The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Starring: Peter Jones, Simon Jones and David Dixon
BBC Worldwide
RRP 24.99
Certificate: 15
Available now

When his planet is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, Earthman Arthur Dent embarks upon an incredible journey through space, time and infinite improbability...

Over the years I had come to take The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in all its many forms, for granted. Of course, I knew it had been funny in its day, but I thought that I had watched/read/listened to it quite often enough already. Saddened by the untimely death last year of writer Douglas Adams, I was briefly tempted to catch the repeats of the television series, but instead I thought I'd wait for the DVD to come out...

I had forgotten just how good this show was! Not just funny (Adams' Cambridge Footlights influence was never more evident than during the Pythonesque philosophers versus Deep Thought sequence) but also poignant (the end of episode six). It is also a visual and aural delight.

Sure, certain aspects of the story worked better in the original radio version, and some should never have been attempted on television with 1980s' technology and a BBC budget. I'm referring, of course, to Zaphod Beeblebrox's animatronic extra head, which doesn't look even slightly convincing. In addition to that, certain lines of dialogue, such as Arthur (Simon Jones) reading out the warning: "please do not press this button again", could have worked better as sight gags in the visual medium.

In most other respects, however, the production team get things absolutely right, starting with the casting. Simon Jones and Mark Wing-Davey (as Zaphod) work just as well in their roles on telly as they did on the radio. The same is obviously true of Peter Jones (as the voice of the Guide) and Stephen Moore (as the voice of Marvin), as they are heard but not seen.

David Dixon, inheriting the role of Ford Prefect from Geoffrey McGivern, accentuates the alien character's weirdness. His costume emphasises Adams' initial concept of a variation on Doctor Who - an alien who would much rather go to a good party than save the galaxy. Together with his (contact lens enhanced) unearthly eyes, Dixon's performance brings to mind a miniature version of Tom Baker!

Sandra Dickinson's American accent makes for a curious departure from the previously British character of Trillian, but nevertheless the actress makes the most of the script's least developed main character.

The special effects (aside, of course, from "that head") are the best that could possibly have been achieved at the time, including matte shots, model work and pioneering video-editing techniques that still hold up well today. However, the real highlight of the television show has to be Rod Lord's incredible animated sequences, which ably illustrate Peter Jones' dryly comical narration. Prepare to hit your freeze-frame button to fully appreciate the intricate details and the witty annotations. Paddy Kingsland's sound effects and evocative incidental music retain a similarly timeless appeal, just as they did on the radio series.

Disc one of this double-pack contains the fullest edits that are known to exist of the six episodes. These incorporate scenes that were cut from the original transmissions but reinstated for the 1992 VHS release, and vice versa. Viewers have the option of listening to the episodes with their original mono soundtrack or with a digitally remastered stereo version.

As if the 199-minute running time of the main feature was not enough, the second disc contains a wealth of extras. The highlight of these is Kevin Davies' hour-long Making of... documentary from 1993. Davies (who assisted Rod Lord in the creation of Hitchhiker's animations) lavishes as much care, attention and affection upon his subject matter as he did during the production of his Doctor Who 30th anniversary documentary (also in 1993).

Disc two also contains further interview and archive material that didn't make it into the documentary. This includes out-takes, a deleted scene from episode two (which has not been incorporated into the main feature owing to the presence of an on-screen timecode), behind-the-scenes footage, and the original BBC 2 trailer. See in full the Tomorrow's World feature about Zaphod's second head. Learn about Mark Wing-Davey's extra penis! And in case you were wondering, it is the expletive outbursts of actors fluffing their lines during out-takes that have upped this product's certification from a PG to a 15!

Although there is no feature-length commentary, the on-screen production notes (akin to those on the Doctor Who DVDs) are not only extremely informative but also capture the humorous spirit of the show.

With a total running time in excess of five hours, this is a pristine presentation of the most remarkable - certainly the most successful - saga ever to spring from the inventive mind of the late Douglas Adams.

Richard McGinlay

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