Of Bulldozers and Vogon Constructor Fleets


I’ve gone off the idea of progress. It’s overrated.” Arthur Dent’s first words in the franchise immediately establish his slightly sarcastic pessimism and, by extension, the overall tone of HHGG. The play first ran on March, 8 in 1978 on BBC Radio 4 “in a huge blaze of no publicity at all” according to Adams himself. Despite the lack of marketing, people responded to the dark wit of Adams’ writing; Adams remarks in the same introduction to the novel: “People I talked to seemed to like Marvin the Paranoid Android, whom I had written in as a one-scene joke and had only developed further at Geoffrey’s [Perkins] insistence.” The popularity of the radio play quickly increased as the six episode season aired over the following weeks, and so was born the multimedia franchise that is HHGG.

The many iterations of HHGG are all grounded in the first episode of the radio play. In this episode, Adams introduces Arthur Dent, the Book, Ford Prefect, and Vogons all of whom play integral parts in the plot of each version of the text. Because it was written first, the radio play offers us a clean slate to analyze regarding the message of Adams’ writing. Jokes like Marvin the Paranoid Android, which become long-standing franchise standards, are still just jokes in the radio play. The satire is placed in the forefront; HHGG intentionally reverses expectations and makes light of the listeners’ inner anxieties instead of preying on them like other SF radio shows, such as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Episodes of the radio play are called fits,” invoking Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” an absurdist poem that intentionally obscures its own meaning. HHGG revolves around the idea of the absurd and highlights the way people interact with it by following the progress of Arthur Dent. Arthur’s pilgrimage is narrated by the Book which performs a number of narrative services such as world-building, joke setup, and expository intervention. The Book inhabits the position of omniscient narrator which allows Adams to present his absurd characters, settings, and circumstances as though they are already well-known quantities. Both the protagonist and the narrative framing around his journey reverse the typical SF plot. Such plots usually involve not knowing the world parameters beforehand and piecing them together throughout the progression of the story; in HHGG, the Book knows everything relevant about the world, and Arthur does not need to know anything specific to survive against all odds.

Practically speaking, the show embodies the aesthetic of an SF production. Every “fit” begins with a theme song excerpted from the Eagles’ Journey of the Sorcerer; the disembodied banjo strums a driving tune that evokes a sense of wanderlust but also begs the question, what is a banjo player doing floating around in space? In the medium of radio, every sound must be chosen carefully. The sound engineers working on HHGG did not only sample the Eagles; they were tasked with creating all of the sound effects that made the fictional world seem possible or even imaginable. The voice actors also had to be carefully selected to fit the identities of their characters without needing to be seen.

The voice of the Book needed to sound sufficiently authoritative to be believable as an encyclopedia source of knowledge, but it also had to possess a sense of comedic timing to deliver dry-wit jokes like: “The ape-descendant will greet him [Ford Prefect] in return, but in deference to a million years of evolution he will not pick fleas off him.” According to the footnotes in the published volume of the Original Radio Scripts, Adams and his producers wanted an actor with a “Peter Jonesy sort of voice,” but they did not actually ask the well-known actor and broadcaster until after several other people turned the role down.  Jones went on to provide the voice of the Book for the LP in 1979 the Television program in ’81 as well as the voiceover for Adams’ endangered animal documentary series, Last Chance to See, which ran on BBC Radio 4 in 1989.

Adams originally conceived of the Book as an SF take on a common travel guide. In his introduction to the novel, he refers specifically to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe by Ken Welsh adding that he wished someone would write something similar for the whole galaxy. The idea of a guide that helps explain the universe resonates with the absurdist humor of Adams’ writing. The central tenet of absurdism, as articulated by Kierkegaard and Camus, holds that humanity cannot fully understand the universe or discover any inherent meaning therein, so a book that purports to provide descriptions of and advice on navigating the entire galaxy certainly qualifies as superhuman technology. Adams inverts the impossibility of the guide again by writing it to contain “much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate.” Not only does the Book know more than it is humanly possible to know, it introduces extra information just for the sake of being snarky. Therefore, the Book exists as a joke about our desire to fully understand a theoretically unknowable universe, and it actively satirizes our attempts at circumventing that unknowability through SF.

Of course, to interface with the Book, the listener needs an avatar. Arthur Dent, as a protagonist, stands in for the listener by being very ordinary. As an unremarkable, mild-mannered British individual of average intelligence and little discernable skill, Arthur takes on the role of an everyman. He tells jokes, drinks beer, and wants to keep his house from being demolished; his characteristics and motivations are all familiar, making him more of a placeholder for the audience as well as a mouthpiece for jokes reacting to the absurdity of his surroundings.

In Arthur’s first lines of dialogue, we hear him bargain with Councilman Prosser to keep his house from being knocked down in order to make room to build a bypass. Arthurs begins to fall apart as soon as he is introduced to the audience, plus it does so for a reason that is inexplicable to him: It’s a bypass, you’ve got to build bypasses.” This unfortunate circumstance in itself could be considered absurd, but when, minutes later, the entire Earth is demolished to make room for a hyperspace bypass, the absurdity increases exponentially. For one thing, it seems quite unlikely that a planet the size of Earth would obstruct any travel through the vast emptiness of space, but more importantly, the juxtaposed destruction of Arthur’s home and his home planet establishes his position as a figure with no power over his own situation.

Adams uses his witty prose to simultaneously exaggerate circumstances and trivialize them. If the narrative style was not funny, Arthur’s story might be downright depressing. The Vogons demolish the Earth and Arthur responds by saying, “Look. I’m a bit upset about that.” The absurdity of the response makes it sound funny. After surviving the demolition of Earth, Arthur’s entire existence becomes enveloped in absurdity, giving Adams the ability to craft any number of unforeseeable reversals. The SF premise of a simple, British man surviving the end of the world becomes a rich opportunity for absurdist comedy, but significantly, that British man survives. In the immediate aftermath of the literal apocalypse, Arthur Dent reads a book.

As Arthur processes the realization that everything he has ever known has been vaporized, he thumbs through the Book which Ford Prefect hands him. As he listens to the Book’s absurd explanations of life in the universe, Arthur begins to focus on the intricacies of the galaxy external to his own situation. He contemplates the insanity of the infinite universe instead of his own misfortune. Essentially, the audience does the same thing as Arthur by listening to the radio play. Rather than an escape from our present reality, HHGG offers an exploration of how an individual might cope after the loss of that reality.

Kierkegaard and Camus also pose three possible responses to the concept of the absurd: The first is to commit suicide, which neither endorses because even suicide is subject to absurdity; the second is to turn to faith in an abstract system such as religion or spirituality and belief in a transcendent realm that is beyond the absurd; the third is to accept the absurd as natural reality. Arthur employs the third response and determines to follow Ford Prefect on his journey to edit the Book and survive in the galaxy. By emphasizing the absurd and the entirely average Arthur’s ability to cope with it, Adams satirizes the typical goal, if not the mode, of SF. HHGG does not push the audience to envision a change in the world or in the future but rather in the themselves.

It is not surprising that comedy writing of such a high caliber has attracted so many fans, but the series’ cutting-edge sound engineering also helped the radio play succeed at drawing in its initial audience. In the first episode alone, the crew create the stylistic effect of the Book, simulate the slug-like language of the Vogons, and destroy the Earth. Many of the techniques and tools they used were improvised, and this innovation helped set HHGG apart as different and uniquely creative.

Most of the instructions Adams wrote into the scripts provide little concrete guidance on what was actually expected. Some of the instruction seem mainly to serve as entertainment for the engineers rather than specific requests. Vague directions like “A FAINT BUT CLEAR BACKGROUND HUM STARTS UP. VARIOUS QUIET ELECTRONIC MECHANISMS. A FEW VAGUE RUSTLES OF MOVEMENT. SOME SOFTLY PADDING FOOTSTEPS” and “A RATHER EXTRAORDINARY NOISE STARTS UP. IT SOUNDS LIKE A COMBINATION OF GARGLING, HOWLING, SNIFFING AND FIGHTING OFF A PACK OF WOLVES,” appear frequently throughout the radio scripts. Apparently, the engineers did find inspiration in these passages as they poured a remarkable amount of effort into the show. Geoffrey Perkins, a producer for the show, notes the arduous work put in by the sound team in an introduction to the print volume of the original radio scripts:

I can’t speak too highly of the efforts of the technical team, led by Alick Hale-Munro. I particularly remember one occasion when, after we’d overrun our mixing session for the umpteenth time, I received a stern phone call strictly forbidding me from incurring any more overtime for the studio managers. So, at six o’clock sharp, I said “Right, that’s it,” whereupon they all looked at me rather incredulously and said, “But we’re half way through this scene.” When I explained I wasn’t allowed to let them run over they insisted on finishing the scene and said they had no intention of claiming any overtime. That sort of attitude was undoubtedly a great factor in the success of the show.

Such high praise denotes the singular importance of the sound editing to creating a sense of believability in the show that carried Adams’ vision to his audience. Without an adept sound team, the effects of the book, the Vogons, and the destruction of Earth would all have fallen flat.

The voice acting also achieved notable success as both Peter Jones and Simon Jones (no relation) were brought back to reprise their roles in the Television Series three years later. Adams even claimed in an interview that he had based the character of Arthur Dent somewhat on Simon Jones, whom he had written for on an earlier television project. Ford Prefect was played by Geoffrey McGivern who did not return for TV but who has played the character again in the more recent radio reboot that BBC 4 did in 2004 and 2005.

It is important to note that, though the radio play is the first incarnation of Adams’ story and therefore the seminal source of all the franchise’s lore, it is the version of the text that allows the most room for improvement. In thinking about how Adams adapted the radio script to other media, one specific change in dialog draws attention to a shift in Arthur’s character. In the radio play, Arthur speaks to Councilman Prosser, and Arthur makes the logical argument that since he and the demolition crew were at an impasse there was no need for him to stay in front of the bulldozer. The argument so affects Councilman Prosser that he agrees to trade places with Arthur and lie down in front of the bulldozer on his behalf. In all the other versions, Ford talks to the man. This shift shows that Adams was looking for ways to show Arthur’s lack of agency and power in navigating his circumstances. Instead of taking charge and winning his own arguments, he lays back and lets Ford do the talking.

One final joke bears mentioning because it also appears in every iteration of the text. Near the end of “Fit the First,” the Book narrates a nasty exchange of Vogon poetry, which is “of course, the third worst in the Universe,” and takes time to make remarks about the first two worst examples of poetry. In the radio play, the worst place award goes to Paul Neil Milne Redbridge who happens to be a real person that Adams knew. Adams so disliked the man’s poetry that he kept this joke in every iteration of HHGG, although the name is replaced for legal reasons in all the other versions of the text with the pseudonym “Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings.”