Warner Bros. // 1982 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 6th, 2004
"We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty." -- Vroomfondel (Charles McKeown)
DVD: The Encyclopedia Galactica defines "DVD" as follows: "Digital Versatile Disc, a format designed on Earth and popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s for the distribution of visual entertainment." The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines DVD somewhat differently: "Popular for the distribution of pornography on lower-technology planets, these discs never quite pack the wallop of feelie-crystals and subsequently are only really useful as drink coasters, where their handy metallic surfaces will protect your furniture from any spilled drops of Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster after you pass out." What the Guide fails to mention is that its editors own considerable stock in several feelie-crystal companies. It also fails to mention that Earth, the planet where DVDs were invented, was destroyed by a Vogon Constructor Fleet.
Fortunately, interested parties can watch the entire sordid business -- the destruction of Earth, that is, not the pornography (you are on your own for that) -- on DVD, thanks to Warner Bros. and the BBC. Yes, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is available in an impressive two-disc set. It is good enough that you will likely not want to put drinks on it.
But wait, you ask, isn't The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy a radio program? Well, it started out that way, as a hilarious radio serial (go buy it today -- it is still the best version of the story) written by Douglas Adams. Then it became a series of novels. Then a play. Then a pair of record albums (these were larger discs popular in the old days that could fit several drinks on them). And then a television program in six parts. Later it became a computer text-based adventure that I could never manage to solve.
The first disc of this DVD set offers all six episodes of the series, in its original and exciting monaural soundtrack and a marginally more exciting 2.0 stereo remix. The show is in pretty good condition, considering that the BBC is notoriously stingy about special effects budgets and the series was filmed on video. It is far clearer and crisper (with only a few flecks of dirt here and there) than I remember it from all those years of watching it during PBS fund-raising drives. But its slightly seedy quality only enhances the feeling that you are watching something just hanging on the fringe of good taste.
* Episode One
In which Arthur Dent (Simon Jones) manages to lose both his house and his planet within minutes of one another, but learns that above all, he must never misplace his towel. Or so says his best friend, Ford Prefect (David Dixon), a researcher for that most useful book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Peter Jones (no relation to Simon) provides the narrative voice of the book, accompanied by marvelous animation from Rod Lord. Since this show was produced in 1981, none of the animation is computer generated -- it is all done with backlit cel animation (much like the animation in the groundbreaking Tron a few years later). We learn some of this from a helpful feature available with all six episodes: a running "Production Notes" subtitle track, which also fills us in on trivia about the Red Lion pub, Simon Jones's hairpiece, a tasty Dentrassi recipe, and what bits of set were cobbled from Doctor Who and the movie Alien. The running commentary is informative and amusingly droll.
* Episode Two
In which we learn about the importance of passing around small pieces of paper, provided they do not have Vogon poetry written on them. Almost as traumatic as Vogon poetry is footage in this episode of Douglas Adams's naked hindquarters. Later, we are treated to some hallucinations, most of which restrict themselves to the television screen. After this, we meet Trillian (Sandra Dickinson, who is a very pleasant person in real life) and Zaphod Beeblebrox (Mark Wing-Davey, whom I have never met in real life, but I'm sure he is nice too). Oh, and we also meet Marvin the Paranoid Android (perfectly voiced by Stephen Moore), a morose and clunky thing that looks like it should be lumbering after Tom Corbett or Captain Midnight -- only funnier.
* Episode Three
In which we hear about Magrathea in a text description of an unfilmed scene, before we actually visit it. We meet a rather confused sperm whale, a nonplussed bowl of petunias, and an extra pair of feet (watch the production notes track to learn about them). We then journey to a desolate quarry in Cornwall, standing in for an alien planet, in which hides a vast tract of hyperspace just large enough for assembling slightly defective planets.
* Episode Four
In which mice argue ontology, spurred on by a steaming computer that one character describes as "needlessly messianic." And we learn that the Earth would probably have held up better if it were made of Legos. Here is a good example of the sort of thing you will read in the production notes subtitle track: "Grids have always been popular in computer graphics. Of course, Rod Lord drew these by hand, along with the 'Leonardo Men' which change into Rodin's 'Thinker.' Arty, huh?" This is only further proof that sarcasm and illumination often go hand in hand.
* Episode Five
In which Peter Davison (Doctor Who #5, husband of Sandra Dickinson, and also a pleasant person in real life) and David Prowse (Darth Vader #1) appear in cameos, we learn a clever tax dodge, and we discover new ways to shop for designer space cruisers (and by shop, I mean, of course, steal). One of the strengths of Hitchhiker's Guide is its ability to switch gears constantly and offer new and funny surprises. No plot point lasts for more than 10 minutes, and the wealth of background details will keep viewers busy through multiple viewings. And the hilariously cheap special effects (who needs a realistic looking second head?) are all part of the anything-can-happen feel.
* Episode Six
In which we see the most garish example of rock concert excess since Pink Floyd launched a flying pig, suffer the terrifying knowledge that Trillian voices one of the Teletubbies, and enjoy gin and tonics with a damp captain (the always entertaining Aubrey Morris). We also learn the real origin of the human race. I know more than a few people descended from used car salesmen. And the final scene makes clear what I have suspected all along about my wife's brilliance at the game of Scrabble: a hyperdimensional supercomputer is feeding her the answers.
If all that sounds like too much to handle, hold on to your cerebral cortex (not literally, since it is very squishy). Disc Two contains enough extra material to make you dizzy. And remarkably, nearly all of the extras have subtitles (very rare for DVD supplements). First, a Pythonesque instructional video hosted by Peter Jones on how to enjoy "mono headphone" sound. This video introduction was shot for a test screening of Episode One at a science fiction convention. Is Jones really flubbing his lines, or is it all part of the shtick? Either way, it is pretty funny.
Next, a segment from a BBC science program on Zaphod's second head. Inside are lots of gizmos. What might be inside Zaphod's primary head I'll leave to your imagination. Meanwhile, you can also enjoy an interview with producer-director Alan Bell and animator Rod Lord from a television chat show. They sit amiably in front of a coffee table made from a knee-high stack of animation cels from a single episode.
Behind-the-scenes material is plentiful. There are some BBC bumpers advertising the show, and a large photo gallery. You can watch a nine-minute collection of outtakes that tend to be less funny than you would expect, and another seven-minute segment during which the cast tries to beat the clock on filming a scene they cannot seem to get right. Both segments suggest that the atmosphere on set was pretty rushed. There is also a deleted scene from Episode Two that drags a bit (the joke worked better on radio). Curiously, we are also offered a 10-minute segment looking behind the scenes of the radio show: a recording session for the scene in which Arthur argues with the drink dispenser (some great stuff that did not make it to the television version), and production work on the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation jingle ("Share and Enjoy!") that shows just how hard it is to get decent singing robots in this town.
But the backbone of this supplement disc consists of two meaty documentaries. "The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (produced in 1993) opens with Arthur Dent (Simon Jones again) being dropped off at home by the Liberator from Blake's 7 (pursued by a TARDIS, of course). Still in his pajamas, he flops down on his bed and turns on his Guide, where Peter Jones proceeds to host a fast-paced and densely packed history of Douglas Adams's cult hit. You will have to hit still-frame to read all the data racing by. We see lots of special effects footage and funnier bloopers than are included in the "Out-Takes" section." A mock-educational film (complete with scratches) explains Rod Lord's animation techniques. Lots of cast and crew members show up to chat. Overall, this is one of those rare making-of documentaries worth a second viewing. And if that were not enough, director Kevin Davies offers a brand-new collection of additional scenes (over 26 minutes' worth) to boot. Watch Simon Jones tell great stories at a 1981 science-fiction convention, Mark Wing-Davey bitching about his Zaphod costume, a long segment on Marvin the Paranoid Android, and the terrors of location shooting. This constitutes almost an entire "making of" program by itself. Who makes a making-of featurette for a making-of documentary? You cannot accuse the BBC and Warner Bros. of skimping here.
The second documentary is an hour-long, letterboxed episode of the BBC series Omnibus offered as a tribute to Douglas Adams, who died in 2001. Described by friend Clive Anderson as a man who would "float through life," Adams was part Arthur's haplessness, part Ford's energy, and part Marvin's cynicism. We follow his life from Cambridge to the grinding pace of the Hitchhiker's Guide radio show to the cult following which haunted him for the rest of his short life. Ironically, everyone (including Adams, in interviews over the years) agrees that the television show is a mixed bag compared to the radio version -- but they all love the animated segments. Collaborators from Hitchhiker's Guide like Alan Bell and John Lloyd are joined by friends like Stephen Fry and Terry Jones to offer their thoughts on Adams's life and career. In later years, Adams had to struggle to overcome the weight of fans' expectations after Hitchhiker's Guide. He focused much of his energy in the last decade of his life to environmental activism and a fascination with computer technology, both linked by his fascination with connectivity in both nature and society. This intriguing documentary is well produced and sincere, and offers fitting testimony to Douglas Adams's talent and humanity.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy describes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as "a shameless attempt to cash in on the television rights of the most helpful book in existence before we could do it ourselves." Of course, no one could ever accuse the Guide of wanton accuracy. Warner Bros. and the BBC have done a fine job packing this two-disc set with enough material to keep fans busy for quite a while. All this great material might even cheer up our old friend Marvin. But only for a moment.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Production Notes" Subtitle Commentary
* Peter Jones Introduction
* Featurette on Zaphod's Second Head
* Trailer and Bumpers
* Deleted Scene
* Photo Gallery
* Interview with Animator Rod Lord and Director-Producer Alan Bell
* Radio Show Production Clips
* Behind-the-Scenes Raw Footage
* Omnibus Tribute Episode: "Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams"
* Documentary: "The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
* Additional Footage from "The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
* Hitchhiker's Guide Online Project