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Quick Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (BBC, 1981)

Douglas Adams may have been gone now for nearly ten years, but he left behind a legacy that just keeps on giving. Last year, it was Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing..., a more upbeat coda to the Hitchhiker's Guide series that was sanctioned by the Adams estate. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Netflix Instant was streaming the 1981 BBC TV miniseries.

There have been, of course, many adaptations of the core story beyond the well-known book, ranging from the seminal radio drama in 1978 to early computer games and the 2005 film. With six parts of about forty minutes each, this is the most completely realized video version of the story, incorporating elements from the first few books and ending at a very logical stopping point, the crashing of the "B" Ark on prehistoric Earth. For a 1980s BBC production, the production values are spectacular, incorporating a huge number of costume and set changes for the length of the miniseries. Paddy Kingsland, best known for composing much of Doctor Who's music during the 1970s and 80s, provided an appropriately futuristic soundtrack.

The characters have been portrayed better, I think, in other versions of the story. Trillian in particular gets little to say or do, and the film's imagining of Zaphod as a deranged mixture of George W. Bush and Keith Richards works better than what the viewer gets here (not that anyone knew who Bush was in 1981). Marvin remains an android that is clearly a man in a metal suit, which has its own charm.

But what's most remarkable is how much darker in tone the series is, compared to the 2005 film. There is, of course, no escaping the fact that this is a comedic story that begins with the destruction of Earth and the death of nearly every human being in existence. But the BBC seems to have let Adams have free reign, leaving in quite a bit of material that I suspect American broadcasters would still refuse to air today. For instance, there's the cows that have been bred to enjoy being eaten (one of my favorite ideas from the series), and of course all the digs at religion. The 2005 film softened the blow of many of these jokes (especially with the distraction of better-quality special effects), or removed them entirely. Unfortunately, with any prospect of a sequel apparently gone, we'll never know what would've been cut from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, for instance.

Partly, of course, this reflects Adams' own mood at the time. The Hitchhiker's Guide has no definitive version, but only a series of iterations as the author reworked his material for new media and new insights. But I have yet to find any iteration that disappoints; it's material that rewards return, like an old friend.

And, don't forget, Towel Day is coming up on May 25.