The calendar for the early part of this year is full of 40th anniversaries for genre fans in the UK.
In January and February 1978, audiences in larger British towns finally got to see Star Wars. (I’ve written quite a lot about that subject in my own blog about Star Wars in the 1970s.)
January 2 saw the first transmission of Blake’s 7, a BBC space opera whose fandom would rival Doctor Who for loyalty.
And in March 8 at 10.30pm, BBC Radio 4 was responsible for one of those rare events that would become a genre phenomenon: the broadcast of the first episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
While Douglas Adams’ SF comedy was to find success as five books, a TV series and several stage plays before being adapted as a film, I don’t think it was ever better than in those original half-hour radio episodes.
It is, of course, is the tale of Earthling Arthur Dent and his travels with alien companion Ford Prefect, a researcher for the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Guide is an electronic book with millions of entries contributed by roving correspondents, so it anticipated the Kindle, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor and possibly the entire internet.
It’s often said that Hitchhiker’s used radio in a way that few had attempted before. Adams observed that in the decade since the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album had revolutionised music, radio mainly remained pretty unambitious. Hitchhiker’s aimed to really explore its possibilities, with the help of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s effects and music, and it sounded great in stereo.
Adams’ imagination used the medium as freely as the Radiophonic Workshop did. He created things that were very difficult to depict in visual media – starting with the destruction of the Earth and leading up to an alien race that can evolve into a completely different shape in moments.
And as a comedy writer, Adams that radio some jokes work only on radio. Take, for instance: “Zaphod, please take your hand off me … And the other one … Thank you, and the other one.”
But I think the key to the success of Hitchhiker’s is its intelligence. Lots of people could have written a spoof of science fiction tropes. Surely, with the success of Star Wars, somebody would have done just that on BBC radio, if Hitchhiker’s hadn’t already been in production and setting its sights higher than parody.
Hitchhiker’s explores, through comedy, some heavyweight concepts, from the existence or non-existence of God to the ethical implications of time travel. And it’s tempting to think Adams is satirising science’s search for what became known as a Theory of Everything when he presents us with the giant super-computer Deep Thought. (The computer has figured out that the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. The trouble is, nobody knows that the Ultimate Question is.)
But it’s the obsessively rigorous way Adams developed his story that perhaps makes Hitchhiker’s so unique.
It’s sometimes clear in the series that the author didn’t know where the story was going to go. In episode one, Peter Jones’ narration introduces us to the Guide of the title and says “To tell the story of the book, it’s best to tell the story of some of the minds behind it” – yet the rest of the series has nothing at all to do with the story of the Guide. But even if he didn’t have the plot worked out, Adams put an awful lot of work into developing his ideas.
Adams wouldn’t let himself turn in half-formed ideas, or rely on genre conventions.
For example, most SF, from Flash Gordon to Doctor Who, doesn’t waste any time explaining how different species communicate with each other. It’s just accepted, for the purposes of the story, that everyone speaks English. Adams couldn’t take that as read and move on – so he devised the Babel fish, the sea creature that goes into your ear and turns language into brainwaves.
In episode two, he wrote himself into a corner by having Arthur and Ford thrown into the vacuum of space. Every possible way for them to be rescued seemed, to Adams, to be wildly improbable. So he devised the concept of a space vessel that was powered by improbability, cropping up at every point in every conceivable universe at once.
This kind of cleverness permeates Hitchhiker’s. Adams was, famously, a slow writer, who would often rewrite and edit scripts until he had less at the end of a session than he started with. He didn’t want to let an ill thought-out idea get through.
Being a Hitchhiker’s fan for 40 years has usually been a joy, with the second radio series and the first three novels among the high points. But it has also, sometimes, been disappointing. The fourth book, So Long and Thanks For All The Fish, felt as though a publisher had prised it from Adams’ grasp before it was ready. The fifth, Mostly Harmless, felt like Adams’ attempt to be rid of the saga forever.
At its best, though, Hitchhiker’s combined Pythonesque comic fantasy with an intellectual rigour that many ‘serious’ SF writers could learn from. Nobody, so far, has done anything to rival it.