Last week marked the anniversary – the 37th, to be exact – of the debut of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in the form of a BBC Radio play. In the decades since it’s conquered just about every form of media – books, TV, film, video games, the Internet. It’s been one of my favorite things in the world since my brother introduced me to it lo those many years ago.
But I do have a bit of a confession. As a writer, my favorite version of Hitchhiker‘s should be the books, right? Not only do they cover a lot more ground than the other versions, they’re books! Alas, ’tis not the case, for my favorite version, the one I return to again and again is the TV version. Yes, the cheap and exceptionally dated BBC production is what I think of when I think Hitchhikers.*
Part of that is almost certainly because that’s the version I experienced first. I think (it’s been a while, after all). But I also think that the TV show comes the closest to getting it “right,” if there can be a “right” for Hitchhikers, given that Douglas Adams was involved in all the various permutations. I think that comes down to two things.
First, the TV show does the best job of integrating the Guide itself into proceedings in a way that really works. The animation, combined with the voice of Peter Jones, allowed the Guide to really exist apart from the main story. Here’s one of my favorite examples:
Wouldn’t life be better if Wikipedia worked that way?
The other thing that I think works in the TV show’s favor is, perhaps counter intuitively, it’s tiny budget. I’m not talking cheap – to paraphrase Frank Zappa, cheap has nothing to do with budget, although it helps – but it’s clear there were certain limitations that the BBC crew were working under when producing the series. It looks low budget because it was, but it’s not cheap.
But the low-buck approach yields an interesting benefit in that it comes across almost more like a theater production, where the audience has to buy into a willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy things. Yes, we know Zaphod’s second head and third arm are clearly fake props, but so what? It might even work better that way.
Science fiction is at its best when, in spite of its setting or embrace of gee-whiz tech, it’s holding up a mirror to humanity as we know it now. It’s true for comedic work like Hitchhiker‘s as well as more serious stuff. That’s sometimes harder to do in the modern CGI world. Take, as one example, the Vogons, Adams’s ultimate bureaucratic nightmares and purveyors of bad poetry.
Here’s the Vogons of the TV show:
Here’s the Vogons of the 2005 movie:
The movie version looks “better” in just about every conceivable way, including the fact that they are terribly alien. But does that serve the story more effectively? The TV Vogons look like people in rubber suits and, as such, are still somewhat recognizable as people. Which is appropriate, since the Vogons aren’t really something that sprang fully formed from Adams’s brain from nothing. They’re formed from our own real world experience – they are the ultimate cold blooded government functionaries. They may be an exaggerated form of one of humanity’s worst traits, but they’re nonetheless rooted in humanity.
The movie Vogons, but contrast, are really alien. They’re different enough that the connection to our own world is lost. It doesn’t make the story worse, but the jokes don’t land quite as hard when they aren’t as grounded in reality.
None of this is to say that anyone else is wrong for having another version of Hitchhiker‘s as their favorite. That’s one of the coolest things about it – it’s reached out so many ways that it doesn’t matter if you’re a reader, a watcher, or a listener. Regardless, you’ve got a great place to jump in.
Just remember – bring a towel.
* Actually, that’s not completely true. The first thing that usually pops into my head is the line about how Vogon ships hang silently in the air in “the way that bricks don’t.” Utter brilliance.