“The Original Hitchhiker’s Radio Scripts” by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (1978, 1980)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #5.) 

After The Hobbit and the Prydain Chronicles, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is one of the most influential on my childhood. I long since lost count of how many times I read the various books; I even owned the “bible bound” edition, much to my mother’s consternation. This series changed the way that I saw the world, influenced my sense of humor, and made me smile when almost nothing else could. It’s also a series that I have largely “grown out” of as I haven’t picked up any of the books in more than a decade and my last interaction with the series was watching the 2005 movie when it came out.

In 1984, Infocom collaborated with Douglas Adams to produce an adventure game based on the book. It’s quite a famous game, in the circles where such things can be famous, and I’ll be reviewing it shortly for TAG. Although most people think of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series as books, in fact the first novel was Mr. Adams’s fourth revision of the material: the original radio play, an album version, a stage play, and then finally the novel. For all that I loved the book, I had never experienced any of the original versions. For this project, I picked up the original scripts (published in 1985) for the radio series. The series itself aired in two seasons and a special: a first batch in early 1978, a “Christmas special” that year that had nothing to do with Christmas, and a second season in early 1980. Most of the episodes are written by Douglas Adams, with co-writing credit given for a number of later first season episodes to John Lloyd.

Discussing these with someone that has not read the books would be impossible. The series makes very little narrative sense and has nothing resembling character development. To my surprise, the radio series actually holds together in many ways better than the books, with more plot cohesion and a better defined arc structure. For example, the first radio season deals entirely with the “ultimate answer”, starting with the destruction of Earth, the revelation that the Earth was a gigantic computer, and ending with Arthur, Ford, and the B-Ark survivors on prehistoric Earth. The series ends with the realization that the grand experiment was a failure after the natural evolution of the Earth was interrupted by a legion of middle managers and tax accountants. The second series focused on Zaphod’s quest to find the true ruler of the universe (since it clearly wasn’t him). It depicts his adventures at the Hitchhiker’s Guide offices and a shoe-planet (not in the books), finally culminating with his discovery of Wonko the Sane. In contrast, the first book covers about half of the “Deep Thought” plot, leaving the second book to simultaneously finish that and Zaphod’s adventures. It’s so scrambled that the cliffhanger from the first radio series becomes the cliffhanger of the second book, despite pretty much everything that happened happening for a different reason. Since the radio series came first, we have to assume that the new order is intended as an “improvement” and maybe it is, but I already think I like the radio series’s progression better.

That said, the radio scripts are not the perfect version. Everything they gained in cohesion was lost in plot-holes and uninteresting side stories. The first series spent too much time dealing with an invading army of hyper-evolving shape shifters while the second spent too much time on a shoe-planet where half the population had evolved wings just so they didn’t have to wear any and somehow also came to worship Arthur Dent. It makes less and less sense the more I think about it. Trillian is even worse off in the radio series as she disappears halfway through and never comes back. For a brilliant astrophysicist and last woman alive, you think they could have found something for her to do.

John Lloyd gets coauthorship because he wrote a few of the later episodes of the first series. For the most part, all of his ideas were excised from the later versions, possibly to prevent Mr. Adams from having to pay royalties. All in all, the scripts are a good read for fans of the series, although I’m never going to be able to read the books again without seeing the skeleton of the radio plays just under the surface. Highly recommended for fans of the series or for absurd humor. Stay away if you value your sanity or think that “hard” science fiction is the way to go.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. “Captain  Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)
  2. “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan (2017)
  3. “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa (1994)
  4. “Crystal Phoenix” by Michael Berlyn (1980)

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