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…