Douglas Adams & Doctor Who: The Time-Traveller's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams may be best known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but there is a small contingent of Adams fans that will forever see his work on the BBC’s Doctor Who as the quintessential Adams. Indeed, much of his fiction written after he finished working on scripts for Doctor Who echoes thematic elements of the long-running soft sci-fi series.
Consider the two books for which Adams is best known after his work on Doctor Who: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Though very different, the two books share some obvious similarities. The Hitchhiker’s Guide series wears its science fiction very much on its sleeve, where the Dirk Gently books have the feel of a noir detective novel that just happens to have a strong dose of science fiction folded into the mixture.
Obviously, the two are similar, but the reality is that they also share their similarities with that other great Douglas Adams project, Doctor Who. Take, for example, the relationship between the Doctor and the overwhelming majority of his companions.
At its core, Doctor Who tends to be the story not of the Doctor, but of his relationship with his “companion” in any given episode. While there have been some non-human companions (including K-9, the Time Lady Romana, and Turlough), the lion’s share of the Doctor’s companions have been human. Often, the Doctor has a single companion, particularly in more recent years. In many instances, we see the Doctor introduced to a human being, who he must very quickly bring up to speed in an effort to help them avoid or avert some terrible catastrophe. This usually entails a bundle of explanation, a couple of non-sequiturs, and finally a solution borne of senses or knowledge beyond human understanding.
If there's a sense of familiarity to all this it may be because it’s roughly the same situation as unfolds in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which average human Arthur Dent ends up travelling through space and time with his human-looking alien friend, Ford Prefect. Ford’s explanation of the end of the world and his subsequent evasion of it are spared the feeling of being a Doctor Who episode opening only by the fact that the two escape on a Vogon construction vessel, rather than in a phone box.
That description begins with,
“Six pints of bitter," said Ford Prefect to the barman of the Horse and Groom. "And quickly please, the world's about to end." The barman of the Horse and Groom didn't deserve this sort of treatment, he was a dignified old man.
What follows is a conversation in which it becomes increasingly apparent that the world really is about to end, but also that Arthur really needs to bring a towel with him when they leave, interrupted only by Ford asking the barman for a packet of peanuts (we later learn that the salt will help soothe Arthur’s post-teleportation hangover).
From there, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect go on a series of adventures that takes them across time and space, meeting with new and ever stranger aliens. If it’s all beginning to sound a little familiar, then it may be because some of it actually was originally written to be a Doctor Who episode. That said, it’s not alone in this.
By contrast, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency opens with an ordinary man, Richard MacDuff, being (re)introduced to holistic detective (and suspected psychic) Dirk Gently. Dirk Gently navigates the world and attempts to solve crimes through the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” To MacDuff however, Gently’s behaviour often seems chaotic or even completely random. The end result is that, once again, we have a normal character taken on an adventure alongside a character who has access to information (and perhaps sensory apparatus) beyond that of the ordinary human.
In a conversation around quantum mechanics and probability, Dirk Gently explains these gifts to MacDuff,
“Supposing you were to introduce a psychic, someone with clairvoyant powers, into the experiment—someone who is able to divine what state of health the cat is in without opening the box. Someone who has, perhaps, a certain eerie sympathy with cats. What then? Might that furnish us with an additional insight into the problem of quantum physics?”
“Is that what they wanted to do?”
“It’s what they did.”
As in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a strange intermingling of real-world physics and soft-science-fiction strangeness at play here that has come to characterise not only Douglas Adams’ own work, but all of Doctor Who as well.
While the Doctor Who canon is rife with examples like this (Matt Smith’s first outing as the Doctor contains a particularly strong example), the effect is seldom more evident than in the serial City of Death. While Douglas Adams is only listed officially in the episode’s credits as “script editor,” the truth is that the show’s writer, “David Agnew” is a pseudonym most often used when one of the show's script editors hoped to avoid the apparent poor-form of commissioning a script from themselves.
While it might not bear Douglas Adams' name, City of Death’s writing marks it as one of those times when Doctor Who really lets go and has fun with its dialogue. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t let this article devolve into a series of Doctor Who quotes, but the script is full of offbeat conversations with fun visual punchlines, like this exchange between the Doctor and Romana,
“You know, I think something very funny's going on. You remember that man that was following us?”
“Well, he's standing behind me. Poking a gun in my back.”
Its light-hearted dialogue aside, anyone watching City of Death who has also read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency will notice a rake of similarities so obvious and so central to the plot that to spoil them here would be a bit of a shame. However, it is worth noting that Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency also cannibalises key elements of another Doctor Who episode, though in this instance one that was left sadly incomplete.
The majority of Douglas Adams’ fans will already be at least tangentially aware of Shada, a Doctor Who serial that was effectively lost to time (ironic as the turn of phrase sounds) due to a BBC strike during filming. The result is that the story, which involves extensive time travel and muddied timelines, has been released a few times in different formats.
The first was a VHS release with narration supplied to cover the unfilmed scenes provided by former-Doctor Tom Baker. Later, the BBC commissioned a version of the episode incorporating some animated segments to fill the gaps in the missing footage. It would later appear as a novelisation titled Doctor Who and Shada by Paul Scoones. More recently, Gareth Roberts’ official novelisation of Shada was released in 2012 (adding it to a long line of Doctor Who novels).
To his credit, Roberts even manages to do a lot to preserve Adams’ signature sense of humour in his novelisation of the episode,
… the word quarantine had a very definite effect on most beings, Skagra had found. It changed statements such as ‘I wonder if we could help those poor people, Captain?’ into statements such as ‘It’s the plague! Scream! Scream! Let’s get out of here with incredible reluctance and at incredible speed!’
Later, Big Finish Productions would record a full-cast audio adaptation of the story with Paul McGann (who we maintain, to our dying day, remains the best incarnation of the Doctor).
That Shada exists in so many different, similar forms is reminiscent of City of Death. Indeed, thematic elements of both City of Death and Shada recur throughout Douglas Adams’ better-known fiction. Like so much of his writing, the fun of those Doctor Who serials is often in their counter-intuitive chronologies and events experienced out of order.
City of Death's plot revolves largely around a character involved in a terrible accident that fractures him across his own timeline, leaving him living multiple lives simultaneously across thousands of years of human history. For Count Carlos Scarlioni, his apparent death is not the end, but the beginning of a series of lives that echo one another across thousands of years.
Now, it is Douglas Adams' work itself that continues to echo and shift subtly over time, whether in the form of 2016’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (or even the 2012 series starring Stephen Mangan) in Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing…
It seems oddly fitting that some of Adams' most recognisable work seems to have its genesis in those less well known Doctor Who serials. That the echoes of those first serials continue to appear in the reinterpretations and adaptations of Adam's work after his death seems both appropriate and strangely bittersweet.