I was 15 and already addicted to radio when The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) was first broadcast on 8th March 1978, which I think was just the right age. A friend at school, Duncan Kinnear, also heard that first episode, and we talked about it at school the next day, and over the next few weeks. We both loved the line, “Do you realise that robot can hum like Pink Floyd?” I can never hear any of it or its famous jokes without thinking of him. Of course, those were the days when the barely-noticed Pink Floyd incidental music would pass and you just about had time to register the joke before it was gone, and you had no way to hear it again. By the time of the Christmas special, that same year, I was 16 and although I was keen to listen, I was also hard-nosed enough to be disappointed in what became the first episode of the second series, which didn’t actually air until 1980. I just listened to that particular one-off episode on BBC Sounds today and it’s just embarrassingly bad.
Had H2G2 remained a radio-only one series wonder, it would still have a place in my heart, and I might still enjoy listening to it. Nowadays, though, with its brand diluted by that weak and repetitive second series, the shit TV series, the disappointing sequence of novels, and the terrible film version, and then even more disappointing radio retreads, I kind of hate it, and I can’t listen to that 1978 original without noticing its many flaws.
I have frequently complained on here about how Radio 4’s take on science fiction drama has been forever blighted by the success of this 30-minute comedy series. They think SF has to be “quirky” and silly in order to have mass appeal. Maybe they’re right. Somebody sure made a lot of money out of the H2G2 franchise, and there is no shortage of online nerdery concerning the Emperor Douglas Adams and his many sets of new clothes.
But the flaws are there in the original. Even at 15, I hated the silly names and the character called Zaphod Beeblebrox was overwritten and badly performed. The opposite problem was true of the token female character, Trillian, played then by Susan Sheridan, who made the most of her underwritten part. But then Adams couldn’t even be bothered to include her at all in the second series, and Sandra Dickinson was woefully miscast as Trillian for television and the film casting was even worse. Just to read the Wikipedia entry about this character is to see what a horrible mess was made not just of Trillian, but the whole wafer-thin plot, which was originally written with a clear (and low-key ironic) ending and therefore had to be revived with a sequence of clunky expository links, which never quite succeeded in bringing it back to life.
Adams was a notable sufferer of writer’s block and found things hard to finish. I keep returning in my mind to the idea that this show was already a stretch at six episodes, and to keep playing it out more and more meant that it became repetitive with too many characters having nothing whatsoever to do. This was already the case in that first series, and the problem only got worse. It must have been torture for this tortured writer.
I still get why H2G2 was popular with slightly nerdy 15-year-old boys in 1978, but I cannot explain its longevity. It seems to be another example of our stuck culture in that people who are old enough to know better still like it, in the same way that some (of the same?) people like Lego and Star Wars.