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The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (1981)
Director: Alan J.W. Bell
review by Steven Hampton
Despite his lowly socio-economic status, sourpuss demeanour, and complete lack of sartorial refinement, Arthur Dent (Simon Jones) is very much the everyman cousin of sci-fi heroes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Like Flash Gordon before him, Arthur travels through space to alien worlds. Yes, I know he fails to save the Earth (its fate is decided before he got out of bed that day), and ends up stranded in the remote past instead of waking up in the far future but, just like old Buck, Arthur is a traveller in time and his story is simply one of the most entertaining in all modern science fiction.
Written by the late Douglas Adams, created as a BBC radio series, adapted for the stage, and later turned into a series of very successful novels, Hitchhiker's is one of the great SF comedy inventions. It has kooky aliens, fantastically bizarre plot twists, a smattering of cutting-edge ideas, and a very welcome - if not always that useful - electronic talking book (voiced for TV by Peter Jones) which delivers much of the exposition, and many agreeably hilarious asides, with a composed smugness and faux cool that manages to be slightly irritating and yet remarkably unobtrusive.
Arthur's travels with his fashion victim chum, Ford Prefect (David Dixon), who is not really human but an alien researcher for the Hitchhiker's Guide book who was stranded on Earth, enable him to meet the likes of intergalactic adventurer, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Mark Wing Davy, plus a third arm and an animatronic extra head), who revels in childish pranks yet possesses an ego of stellar proportions; and catch up with bubbly blonde, Trillian (Sandra Dickinson), a smart chick that Arthur once met at a party in Islington - and totally "failed to get off with."
In spite of some playground humour (Vogon poetry, the 'Ultimate Question', characters with goofy names such as 'Slartibartfast', etc) and cheesy BBC special effects, Hitchhiker's boasts many witty and imaginative twists on media sci-fi conventions and hard-SF literary themes. Few space opera sagas begin with the destruction of the Earth, even fewer would dare to depict both heroes and villains as either innately stupid or selfishly corrupt, and when a starship is powered by an 'infinite probability drive' there seems no need for the theoretical physics of hyperspace. Although some of the BBC effects have not aged well, and a few look amateurish at best compared to the CGI polish of 21st century visuals, many of Adams' generic SF jokes and satirical broadsides do in fact stand up to repeat viewings. A few prime examples, like the GM food served in the famous 'restaurant at the end of the universe', are even more relevant now than they were 20 years ago!
The BBC's DVD release is a two-disc set, featuring an extended version of the original TV series first broadcast in January and February 1981. On the main disc, there's a choice of mono or digitally re-mastered stereo sound, plus informative subtitles delivering background info to the miniseries production. The second disc boasts a wealth of extras: a 1993 documentary short by Kevin Davies exploring behind the scenes with a wide range interviews (60 minutes), selected further material from the archives in Don't Panic! (20 minutes), a collection of TV publicity spots for Hitchhiker's including a contemporarily recorded intro to the show by Peter Jones, a deleted scene from episode two, photo gallery, outtakes, original trailer, and the usual DVD scene indexing - offering eight chapters per 25-minute episode.
previously published in VideoVista #36
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