I can recite the first chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from memory. When I can’t sleep, I listen to the radio series, the familiarity of the words soothing my anxious brain. I used to write DON’T PANIC on my hand during exams, tracing over the letters on my skin. Hitchhiker is one of those pieces of fiction that sits so deeply within my identity that it would be impossible to untangle myself from it. But as Stephen Fry notes in his introduction to Douglas Adams’ posthumous collection of essays The Salmon of Doubt, I am not alone in feeling like this: ‘Douglas has…the ability to make the beholder feel that he is addressing them and them alone… you hug to yourself the thought that [no-one] quite understood its force and quality the way you did.’
To try and untangle The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its enduring legacy is to embark down a rabbit hole of adaptations – six seasons of radio, a TV series, six books, a movie, a series of comics, games and an elaborate illustrated edition. Hitchhiker has always existed in multitudes, both in and outside of the narrative. Each tells a (sometimes wildly) different version of the same story – the Earth is destroyed and radio producer Arthur Dent escapes by hitching a lift on an alien spaceship. Adams spent his entire career writing and rewriting the series – skipping back and forward between mediums, always tweaking and remixing the narrative, adding new elements and unspooling new plots, so that no two versions are the same.
Hitchhiker has always existed in multitudes, both in and outside of the narrative.
While Adams is known for his distinctive voice and style, his work was constantly shaped by those around him. Though the narrative moved away from radio after the first two seasons (referred to as the Primary Phase and Secondary Phase), the cast of the original radio series have remained a constant for decades and, in one way or another, have shaped the work at almost every stage of its life. Adams expressed a desire to eventually return the series to radio, where it all began.
Since Adams’ death in 2001, it is this team who have been instrumental in carrying on the stories Adams never laid to rest. The third, fourth and fifth Hitchhiker novels were adapted for BBC Radio 4 (released as the Tertiary Phase, Quandary Phase and Quintessential Phase respectively). Lifelong collaborator Dirk Maggs wrote the scripts, with input from the cast and using Adams’ seemingly endless stores of notes as reference. ‘Although it may not be the same without Douglas’s physical presence,’ Maggs writes in the liner notes of the Hexagonal Phase’s CD release, ‘everything we do remains imbued with his vision and spirit.’
The Quintessential Phase, based on the last book Adams wrote in the Hitchhiker series (1992’s Mostly Harmless), revolves around the concept of parallel universes. In his introduction to the 2009 edition of Mostly Harmless, Maggs describes it as ‘a maze of parallel plots… a roller-coaster ride into the unknown’. The fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is taken over by a shady corporation who develop a new, more advanced version of The Guide, which appears as a shadowy bird which can ‘perceive every possible universe’ as it exists across dimensions. The Quintessential Phase is darker than the other Hitchhiker stories, delving into less cheery versions of the characters’ timelines, most notably in the character of Trillian, who appears twice (Sliding Doors style) as two dimensions collide. The characters, we are told by the bird-like Guide, ‘move freely in three dimensions that you call space… move in a straight line in a forth that you call time, and stay rooted to one place in a fifth, which is the first fundamental of probability.’
Throughout Hitchhiker’s life, this question of probability has remained at its core, both as a narrative device and creative ethos. What if this was a book? What if the story happened in a different order? What if we remade it again (just once more)? This unconventional creative approach is essential to Hitchhiker’s distinct feel.
Throughout Hitchhiker’s life, this question of probability has remained at its core, both as a narrative device and creative ethos.
I revisited the Quintessential Phase last year and found Adams’ vision of parallel dimensions oddly comforting. Being alive in 2018, it is easy to feel that we are living the darkest timeline. In 2009, Maggs said ‘we are only just waking up to the box-ticking, goal-driven, share-and-enjoy surveillance society that Douglas predicted’ and in 2018 it feels like we’re all very much awake. Adams’ messy, tangled wisdom feels somehow more pertinent than ever (‘anyone who is capable of getting themselves made president should on no account be allowed to do the job’). His absurdist version of the future feels disconcertingly relevant to our present. And of all his work, the tangled despair of the Quintessential Phase speaks most profoundly to this.
The concept of probability wasn’t introduced with the Quintessential Phase, though. The Heart of Gold (the story’s most important spaceship) is able to move so quickly because it moves through probability, rather than space. To travel, the crew slip through increasingly strange versions of reality until they land in the place they need to be. Coordinates are programmed by calculating your likelihood of ending up somewhere.
The Earth, in Adams’ universe, exists in a ‘Plural Zone’, meaning it is particularly unstable along the ‘probability axis’. Narratively, this allows Adams to resurrect the Earth endlessly – people and planets in Plural zones are prone to phasing between dimensions, so when one Earth is destroyed, a different, parallel Earth can appear from another point along the probability axis to take its place.
This nifty loophole also allows us a way of reconciling the many, messy iterations of Hitchhiker. What if we read each version of Adams’ narrative as representing a parallel Arthur Dent, skipping through probability? In each version of his life, he makes slightly different choices, splintering into many parallel universes.
In the final moments of the Quintessential Phase we hear multiple Dents, spread across different narratives, each realising an unresolved plot from a previous iteration of Hitchhiker. This coda is entirely Maggs’ work, though he says it was inspired by conversations in which Adams said he regretted the downbeat way he ended Mostly Harmless.
[Douglas Adams’] absurdist version of the future feels disconcertingly relevant to our present.
It is interesting to think about a parallel version of our universe in which Adams had been able to continue the Hitchhiker series with a sixth book or radio series. Instead, as with so many aspects of the story, it was done without him, in the form of And Another Thing…, written by sci-fi author Eoin Colfer several years after Adams’ death. The novel was recently adapted for radio by Maggs and the remaining cast of the original radio series as the Hexagonal Phase. The full-cast radio drama feels almost nostalgic in a world of slick modern podcast audio. It isn’t cheap to have such a big cast, so many silly sound-effects and inexplicable musical numbers but this is Hitchhiker after all.
The Hexagonal Phase picks up in the hopeless final moments of the Quintessential Phase, when the characters are trapped in a nightclub facing the inevitable destruction of both themselves and the Earth across all of probability. The narrative splinters again, taking each character into a pocket universe where they live out the real-world time between the release of the last series and this one, allowing each to appropriately age alongside the actors who play them, continuing the tradition of tying Hitchhiker’s external context to its internal narrative.
The Hexagonal Phase then stakes claim to the narrative. When the characters subsequently escape death at the hands of an inter-dimensional death-ray, Arthur becomes the only version of himself left alive. Other narratives collapse in on themselves until this version of Arthur is the sole survivor – ‘this is the death of all the plural Earths in this sector and… of all the other possible Arthur Dents’.
The full-cast radio drama feels almost nostalgic in a world of slick modern podcast audio.
Colfer, Maggs and their colleagues and co-conspirators take Adams’ story – sprawling and multiplicitous – and condense it into a single thread. Unresolved elements from previous narratives are bought into the story, minor characters like Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged and Thor, God of Thunder, become key actors in this sole remaining universe. To continue the narrative, they have straightened it out.
Just as I have a right to claim Adams work has had a unique impact on me, so this team have a right to claim the narrative for their own. But where the Quintessential Phase feels impossibly modern in its complexity, the Hexagonal Phase feels old-fashioned in its simplicity. It is easy to understand the desire to create something simple – a classic BBC radio series, with a plot that’s more silly than existential – to take Adams’ work back to its roots.
But like Colfer’s novel, the Hexagonal Phase never quite feels quite like it fits within the Hitchhiker universe, not because it lacks Adams’ presence but because it shies away from the messy unpredictability of other versions of the narrative. In trying to simplify the chaos of the Quintessential Phase into something that could pass for an ending, the Hexagonal Phase looses so much of what makes the work feel timeless. Compressing Hitchhiker into a single timeline isn’t comforting – the comfort lies in its multitudes. I will never read a new Hitchhiker work, but I still haven’t collected all the versions that exist. And perhaps somewhere in a less bleak timeline, there is a version of Adams who lived to write more. The Hexagonal Phase is just one possible ending, as the many other versions of the narrative continue to exist across the axis of probability. And there’s something very reassuring about that.