Thursday, 26 April 2018

REVIEW: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Hexagonal Phase

Douglas Adams was one of the great comic writers of his generation, a man whose great propensity for wild ideas was matched only by his difficulty in actually getting them down on paper. He created The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for radio, following it up with a second radio series, a television series, a ludicrously difficult computer game, the odd short story and five novels, before he worked on a film script that sadly did not make it to the screen before he suffered terminal existence failure.

This is not his story.

This is the story of Eoin Colfer, who wrote the official sixth Hitchhiker's novel, And Another Thing..., and of Dirk Maggs, who adapted it for radio, as he had adapted the third, fourth and fifth novels. Only small parts of it are Adams's, cribbed from recently discovered notes. The rest is the work of people who certainly admire Adams, who want to continue his work and explore the strange universe he created, but are unfortunately not as skilled as he was.

Almost forty years to the day that the original Hitchhiker's began airing, the BBC broadcast the first episode of The Hexagonal Phase (following Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential in a new ordinal numbering system for the modern age). Maggs had already done sterling work adapting the previous novels for radio (The Tertiary Phase at least having some input from Adams before his death). Due to the fact that The Secondary Phase bore very little resemblance to the second novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, The Tertiary Phase consigned much of it to the realms of virtuality. In a similar effort to provide the series with a more satisfying ending, The Quintessential Phase had a multiple choice denouement, all of which have now been retconned to allow the story to continue. This is fine. There are more versions of Hitchhiker's than there are realities in the Plural Zones.

The problem lies with what comes after. It's been some considerable time since I read And Another Thing... but I wasn't impressed at the time, and having read more of Colfer's work since I have come to the conclusion that he's not just a poor Adams impersonator, he's a poor author. However, with Maggs and Adams himself involved in this, I thought it was worth a try. It has its moments, certainly, some of which are genuinely funny, but they are all too few and far between.

It's lovely, yes, to hear the old cast back together, those of whom are still with us. They sound older, naturally, but they all slip effortlessly back into their roles. There's a feeling of reunion about the proceedings. The late Susan Sheridan even has a short role as the original version of Trillian, thanks to some clever use of archived material, before Sandra Dickinson takes over, but I've always felt she was miscast in the TV series and it's no different here. There are some fun cameos - Stephen Hawking makes his final appearance in popular media voicing the Guide Mk. II, Lenny Henry is the mysterious Consultant and Jim Broadbent is perfectly cast as Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Toby Longworth sounds very at home as Wowbagger, the morose immortal who first crossed paths with our heroes in the third book Life, the Universe and Everything and who takes centre stage here.

Unfortunately, The Hexagonal Phase simply isn't funny enough to work as a comedy, nor is it interesting or exciting enough to work as a drama. Colfer's style is more plot-based than Adams's, but the plot is not gripping enough to make up for the lack of jokes and the serial is, even listened to in weekly half-hour episodes, actually quite boring. It also relies heavily on references to the original stories. It's perfectly possible to write a decent story that leans heavily on winks to the past - Ready Player One has shown you can make a reasonably entertaining film almost entirely out of them - but the overall effect here just reminds the listener of how much better the originals were. There's more to a story than persistently mentioning the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.

I might be controversial when I say that radio was actually never the best format for Hitchhiker's; it was prose were Adams really shone. Nonetheless, the original series was groundbreaking and even in its wonkier moments had real charm and dryly satirical humour. This final chapter of the series is sadly lacking. Almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Douglas Adams.

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