"The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" is a seven-part sci-fi satire that is an Anglophile's delight. It has the zaniness of Monty Python, the bumbling humor of "Fawlty Towers" and the technical bravura of "Masterpiece Theatre."
The series, which begins tonight at 8:30 on channels 22 and 26, also has a curious history. It evolved from Douglas Adams' best-selling book to a highly successful BBC radio program (carried here by National Public Radio) to a British television series (distributed by PBS). Each medium offers its own challenges to the imagination, but the half-hour TV segments may be the easiest version to take (though an hour would have been a more effective length for each program; just as you settle in with the laughs, it's over.)
The opening episode sets the decidedly irreverent mood and introduces the two major continuing characters, droll earthling Arthur Dent (Simon Jones) and Ford Prefect (David Dixon) as a Pythonish extraterrestrial who's been passing as a human. Dent's in a dither because his house is about to be plowed down by a bulldozer to create a bypass; Prefect is trying to alert him to a similar fate that is about to befall Earth in 12 minutes in order to create an intergalactic bypass.
It's a problem that's as cosmic as it is comic, but the rather thick Dent is having none of it. Prefect persists. "How would you react if I said I'm not from Guildford but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Beeetl Joose?" Dent: "Why, do you think it's the kind of thing you're likely to say?"
Soon, however, a bulldozer spaceship from a planet known as Vogon arrives and the pair manages to sneak aboard just before Earth goes out in spectacular video game-like destruction. Stolidly accepting that he can't go home again, Dent stumbles along behind Prefect on a tour of the peculiar Vogon ship and life style ("The best way to get a drink out of a Vogon is to stick your finger down his throat . . . it's a tough universe. If you're going to survive, you're going to really need to know where your towel is").
It's here that the Hitchhikers' Guide is introduced (Prefect is a field researcher for the publication, which he admits is not very accurate). It's really a mini-computer whose often hilarious information is called up on a screen and played back like a video game. The opening episode ends too quickly, though we do get to meet the marvelous Vogon Captain (Martin Benson), a cross between Alice's Caterpillar, the Alien and Oliver Hardy.
As chapter one ends, Dent is preparing for an uncomfortable phase shift, which Prefect has warned him is an unpleasant experience, "like being drunk." Dent wonders what's unpleasant about that until Prefect says, "Ask a glass of water."
In upcoming episodes, they'll meet Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, triple-armed scoundrel, the paranoid android Marvin, and Trillian, another earthling who has become Beeblebrox's girlfriend. Peter Jones repeats his radio role as the voice of "The Book," which dispenses information and acts as narrator in the journey.
The sets are marvelously simple, kind of run-down high-tech; so far, there have been no extraordinary special effects, but the top-notch tape quality and clarity are what we've come to expect from the British. The laughs come frequently, and that's the best news for Pythonaires who miss that type of irreverent satire. And if some of the British accent gets away, you can always try the device Dent uses to translate Vogonese: a fish in the ear.
It's best to use a small one.