The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable series. In fact it’s arguably the most remarkable series ever to come out of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Not only is it a remarkable series it is also a highly successful one, having already been produced as a radio series, novel, LP and stage show.
Labelled by unimaginative producers as ‘unfilmable’, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was aired on BBC two in January 1981 to an eagerly awaiting audience of fans and hoopy froods alike. The award winning series starred many of the original cast members including Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox and Peter Jones as the voice of the guide; however for the TV series a new Trillian and Ford Prefect were required. The part of Ford went to David Dixon as he was more visually suited to the role and Sandra Dickinson starred as Trillian when Susan Sheridan was unavailable for filming.
The TV series used the same script as the radio version and followed the adventures of hapless Englishman Arthur Dent who, after having his planet demolished by the Vogons one Thursday morning, is saved by his best friend Ford Prefect – who isn’t actually from Earth but a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Hitching a lift on a passing spaceship he begins a wild adventure hitchhiking around the universe with nothing but a towel and a book with the words DON’T PANIC written in large friendly letters on the cover.
The plot focuses on Arthur Dent who is brilliantly played by Simon Jones – which isn’t surprising considering Adams’ wrote the part for him. Jones plays the typical Englishman perfectly as he tries to navigate his way around the universe moving from crisis to crisis all while searching for a good cup of tea. Simon Jones does a wonderful job reacting to bug-eyed monsters and strange new planets, and stumbles around the universe with a permanently confused expression on his face. This strongly contrasts with all the other characters; Ford in particular who is the most alien out of them all. He is bursting with energy and childish excitement and doesn’t look at home anywhere. Dixon gives a fantastic off-the-wall performance with his peculiar facial expressions and a carefree, flippant approach to everything.
Accompanying them is Zaphod Beeblebrox. Mark Wing-Davey is clearly very confident in the role of Zaphod and gives a very theatrical performance as he swaggers around the Heart of Gold with an ego larger than the universe itself both acting and looking like a rock star. Trillian, the only female character in the series, is portrayed very differently to the both the novel and the radio version, in the TV series she is blonde, American, and doesn’t seem to have much of a role in the overall plot. However Sandra Dickinson makes the most of the script and gives Trillian a stronger personality.
Also travelling on the Heart of Gold is Marvin, a manically depressed robot with a brain the size of a planet who, despite his continuous moaning about everything in existence, is one of the most loved characters out of the series. Afflicted with GPP (genuine people personalities) Marvin has some of the best lines in the script and is absolutely hilarious with his deadpan personality and wit, “…parking cars what else do you do in a carpark?”.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is filled with many other quirky characters who are all given enough time on screen to allow their big personalities to come across, from the two cops on Magrathea, to the Vogon Guard in episode two and even the Dish of the Day played by Peter Davison at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Adams himself makes anon screen appearance too and in the guide as numerous characters including the Sirius Cybernetics marketing Division.
The plot largely revolves around the Guide, which is a character in itself. It defines the series and brings all the characters together. Voiced by Peter Jones, the guide’s satirical entries are parodies of modern culture, as is the entire series. Adams pokes fun at the new power and money-crazed culture that would continue through the eighties, for instance, the mice want to know the question to the answer so they can appear on chat shows and Disaster Area lead singer Hotblack Desiato spends a year dead for tax reasons.
The series is visually very impressive. The scale of the sets and their level of detail is striking, as are the model shots. A great deal of the effects used were still at the experimental stage during the time, such as the establishing shots, which were created using a mixture of photography and live-action footage cleverly arranged to make the sets look full-size. While the sets and their colour scheme look understandably dated now, especially aspects of the Heart of Gold and Milliways, nevertheless they are still very effective. Deep Thought particularly stands out as one of the most impressive designs, the endless darkness that surrounds it and the intimidating look of the great computer coupled with the subdued lighting really sets the tone of the scene. One of the most distinguishing features of the series are the amazing hand-animated graphics, particularly those of the guide which won a well-deserved BAFTA for graphics and editing.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series was made with to sound like an experimental rock anthem and this feeling was carried across into the TV series. The plot is fast-moving and there is very little time between each crisis and life-or-death situation for Arthur or the audience to recover. Every scene is pure genius and enriched with Adams’ insanely clever wit.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a series that will always stand alone in terms of both script and production values. The series takes its audience on a wild adventure full of unexpected twists and turns and a profound discovery in the last episode is the perfect ending for the series and Arthur Dent’s onscreen journey. It’s a British classic that has captured audience’s imaginations for over thirty years, and no doubt will continue to do so.
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