1978, 1979, 1980, Radio

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978)

Full disclosure: I ended up not reading the novel. I polled some friends about what I should consume “first” and the verdict was that I should listen to the radio play first. So I listened. And then I listened to the Christmas episode, and then I listened to the “second season” (which, I believe, is the basis for the second novel).

“First” is a bit of a misnomer. Do I need to read the novel now? Do I need to read the whole series. I don’t think so. If you feel differently, please let me know, but my goal was to consume the original story in its original form, and I believe I accomplished that and more. I usually wait till the end of a TV series to rate it so I decided to persevere with the radio show to the end.
This radio show is so iconic it’s hard to know what to say about it beyond how unique it was: is it the only important radio drama between the Golden Age of Radio and the rise of podcasts? Probably. I can’t think of any others. That in itself is some kind of accomplishment.

The jokes are pretty good and the story is inventive. And, at this point, it’s safe to say that both the story, and the way the story is told – not as a radio play but as a narrative – have been hugely influential on both sci-fi and storytelling at large. The comedic aspects of the narrative, for example, feel like they have influenced a lot of the more wry, self-aware and post-modern movies and shows that have popped up in the subsequent 40+ years. So that’s good.

But this show has dated rather poorly. And it’s not just due to the audio effects, that might have been pretty compelling on the radio in the late ’70s but which now sound pretty damn primitive. What’s dated most about it is how unbelievably British it is. Everything about it is British: not just the humour but the entire universe (with a few parodies of Americans thrown in for good measure). Imagine imagining a universe full of weird aliens who are all basically just like the people from your country? You might be upset by George Lucas’ use of ethnic stereotypes for alien races in the Star Wars prequels – and you should be – but at least Lucas was trying to imagine someone foreign to him. With every few exceptions, Adams imagines the universe to be populated by varieties of parodies/satires of British people. It’s funny to me because I am familiar with a lot of these British archetypes from watching plenty of British TV. Is it comprehensible to others? (I assume everyone is less obviously British in the novels, but what do I know?)

This is, for me, the nearly fatal flaw, that makes me think the show isn’t quite as great as I’ve been told. Though about the universe, the story is very specific to one person’s experience of the post-war UK and his (pretty advanced?) understanding of contemporary physics (and some other disciplines, at times). Enough of that world has changed 40+ years later that not all of it works any more. It’s a little like TV that relies on pop culture references only the contemporary audience would know or music that seems like a breath of fresh air in context but, years later, feels like it didn’t matter. Well, it’s much better than those things, but it’s on the spectrum.

It’s still pretty essential, I think, for understanding both the evolution of science fiction – especially humourous science fiction – and for the popularization of metaness in storytelling. And I laughed a bunch.


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