Celebrating The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy at 40

Douglas Adams' seminal radio comedy aired on the BBC 40 years ago today. We celebrate its life, universe and everything...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

At 10:30pm on Wednesday, 8th March 1978, the first episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast on Radio 4. At the time no-one – least of all its creator Douglas Adams – would have known that the story of galactically-displaced nobody Arthur Dent would one day travel as far in the pop-cultural landscape as the book’s characters did across the universe.

In the years since in inception, Hitchhiker’s Guide has been – in addition to a radio show – a novel, an LP, a computer game, a TV show, a movie, a comic book, a stage show, and, naturally, a towel. It has proven astonishingly prolific as a franchise, and that’s probably because its main thesis – that the universe is an idiosyncratic and absurd place as viewed from a human perspective – is one that can’t help but resonate with audiences across time and space. Who amongst us hasn’t felt like the universe is ridiculous at some point or another?

Strangely, given the popularity of Hitchhiker’s Guide as a book series, the radio show was the version released first. Both the first and second Hitchhiker’s Guide novels were adapted from the radio, while the third was adapted from an unused Doctor Who script Adams had written. It wasn’t until the fourth book – So Long and Thanks for all the Fish – that a Hitchhiker’s novel contained a wholly original story. It’s a testament to the versatility of Adams’ characters and ideas that no one medium seemed able to hold them all.

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Most of that is fairly common knowledge, but if you’ve never listened to the radio show, you may not realize that there’s a significant amount of material in the second series that didn’t make it into any other version.

The story diverges most notably from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe novel from Fit the Tenth (aka Episode 10) onwards in which – having escaped Ursa Minor Beta – Arthur, Marvin, Zaphod and Ford visit the planet of Brontitall. Due to a series of unlikely cosmic events, Arthur is considered the saviour of Brontitall’s society, and has to deal with that while mostly hanging off a giant statue of himself. Other characters and concepts from these episodes who never made it into the novels include Lintilla, an alien archaeologist who has billions of clones around the universe, and the Dolmansaxlil Galactic Shoe Corporation, who are trying to take over the planet Brontitall as part of a plot to sell more shoes.

If you’ve never listened to these episodes, there’s essentially ninety minutes of completely original Hitchhiker’s material out there for you, as it isn’t until Fit the Twelfth that the two narratives reconverge when Arthur and his friends meet the real ruler of the universe. Even then, the ending of the series is quite different to the ending of the novel – so different, in fact, that when a third radio series adapted Life, The Universe and Everything (twenty-four years later, after Adams’ death) it summarily wrote all of this stuff out of whatever passes for Hitchhiker’s continuity.

In some ways, the first two phases of the radio show can be considered an alternate version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide story presented in the novels. Whether or not they’re the ultimate version is debatable – the books were famously written under duress and published before they were finished, but as the “second” attempt at the story we can also assume that they were Adams’ attempt to revise stuff he felt didn’t work before.

Either way, on the anniversary of the Guide’s inception, it’s worth those who have only experienced the movie, the books (or any of the other non-radio versions) taking the time to go back to the source. Despite the age of the scripts, their innovative craft and unparalleled writing mean that it’s as vital today as it was when it first came out.

With the franchise so diverse and wide-reaching, it’s hard to pin down exactly what makes it work for everyone. For me, the appeal of Hitchhiker’s Guide is ultimately embodied in Adams’ comic voice – pro-science without being didactic, and pro-absurdism without being nihilistic.

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Famously, the central question of Hitchhiker’s Guide’s initial phase is a millennia-long search for the answer to life, the universe and everything – science’s ultimate question – only for it to result in an answer that is completely meaningless if you don’t know what the question is. As a committed atheist and attempted rationalist, Adams’ version of the universe as a broadly benign but powerfully ineffable place is a comforting one, however strange that might sound.

But for all the brilliance Adams’ ideas, it is – of course – the jokes that make Hitchhiker’s resonate with most of us. The satirical pettiness of bureaucratic systems, the persistent low-level unfairness visited on just about every character, and the light-footed bait-and-switch misdirection of language that tells you ships hang in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t, or that a drink tastes almost but not entirely unlike tea.

To cap off this piece, let’s leave you with an interesting, if scientifically fanciful idea: The radio waves that originally broadcast the Hitchhiker’s Guide have been travelling away from us at the speed of light for forty years now. Of the known potentially habitable exoplanets in the universe, four of them – Gliese 832 c, Gliese 667 Cc, HD 85512 b and GJ 180 b – are within forty light years of Earth. That means that there’s a chance that the original broadcast of Hitchhiker’s Guide could have been heard by as many as four civilisations other than ours.

Admittedly, between the technology required, the language gap to overcome and the lack of any evidence of civilizations on these worlds it’s likely that every Hitchhiker’s episode (including the repeats) just sped past unnoticed. But hey, there’s something quite Hitchhikers Guide about some weird comedy shows winging their way through the universe, waiting for the moment a bored alien astronomer with a coincidental understanding of English tweaks their settings in exactly the right way to get an earful of one of Earth’s finest comedies. One can only imagine what they’ll make of it, and hope, somehow, that they might get as much out of it over the ensuing 40 years as we did.