of the main goals of the radio program was for Adams to experiment with sound. Hitchhiker’s Guide was the first BBC radio comedy to use stereophonic sound. It’s quite effective in a passage where Arthur, Ford, and Zaphod are stuck in a gigantic cup suspended in mid-air, where you can hear the characters skid and slide across the rocky surfaces while winds whoosh and whip all around them.
The radio shows also delivered something I wasn’t expecting. I’d read most of the books … though I ragequit Mostly Harmless because it had gotten so dour. I had been so giddy with anticipation when that book was coming out in 1992, the first time a new Hitchhiker’s Guide book had been written in 8 years. Trust me: the betrayal I felt when reading that book was greater than both Star Wars: Episode One and Master of Orion 3 combined. I also watched the movie, and unlike a lot of hardcore Hitchhiker’s fans I rather enjoyed it. I re-watch it from time to time, even if that speech that Arthur gives about Trillian being the answer to life, the universe, and everything is all sorts of cringey. As for the TV show, I haven’t seen all of it, yet. (That early 80’s British TV aesthetic? So ugly and depressing.)
“Secondary Phase” though, delivered something new to me: an all new story back when Douglas Adams was a cheeky, sarcastic goof and not the miserable, depressing nihilist.
The radio show begins two years after the events of the “Primary Phase.” For book lovers, this would be at the conclusion of The Restaurant At the End of the Universe. Much of the content would eventually make its way into the main Hitchhiker’s storylines. The most celebrated accessory of the books, the towel, makes its first appearance here. Most of Zaphod’s story, where he’s attacked by Frogstar robots and tries to find the man who really controls the galaxy, end up in the book Life, The Universe, and Everything.
But then you get into some truly new and strange stuff. Remember when Arthur Dent had that argument with the Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser, and it ended up freezing out all functionality on the Heart of Gold? That basic idea gets expanded to create an entire new world. Dent’s tirade reach the planet Brontitall, an the locals — who are super-evolved bird people — take it as a call to action against technology. Machines are smashed and an entire society turns into a bunch of Luddites. The locals decide to honor Arthur, and they build a 15-mile high statue where he’s tossing a cup (weirdly suspended in mid-air in front of him). They also live in his ear.
There are new characters, and some old character are put out to pasture. “Secondary Phase” gets rid of Trillian early. In a move the TVTropes folks call “Put on a bus”, Trillian is never seen again because she was forced into an arranged marriage. Why? I’m sure we all have our theories.
In her place is a new character named Lintilla, voiced by Rula Lenska. She’s an archaeologist, and because this is Hitchhiker’s Guide, she’s trying to discover the secrets behind the Shoe Event Horizon. Also, she is one of a hundreds of millions of clones that were created because of a manufacturing snafu. She was also originally created as part of an escort service, so there’s that.
Things eventually come to a head when Zarniwoop (voiced by none other than Jonathan Pryce!), the man who’s responsible for Zaphod’s subliminal actions, finally meets the old man who really controls everything. The scene with the old man goes nowhere in the books if I remember. Intentionally perhaps, as the moral was that for everything to work out, the guy in charge has to not give a crap.
“Secondary Phase” ends differently. Ford mentions early on that he was surprised that Earth got destroyed to make way for an Intergalactic bypass. Such things aren’t done anymore, and they haven’t been for a while. The old man reveals that he may have had a hand in Earth’s destruction. Psychiatrists, including the ones who were advising Zaphod Beeblebrox, were heavily invested that the question to life, the universe, and everything never be discovered, so they had the destruction of Earth arranged under false pretenses. Angered, Arthur storms off in a huff with Lintilla.
What’s to happen to Lintilla? How deep is this conspiracy to prevent the discovery of the question? Will there legitimately be a solution to the riddle of life, the universe, and everything? Unfortunately, we’ll never find out.
The Secondary Phase was unexpectedly demolished to make way for a repurposed Doctor Who script. The Tertiary Phase begins with Arthur and Ford back on prehistoric Earth as if the entire adventure on Brontitall with the bird people never happened. Also, Trillian never got forced into marriage, dismissing it offhand as another one of Zaphod’s stories. If I remember correctly, the entirety of the “Secondary Phase” gets written off as something only Zaphod experienced while stuck in the pocket universe from the moment he entered Zarniwoop’s office.
I suppose it was worth it to get Trillian back… though, if I’m being honest, I have a very hard time following Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s a book filled with remnants of Zaphod’s story, coupled with robotic cricket players, an immortal who was also that bowl of petunias from the first book, and a planet where you can’t see the sky from the surface. I’ve read the book several times, listened to the audio book and the Tertiary Phase, and I really can’t make heads or tails of it.
Not to mention that Trillian disappears again in time for So Long and Thanks For The Fish, and her character gets completely assassinated in Mostly Harmless. (Do you get the feeling that Douglas Adams really, really hates poor Tricia Marie McMillan?)
So yes, I’ll be dreaming tonight of the alternate universe where Arthur uncovers the psychiatrist conspiracy to eliminate the most powerful computer and wondering what ever happened to Lintilla. I’ll even imagine a televised sequel in my mind, with Rula Lenska and Jonathan Pryce showing up in front of the camera as their respective characters, like Simon Jones and Mark Wing-Davey did.
Say… if they really wanted to make a splash with a 40th anniversary radio show, why not a follow-up to this dangling plot line, hmm?