Saturday, October 05, 2013

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Other Things Douglas Adams

I had heard about the BBC’s “Dirk Gently” TV series a while ago. They aired a pilot which went over pretty good and so BBC Four ordered 3 more 1-hour episodes. A friend of a friend got a hold of an imported DVDs and I've had them lurking in a corner of my office for about a month. I’d like to say I hadn't watched it because I was in the middle of a complete run of Scrubs and had just gotten to the last few seasons that I hadn't ever seen, but the truth is I was worried. “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” by Douglas Adams is my all-time favorite book. Douglas Adams is more famous for writing “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which started as a BBC radio show and converted into just about every other form of media culminating with the less than stellar received movie that was finished after his unfortunate passing.

I was worried about what the conversion to a TV show would mean for the Dirk Gently story and humor. The book is hilariously inspired lunacy. It is billed as a "thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic." Well, that is what the Wikipedia page says which I believe is based on the UK hardback edition. The first copy I got was the 2-cassette, abridged audiobook version published by Simon & Schuster Audioworks and read by Douglas, which describes it as, “The first ever fully realized -ghost-horror-detective whodunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic.” I always liked the “fully realized” bit. I liked to imagine that there had been many ghost-horror-detective whodunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epics before, some of which that were partly realized, but this one was the first ever fully realized one. The later 4-cassette, unabridged version published by Dove Audio and also read by Douglas cuts it down to, "So this is it: a ghost/horror/detective/time-travel/ romantic comedy epic."  That final audio version is available digitally at Audio.com. I point that out because the digital audio versions of the five-book, inaccurately named Hitch-hiker's trilogy on Audio.com are new versions read by Stephen Fry and have been Americanized so English words like Torch have been rewritten as Flashlight. I was so mad I stopped listening to them at that point. Seriously, there exists wonderful recordings of Douglas reading the Hitch-hiker's books, why re-record them?!  Though I'll give a shout out to Stephen Moore, who was the voice of Marvin in the original BBC Hitch-hiker's radio show and BBC TV series, who did a wonderful job of reading the abridged cassette version that came out first and introduced me to the series. 

Dirk Gently is somewhat based on a storyline call “Shada” that Douglas had written as the final 6 episodes of the 1979-80, season 17 of the popular British TV series, "Doctor Who." About half of it was filmed but it was never completed due to a technicians’ strike at the BBC. A re-constructed version was released in 1992 with Tom Baker, the Doctor at that time, recording linking material to cover the gaps. Supposedly Douglas wasn't too impressed with his story and was content to have let it die. He claimed that the contract to allow the 1992 release to go forward was part of a pile of papers he was signing for his agent and that he wasn't fully aware of what he was agreeing to. In 2003 Shada was redone as a six-episode audio play / webcast with a little Flash animation with another Doctor. Gareth Roberts also novelized the Shada storyline. I haven’t seen, heard, or read any of those versions; just the Dirk Gently book which recycled some characters and concepts with all the Doctor Who stuff taken out.

One of my fears is justified in having listened to a dramatized audio version of the book that I got on Audible.com that is horrible and may lead some people to believe that the word dramatized means to have taken all the humor out of something. The rest of my fears of a television version of the book steams from the fact that most of Douglas’ humor in all this books are in the third person description. For example, in describing the giant, alien, Vogon Constructor Fleet spaceships that arrive to blow up the Earth in the beginning of "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" (to make room for a hyperspace bypass) Douglas says, “They hung in the air the same way bricks don’t.” Not only is that pretty funny, but it does a really good job of describing the feeling you would get looking up and seeing a gigantic alien spaceship just floating in the sky.

Another example from “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is where Susan is getting mad because Richard forgot to pick her up… again.
    Time passed.
    Susan waited.
    The more Susan waited, the more the doorbell didn't ring. Or the phone. She looked at her watch. She felt that now was about the time that she could legitimately begin to feel cross. She was cross already, of course, but that had been in her own time, so to speak. They were well and truly into his time now, and even allowing for traffic, mishaps, and general vagueness and diIatoriness, it was now well over half an hour past the time that he had insisted was the latest time they could possibly afford to leave, so she'd better be ready.
    She tried to worry that something terrible had happened to him, but didn't believe it for a moment. Nothing terrible ever happened to him, though she was beginning to think that it was time it damn well did. If nothing terrible happened to him soon maybe she'd do it herself. Now there was an idea.
    She threw herself crossly into the armchair and watched the news on television. The news made her cross. She flipped the remote control and watched something on another channel for a bit. She didn't know what it was, but it also made her cross. Perhaps she should phone. She was damned if she was going to phone. Perhaps if she phoned he would phone her at the same moment and not be able to get through.
    She refused to admit that she had even thought that.
    Damn him, where was he? Who cared where he was anyway? She didn't, that was for sure.
    Three times in a row he'd done this. Three times in a row was enough. She angrily flipped channels one more time. There was a programme about computers and some interesting new developments in the field of things you could do with computers and music.
    That was it. That was really it. She knew that she had told herself that that was it only seconds earlier, but this was now the final real ultimate it.
    She jumped to her feet and went to the phone, gripping an angry Filofax. She flipped briskly through it and dialled a number.
    "Hello, Michael? Yes, it's Susan. Susan Way. You said I should call you if I was free this evening and I said I'd rather be dead in a ditch, remember? Well, I suddenly discover that I am free, absolutely, completely and utterly free, and there isn't a decent ditch for miles around. Make your move while you've got your chance is my advice to you. I'll be at the Tangiers Club in half an hour."
    She pulled on her shoes and coat, paused when she remembered that it was Thursday and that she should put a fresh, extra-long tape on the answering machine, and two minutes later was out of the front door. When at last the phone did ring the answering machine said sweetly that Susan Way could not come to the phone just at the moment, but that if the caller would like to leave a message, she would get back to them as soon as possible. Maybe.
All of the humor would be lost just filming that scene.  How exactly do you portray a Filofax (Rolodex type address book) as being angry?  I always thought that the only way to pull it all off would be for a narrator to read the book out loud while the actors acted and spoke their actual spoken parts. I think somebody tried this with a book and it was a complete failure. Wish I could remember if that actually happened and if so what was the book/show so I could judge for myself and make a much better point here. Maybe if it was done as an animated show?  Oh well, moving on.

At this point I should state my goals in writing this, there are two. One being to get you to read the book because it is that good and two to state if the TV show version is any good. So if you haven’t already decided to go out and buy the book or unabridged audio-version read by Douglas, then I have already failed that part.

Now more specifically the TV show. It isn't the book. It is a re-imagining of Dirk Gently as a TV show again recycling some of the elements and characters of the books to create a new story. I know you are probably wondering if the show is labeled as being 'green' because of all the recycling, but Douglas himself liked to point out that all the different versions of "The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" were different things and they all worked in their particular medium. The TV show works, it isn't the book, but Stephen Mangan is Dirk Gently. There are some nit-picky bits that I have with tiny details nobody but somebody who has read (listened) to the books many times would pick up on. One not tiny, only small, bit that jumped out at me was that in the book Dirk is very much obsessed with the fact that he has no psychic powers and gets quite angry when anybody suggests otherwise. In the TV series he hints that he is or may be psychic. Part of the comedy is the constant and argent denial of these powers when things happen that might suggest that he has them. The bit in the book that tells how he was arrested and thrown out of University for cheating being a really good, and funny, example. He was just trying to scam people into buying him dinner. Overall, I very much liked the TV for what it was, another version of Dirk Gently and was instantly sad to have learned that the show was not given a second series. Douglas would have approved. I've added the DVDs to my Amazon wishlist and will be proud to display him in my DVD case.

There is a second Dirk Gently novel  called, “The Long, Dark, Tea-Time of the Soul”  (Amazon and Audible links) and parts of a third that Douglas was writing when he passed. The incomplete version was released along with some of his other writings in a book called, “The Salmon of Doubt.” (Amazon and Audible links) Though Douglas had said that a lot of the stuff he was writing in that unfinished Dirk Gently book wasn't working. He said he thought he might salvage some of it to use for another Hitch-hiker's book. If you read the unfinished bit you'll instantly recognize the parts he was probably talking about. I also know of two series of BBC radio dramas that were made based on the Dirk Gently books, but I have not heard them  unless they are the dramatized versions I mentioned above in which case I'll pretend that I have not heard them.

And just to be Douglas complete in case anybody was about to ask, I have not read (or listened to) the sixth Hitch-hiker's book, "And Another Thing..." that was written by Eoin Colfer with permission from Douglas' widow, Jane. I will someday though.

And speaking of 'and another thing' I do own the rare and hard to find "Last Chance to See" on cassette. The link will take you to the book on Amazon, but it was something Douglas recorded, not written originally, for the BBC where Douglas and zoologist Mark Carwardine, went to see a variety of animals on the brink of extinction, such as the Komodo Dragon, the White Rhinos of Zaire, New Zealand kakapos, and Yangtze river dolphins.

"Hey, you sass that hoopy Douglas Adams? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is." (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

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