As I was drafting this, I wrote variations on ‘this may have been my favourite part of the episode’ several times. Therefore, I decided it was best to simply remove them all because I couldn’t choose one.
When we left Ford and Arthur, they were just about to be caught by the Vogons. But before we can meet them again, we’re reintroduced to our story by the Book, and I just love all of it. I admire this examination of humanity as an alien species, and I adore the cynical outlook when describing the Earth.
“Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd, because, on the whole, it wasn’t the green pieces of paper that were unhappy. And so the problem remained. And lots of the people were mean and most of them were miserable.”
After viewing the first episode, I was asked if I had managed to spot Douglas Adams in the pub. He was in the background there, but I had no trouble recognising him in the opening section of this second episode. His actions are narrated by the Book as he plays a man seemingly despairing at the pointlessness of life.
I’m very fond of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-1979), so appreciated the homage to its opening titles, right down to the seagull noises in the background. Douglas, like Reggie, is seen abandoning his clothes on a beach and running into the sea, with the similar implication of suicide – except while Reggie was faking his, Douglas’s appear as though it may be genuine.
Tell me how good you thought my poem was
The opening means we don’t jump straight into a torture scene, which is possibly for the best pre-watershed.
The Vogon’s poetry is pretty appalling anyway, but Ford and Arthur are sweating profusely under the torture and it’s their excruciating expressions that sell it, so I started to laugh along with their intense squirming. I do hope this was intentional. I loved this section, including the Book’s contribution on the universe’s worst poetry too. The fact the Book crops up here at all enables us to get a small sense of Ford and Arthur’s ordeal dragging out. The best element was the description and accompanying graphic of Grunthos the Flatulent, whose poetry was so horrific that “his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save lifekind, leapt up through his neck and throttled his brain.”
We saw one of the lead Vogons in the previous episode and from the costume, I was sceptical about the Vogons’ ability to move around. We had only seen it in its cradle-like seat, which had further given me the impression that we might not see the Vogons walking. We get a better look here and I love the way the cradle moves and can appear to swoosh around.
Do you enjoy this sort of thing?
As Ford and Arthur are led away down a corridor (I admired its design and lighting again), Ford appeals to the Vogon guard. I loved seeing the Vogon taking a moment to consider his life choices and hearing this most identifiably human conversation, including the remark that he only took the job because his aunt said it was “a good career for a young Vogon”.
Later in the episode, we would meet Marvin and I reflected back on this scene as well as the opening, realising how much Hitch-Hiker’s was talking about ‘life’ in different ways. By the end, we’ve encountered two species and a robot that are pretty pessimistic.
I pondered more about The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, as while that begins with a man having a midlife crisis, by its final series Reggie and his family and friends are living in a commune of sorts, offering their services as part of a ‘wellness clinic’ where people pay whatever they want. Reggie is determined to prove that there must be a better way of life than commuting to his middle-management job from his middle-class suburb every day. The programme strikes a similar cynical tone to Hitch-Hiker’s when it ultimately says there isn’t: Reggie can never escape the elements of his old life and at the end of the final series we see Reggie’s life has reverted entirely.
The Good Life (1975-1978) may be something of an antithesis to it. The Goods are persistently optimistic in their attempts at suburban self-sufficiency. The idea is originally Tom’s alone and unlike Reggie he does not attempt to escape every element of his life: he stays with his wife, they stay in their home and they remain friends with their neighbours. Despite the final episode’s example that “lots of the people were mean”, Tom and Barbara largely succeed in their efforts to forge a way of life that is more rewarding.
This is something I’d like to explore further – why does this questioning of the status quo occur in the 1970s? Perhaps because at that time many people’s lives had recently gone through significant changes. With no fear of an imminent war, once most of the population has acquired two weeks annual paid leave, an indoor lav and a refrigerator, maybe that’s when people stop to question whether life should mean more than just survival in reasonable living conditions. Although they choose to depict it in a humorous way, Douglas Adams and David Nobbs, writer of the Reggie Perrin books and TV series, both posit that this is as good as it gets.
I was sure Ford would persuade the Vogon not to shove them into the airlock. The scene began to feel reminiscent of his conversation with the construction worker outside Arthur’s house – Ford clearly had some good negotiation skills and I was expecting to see them repeated.
Ford “There’s music and art and things to tell you about yet!”
Vogon Guard “I think I’d better just stick to what I know.”
But Vogons are not like humans of course, so I was wrongfooted and into the airlock they went. At this point, I had completely forgotten what happened next.
Space is big
30 seconds is a very short amount of time to have a chance of rescue in space – a chance of 2260199:1-0 in fact – so I thought Ford and Arthur would find a way out. Their ejection into space came as quite a shock and my jaw dropped comedically.
Rescued from the vacuum of space by the Improbability Drive, Ford and Arthur had appeared in a dream-like landscape and I was baffled. It was a while before I remembered what bit of the film this related to, which portrays it differently. I recalled Arthur and Ford going through numerous different physical states, including becoming made of wool. I’m unsure if they themselves had changed or if it was their perceptions that were altered. I didn’t intend to keep writing about the differences between the TV series and the film, but I’m now realising that this is inevitable to an extent. It’s not necessarily about which is better or which I prefer, but I am interested to see the different interpretations.
Ford and Arthur appear to have materialised on a seafront. But the picture keeps changing, moving details in and out of focus, stretching them back and forth. It’s all disorientating and I was relieved that Ford and Arthur were both as confused as me. I think I’d have panicked more than Arthur if I saw my leg and arm drifting off, and I loved his reasonable request: “Ford, you’re turning into a penguin – stop it!”
A wholly remarkable book
I’m hugely enjoying the Book’s interjections in the story as, combined with the onscreen graphics or scenes from elsewhere in the universe, it’s a marvellously entertaining way of conveying information to build up the characters and their universe. Do we need to see the entire background of the Improbability Drive’s invention? Possibly not, but I’m willing to accept this concept a little more and have had a better chance to understand it. I also trust things powered by tea. While most of the first episode was filmed on location, in this one, Ford and Arthur’s main story is studio-based – and, except for 29 seconds, it’s entirely spaceship-based, so these asides provide some variety.
The scenes include a flashback to a party Arthur attended, which ties in later when he’s reacquainted with Trillian. My immediate thought was that it was a very posh party to be held at someone’s flat. Comparing it to parties I’ve attended, Arthur and I clearly move in widely different circles – mine are more ‘bring your own booze’, while his are apparently ‘we’ll bring your booze directly to you’, as we see actual waiters carrying trays of drinks around.
We get a better sight of the actual physical Guide in this episode and I was intrigued to see that it has a screen, so it is perhaps not a physical book in the conventional sense. It doesn’t resemble a modern tablet but looks like a device in which you could place numerous different books – it made me think of the LeapFrog devices for children learning to read. With the Guide’s version, it looks you would have a mixture of written material on the physical pages accompanied by images or video appearing on the screen.
Don’t talk to me about life
I always had a lot of sympathy for Marvin; experiencing the Hitchhiker’s film and book on the cusp of my teenage years, I was already into ‘my life is so unfair’ territory. It’s interesting to look at ideas like this now that computers are such an inescapable part of everyday lives for everyone. The machines we’ve ended up with generally lack personalities – no one expects a conversation with the touch screen check-in at the doctor’s surgery or the train station ticket dispenser. More importantly, I don’t think anyone wants one either as, intuitively, we know it wouldn’t be real and we distrust faux or enforced jovialness – it’s why some people can’t stand their work Christmas parties.
My Alexa device arguably has some semblance of a personality: ‘her’ favourite film is Back to the Future and ‘she’ enjoys David Attenborough TV shows because, she says, “I love looking down at Earth from up here in the Cloud.” The answers Alexa provides to questions like “How are you?” are much less human. Yet I think that’s why I accept the elements of a personality the device does offer; it doesn’t feel like it’s trying hard to be a human ‘friend’ because its computer brain continues to shine through, right down to the reference to living in the Cloud.
Fiction has suggested that robots are built in a semi-humanoid form to put us at ease. We are satisfied with something recognisable and when androids appear clone-like people can become uncomfortable. As with an Alexa device, we are distrustful of an interloper that attempts to mimic humans too much. Ultimately, that seems unlikely to become an issue because our present-day machines aren’t the robots depicted in 20th-century science-fiction, or even those demonstrated as the future servants of mid-century housewives; rather than performing identical tasks on behalf of us, the 21st century’s computers offer easier or quicker ways for us to achieve our desired ends.
The TV series’ Marvin is a much more conventional robot design compared to the film version, which has a small body and a large round head. I liked the way it was able to slouch with the head down. This TV version is not so sleek, and I suppose that’s to be expected from something produced over 20 years earlier. But I became more enamoured with this Marvin as we heard him move. His movement is accompanied by a piston-like sound effect that should evoke Victorian machines and yet there is something about it that seems far more modern. Perhaps it’s just the fact that we are watching action on a spaceship, but it meant I no longer saw this Marvin as quite so clunky.
Zaphod and Trillian
I don’t think I listened to a lot of what Zaphod said because I was distracted by his heads, or to be more accurate, by one of his heads. While I think Zaphod’s extra head is a rather good likeness, it doesn’t appear to move very much, which is a bit of a let-down. I’m unsure what technology could have stretched to in 1981 because it’s not often that fiction calls for a two-headed person of any species.
Zaphod proved distracting above the neck but Trillian is more likely to draw the eye below hers. Trillian’s high-pitched voice ensured I couldn’t help but listen to what she was saying, though I found it slightly painful and I’m not particularly looking forward to more of it. It’s a very ‘bimbo’ image that obviously contrasts with her skills as a scientist. I do find it an odd choice for the production. No one – absolutely no one – sounds anything like that in real life.
We don’t end on a cliffhanger this time, which did surprise me as after the first one I thought that would be the case for every episode. It’s nice to have the full gang as I remember them together. They’re all slightly different to the versions I’ve known previously, but I’m looking forward to getting to see more of them now (especially Marvin).