Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 22 (Fawlty Towers, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
You know those days where I blow a topic that I should have saved for an academic essay on a blog post for the sole reason that adding the citations and thorough review of existing scholarship would take weeks whereas I can bash this out in a couple of hours and say the word “fuck” more? Yeah. It’s one of those days. If you like when this blog kicks back and idly sketches out some big cultural connections, this is going to be one of those entries you love. If you prefer when I just talk sensibly about Doctor Who, well, The Ribos Operation comes Friday.
There is a strain of British popular culture – one perhaps more visible to Americans than it is in Britain itself – that is oddly focused on Cambridge. This is not in and of itself surprising, given the size and prestige of Cambridge as a university, but it’s still worth remarking on the sheer quantity of Cambridge-educated people among the pool of British people Americans like: Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Sacha Baron Cohen, John Oliver, and, most important for our purposes today, Douglas Adams. And those are just the ones who were members of the Footlights club there. The list is practically a who’s who of British comedians to have hit it big in the US. (Oxford’s equivalent organization, on the other hand, has Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Rowan Atkinson, and Richard Curtis.)
The nature of this is worth discussing for two reasons. First, we’re about to enter the two year stretch of Doctor Who where Douglas Adams was a driving creative influence, and so we should probably square away what’s going on with him. Second, however, we’re entering the period where Doctor Who begins to get marketed aggressively in the United States. Although the first set of Tom Baker stories flogged cuts off at The Invasion of Time and thus didn’t have any Douglas Adams-penned material, the fact remains that Douglas Adams and Doctor Who broke out in the US more or less simultaneously.
Unlike Star Wars, there’s not a ground zero in the transition to this outbreak of Anglophilia. It is, after all, a less talked about moment of British influence in American culture than either the 1960s or 1980s musical waves, or even the 1980s wave of British comics creators. It’s tough to point out exactly when what we may as well call the Cambridge Invasion took place. Indeed, 1978 is a bit of an odd year to run this – in particular given that I ostensibly want to stop off at Fawlty Towers, which aired in 1975 and 1979, and that the “Doctor Who in America” moment is still a year or two off. But I think there’s a strong case to be made that Douglas Adams is the central figure in the Cambridge Invasion. Certainly it’s worth noting that his time on Doctor Who and his best-known creation coincided almost perfectly. But despite all of that, let’s start with Fawlty Towers, since it unambiguously comes out of the same Cambridge circle as Douglas Adams, is one of the most successful pieces of British comedy, but, notably, is miles from the science fiction end of the pool and thus works as a control experiment before the sci-fi geek stuff comes in.
The first thing we should note about Fawlty Towers, obvious as it might be, is that it’s a sitcom and not a sketch show. As straightforward a statement of fact as this is, it’s worth remarking on simply because the key figure of Fawlty Towers, John Cleese, has Monty Python as his other major claim to fame. So the first thing we should do is distinguish it from that, if only because it’s the last time we checked in with comedy. Monty Python was largely absurdist in comedic approach. It was a show bout the utter insanity of the world and the impossibility of finding sane people within it.
Superficially, Fawlty Towers appears to be a regression from that back towards an older model of British comedy about sane people caught in outrageous situation as opposed to the Monty Python model in which everything and everyone is variably insane or sane. But it’s not quite right to say that Basil is a sane man in an insane world. The plots of most episodes, in fact, involve slowly pushing Basil over the line into complete insanity. Rather, Fawlty Towers is another step forward from Monty Python. Where Monty Python was about the ambiguous relationship between the sane and the insane, Fawlty Towers is about navigating the gap. On the one hand, Basil generally appears to be the most sane person in the start of episodes. Selfish and a bit myopic, certainly, but rational and with at least some understanding of the world. Then, as a series of generally outrageous mishaps caused largely but not exclusively by people who initially appear crazier than him, he’s driven mad.
There’s an aggressiveness to this approach that is lacking even from Monty Python. Monty Python may skewer the world for being insane, but there’s a comedic version of “the personal is political” here that really should be mentioned. Fawlty Towers is about how the world drives a basically well-meaning man insane and apoplectic. It’s about the continual humiliation of a bumbling man who just wants to better his lot in life. And it’s savage about it; it forces its audience to simultaneously cringe at and enjoy Basil’s humiliation. But the main thing is its refocusing on the degradations of everyday life – the way in which collapse into the vicious absurdism characteristic of British comedy takes place as a byproduct of day-to-day existence, and the humiliating ways in which that manifests.
Which brings us around to Douglas Adams. The centerpiece of his comedy, especially when it’s at its best, is his capacity to depict the petty bureaucracy and stupidity of the world in a way that is both hilarious and nightmarish. This is the thing that everybody knows about him, and rightly so. Look at the first episode of Hitchhiker’s, in which Arthur Dent really is basically a Basil Fawlty type character. This is worth stressing, because for almost the entirety of the Hitchhiker’s series many of the jokes hinge on Arthur’s confusion and bewilderment in the world, but in the first episode he’s by miles the sanest character. We first meet him in a confrontation with Prosser, the man trying to demolish his house. Contrary to how almost everybody thinks of and remembers Arthur, however, it’s Arthur who has the upper hand in the conversation, running rings around Prosser and getting all of the good lines. It’s only after that starting point is well established that Arthur gets led down the road of insanity, making his arc a dead ringer for that of Basil Fawlty in any given episode.
Under one mode of thinking, then, Adams’s success is dead simple – he merged a deft ability to describe the petty indignities of life with a science fiction milieu and hit it big with intelligent geeks. But the appeal of this viewpoint is, frankly, less that it does a particularly good job of explaining Adams and more that it explains Adams with the barest minimum of actual acknowledgment that Adams was a really, really good writer. There are, admittedly, things that might make a reasonable person conclude this. As he got more successful his already marginal relationship with deadlines grew more and more grotesque. In the 1980s he had five novels out on top of two compeer games, a television series, and the bulk of Last Chance to See (by far his best book). In the 1990s, on the other hand, he had exactly one book. This, however, was in some ways merciful given the degree to which his work slid slowly and inexorably into extreme and over the top cynicism – particularly in the latter books of the Hitchhiker’s series, the last two of which make Robert Holmes look like a sunny optimist upon whom birds alight to sing their happy little songs.
But in far too many people these admittedly on-target criticisms have somehow grown into a general belief that Adams is a sloppy or undisciplined writer who lacks skill at plots and just writes science fiction-themed comedy. This viewpoint is utterly mad and displays the telltale signs of willful contrarianism such as being appallingly wrong and based on nothing resembling actual evidence. The closest thing to an accurate version of the claim that I can even concoct is that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a somewhat odd plot structure, which, while true, in no way means that the plot structure is messy or in any way dodgy.
In fact, the plot structure of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy makes total sense for what it’s doing. It’s just that one of the most bizarrely unasked questions in all of geek culture is “other than being funny, what is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy doing?” Which is, if nothing else, the sort of question we tend to do here. So let’s clear that up, shall we? And then perhaps we can explain why its plot structure is what it is, why Douglas Adams and his Cambridge ilk broke out so massively in the US when they did, and maybe make some cryptic comments that segue nicely into The Ribos Operation.
Let’s start with what is the most obvious bit of structural elegance in Hitchhiker’s – the way in which Prosser and the Vogons are in fact the exact same people and logic on different scales. This is not subtle – both the Earth and Arthur’s house are to be destroyed for a bypass, similar comments are made about the plans having been on display, and, of course, both are callous bureaucrats working in the name of a hazily-at-best defined sense of progress. There’s really not a lot of points on offer for noticing that they’re similar.
But they are, which is, of course, the whole point of the series. Everything in the galaxy, in fact, is presented in familiar Earth tones. I don’t mean this in the sense of “everything in the galaxy to some extent provides a commentary on Earth” – all science fiction accomplishes that. No, I mean that the actual terms in which everything is explained are Earth terms, even when the person doing the explaining is ostensibly the Guide itself, which we are told knows nothing about Earth beyond that it is (mostly) harmless. For instance, we are told that the book begins by claiming that Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Now, again, to be perfectly clear, this is not meant as an editorial interjection by Adams. This is, dietetically, supposed to be the opening to the Guide itself. Which brings up a rather pressing question: why is the Guide talking about the chemist?
The answer is not, in this case, the obvious one: because the book was written by an Englishman and it’s funny. There’s actually a perfectly sensible explanation for this within the narrative – one that also explains the Prosser/Vogon parallels, and really, most of the story in general. If, as we are told, the Earth is a massive computer and that humans are in fact a complex data-processing unit to understand the universe, it shouldn’t be anything resembling a surprise that the larger galactic culture is an odd reflection of Earth. In fact, it’s pretty much implicit in the premise.
In which case the structure makes perfect sense. The story is about turning the everyday mundanities of life into sci-fi concept pieces. So Adams uses one of the basic structures of science fiction – a series of captures and escapes chained together to get the protagonist and his friends from their starting point to the eventual resolution of everything. (And the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, at least in its original radio form, definitely has an ending. The sequels, as sequels do, muck it up, but the original radio series has a perfectly satisfying conclusion.) It’s the structure of Doctor Who. Actually, more specific than that. Miles and Wood’s observation that Adams had obviously watched The Daleks’ Master Plan because of the bits with the mice and the cricket green does not go nearly far enough. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just a Terry Nation plot: captures and escapes that are punctuated by lengthy exposition sequences – in Hitchhiker’s from the eponymous Guide. But because the central concept of the book is the elevation of petty human idiocies to sci-fi concepts, instead of action sequences in which Doctor Beeblebrox and Tricia McForeman use schoolboy science to escape the Daleks you get sketch comedy bits about poetry.
It is, in fact, an astonishingly elegant structure – do Terry Nation plotting written in the voice of a snarky travel guide to Britain redone as a sci-fi story. Anyone who tells you that Douglas Adams’s genius was only based on his use of language or his ability to tell a joke is just wrong. He had an incredible sense of pace and structure and could merge genres and do that postmodern jumping back and forth between them that we talked about just a few entries ago with ostentatious ease. Both Neil Gaiman and Steven Moffat owe huge amounts to Adams in this regard; both inherited this exact feature of his writing. It’s what people who dislike them describe as them showing off – the moments where they execute a particularly multi-layered sequence in a way that feels just a little bit like they’re doing it just to prove they can.
Those of us who adore all three point out that doing that is actually really, really hard and that it’s the sort of thing that if you can do, you should. In my best entries, I strive to pull off moments as elegant as the glorious transition “By a strange coincidence ‘None at all’ is exactly how much suspicion the ape-descendant Arthur Dent had that one of his closest friends was not descended from an ape, but was, in fact, from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.” The sheer pluck of that sentence and its completely arbitrary swerve into a different genre is a thing of sheer beauty that sails right past its audience, gets them to do a double take, and then, by the time they’ve caught up with the story, it’s in a whole new place.
In these terms, the ending is a work of genius. Ford and Arthur, having teleported out of one crisis, arrive on a generation starship (Adams really was a Season Three fan) that turn out to actually just consist of the irritating middle management – marketing consultants and, memorably, telephone sanitizers – who were exiled from their planet by the rest of their society. This Ark then crashes into the Earth and ends up causing the extinction of Earth’s actual indigenous species as the Golgafrinchans become the dominant species and the ancestors of mankind, meaning that the entire experiment was cocked up to begin with.
To some extent this renders the entirety of the Hitchhiker’s Guide a shaggy dog story, which in some ways it is – just as the eventual revelation of the answer to the ultimate question of life the universe and everything is unabashedly a shaggy dog story resulting in the book’s best-known punchline, “forty-two.” But it’s altogether more complex than that. After all, one of the people repopulating the Earth is Arthur himself. This is firmly in what the current idiom calls “timey wimey” territory. Especially because the basic concept of the Golgafrinchans is another instance of the cultural logic of the Earth getting applied to a galactic scale. The entire joke requires us to accept that the Von Danniken-style ancient aliens not only have telephones but also have telephone sanitizers. (In fact, “telephone sanitizer” is, it appears, a euphemism for toilet cleaner, though I can’t vouch for that. It has no particular impact on my point, however.)
In other words, on the one hand the Golgafrinchans reveal the fundamental futility of the Earth’s stated purpose in completely and totally understanding the universe. On the other hand, they are an implicit confirmation of the basic legitimacy of that concept. The designed purpose of the Earth may be rubbish, but on the other hand, the way it ended up is in an odd sense still completely legitimate. For all that Arthur and Ford seem to have discovered that the experiment is doomed, the entire story up to and including its ending is continually confirming the legitimacy of the experiment by showing the ways in which the mundane insanities of human life are a microcosm for the entire galaxy.
This sort of tight, self-referential and recursive structure is a fundamental part of what people like about Douglas Adams’s writing. In particular, what appeals is his ability to play out this structure in both big, thematic ways like those we’ve just talked about and in smaller ways like the reuse of single lines or the surprise paying off of a setup from episodes previous.
Again, this is the sort of thing that drives Adams’s critics up a wall on the grounds that he’s just being clever for its own sake. But as it happens, there is one group of people for whom this sort of thing had inordinate appeal, and they just happen to be people who were in ascendance at the exact moment that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy debuted. I am talking, of course, about computer people.
We’ve been spectacularly failing to track the rise of computers over Doctor Who, but it’s unmistakably the case that it’s been happening. By my count, which is off the top of my head and very possibly wrong, Hartnell had one story in which a computer functioned as a primary antagonist. Troughton had somewhere between zero and two depending on how you want to count The Ice Warriors and The Invasion (I’m inclined to count the former, who’s resolution depended on the computer, and not to count the latter, which had one computer scene that was really based around Zoe and her status as an older form of computer, namely a human whose job it is to compute). Pertwee had one. Baker has had two within a year of each other, travels with a computer dog, and is only going to encounter more of the things in his final three years (you can justify at least four more stories of the Baker era as having a significant focus on computers).
None of this is surprising given that computers were, at this point in history, in the early stages of the transition from being high-end military/academic/industrial devices to being consumer products. The Atari 2600, though really a video gaming console and not a personal computer, came out in the US while The Invisible Enemy was airing. Also in 1977 came the release of the so-called trinity of the Commodore PET, the TRS-80, and the Apple II. Computer kits had existed for a few years allowing hobbyists to build their own computers, instilling a DIY ethos that has, over time, morphed into the Open Source movement of today. Within three years the BBC would get involved with the BBC Micro, while the most famous British computer, the ZX Spectrum, would follow a year later. And, of course, in 1980 Tom Baker and Lalla Ward would be the spokespeople for Prime Computers.
There is a particular aesthetics to the math and science needed to be good at computers. An ability to work well with structured logic and with an area of mathematics known as discrete mathematics are important. But unlike the megalomaniacal blowhards depicted back in Tomb of the Cybermen, the computer science crowd was altogether more playful with their commitments to logic, enjoying paradoxes and ambiguities. These were not, by and large, people who believed that logic would clearly and unambiguously solve all of the problems of the world, but rather people who believed that logic just proved that the world was very, very strange. This resulted in part in a focus on language and linguistics, partially because cracking natural language was (and is) one of the biggest problems in computer science, and partially because the ambiguities of language were not dissimilar to the logical paradoxes that were also fascinating. (There is a reason why, if you discover a postmodernist science person, they almost certainly have considerable computer experience.)
The really obvious book to point out in this context is Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 classic Godel, Escher, Bach, a sprawling 800-page tome of word games that coined the term “strange loop” to describe the self-referential paradoxes that characterize the field. But an even more obvious thing to point at is the anarchic “hacking” culture of MIT. Starting all the way back in the 1950s, MIT developed a particular culture of regard for the hack – a virtuosic feat accomplished via clever understanding of the idiosyncrasies of a given system. And as computers became more and more central to everyday life so did the aesthetics of those who knew a lot about them.
And these aesthetics matched up perfectly with Douglas Adams, who was in effect engaging in hacker performances with the logic of everyday life by splicing it with the logic of Doctor Who. And so Adams was triumphantly embraced by computer people, very much becoming one himself. Indeed, he helped create two computer games for Infocom, including a quite underrated text adventure of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, preserved online here. (The game is normally panned for excessive difficulty, which, while a reason why it’s tough to enjoy in 2011, is a non-starter for when it was released. It’s hard, yes, but it’s hard in a way that is firmly part of the text adventure aesthetic. The frustrating parts of its difficulty come from the fact that nobody makes games like it anymore, not from the fact that it was unfair for what it was.)
But what’s important to note is that the things that made Adams appeal to computer science people aren’t just idiosyncrasies on his part. They stem very logically from the Cambridge Footlights tradition he came up through. The highly structured treatment of absurd systems that Adams uses is absolutely a development of the comedy in Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, and the wave of America-friendly British comics that followed (including non-Cambridge sorts like Eddie Izzard) continued in that vein. And so it wasn’t just that Douglas Adams was popular among the up and coming computer people, but that Douglas Adams was the most overtly geek-friendly of a larger movement within British culture and comedy that was by and large compatible with a large cultural movement spurred by technological shifts.
And these connections are relatively deep. A compelling case can be made, for instance, about various other similarities between MIT and Cambridge. Both have several traditions revolving around footbridges over their respective rivers, a love of student pranks involving putting obscure objects in inaccessible places, and a rivalry with an older and more established university in which almost all of the creativity and maintenance of the rivalry takes place on the younger side. And, of course, MIT is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These days they even have a substantial student exchange program. There is, in other words, a definite sense in which Cambridge was oddly positioned to pull off the Cambridge Invasion, having as it did a world class theatrical troupe and a culture that lent itself to the rising computer culture.
And for the next two years (and in another sense for the next three) this subculture intertwines heavily with Doctor Who. The most obvious way in which this happens, of course, is Douglas Adams’s own work on Doctor Who. But when mentioning virtuosic and tightly structured writers who occasionally get drunk on their own cleverness, there was one obvious guy I left off the list. And he may have something to add to discussions of this approach as well…
December 14, 2011 @ 3:41 am
Fun stuff. Have you ever seen The Goodies Phillip? I used to watch it around the same time as I started reading Doctor Who novels in the late 70s. (Mostly out fond childhood memories of the second Peter Cushing film…I didn't actually get to see the TV show until years later as our local PBS station was obviously run by dicks.) They form a bit of Cambridge connective tissue here in that they were on outgrowth of the radio show "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again" which was John Cleese's pre-Python claim to fame, and itself an outgrowth of the "Cambridge Circus" revue. (And which did a Doctor Who parody once.) They were sort of like the more kid friendly version of Python, leaning more towards surreal visual gags. They were a big deal in England until the BBC unceremoniously dumped them so they could have more money for the TV version of…Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Cambridge trumps Cambridge!
December 14, 2011 @ 4:00 am
Good lord, this entry could have been written for me! Not long after the point when I left Doctor Who for a couple of decades, and while you are covering stories I've either never seen or only seen as an adult, you include this analysis of some of my favourite programs (of two sorts) from the period. I'm an Oxford man, myself, and while it's a couple of posts too late to bring up Tolkien I still feel I should big it up a bit. Regarding adventure games (or Interactive Fiction (IF) as it is more pretentiously known): while Cambridge, MA may have had Infocom we at least have Graham Nelson, the man who created Inform, probably the most-used modern text adventure creation software.
Anyway, I was one of the lucky ones to hear the first episode of HHGttG on original broadcast. I was sitting in a car in the dark in a field in a campsite in North Wales, it was cold and (IIRC) rainy, and there was this radio program my dad wanted to listen to. We'd just travelled quite a way and I wasn't sleepy so I listened too.
He hated it; I loved it. In some ways it replaced Doctor Who as my new passion. OTOH, I didn't use a computer until 1982, though once discovered they drew me like water draws a duck. I could rabbit on for ages, but I'd better draw the line at some point.
Anyway, thanks for this. I'm heading off with a nice, warm nostalgic glow.
December 14, 2011 @ 5:08 am
I'm not sure Basil Fawlty is really "a basically well-meaning man." And I'm definitely not convinced that he "generally appears to be the most sane person in the start of episodes" — maybe he is sometimes, but I'd usually give that honor to Connie Booth.
December 14, 2011 @ 5:57 am
I've just been listening to the 1973 BBC radio adaptation of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, and it's incredible how much the opening sounds like a straight version of Hitchhiker. There's all the BBC radiophonic stuff, of course, presumably done by much the same people and certainly in much the same style, but even more than that there is the narrative framing by excerpts from the Encyclopaedia Galactica.
That's straight out of the books, of course, but on radio the connection between this and Hitchhiker a few years later is palpable. We also have less comic versions of the same sorts of names as we find in Hitchhiker, ancient holograms turning up to give portentous warnings, millennia-long ancient conspiracies… to the extent that Hitchhiker is a parody of SF, it is as much a parody of this as it is of Doctor Who.
Also, I'm not convinced "telephone sanitiser" is anything other than literal. Certainly Adams doesn't seem to mean it that way: he points out that, following the departure of the B Ark, the remaining Golgafrinchams were wiped out by a disease originating from a dirty telephone.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:12 am
Yes, but if you assume that the telephone in the job description is a euphemism, deciding they all died from a dirty toilet is hardly an arduous stretch, is it?
December 14, 2011 @ 6:14 am
Yes, I agree with Jesse. I'd add that the difference between Basil and Polly isn't simply that he's crazier than her: she's essentially a bystander and can stay sane because she doesn't have to be 100% involved; he's got obligations, responsibilities and expectations to fulfill in a world that simply doesn't let him do it.
There's also a lot of this attitude underlying Hitchhiker's. You can get involved and have to do things that are basically crazy, or you can stand by and comment, or if you have a lot of money you can do what you want, but those are your options.
This is maybe an important difference between Cambridge UK and MIT — and I love that you brought up the connection in this essay. For all that Cambridge turns out bright, inventive people, its focus is on turning them out into the administrative professions and working within the system, with the highest goal being a place in Parliament and an ability to tweak the system at the edges. (Things have changed now, Cambridge is one of the most entrepreneurial universities in the UK, but until the 80s I think this is a fair summary). While MIT really is an entrepreneurial and hacker culture, where you go in expecting to come out having learned how to make something new.
This is partly a specifically Cambridge thing: kids of the middle class taking it somewhat easy, tempted towards pretend-envy of the working class and how they don't have responsibilities so they don't have any real problems just no money, and looking to a future of modest success but limited creativity. But it's also a thing about the lack of ambition of Britain in the 70s, with engineering and the trades looked down on despite their ability to change the world. You see this also in the sitcoms of the 70s and the sitcom structures of the Pertwee/UNIT stories, where the Doctor — who should be this mercurial, transgressive figure — ends up being the same as anyone else who works for an organization, giving out about the bosses behind their back, being cheeky to their face as far as he can get away with it but never actually endangering the power structure, and pissing on annoying underlings. The only thing missing from the Pertwee years, compared to a standard sitcom, is the peer group (friends or wife) that actually make life bearable. No wonder Pertwee's so grumpy all the time. No wonder he cheers up in space.
(This I think also plays into the problem of the end of The Silurians — the Doctor can't walk out because of the sitcom structures of Doctor Who, and because of the production issues where you have to end each story where you started in case you have to show them in a different order, but also because the dynamic of the time was that you picked your organization and stuck it out. Leaving was not an option).
Things have changed somewhat in Britain, but the basic sitcom setup of somewhat self-aware people in a basically unbearable situation is still going strong (of course, the examples that spring to mind are Father Ted and The IT Crowd which are consciously retro, so maybe this isn't such a strong point — maybe someone more familiar with current British sitcoms could let me know if I'm off line here). In the US the only comparable thing is Seinfeld, and even there things are basically unbearable mainly because the characters make them so.
So yeah I liked this entry. Maybe when you get to the book you'd consider a Pop Between Realities on The Good Life? I think it maps nicely to late Pertwee / early Baker.
Anyway, I do live in a dot-com wonderland, but I actually have to get some work done… by which I mean "obsessively hit refresh on this comment thread". Tuesdays and Thursdays are much more productive days for me.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:19 am
Still don't buy it. Telephone sanitiser is an example of the sort of thing most people think is a ridiculous non-job, along with management consultant, advertising account executive, and so on. Toilet cleaner is the sort of job that everyone thinks is necessary, and would be a shoo-in for the C Ark.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:20 am
Also, dying from a dirty telephone is funnier than dying from a dirty toilet.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:25 am
Dying from a dirty euphemism, however, is funnier than both. I mean, the joke is more or less a straight binary – either "telephone sanitizer" was a real job that people had or it was always a euphemism for "toilet cleaner." If the former, then the joke is straightforward. If the latter, the joke is that the euphemism is carried on past the point of sense.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:44 am
I've never until now heard that "telephone sanitiser" was a euphemism. But I have worked in an office in which a telephone sanitiser came around each week to polish the phones. I remember distinctly, because I thought "Hitchhiker's!" to myself. If you're right about the euphemism, then it may be a particularly gnostic example of Footlights toilet humour, but I think it completely by-passed the rest of Britain.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:46 am
Well fair enough. As I noted, I can't particularly vouch for the euphemism; such things rarely have very good sourcing available.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:50 am
A fascinating post. I've loved Douglas Adams as much as Doctor Who at times in my life, though Doctor Who has always trumped because there can always be more, whereas when Douglas died, there wouldn't be any more Douglas.
Your section on computer culture made me see an amazing truth that was in front of my face for years. See, I'm finishing a potentially unemployable PhD in Philosophy right now, and some of my historical studies have taken me to early analytic philosophy (and there's Cambridge again!) and the development of symbolic logic.
One of the funny things I've always noticed is that intro logic courses in philosophy departments are always filled with computer scientists and engineers, because for them it's a course they can sleep through and get a 95%. And I've always wondered what might be the roots of this contempt for philosophy logicians that I find anecdotally widespread in computer science communities. Then I read this, and it hit me.
When symbolic logic was first developed, it was supposed to be the means of creating a logically perfect language that would remove all the ambiguities and paradoxes that created insoluble philosophical problems. So the view of logic that's had the most influence in philosophy is like the Brotherhood of Logicians from Tomb of the Cybermen: logic as the means to perfect knowledge, and a scientific utopia of logicians.
But the computer scientist's love of paradox and hacking is anathema to this project. Maybe that's the historical root of how philosophy as a discipline has become marginalized from the most advanced and creative developments in logic. The philosopher wants to be rid of paradox, but the computer hacker thrives on it.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:52 am
Perhaps before postmodernism the philosopher wanted to be rid of paradox (though even that's debatable in spots). After postmodernism, however, I think no such claim can be made.
December 14, 2011 @ 8:00 am
I always thought the joke in the telephone sanitiser gag was about getting rid of the most useless people in society, and then finding out the most useless of all was actually one of the most vital. If it really means "toilet cleaner", then the joke doesn't work on any level; even euphemistically, I can't see where the humour lies.
December 14, 2011 @ 8:15 am
But postmodernism is at best a marginal influence in Anglo-American philosophy departments.
December 14, 2011 @ 10:53 am
For the record, I'm with the majority on "telephone sanitiser", for the reasons that Iain Coleman and Exploding Eye cite.
December 14, 2011 @ 11:44 am
Regarding situation comedy, the transatlantic differences of: Every episode of every American sitcom begins with a bunch of people in a fairly to very comfortable situation; something happens to threaten that comfort, causing conflict; at the end the conflict is resolved, the threat is removed and the status quo restored.
Every episode of every British sitcom begins with a bunch of people in a situation from vaguely uncomfortable to (either in general or because of their specific personalities) Hellish; they have a plan to improve their lot and put the plan into action, causing conflict; at the end of the episode the conflict is resolved, the plan fails, and the status quo ante is restored.
December 14, 2011 @ 11:56 am
Regarding computer people: you are really far too nice to them, far less harsh than they deserve. But then as suggesting they all be wiped out by a particularly painful and slow-acting plague contracted from a dirty keyboard is far less harsh than they deserve, it is difficult not to be.
Mainly because the things that fascinate them — like in that bloody Bach book — are the most trivial, obvious, uncreative things ever (it’s not surprising, really, as computer programming is one of the most uncreative, soul-destroying tasks there is: it's like solving Sudoku puzzles for a living. It involves about as much creativity as bricklaying, but at least at the end of it a brickie has a wall. So the only wat to do it and remain sane is to convince yourself that paid crossword-solving is in some way fulfilling — though if you want to argue that that very belief makes you insane, I will not put up much of a fight. Still, it's indoor work with no heavy lifting).
What makes Adams amazing is that he marries that sensibility with actual creativity.
But it must be remembered and stated often that most computer people are scum.
I speak from experience.
December 14, 2011 @ 12:00 pm
I was wondering when you were going to take a look at these, and now seems like the appropriate time to do so! Both Fawlty Towers and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are two of my favourite series ever and I really wanted to say something intelligent about them, but looks like all the really big points have been covered already.
I will echo the concerns over several of my fellow commentors in expressing doubt that Basil is "basically a well-meaning man" and the "only sane man" character in Fawlty Towers: It's true that he's the most magnetic character and we are supposed to feel some element of sympathy for him when the situations spin inevitably out of control, but it's also important to remember he's a fairly reprehensible character. He's cowardly, rude, egomaniacally self-absorbed, classist and bigoted. John Cleese based him on an impossibly insufferable hotel manager who harassed and abused the Monty Python troupe during the filming of Flying Circus. A good majority of the humour comes from the establishment of this dichotomy: Basil is indeed a horrible person and a lot of the madness of Fawlty Towers is his fault, but then again many of the circumstances are out of his power so you have to feel for him to an extent as well. Basil's certainly not the only one either: Just about every character on the show is some manner of exaggerated horrible person, the biggest exception being Connie Booth's Polly. If anything I read the show as what happens when you put a ton of awful people together in one setting, light a match and watch the sparks fly. What makes Basil and Polly different is they have the power to engender sympathy through their charisma and stage presence and, in Polly's case, the fact that she's done nothing wrong.
I don't have anything to add about H2G2, except for the presumably well-known fact the majority of it (not to mention Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) comes from unused Doctor Who scripts Adams submitted during Season 12. Not to belittle Hitchhiker's or Adams at all, as I said I adore them both, but it's an interesting bit of historical trivia anyway and seems important to note as we trace the evolution of British science fiction and comedy. I guess I can share a personal story about my connection to the show: I first listened to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I found a compilation of the original radio series on audio cassette. I used to listen to it during my two hour commute and it was a welcome companion when it began to grow dark early. The long night-time drive meant I had a lot of time to think about what Adams was saying and immerse myself in the world of the show. It was actually around this time of year I found it the first time, so I'll always associate the show with long, cold, dark December nights. I'm so happy it finally got re-released on BBC Audio so I can listen to it on my iPod. It still has one of the best theme songs ever.
December 14, 2011 @ 12:02 pm
A minor clarification to my above post: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy come from the Season 12/13 pitches. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is of course a rewrite of "Shada".
December 14, 2011 @ 12:06 pm
Your comment that most postmodern science people are computer people is probably true, but only to the extent that most science people of any stripe are computer people these days.
It is possible that I may actually die laughing at the irony of SK posting his latest statements on the internet. If so, I am sure my surviving relatives will be in touch.
December 14, 2011 @ 1:02 pm
WGJosh , where did you get the factoid about Hitch-Hiker's being based on rejected Who pitches? It's certainly not mentioned in Gaiman's book on Adams.
As for Dirk Gently, it's not based on Shada at all. The character of Chronotis is in both, and there are a few jokes that appear in both (a full list is at http://nzdwfc.tetrap.com/archive/shada/dirkgently.html ), but it's actually got more in common with City Of Death plotwise (alien whose crash-landing on Earth inadvertantly caused the start of life on this planet attempting to go back in time and fix the 'mistake').
Iain, you're surely not suggesting that SK might sometimes say badly-thought-out things for shock value? Who could possibly imagine such a thing?!
December 14, 2011 @ 2:06 pm
It still has one of the best theme songs ever.
The Hitchhiker's theme is one of the very few things in the world that justify the existence of the Eagles.
More broadly: Much as I enjoy the Hitchhiker's books (or at least the early ones), I think the original radio show is the best version of the story. There really isn't an American counterpart to it — the closest I can think of is Firesign Theater, but they're ultimately more interested in free association than in pushing logic past the point of paradox.
December 14, 2011 @ 2:11 pm
I agree. The books, and other versions, did introduce some good stuff, but the radio version remains the best. It always annoys me that in a lot of SF fandom, especially in the US, Hitchhiker is regarded primarily as a book series. Its natural medium is radio.
December 14, 2011 @ 2:15 pm
Regarding the Eagles: I like them. Especially the Desperado album, though One of These Nights (the source of ‘Journey of the Sorceror’) is good too.
December 14, 2011 @ 3:18 pm
To be fair, it was easier to find a copy of the books in the US in the 80s and 90s, compared to catching the radio broadcast. It wasn't impossible-I had a friend whose parents had the radio version saved on cassettes-but not many kids here will be going through their parent's audio collection, looking for BBC radio broadcasts. If Douglas Adams was still alive today, that might not be the case, as the Internet would have made it easier and easier for him to go "Check out the radio version, it's the original!" And considering how enthusiastic he was about new technology, I have no doubt he would have been online as much as possible.
Plus there's the fact that no matter what we may think rationally, emotionally you always think about the first way you encounter a series. I know it was on radio first, but I'll always treasure finding that book copy of Hitchhiker's Guide, and I can't shake that no matter how much you might remind me it was an adaptation instead of an original novel.
December 14, 2011 @ 4:11 pm
I see where you're coming from. I first encountered Hitchhiker in the BBC TV adaptation, which is closer to the radio series than the book, but has worse special effects. It was quite a while before I heard the original radio version. However, a lot of the jokes just work a lot better in the medium for which they were first written.
December 14, 2011 @ 4:17 pm
See: Marvin humming "Zarathustra."
December 14, 2011 @ 4:20 pm
@ Iain, Jesse
I completely agree and share the exact same sentiments. The radio show (the original one, mind, not the sequels produced in the mid-2000s) is a brilliant and concise bit of science fiction and the definitive version of the series.
Certainly agree with talestoenrage though: It's not like it was especially easy to find, whereas the books were. I consider myself so very lucky to not only have heard it, thanks to it being at my local library, but have it be the first version of the series I was exposed to. I was very disappointed when I got the books later and saw how much was changed and extremely disappointed when I read the sequels. I always wince a little when I meet a fellow H2G2 fan who raves about how wonderful the books are, yet has never heard the original radio series. It happens more depressingly frequently than you might think…
December 14, 2011 @ 4:25 pm
I read the books first (this was back when there were only two books), but not long afterwards one of the radio stations at the University of North Carolina started airing the series late at night. I used to listen on my clock-radio while I was supposed to be asleep.
December 14, 2011 @ 5:30 pm
Just a quick note to expand on SK's description of "situation comedy, the transatlantic differences of":
I've always had a similar but distinct formulation, which is that (at least, in the 20th century), American comedies generally feature people you wish you were, or at least knew, whereas British comedies feature people you would cross the street to avoid once you'd stopped thanking whatever god you might believe in that you weren't them.
December 14, 2011 @ 6:25 pm
I was introduced to H2G2 in middle school through the books; loved them, have read them voraciously since (even have all five in a gorgeous black leather-bound omnibus with gold leaf siding on each page)… is that okay? 🙂
For what it's worth, I also love how they develop; they're not just joke-machines, but character-populated joke machines, and as the characters grow alongside the author, the jokes get increasingly subtler.
If nothing else, it's wonderful seeing Adams's work develop in such a fashion. 🙂
December 14, 2011 @ 6:28 pm
…oh, and the first Dirk Gently book was a combination of "City of Death" and "Shada", not just a straight "Shada" lift; that's why those two stories, along with "Pirate Planet", were never novelized by Target.
Might be interesting to compare "City", "Shada", and the first "Dirk Gently" when you get to Season 17, Philip…
December 15, 2011 @ 6:35 am
Phil, I've been loving your blog ever since I linked in to it from "Adventures With the Wife in Space"! 😀
Two other British shows which gained popularity around this time in the US as well were "The Muppet Show" and "The Benny Hill Show" — dunno if these have any impact/relevance to the discussion at hand, but I was born in 1970 and grew up watching the Muppets and other British shows (largely on PBS), so my progression to "Doctor Who" seems like a fated thing to me… 🙂
December 15, 2011 @ 9:38 am
I discovered the Hitchhiker's Guide in audio form, but not the radio broadcasts — there were shorter (and otherwise slightly different) versions of Hitchhiker and Restaurant, released on cassette, and those were the ones I heard first. Then I found the longer radio version, which was much better (though I still prefer the Restaurant MC in the shorter version).
December 15, 2011 @ 9:39 am
I used to have a name like that ….
December 15, 2011 @ 10:03 am
Well late though I am to this conversation – this post cannot go past without my comment.
My childhood and early teens were composed (in descending prportions) of Doctor Who, the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Fawlty Towers, the Goodies, and (in a bizarre cultural artefact of Australian public broadcasting in the 1980s) Monkey Magic.
So thanks for this post, it has made my heart glow in a fond remembrance of times past.
Not much of what you say here surprises me now, with such a grounding as that – but thanks for pointing out Basil's sanity, and descent therefrom. Certainly, as a few have pointed out, Polly is probably the most sane, but as Wlliam Whyte pointed out, she isn't invested. And clearly we need her in the show, in order to illustrate Basil's descent – to have some contrast with all the insanity of everyone and everything else.
I hadn't personally made that connection, from Basil to Arthur, but you are absolutely right, of course.
And last of all – Who cares whether it was a euphemism or not. It's still funny.
(Oh, and the new Mobile layout ROCKS!)
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 15, 2011 @ 10:42 am
If you're talking about Douglas Adams, I think a look at the most important computer game of my childhood ought to be brought in somehow. Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic took inane puzzles, crazy people and the nightmare of officialdom to fascinating places, all wrapped up in a beautiful art-deco style. What's especially frustrating is how unknown this game seems to be, and I can't think why. The most glamourous spaceship in the universe is launched, incomplete, and immediately undergoes Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure as a insurance scheme cooked up by the Chief Accountant and the Project Manager because the ship had so overrun its costs that they were broke. Luckily, rather than be destroyed, the beautiful liner crashes into your Lovely Home instead, and you end up trapped on board with a bunch of malfunctioning robots, an insane parrot voiced by Terry Jones and a irritable bomb voiced by John Cleese. The ship is gorgeous, but the ballroom and the second class canal are unfinished, the TVS don't work right and, of course, the robots' central intelligence has been sabotaged. Its very witty, a lot of fun, and frighteningly difficult, much like the earlier Infocom games (FUCK YOU, POODLE IN WISHBRINGER! FUCK YOOOOOOOU!!!!!!!).
Consider this a public service plea for more people to give a shit about Starship Titanic, a fantastic and alrgely ignored part of Douglas Adams' legacy.
December 15, 2011 @ 11:14 am
It is of course worth mentioning the setting to "Voyage of the Damned", which I always thought was RTD's not-so-subtle shout out to a particular cult PC game!
December 15, 2011 @ 2:04 pm
I first experienced HGTTG as the BBC series, around the same time I was watching BLAKE'S 7, and Tom Baker as DOCTOR WHO. Never got to hear the radio version, but I have read the books and must agree with others that the first version is the one I have the most fondness for. I was surprised to hear people complaining about the low-budget effects. I thought it helped to emphasize the ridiculousness of everything that was taking place (or it could be that I was just used to it from DR WHO and B7). It was still lightyears ahead of the awful movie from 2005.
December 15, 2011 @ 10:19 pm
WE WERE NOT GOING TO MENTION THAT MOVIE.
December 15, 2011 @ 11:21 pm
Well, as reboots of classics go, it was better than the Avengers movie.
Which in turn was better than the Wild Wild West movie.
Which in turn … um … no, I'm stumped now.
December 15, 2011 @ 11:33 pm
There's so many different original versions of "Hitch-Hiker's" – the radio series, the book, the record, the TV series, the game, and "that movie", that everyone seems to remember it differently. Perhaps this explains why it became legendary so quickly.
The only equivalents in twentieth century DW would appear to be those early Hartnell stories which were freely novelised in the 1960s, the first two Dalek stories which were very freely filmed, and perhaps Genesis of the Daleks on TV/LP. But even with (say) the first Dalek story, the superior version of which is the novel, the TV series takes primacy simply because of its longevity. (Now, if David Whitaker had edited a 1960s-1970s range of New Adventures…)
December 16, 2011 @ 5:55 am
I'll actually probably do Dirk Gently in the context of Howard Overman's 2010 pilot for a TV series and the weird spectacle of an adaptation of an adaptation of Doctor Who.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 16, 2011 @ 12:54 pm
@5tephe I liked that movie, even given my intense loathing of one Zooey Deschanel. The idea of "Hitchiker's" having some kind of definitive canon beyond "MAn named Dent witness the destruction of Earth" is so wretchedly ludicrous that I laugh and laugh and laugh. As noted, it's been a radio series,a TV series, a novel series and a video game, none of which match each other, long before it was a film.Was the film perfect? No, but it had a certain charm that I liked.
God damnit, I had this big plan to work may way to that specific point, and the totally forgot about it. Ah well, not thinking about Kylie Minogue is a good thing.
December 16, 2011 @ 11:01 pm
Late to the party…I have to agree with the telephone sanitiser lobby. There's absolutely no tolet reference intended. I think you really have to have been brought up in Britain in the 70s to understand the elitism and superiority inherent in University comedy. Adams basically believes upper middle-class, clever people are inherently superior, mainly because of their emotional reserve and education. Compare his attitude to the obviously lower middle- class Ark people (worthless and stupid, defined only by their "pointless" jobs) with Russell T's sympathy for the plumber on Platform One. Fawlty Towers is driven with a similar distaste for the "uneducated": Basil is thwarted by people he considers to be his intellectual inferiors or by those who are less "refined "(and by inference more physical than cerebral. Good taste is such a middle class concept!)
When I was a schoolboy I loved both shows but now I find the snobbery irritating. I'm interested that you're critical of the lazy,racial stereotypes in "Talons" but seem to miss class prejudice.
Did you get the joke about Starsky and Hutch in both HG2G radio and tv versions? Again, you'd have to know that it was a prime time weekend hit on 70s BBC tv. Adams is clearly derisory about the cops' tendency for emoting, male bonding and self-analysis. He would probably have been very scathing about modern British culture for those reasons.
February 3, 2023 @ 7:06 am
This is a ridiculously long time to come back to a blog comment, but I feel I have to defend Adams here. While he is mocking middle management types in the Golgafrincham Ark arc, he is not snobbily saying “haha these people are worthless”.
Within the plot, the rest of the Golgafrincham population decide that all these people are worthless and concoct a way to get rid of them. But that entire society dies out because they all caught a disease contracted from a dirty telephone that would never have happened if they hadn’t decided telephone sanitisers were useless.
It seems to me that he’s saying no-one is actually useless and you run a risk if you cut loose from any particular group of people. Adams isn’t holding up the B-Ark idea as an ideal, but a danger. If there’s any snobbery, it’s with the remaining Golgafrinchams and they pay for it with their lives.
December 17, 2011 @ 12:27 am
I think that's a little harsh on Fawlty Towers. Yes, Basil is clearly an upper middle class supremacist, but this is overtly his failing. The joke of Fawlty Towers is generally, at least in part, that Basil gets it completely wrong. His fawning and obsequious nature with those guests he considers "better" and his cynical dismissal of his "lessers" is where his basically sympathetic desire to improve his station in life becomes a crushing character defect. (And while I'm on the subject, anyone asserting that Connie Booth is the sympathetic voice of reason in Fawlty Towers needs to rewatch the start of The Germans, which may as well just be an episode of Coupling.)
Similarly, the Ark isn't lower middle class people. It's mostly management consultants and the like. The lower middle class were the ark of people who do things – i.e. one of the ones that stayed behind. The point of the telephone sanitzers being there is that their job is pointless. Surely nothing about a telephone requires specialized sanitation and the ordinary staff of janitors can wipe them clean. (Which is, I think, the logic behind what I am now more or less willing to say is the false claim that the job has always been a euphemism for a real job.) But equally notably, it's not like all janitors are on the B-Ark. Just the pointlessly hyper-specialized ones.
December 17, 2011 @ 1:45 am
Regarding ’Hitch-Hiker’ having it’s heart in computing, perhaps there is a natural human tendency to see significance in the areas most familiar to you. And I don’t know computer science at all.
But like any English schoolkid of the era, I had read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ before ‘Hitch-Hiker’. And it seems to me Adams has more in common with Carroll than any SF show. Dent blunders through an unfamiliar world, encountering strange beings and not learning very much before moving on… even the Doctor is a kind of a hero, whose actions influence events.
As K-Punk comments on the essence of Alice…
”…there is the feeling that Wonderland is Alice's world alone, yet she has no place in it. She is always late, in the way, misunderstanding what ought to be obvious…”
If I had to summarise ’Hitch-Hiker’ in a phrase, “Englishman journeys far and wide in space and time. Which he discovers to be a great big England. So, in short, it makes no sense to him whatsoever.”
Regarding the Ark, it is based on the conception that the world divides into order-givers and doers, with a whole bunch of useless middlemen in the way. There is something of a toff’s fantasy to it, getting back to the days where there were just masters and servants. It’s still funny, though!
December 17, 2011 @ 1:55 am
Certainly Hitchhiker's owes a massive debt to Alice in Wonderland. And it's worth noting that Hitchhiker's predates Adams's own active interest in computers by a few years. That said, Dodgson was massively adopted by what we might call third wave computer culture (first wave being the immediate post-war generation, second being the kit hobbyists of the 70s) as well, so the continuity does hold up there. Indeed, it's an interesting point, given that Doctor Who also has its roots back in the Victorian.
I mean, I should be clear, if I wasn't – Hitchhiker's is leading the pack here, which is much of why it achieved the totemic status that it did. The computer culture we're talking about develops in the wake of Hitchhiker's, and doesn't directly intersect Doctor Who until 1980 when Bidmead takes over and it suddenly becomes the dominant aesthetic of Doctor Who (albeit with a fantastically weird twist). This is not just a Pop Between Realities designed to lay some context for an immediate event (though with Adams coming up on Monday it certainly is that as well) but one of those ones that serves to lay some guideposts for the next few years of the program. We're a long way from done with this particular wave of computer culture, little yet with computer culture in general (which will remain a major influence at least through the 90s due to the way in which the New Adventures are inspired by cyberpunk).
December 17, 2011 @ 4:08 am
Ap-ologies for the re-dundant hy-phen in my po-st!
December 17, 2011 @ 7:10 am
I take your point about Basil but I disagree on the Golgafrincham Ark. Middle management didn't tend to have an Oxbridge education and their credulity and lack of sophistication is what Adams is satirising. To understand the nuances of the British class system in the Seventies (and now!) you have to appreciate it's not just about what your job is but also the signifiers of status that go with it- the right school, the right car, the right cutlery. Getting that wrong is at the heart of much British drama. But there's an unattractive thread of defensive mockery through it.
December 17, 2011 @ 7:14 am
Oh, I get that. My point is just that it's tough to call it snobbery when people even lower on the class totem pole aren't being kicked off the planet. The message is that this middle management class is worse not only than the creative and brilliant aristocracy but also worse than the actual working class. So yes, it is a swipe at a particular aspect of the middle class, but it's not a swipe on the full reach of everyone below Adams. It's a swipe at a very particular band. Similarly it's worth pointing out that Arthur Dent is in no way an upper middle class Oxbridge sort, but is routinely the most sensible person in the room. Many of the jokes in Hitchhiker's hinge on the fact that Arthur, even if he doesn't know a lot about the galaxy, is, whether deliberately or accidentally, far more likely to do the sensible thing than Ford or Zaphod.
December 17, 2011 @ 7:15 am
I forgot to mention that the BBC has always represented the cultural elite in Britain. I visited Broadcasting House on several occasions in the 90s. It was still very much like the Capitol in "The Deadly Assassin".
December 17, 2011 @ 7:59 am
"So yes, it is a swipe at a particular aspect of the middle class, but it's not a swipe on the full reach of everyone below Adams."
Yes, but the targetting of the snobbery is because the middle classes don't always recognise their place like the dutiful proles do.
And what's odd is that they would have been the bulk of his audience. I doubt 'Hitchiker' would have had significant numbers of working class people tuning in to Radio Four to hear it. Of course, some of his fellow Oxbridge types may have been fans, but they'd have been out-numbered by the middle class listeners.
I take your point about Arthur, though, I will have to think about that one…
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 17, 2011 @ 8:02 am
It's a swipe at the sort of fuddy-duddy bureaucrats who might create the sort of Byzantine rituals you found, well, in his infocom game Bureaucracy. I don't find any inherent upper-class snobbery in Hitchikers, just look at Adams heroes. Dent certainly isn't much of an elitist in his little bungalow, Ford Prefect is pretty much a hobo, and Zaphod might be president, but he's a lazy, rock-star-esque nutter, hardly the paragon of Old Boys-Club virtues you seem to be insinuating in your accusations of elitism. Dirk Gently's a university drop-out and… and… shit. he did NOT write many books, did he? I mean, if this was Pratchett I'd be here for ages.
December 17, 2011 @ 8:19 am
One difference between Carroll and Adams, though, is that Carroll's humor depends more on logical, philosophical, and linguistic paradoxes than on social satire (though there is a bit of the latter), while Adams' humor depends more on social satire than on the paradoxes (though again there is a bit of the latter).
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 17, 2011 @ 8:28 am
Depends on what you're reading. Sylvie and Bruno has much more social satire than Alice ever did.
December 17, 2011 @ 9:05 am
Milord, I'm not insinuating Old Boys Club virtues at all; I'm talking about the Oxbridge hipster's languid disdain for anyone who's not as sophisticated as he is. Zaphod (the Transatlantic playboy with the plastic surgery fetish) and Ford, the witty freelancer, represent the kind of moneyed young traveller a Baby Boomer might encounter on their vac. Their adventures echo the kind of aspirational tourism that middle class BBC audiences could only dream of in the 70s. Compare with the Lotus Eaters, Who Pays The Ferryman, Dark Side of the Sun…all BBC dramas that reflected those aspirations.
My contention is that, enjoy it though I do (like this blog), at this point in its history, Doctor Who follows a path described by much of the BBC's comtemporary output, where "undergraduate" irony and satire inform the show's aesthetic. And that leads to Bidmead.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 17, 2011 @ 9:45 am
Alright, I can agree with that much more readily. The Ark B citizens are certainly treated disdainfully, but its interesting that a subset of a class Adams so clearly dislikes is treated as the ancestors of the entire human race, a race that (one assumes) contained Adams himself.
December 17, 2011 @ 10:48 am
"One difference between Carroll and Adams, though, is that Carroll's humor depends more on logical, philosophical, and linguistic paradoxes than on social satire…"
True, but 'Hitchiker' contains a lot more of that than most comic SF. It kind of conflicts with SF's core conception that the universe is rational – because of either cast-iron genre rules (in space opera) or because in the future technocratic elites will know everything (in hard SF).
I focused my comments on Carroll's evocation of absurdity than his logic paradoxes because of the reason that you give. But there is still a fair degree of truth to the second one.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 17, 2011 @ 11:57 am
That assumes that the entire universe being like a giant England is in any way irrational. It all depends on your perception.
December 17, 2011 @ 12:17 pm
Wow, I apologise PROFUSELY for totally missing your comment for days. I feel really bad now.
To answer your question, there exist well-documented pre-H2G2 pitches Douglas Adams made to Doctor Who in 1974-5 with essentially the same story as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Golgafrinchan arcs, as well as the Kirkketmen arc from the sequel books. You can read more about them here: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/thebatgranny/bak.htm
As for Dirk Gently, it actually is a well-known fact Adams reused much of "Shada" and bits of "City of Death" to make the first book and, as Matthew Blanchette said, this is why neither story was ever novelized.
December 17, 2011 @ 12:22 pm
Not your fault, Josh – Andrew's comments somehow got caught in the Blogger spamtrap, and I never noticed because I usually read the comments via my e-mail notifications and not on the blog itself. So the comment only just showed up late yesterday.
Also, the Dirk Gently link is probably tenuous. Dirk Gently didn't come out until 1987. The last Fourth Doctor novelization, Meglos, came out in 1983. The reason, as I understand it, is that Adams wouldn't let anyone else do them, but was too expensive himself for Target to get.
December 17, 2011 @ 12:28 pm
It seems pretty clear to me that DIRK GENTLY drew on SHADA. But I think Phil is right about why it wasn't novelized.
December 17, 2011 @ 1:32 pm
Oh I feel much better now, thanks! I was feeling really unobservant.
I like that account of things: makes the most sense to me. After all, the history of Doctor Who in the 1980s seems to be full of hearsay and haze from what I can tell.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 17, 2011 @ 2:35 pm
Did the eighties even happen? I wouldn't be surprised to later learn that it was all made up to produce some fictional "golden age" for Reagan and Thacherites to glorify forever. It would also explain how Doctor Who went so downhill.
December 17, 2011 @ 6:29 pm
Oh, the '80s happened alright, but it very much depends on which '80s you want to talk about. There's the historical period (the details of which depend on who you talk to), the '80s that was characterized by sweeping technological and political changes, the made-up '80s that the extreme right in the US wants us to believe happened, the consumer-based mainstream culture that went through a rose-tinted nostalgic Renaissance in the 2000s and then the "real" 1980s, which was an unprecedented golden age for music and the arts, but only in the extreme margins of the underground.
And then there was Doctor Who, of which no-one seems to know what really happened except that John Nathan-Turner decided to have a "Bold New Vision" every two years or so and finally made it all work before getting abruptly shoved out the door by an embarrassed and irritated BBC.
December 18, 2011 @ 9:56 am
The 80s were horrid, m'lord but they definitely happened. WGPJosh, I never thought of JNT's work on Who that way. Good call.
December 21, 2011 @ 12:34 am
Very late to this thread, but I have to strongly disagree about the Hitchhikers game: It was regarded as incredibly hard even by the standards of the text-adventure genre. Anyone who played computer games in the 1980s will remember the plaintive cry "How do you get the Babel Fish"…The difficulty of the HHGTG games was a gaming in-joke for decades.
December 24, 2011 @ 4:53 pm
I love Douglas Adams. And there are a great many Steven Moffatt episodes I love. But that "cleverness for cleverness sake" can trip both of them up. To quote John Scalzi, "The failure mode of failure is 'asshole'." The problem is, if you're too in love with your own cleverness, it's easy to lose track of other people's feelings. Several Steven Moffatt episodes do nasty things to the characters or have the characters do nasty things without really thinking through the consequences mainly because it works out so nicely. (Much of what they've done with River Song's identity I think falls into this category.) I think you see a similar thing with Adams, especially when combined with his cynicism, in the last HGTG book. I was so annoyed when I finished that book because it erased all of the best parts of the books before.
February 6, 2012 @ 1:10 pm
I know this thread is practically ancient history to people who comment, but I'm still catching up from the beginning 🙂
Just a quick thing about links between Carroll and Adams; I think it's in the Gaiman biography Adams says Carroll wasn't much of a direct influence at all and that he was actually terrified of it. He says PG Wodehouse was much more influential and also his Mum compared Marvin to Eeyore which I certainly think is spot on!
Anyway, no-one will be reading this as the party died months ago so I'll push off like a good chap..
March 20, 2012 @ 11:48 pm
M?t s? khác bi?t gi?a tr??ng qu?c t? Carroll và Adams, m?c dù, r?ng Carroll c?a s? hài h??c ph? thu?c nhi?u h?n vào h?p lý, ngh?ch lý tri?t h?c, và ngôn ng? h?n là châm bi?m xã h?i (m?c dù có là m?t chút sau này), trong khi Adams 'hài h??c ph? thu?c vào châm bi?m xã h?i h?n trênngh?ch lý (m?c dù m?t l?n n?a có m?t chút sau này)
April 28, 2012 @ 4:26 pm
So it's been some time and I've just discovered your blog and I've been loving it, but this bit astounds me:
"His work slid slowly and inexorably into extreme and over the top cynicism – particularly in the latter books of the Hitchhiker's series, the last two of which make Robert Holmes look like a sunny optimist upon whom birds alight to sing their happy little songs."
Now, I'm behind you as far as Mostly Harmless goes, but if anything So Long and Thanks For All The Fish goes far off in the other direction. It is a remarkably happy book–the Earth comes back, Arthur finds love, Marvin dies happy, Ford gets his Earth entry published, and the final Guide entry caps the book with a lovely anecdote about potentially warring nations finding peace. The only thing depressing about it is in hindsight, because Mostly Harmless "fixes" it. (I do like it, but still…well my god Adams must've been having a dismal year!)
April 10, 2013 @ 8:56 pm
regarding 'Telephone Sanitizer' as a euphemism… I'd heard this through this page:
…but that is sorely lacking in firsthand references.
For my take, the joke works best when taken as an earth euphemism which is a reflection in name only of a non-euphemism Golgafrincham job – thus showing again how earth reflects elements of galactic history.
Aside… I am dearly loving this blog Philip… and am reading along with it as I watch the entirety of Doctor Who from the 1963 origin. I honestly can't remember how I skipped forward to here.. I'm actually only up to The Macra Terror… lots of episodes to go to finish by the 50th!
October 27, 2013 @ 10:09 pm
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August 15, 2015 @ 6:06 am
2. Ironically, the whole attempt to suggest that a telephone sanitizer isn't literal is an example of the kind of excessive cleverness that this blog is guilty of at times, and arguably with increasing frequency. Sorry, but it's been on my mind recently, and this post opened up the opportunity to say it. I can understand why you're fond of "clever" writers such as Adams, Gaiman and Moffat, but I sometimes think you're trying to pull off something similar and not succeeding.
January 26, 2018 @ 10:49 am
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