The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, episode six

In a perfect world, we’d have got a few more TV series of Hitchhiker’s Guide. What we got was delightful, and it has a sweet little ending, but it doesn’t resolve what happened to Trillian, Zaphod, and Marvin. You would have to listen to the radio series or read the books for that. But there should have been a lot more Hitchhiker’s on TV. Add it to my silly little list of shoulda-beens along with a Peter Wyngarde Master and adding Jack Kelly to the eighties Bret Maverick series.

But it ends well, with Aubrey Morris showing up as a bath-obsessed starship captain in charge of a coterie of hairdressers, television producers, and management consultants, and some devilish putdowns directed at marketing bean-counters who think that the color of a wheel is more important than its function. Ford and Arthur are left to sadly realize that the revelation of the “great question” wasn’t spoiled by the Earth’s destruction by the Vogons, but by having the planet infected by hairdressers, television producers, and management consultants two million years previously. It’s so deliciously mean-spirited.

Our son enjoyed it very much and was also a little disappointed that there’s just one series, although Hulu’s threatening to make a new version, so we may have more of that in the future. Plus there’s the feature film, which we’ll look at in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned for that!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, episode five

Longtime readers may know that this blog’s longest running and most exasperating inside joke is my disbelief over our son’s inability to recognize actors in different roles. Well, in the afternoons, we’ve been dusting off a few films and TV shows that we’ve watched together again. Space always being at a premium, I’ve decided that some movies that I bought specifically to show him for the blog, but will probably never, ever watch again myself, are going into a plastic “time capsule” bin for him to potentially enjoy sometime down the road. Or he can sell Battle Beyond the Stars and the like for the quarter apiece that DVDs will go for in the far-flung future of 2040, whatever, at least he’ll have the option.

So Adam Adamant Lives! isn’t going in the bin, because I really enjoy it, but we gave a couple of episodes another outing last week. He was honestly less taken with them than he was the first time around, which surprised me somewhat, but I made sure to draw his attention to Jack May, who played Simms, and told him that he’d be seeing him again when Hitchhiker’s got to Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. And not only did he identify Jack May tonight, he noticed Peter Davison’s name in the opening credits. “Yeah, but you won’t recognize him,” I said. That’s Davison on the right in the photo above as the Dish of the Day. I enjoyed pausing the episode during the end credits so the kid could read who he played.

While I’m talking of actors, the great Colin Jeavons plays the compere and comedian who performs at Milliways, and he is magnificent. I just bet that among the thousands of frustrating fights they had making this show, somebody at the BBC was really pushing to have a known comedian from the day like Eric Morecambe or Ronnie Corbett play the role for the publicity and the ratings. Using a supporting character actor like Jeavons instead of a standup works really well and I just love how he throws himself into it.

When Marie read our son the first two books, I gave him a quick lesson in tax exiles, specifically how the UK’s mega-rich like David Bowie or Elton John or Roger Moore would move to Switzerland to avoid the taxman. I probably should have mentioned David Gilmour, because the band Disaster Area was meant as a specific lampoon of Pink Floyd. One of the spaceships that they consider stealing from the Milliways car park before settling on Disaster Area’s produced our son’s favorite line from the first two books: it “steers like a cow.” He laughed really hard when the actors got to that line.

He did, however, protest that he really preferred the way that Adams got our heroes out from the cliffhanger at the end of part four in the novel rather than the series. We pointed out that one of the neat things about Hitchhiker’s is the way that Douglas Adams kept evolving it from medium to medium. I pulled my increasingly fragile copy of the radio scripts off the shelf to show him that the time travel explosion was there in the original, and it took Adams a few years to figure out a better way to get from one scene to the next.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, episode four

I’d completely forgotten the old Beteleguese death anthem that Ford and Zaphod warble together at the end of this episode. Man alive, that’s funny.

But speaking of sound, this DVD was released, as DVDs were in the early 2000s, with all sorts of hoopla about it having a digitally remastered stereo soundtrack. And all I can say about that is that thank heaven they included the original broadcast mono, because their remastered stereo made every single thing that Valentine Dyall said as Deep Thought utterly incomprehensible, drowned in layers of reverb. You get so used to all the advances in restoration making old programs look and sound better that you forget that once in a while these guys can get it so amazingly wrong.

We don’t get nearly as much in this installment from our heroes, sadly. Most of this episode is given over to the story of Deep Thought and the philosophers and scientists who built it to find the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and it doesn’t make for good television, honestly. Probably worked great on radio, though. So fewer giggles overall this time for our son, who certainly enjoyed the two space cops gunning for our heroes at the climax. The fellow with the mustache – “Shooty” – is Matt Zimmerman, who had been the voice of Alan Tracy in Thunderbirds.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, episode three

It’s one of those weird little quirks of television that I’m not at all familiar with anything else that the four lead actors in Hitchhiker’s Guide did, but the guest cast is peppered with terrific performances from people that I do know. Slartibartfast is played by Richard Vernon, one of those character actors who’s usually called “the distinguished,” and I’ve seen him in dozens of things. This episode takes our heroes to the legendary planet Magarathea, where Zaphod believes that the amassed wealth of the pre-collapse galactic economy can be pilfered. But this world’s business is waking up after a five million year slumber and Slartibartfast is one of the planet-builders who may be tasked in literally creating a new Earth.

Okay, I lie, I remember Sandra Dickinson – and her then-husband Peter Davison – in that godawful Tomorrow People story they did, but nothing else.

The kid giggled and laughed all the way through this episode again. Marvin stole the show once more, grumbling and complaining about everything he can imagine, and since he’s 50,000 times smarter than you, that’s a lot. The animated sections were his favorite, though. Since he heard the book already, it was of course like waiting for well-worn jokes to be told anew, but he howled over the bowl of petunias giving their sad final words, and the dolphins leaving the planet with their own final words, “So long and thanks for all the fish.” Remember the 2008 Doctor Who story “The Stolen Earth,” where the bees left our planet for a better place? I really think it’s a tip of the hat to this.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, episode two

The second episode of this beautifully silly story went over even better with our son, thanks to the introduction of Marvin, a shambling, depressed robot who has a brain the size of a planet but is nevertheless asked to do the most menial tasks. He was our son’s favorite character in the book, thanks in no small part to the wonderfully glum voice that Marie used for him, and he cackled whenever Marvin said anything here. He also loved Ford briefly turning into a penguin due to the effects of an infinite improbability drive.

I’m glad that our son is accepting the dated visual effects and presentation without comment. Mark Wing-Davey’s second head as Zaphod Beeblebrox has never satisfied anybody, but all he asked, because he did not immediately see it, was “Where’s his third arm?” Also joining the cast this week, it’s Sandra Dickinson as Trillian, which did elicit a comment from Marie: “She should be a brunette.” She will be, in 2005.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, episode one

Recently, our son got tired of not understanding the Douglas Adams lines that my wife and I routinely employ. “I think these guys must really hate the Vogons,” for example, is what I might quietly grumble when eating carry-out that disappoints. So nine years of us deflecting, “Oh, it’s from Hitchhiker’s Guide, Mom’ll read it to you one of these days,” finally had him insisting that day come immediately.

Marie has a nice, faux-leatherbound edition of the first four novels – our original paperbacks, purchased at B. Dalton’s or Waldenbooks hundreds of miles apart in the 1980s, long since fallen to pieces – and she read him the first two across August and September. I told them to pause there and they can resume in November after we watch the TV serial and the feature film. Now the kid is exasperated because he doesn’t want to wait so long, but she’s reading him Target Doctor Who novelizations and he’s enjoying those just fine.

I’ve always thought that Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of those stories that starts brilliantly and runs out of steam far more quickly than it should. Writer Douglas Adams created the most perfect little half hour ever, whether you’re hearing it on radio, watching it on TV, or reading it, and then struggled mightily for a plot worthy of such a genius little gem. I mean, the narrator, Peter Jones, straight out tells us that he’s going to tell us the story of the book itself through the events that befell some of the people around it, and we never actually get that story. Much of what we get is downright wonderful – I really love the planet of the bird-people in the second radio series, and a world without Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged is a world not worth considering – but there’s a big part of me that feels we really should have locked Douglas Adams in a hotel room for a long weekend – it’s how we got “Shada” out of him, I believe – and got the story that this should have been.

But anyway, forty years ago, Simon Jones and David Dixon became Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect for television, with Joe Melia on location with them as a vandal and a homewrecker, but only briefly, because the world ends about fifteen minutes into the first episode. It’s flawless and I love everything about it, the visuals as well as the script. I love the barman who hears what Ford says without listening to him, and I love the hagro biscuits, which are proof that Dentrasi must really hate the Vogons, because they serve them blue breadsticks covered with sweet relish and paprika. I also liked spotting the headset prop that was first used in “The Green Death,” and later in three other Doctor Who serials, dumped in a storage locker on the Vogon constructor ship, because I’m a big geek. Not that you couldn’t tell that from me making jokes about hagro biscuits for the last thirty-four years or anything.

Our kid was very pleased. He giggled all the way through this and loved the animated sections of the Guide. Feeding a Vogon’s grandmother to a nasty space monster got the biggest laugh, but he enjoyed the whole thing and says that he can’t wait until they get to Milliways. It’ll be a few days yet. It is at the end of the universe, after all.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.22 – A Disturbing Case

I thought that this episode might prove to be memorable, because the DVD comes with two separate audio commentaries. I was right. I had an initial giggle when one of ITC’s resident American-born actors, David Bauer, got called upon to play a psychiatrist with a German accent. Gerald Flood, who also did three or four of these shows, also has a small role in this one.

Then I stopped giggling and we all started roaring. Jeff gets hypnotized, in the TV way of hypnotizing that isn’t terribly realistic, and the only way that Marty can communicate with him is by speaking in Bauer’s accent. Making matters sillier, Jeff can’t do anything whatsoever without express direction from Marty. He can, however, win fights pretty handily, because he’s been conditioned to do whatever the German-accented voice tells him to.

“A Disturbing Case” is hilarious. Mike Pratt co-wrote the goofball adventure with Ian Wilson, and I thought for a moment or two that he was giving himself a break, because Jeff spends several minutes of screen time laid up in a private nursing home while Marty does all the actual work. When things pick up, we were all incredibly amused. Marie felt compelled to tell our son that hypnotism really, really doesn’t work this way – and she also wondered just how many psychiatrists were running around hypnotizing patients in the London of this world – and I’m pretty sure that he knows that, but I’m also pretty sure that he might soon be seen jauntily hopping down a hallway with a silly “hypnotized” grin on his face like Jeff.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.21 – The House on Haunted Hill

Our son managed to lock the guest bedroom door, as kids are known to do. He showed his mother a safety pin. “I tried opening the door with this, but it’s much harder than it looks on television.” I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

Anyway, Tony Williamson’s “The House on Haunted Hill” doesn’t break the mold too much. It’s a pretty funny story that explains that even though he’s a ghost, he’s still afraid of haunted houses. Other ghosts might not be as agreeable as him. There could be something out of Macbeth creeping around in an old property that Jeff’s been commissioned to investigate. Naturally, the law of television conservation means that this case has something major to do with another case, where Garfield Morgan is playing an uptight corporation dude. Peter Jones is also in it, briefly, and while there actually isn’t anything out of Macbeth in the old house, there is a goon dressed like a Scooby-Doo villain, just in case anybody gets too nosy.

The Avengers 6.11 – The Curious Case of the Countless Clues

Almost at the same time that the producers were making “The Forget-Me-Knot”, they were also working on Philip Levene’s “The Curious Case of the Countless Clues,” and I noticed that Linda Thorson is only in scenes that are set in Tara King’s apartment. It does seem a little odd that they’d sideline the new character so early in her tenure, and so I hypothesize, ahead of the facts, that they may have had one crew shooting Diana Rigg’s material on one set while a second was filming Thorson’s. Is that a reasonable deduction?

There’s a heck of a good cast in this story. Peter Jones, who would later be the immortal voice of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, plays a… well, Steed never actually gets around to telling us who Sir Arthur Doyle is, just that he likes to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes. Our villains are a gang of blackmailers named Erle, Stanley, and Gardner, played by the very familiar faces of Anthony Bate, Tony Selby, and Kenneth Cope. It looks like Cope began work on Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) about five months after making this episode.

Edward de Souza, who was in just about everything in the sixties and seventies, is one of the blackmailers’ victims, and his sister is a former – slash – occasional girlfriend of Steed’s, played by Tracey Reed, who had so memorably played General Turgidson’s secretary, as well as “Miss Foreign Affairs,” in Dr. Strangelove. Incidentally, rather driving home the point that British adventure film and TV was so much a man’s world in the sixties, other than the sidelined Thorson, Tracey Reed is the only actress in both this episode and in Strangelove.

But having said that, while Tara looks to be so incredibly sidelined that she appears helpless with a broken ankle in this episode, and this is emphasized by the decision to spend time with her desperately trying to lock the doors of her apartment, I like how she’s more than able to defend herself in the end. She fights off and apparently kills one of the villains. Steed rushes to rescue her, but he isn’t needed. Good choice! It was fine for he and Mrs. Peel to rescue each other regularly, but the audience still has to see Tara as competent on her own at this stage.

Our son was pleased with this one. It is a straightforward adventure with a clear scheme, hissable villains, and a few good fights. Certainly not as pleasing to him as those other, lesser Avengers, but I’m glad he enjoyed it all the same.

The Avengers 4.18 – The Thirteenth Hole

Time and technology has dated many of the highwire villainous plots on The Avengers, but this one’s in a class by itself. I wonder how this must have felt in 1966. It hinges on using a satellite with a Russian-sounding name being overhead at precisely a certain time so that a traitor can broadcast a television signal to some enemy agents and technicians at some distant location. If turncoat scientists want to do this today, they probably just use Facetime. It must make intelligence work so much more difficult.

This scientist, played by Peter Jones, is under surveillance, and so the whole setup, studio and all, is moved to a golf course where he can slip away without being noticed. This is in part because – and I can’t help but think this was a big error on the producers’ part – there are absolutely no extras in the roles of all the golf club’s many members on a tournament weekend! This really does feel like one of the cheapies of the season. They did some location work at a real course, but also lots of mockups and rear-screen projection in the studio.

Grandiose and silly plots are part of the magic of The Avengers. Even though this looks and feels like writer Tony Williamson was told “we have the use of a golf course for two days, write something with six or seven speaking parts,” there’s enough fun and frivolity as Mrs. Peel helps Steed cheat a cheater, and wins a very entertaining fight with a character played by Francis Matthews, to make sure you overlook just how goofy this scheme is.

Our son was unfortunately completely lost, but he really enjoyed the bits that he could follow. He loved the fights and the escalating cheating on the course, and he’s having such a ball with the fourth season shtick of our heroes riding away on a different vehicle every week that he said “I bet I know what they’re riding on,” and was pleased as could be when we saw that they were drinking champagne on the three-wheeled golf cart that we’d seen earlier.

Also, he couldn’t place Francis Matthews’ voice, and I’m not sure that my “hint” helped him very much. I told him that he’d heard that actor many times but never seen him, before telling him that he was the voice of Captain Scarlet. In another weird coincidence, my wife and I have been watching the third season of The Saint, and Ed Bishop, who would voice Captain Blue, was in the last two episodes that we watched, back-to-back, playing different characters. I had to wonder whether anybody in November of ’64 complained “Hey! That actor was in the show just last week!”