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Friday, August 30, 2013

That Crazy Buck Rogers Stuff

This month, Hermes Press has come out with a new incarnation of the classic comic strip character Buck Rogers, drawn by Howard Chaykin.  I haven't seen it yet, but it is a good excuse to re-post a piece I wrote recently for Daily Kos.

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These days, science fiction is considered fairly mainstream. Many of the top box-office films of the past few decades have been SF movies, and science fiction novels are considered a legitimate genre along with detective fiction, westerns and romance. True, it is rarely considered as Serious Literary Fiction, but neither is it dismissed as a trashy fringe genre. Yet just a couple generations ago, it was not uncommon for science fiction to be dismissed as "That crazy Buck Rogers stuff."

Buck Rogers has somewhat faded from the popular imagination, a dim memory of pop culture past; which is unfortunate, because although Heinlein was the first SF author to break into the "slicks" and Bradbury the first American SF writer to be taken seriously by the Literati, it was Buck who first made that first anti-gravity-propelled leap from the pulp magazines to the broader popular culture.

Rogers first appeared in a story by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories titled Armageddon 2419 A.D. As it happens, that same issue featured the first part of E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space. Although the cover of that issue illustrated a scene from Skylark, its image of a man in a flight suit suspended in the air might well have inspired the classic look of Buck Rogers.

John F. Dille, president of a newspaper syndicate, read the story and thought it would make a good premise for a comic strip. Philip Nowlan agreed to write the strip and a cartoonist named Dick Calkins was hired to draw it.

The first few strips followed the outline of the original novella. Anthony Rogers, renamed "Buck" for the comic strip, is a chemical engineer investigating strange phenomena related to an abandoned mine in a remote corner of Western Pennsylvania. A cave-in traps him in the mine and he is overcome by strange fumes which put him in a state of suspended animation.

He awakens 500 years later. The America he knew is no more; the fields and towns of Pennsylvania are now a forested wilderness.

He encounters Wilma Deering, a member of a small community living in the forest, and rescues her from a group of outlaws. This, by the way, is last time Wilma ever needs rescuing -- in the novel, anyway. She explains to Rogers what has happened while he was asleep.

America has been conquered by a Mongolian race called the Han who have obliterated its cities and all but exterminated its population. The Han Airlords possess devastating disintegration rays which, with the control of the skies afforded by their huge airships, make them seemingly invincible. America has been reduced to a wilderness and the remnant of surviving Americans live a furtive existence in the forests where they are hunted by the Han for sport.

Yes, this is quite racist. It was the 1920s and stories about the "Yellow Peril" were popular. It's not much of an excuse, but it's all I got. I suppose we're lucky, given the era, that the story didn't include a comical colored servant.

But the Americans have slowly rebuilt their civilization in secret, forming tribal units called "gangs." In their underground laboratories they have made scientific discoveries which will enable them to strike back. Chief among these is Inertron, an anti-gravity substance discovered shortly before the Han invasion which the Americans have re-discovered. They use this material to make contra-gravity harnesses which allow the wearer to make tremendous leaps in the air. Inertron also has the advantage of being impervious to the Han "dis rays".

Wilma brings Rogers back to her gang, where his knowlege of forgotten WWI military tactics proves useful in the guerrilla war against the Yellow Blight. (I mentioned the racism, didn't I?) His acumen and his leadership qualities become so evident that he quickly rises to "boss" of the gang and becomes involved with coordinating with the other regional gangs in the war against the Han.

In the book also get a good deal of what I call the National Geographic stuff: descriptions of the society in which Rogers finds himself. Although the comic strip specifically called the Han invaders "Reds", the society of the American underground is by necessity cooperative and socialistic. The good of the Community is of greatest importance, because without the Community the Individual is little more than a hunted animal.

And although I've made slighting comments about racism regarding the Mongol Han, I have to admit that Nowlan's 25th Century society is remarkably egalitarian towards women. True, when Buck first meets Wilma she is in peril and needs to be rescued, but she doesn't make a habit out of it the way some of Edgar Rice Burroughs's heroines seem to. Wilma's a soldier, and in her gang every citizen, male or female, is expected to rotate between civilian jobs working in the underground factories which produce the community's needs and serving as a soldier, defending the community, watching against Han raids and engaging in commando attacks on the gang's enemies. I can't say that her character is really written with a lot of depth, but she is presented as a strong woman and as an equal, usually fighting right along side of Buck. In The Airlords of Han, the sequel to Armageddon 2419, Rogers is taken captive for a time and we later learn that Wilma, and not some male lieutenant, has assumed his position as gang boss.

The novel focuses a great deal on military tactics and working out the uses of the 25th Century wonders: the Han's "dis" and "rep" rays, and the American's inertron, ultraphones and rocket pistols. In the comic strip, the focus is more on action and the visual aspect of the gadgets. The plot of the comic strip quickly diverges from the novel. In the book, a major subplot involved the regional gangs coming together to form a united organization; in the comic strip, the united "org" already exists, with it's capital in a fortified city at Niagara Falls. Buck also does a lot more traveling around North America in the comic strip, a conscious decision on the part of the syndicate to make the strip more appealing to newspapers in other parts of the country.

At one point in the strip, Buck visits one of the western "orgzones" with a predominately Indian population. Buck is surprised to learn that the aren't backwards and primitive at all; in fact, they have a considerable air force, comprised of easy-to-build and maintain biplanes.

The comic strip also introduced new characters into the story, most notably the brainy Dr. Huer and the man who would become Buck's nemesis: "Killer" Kane. (Much later, it would be revealed that Kane's first name was "Coe". And that he had a brother named "Nova". Don't know if he had a sister named "Candice.") Kane is Wilma's ex-friend and when we first meet him he is the best fighter in the gang. Buck quickly bests him with his superior U.S. Army training and Kane never forgives him for that humiliation. Of course Buck's exposing him as a traitor selling out to the Han didn't make Kane any less antagonistic. Kane is a slimy creep, and with his girlfriend Ardala make the perfect villainous couple.

For its first year, the strip involved the war against the Han, but over time the "Yellow Peril" stereotypes began to soften. I suspect this might have been because the syndicate wanted the strip to be accessible to a wider audience. Buck discovered a secret society of Han dissidents who sympathized with the American's plight and condemned their government's corrupt system.

The war against the Han came to a dramatic turning point when chance enabled the Americans to capture the Han viceroy of North America. With this important hostage, Buck and Wilma were sent on a diplomatic mission to negotiate personally with the Grand Emperor of all the Han.

To Buck's surprise, the Emperor turns out to be a pleasant fellow, if a bit over-trusting. It seems he's been spending most of the last century in scientific pursuits, and was under the impression that his viceroy was using their advanced Han science to uplift and enlighten the backwards races of North America. The Emperor is shocked -- shocked, I say -- to hear that this is not the case. He promises that the Viceroy shall receive due punishment and signs a lasting peace treaty with the American orgs.

This marked an important turning point in the strip. The end of the Second War for Independence, as the novel called it, is a bit abrupt and anticlimactic in the comic strip; but I think that if the strip had continued to be America vs. the Yellow Blight, it would not have endured. Even before this point, the strip had begun to explore other corners of the world, like South American sky pirates. Now the strip turned its attention to space.

Buck encounters a rocket from outer space bearing tiger-like aliens from the planet Mars. This first meeting is fairly benign, all things considered, but the Tiger-Men of Mars quickly develop into major antagonists. (And yes, I pay tribute to them in the "Cat-Men from Mars" storyline of my own webcomic). But the important thing is that this meeting between humans and Martians changed "Buck Rogers" from an early version of Red Dawn to something more inspiring and more wonder-filled: a story of rockets and adventure and interplanetary exploits.

Besides the Martian Tiger-Men, Buck encountered other exotic alien races and wonders on other planets in the solar system.

Buck Rogers became popular enough to be spun off into a radio program, the first ever science fiction series on the futuristic medium of radio, which aired off and on from 1932 to 1940.

In 1934, Buck gained his only serious rival, a dashing blond polo player named Flash Gordon. Drawn by Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon had frankly better artwork, and his adventures leaned more towards Burroughs-style planetary romance than gadget-based space opera like Buck.

Universal produced a big-budget Flash Gordon movie serial starring Olympic swimming star Buster Crabbe which was popular enough to lead to a similar Buck Rogers serial (recycling many of the costumes and sets from Flash). Buster Crabbe starred in that one too, and was happy not to have to peroxide his hair.

Buck's first appearance on TV was in 1950. He had already been beaten to the airwaves by the cheesy but popular Captain Video. Buck aired opposite Uncle Miltie's Texaco Star Theatre and lasted only a single season. No copies of any episodes have survived.

Over a quarter century later, thanks to the success of Star Wars, he returned to TV, played by Gil Gerard. The TV series also occasioned a revival of the comic strip, which had ended in 1967, but was brought back for a brief run from 1979-1983. At the time that series aired, I used to have arguments with a friend of mine over Buck Rogers vs. Battlestar Galactica. In retrospect, I have to admit he was right; Galactica probably was better.

The '90s saw an attempt to revitalize Buck Rogers. TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, got the rights to produce a role-playing game based on Buck's adventures, which they supplimented with a line of paperback novelizations and comic books. I thought they did a good job of combining themes popular in contemporary SF like genetic engineering, terraforming and artificial intelligence with the Buck Rogers characters. The line faltered, however. TSR put out a second, completely different game based on the original comic strip with Mongol airlords, jumping belts and the works. I loved it because I love retro stuff, but the general gaming public disagreed.

Since then, Buck has kind of faded into the background again. Sometimes a new Buck Rogers project is announced, but so far none of them have come to much. But I prefer to think that Buck Rogers isn't really dead.

He's just in suspended animation.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The New Lobo

(cross-posted from D-Kos)

I really shouldn't be bothered by these things. I haven't bought and read comic books in years. Once a fanboy, always a fanboy, I guess; and when I read about comics companies revamping characters I've known and loved, even if they're obscure third-stringers -- heck, especially if they're obscure third-stringers -- it bugs me.

The latest one, however, is kind of amusing. But it will require a bit of explanation, perhaps, for you to understand exactly what DC Comics has done to LOBO, THE LAST CZARNIAN.

About a year or two back, DC Comics rebooted it's whole universe. It's something that happens every other decade or so and something fans have come to accept as part of the Circle of Life. DC has used the reboot as an excuse to make changes in a lot of its characters; in some cases updating them, in some cases finding new takes for them. This isn't new either; back in the late 1950s, editor Julie Schwartz ushered in the Silver Age of Comics by revamping Golden Age characters like the Green Lantern and the Flash, bringing them up-to-date and finding new approaches for them.

Some of the changes in "The New 52", as DC calls it's new line-up, have been decent. From all reports, the new Aquaman is pretty good. Some are controversial, but make some sense from a narrative point of view, such as undoing Barbara Gordon's paralysis and having her be Batgirl again, or having Superman start dating Wonder Woman.

Some I find really annoying, such as changing the Steve Ditko character The Creeper from a wacky guy in a costume into an actual demon Yeah, the Creeper's pretty obscure, but I've always liked him and I think making him a demon is actually less interesting than what he was.

Worse than that is what they did to Amanda Waller, the tough administrator of the Suicide Squad, a government task-force that recruits super-villains for covert missions. She was originally a short, stocky middle-aged woman who looked tough enough to wrestle Granny Goodness two falls out of three. One early issue of SUICIDE SQUAD showed her facing down Batman. Yes, the Batman. Now, she's been transformed into a slim, leggy super-model.

But I was talking about Lobo.

Lobo (whose name in an obscure alien dialect means "He-who-devours-your-entrails-and-enjoys-it-thoroughly") first appeared as a villain in a space-based series called OMEGA MEN (which for some reason I always thought was connected somehow with ALPHA FLIGHT. It wasn't.) He was a space bounty-hunter on a rocket-bike; an amoral sociopath who looked like he wandered off the stage of a KISS concert. He was brought back in the late '80s by his creator Keith Giffen as a parody of Wolverine and the kind of violent anti-heroes who were becoming popular at that time.

To Giffen's surprise, the character became popular, becoming a supporting character in the comic book L.E.G.I.O.N. and the title character of a long-running series of his own. The Lobo of the '90s was a big, scruffy, muscular biker dude, dripping with chains, weapons and testosterone.

Which is why his fans -- and yes, Lobo has fans -- were shocked when DC revealed a new look for the character. Apparently, DC's editorial staff decided that the swaggering over-the-top psychopath fans have known and loved was too comedic. As his new writer put it:
"My goal for him was to make him less comically hyper-masculine and more focused. He's still vicious, still savage and still entirely immoral, but I wanted a gravity out of the character. When he showed up, I didn't want him walking away from explosions and smoking a cigar. When he shows up, I want people to feel like, 'This is it. This is the end.'"
The New Lobo is younger, sleeker, and dare I say it, prettier. what we have here is a bishonen Lobo. I can't help but wonder if he sparkles.

But although I will mock the new bishou Lobo, I can't manage to work up some good outrage over the change. He was a fun character in small doses, but I never really liked him much. Not as much as I liked the Creeper or Amanda Waller.

There were probably fans of the Golden Age Green Lantern who complained when Julie Schwartz made him a Space Cop. "You don't understand the character!" So maybe this new guy calling himself Lobo will turn out to be a decent villain.

Won't stop me from mocking him, though.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 6: Spaceport of the Damned

It is possible that this week, in which we conclude our look at Douglas Adams' radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, we will discover the purpose behind Zaphod's quest, the tragic past of the Birdmen of Brontital and the mystery of the limping footsoldiers.
It is even possible that pigs will fly, or that everyone will live happily ever after. In an infinite Universe everything, even The Hitch-hiker's guide to the Galaxy, is possible.
Arthur Dent has left the Bird-men of Brontitall, who live in the ear of a gigantic statue of Arthur hurling a cup built by their ancestors, (the statue, not the cup), and has escaped capture by some limping footsoldiers.

He has met an archaeologist named Lintilla. This is another of the women who occasionally appear in Hitchhiker who are beautiful, intelligent and with whom Douglas Adams seems to have no idea what to do. Trillian is one. Fenchurch, from the novel So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is another.

Lintilla is voiced in the radio series by none other than Rula Lenska, who baffled American audiences in the late '70s by appearing in TV shampoo ads purring "I'm Rula Lenska" as if that meant something. I seem to recall Johnny Carson mocking her in a sketch. My brother and were boggled to learn that she was connected with something cool, but actually she appeared in a lot of British television and radio programmes in the late 1970s.

Like Arthur, Ford and Zaphod have also fallen out of the gigantic cup suspended thirteen miles in the air, and like him, they have been rescued by landing on the back of a large passing bird. Unfortunately, this bird is not particularly friendly. Ford takes a page out of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook and wraps his towel around the bird's head to encourage it to Straighten Up and Fly Right. Once it deposits them safely on the ground, however, the bird and its friends take their revenge by dive-bombing Ford and Zaphod, who find themselves fleeing for safety.

Arriving at Lintilla's archaeological dig, Arthur meets her fellow archaeologists, Lintilla and Lintilla. "Why are there three of you?" Arthur asks. "Why are there only one of you?" they quite reasonably reply.

The Lintillas are clones and actually there are seventy-eight thousand million of them, only three of which, thankfully, are here at present. They are the result of an accident with a cloning machine that had been set to make six copies of a highly intelligent and attractive woman named Lintilla for an escort agency, while at the same time cloning five hundred bored businessmen, to maintain the laws of Supply and Demand. Because of a malfunction, the machine started creating each new clone before the previous one was finished, resulting in a thorny problem in bioethics: It became impossible to turn off the machine without committing murder.
This problem taxed the minds first of the cloning engineers, then of the priests, then of the letters page of the Sidereal Record Straightener, and finally of the lawyers who experimented vainly with ways of redefining murder, re-evaluating it and in the end even respelling it in the hopes that no one would notice. A solution has now been found, but since it is not a particularly pleasant one, it will only be revealed if it becomes absolutely necessary.
The other Lintillas have exciting news. A deep hole has mysteriously appeared near their camp which has opened up a new strata of rock. (The hole is actually an impact crater caused by Marvin, who has also fallen out out of the cup; he didn't land on the back of a bird as Arthur did, because he isn't that lucky; and he wasn't smashed to pieces because, once again, he isn't that lucky.)

The layer the Lintillas have discovered is composed not of rock, nor of stone, nor of some different sort of rock the name of which temporarily escapes Arthur; it is composed of compressed shoes. This confirms a theory the Lintillas have, but before they can explain it, they are all surrounded by a group of footsoldiers led by a belligerent executive.
I only happen to be Hig Hurtenflurst, I only happen to be the risingest young executive in the Dolmansaxil Shoe Corporation, I only happen to have masterminded the entire rationalization of this planet to total shoe orientation, I only happen to be sitting on top of the biggest development deal in the entire history of footware, and I only happen to be very deeply disturbed at finding my planet riddled with subversives bent on undermining the whole structure of the Dolmansaxil operation and thus the very economic future of the Galaxy itself, and I only happen to think that I would be very well advised to have both of you weirdos and the other two chicks revoked on the spot, does that answer your question?
Hig Hurtenflurst decides not to have Arthur and the Lintillas revoked ("K-i-l-l-e-d, revoked") but rather to take a liking to them. "I've decided to take these two back to my office and like them. ... I think I'd like them on the wall..."

Back at his office, Hurtenflurst explains how the planet Brontital is a test project for his company's Aggressive Marketing Initiative. They have constructed a "Shoe Shop Intensifier Ray" on the far side of the planet's moon, which caused its inhabitants to become gripped by an insane, irrational desire to build shoe shops.

Arthur is shocked to learn that Earth was also a planet the company had "declared Marketing" on. "That's where I come from! But it's been demolished," he says. "In which case it's escaped a very nasty fate," Lintilla whispers back.

In order to keep people buying shoes, the manufacturer keeps changing styles every year and producing shoes of increasingly poor quality so that the consumers have to keep buying more. (The reason all of the Footwarriors hired by the company limp, Hurtenflurst explains, is because their feet are the wrong size for their boots). To meet that demand, even more shoe shops are built. In the end, every shop on the planet was converted into a shoe shop. The footware bubble collapsed. Economic chaos ensued, followed by rioting, and military intervention by Dolmansaxil.

At this point, Hurtenflurst's presentation is interrupted by the power going out. Marvin shows up; he got tired of sitting at the bottom of his pit ("I was starting to like it too much") and has climbed out. "I suppose you'll want to be rescued now."

Here the narration explains that the Shoe Shop Intensifier Ray does not actually work and is only a gimmick to make Dolmansaxil Shoe Corporation executives feel like they're doing something. In actuality, what happened on Brontiall is a sad but natural part of the Economic Cycle called the Shoe Event Horizon.
It is explained through an extended bit which, sadly, is too long to quote in its entirety and which I don't think appears in any other Hitchhiker incarnation. It takes the form of a classroom lesson between a pupil and his computer tutor.
COMPUTEACH: Good morning, life form. 
PUPIL: Hi, Teach. 
COMPUTEACH: Are you sitting comfortably? 
PUPIL: Yes. 
COMPUTEACH: Then stand up. Harsh Economic Truths Class 17.
Through a combination of Socratic dialogue and positive reinforcement, ("You may press the button." "Thank you! Oo, that feels nice.") we get an outline of the theory. If you are living in an exciting, vibrant civilization, you are looking up at the "open sky, the stars, infinite horizons." Contrawise, if you are in a stagnant, declining civilization, you are more likely looking down, at your shoes. And what do you do to cheer yourself up? "I buy a new pair!"

This is the true catalyst for the vicious cycle of shoe shops which leads to:
PUPIL: The shoe event horizon. The whole economy overbalances. Shoe shops outnumber every other kind of shop, it becomes economically impossible to build anything other than shoe shops, and bing, I get to press the button again.F/X: THRILLING ZING AGAIN 
PUPIL: Weeehoo! 
COMPUTEACH: Wait for permission!
The final stages lead to: "Famine, collapse and ruin. Any survivors eventually evolve into birds and never put their feet on the ground again." Which as we've seen is exactly what has happened on Brontitall.

The lesson ends, and the Computeach tells the student to press the other button.
COMPUTEACH: Oooooohhhhh!!! That's so nice.
Meanwhile, Ford and Zaphod have escaped the continuing and messy vengeance of the Bird Folk and have come across an old, abandoned spaceport. Most of the ships there are wrecks, having undoubtedly been destroyed in the fall of Brontitall's civilization and left to rust of nine hundred years; but one of them is pretty much intact and still attached to its supply lines. Listening in on the ship with a makeshift stethoscope they learn that the ship is still under power, and they hear something which horrifies them.

Arthur and the Lintillas are still fleeing from the Footwarriors. For a change, Arthur gets to act like an action hero. He has acquired a zap gun and shoots back at the Footsoldiers to cover their flight. In the middle of this running gun battle, a curious fellow shows up and introduces himself as Poodoo, accompanied by three identical guys named Allitnil and a priest named Vartvar, ("Varntvar"). "He's a priest you see. Does marriages and other things, but mostly marriages..."

Poodoo asks if Arthur would introduce his three friends to the ladies. "We've brought some drinks. We can just have a quiet social get together. And some music of course. Got to have some music."

Arthur does not think this is the time or the place for social interactions, but as soon as the Lintillas meet the Allitnils, they fall deeply in love. Poodoo puts on some romantic music and pours the champagne as Arthur becomes more and more annoyed. "Well, I'll just get on with the shooting and saving everybody's lives then shall I?" he complains bitterly.
POODOO: No kissing now, lovebirds. Very old fashioned sector of the galaxy, this. No kissing allowed without names firmly on the marriage certificates. 
(Burst of disappointment from the six lovers) 
POODOO: Oh, looks like a cue for action from you then doesn't it padre? And I just happen to have the warrants for your marriage, sorry, licences about my person...
Here things happen very quickly. The couples sign the certificates; Poodoo switches the music to the "Wedding March"; The Footsoldiers ask if they can come to the wedding, ("No! Stay Back!" BURST OF GUNFIRE); Varntvar pronounces the three couples man and wife and...

As they kiss, two of the couples unexpected vanish in what the narration calls "a puff of unsmoke" and the remaining Lintilla survives only because Arthur is able to shoot the other Allitnil in time.

The "marriage licenses" are actually 'Agreements to cease to be' drawn up by the lawyers of the cloning machine company; and the Allitnils, (spell it backwards; but you probably figured that out by now) are anticlones sent by the company to wipe out the surplus Lintillas.

Back at the abandoned spaceport, Ford and Zaphod have entered the derelict ship. They find that the passenger compartment is full of passengers in suspended animation. They have been sleeping for the past nine hundred years, except for breaks every decade or so when the ships computer wakes them for coffee and biscuits. The computer does so now, and Ford and Zaphod find themselves surrounded by a pack of frenzied, panicked passengers who are desperately trying to get out. Ford and Zaphod barely escape to the flight deck with their skins intact.

On the flight deck, the ships autopilot coolly requests that they return to their seats. "We're not passengers," Ford says. "Return to your seats."

"What happened on this hell ship?" Ford asks. The autopilot tells them that they are experiencing a slight delay as the ship is waiting for a shipment of lemon-soaked paper napkins to be loaded. Until then the passengers are being kept in suspended animation for their comfort and convenience.

"Have you seen the world outside this ship?" Ford asks. Civilization on the planet has perished. "There are no lemon soaked paper napkins on the way from anywhere." The autopilot's reply is chilling.
AUTOPILOT: The statistical likelihood is that other civilizations will arise. There will one day be lemon soaked paper napkins. Till then, there will be a short delay. Please return to your seats. 
FORD: We are not ... 
AUTOPILOT: Please return to your seats! Return to your seats! Return to your seats! Return to your seats!
The Autopilot's voice becomes impassioned and almost visionary as it speaks about the lemon-scented future. Then, just as suddenly, it becomes cool and mechanical again as it reverts to the public-service message; and then colder and harsher and louder with each repetition. Ford and Zaphod flee from the flight deck and into the ship's cocktail lounge where they meet...
MAN: Zaphod Beeblebrox? ...My names Zarniwoop. You wanted to see me.
When Zaphod was looking for Zarniwoop before, he was told the man was in his office... on an intergalactic cruise. Zarniwoop tells Zaphod that this is correct. He has an artificial pocket universe created in his office. "You've been in it for quite a while now."
ZARNIWOOP: It's modeled very closely on the real one you know, with just a few ... differences. 
ZAPHOD: But when did we get into it man, I mean like, where, when? 
ZARNIWOOP: You didn't notice? Well, (He laughs slightly) I'll let you work it out for yourself.
This is something of a cheat, and I think Adams knew it. Logically, Zaphod should have entered the pocked universe at some point between meeting Roosta at the Guide's offices and his arrival on the Frogstar. This would explain how Zaphod was able to survive the Total Perspective Vortex: In this artificial reality, he really is the most important person in the Universe. But if that were the case, he would have had to exit the pocket universe in order to rescue Ford and Arthur from Earth's prehistoric past and then re-enter it again. Unless the Ford and Arthur who he rescued are also alternates from the artificial universe and the real ones are still stranded in the past.

So by the chronology of the radio series, they must have entered the pocket universe when they arrived on Brontitall. Douglas Adams must have found this dissatisfying too, because when he wrote the novels, he re-arranged events to make a little more sense.

The reason for all this is that years ago Zarniwoop, Zaphod and some others decided to find out who was really ruling the galaxy behind the President's back. Zarniwoop found out where this person was located and retreated to the safety of his pocket universe to hide from the Government. Zaphod's part of the conspiracy was to steal the Infinite Improbability Drive ship which was they only way they could get past the barriers that have been set up around the Ruler of the Universe.

Now that all the pieces are together, Zarniwoop can disassemble his artificial universe, they can pick up Arthur, Marvin and the Lintillas, and they can all fly off in the Heart of Gold. As they do so, the Narration gives us a lovely meditation on the realities of government.
The major problem -- one of the major problems, for there are several -- one of the many major problems with governing people is that of who you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. 
To summarize: It is a well know and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to to it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. 
And so this is the situation we find: a succession of Galactic Presidents who so much enjoy the fun and palaver of being in power that they never really notice that they're not. And somewhere in the shadows behind them -- who? Who can possibly rule if no one who wants to can be allowed to?
The Heart of Gold arrives outside a small shack in the rain on a small, otherwise uninhabited planetoid in the middle of nowhere. An old man lives in the shack with his cat. Or at least the old man imagines that it's a cat. And maybe it is.

"Er, excuse me," Ford asks, "do you rule the Universe?"

"I try not to. Are you wet?"

The old man is remarkably unhelpful, particularly regarding questions about the past. "How can I tell that the past isn't a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensations and my state of mind?" As far as he's concerned, he cannot be sure that anything is real. "For all I know, these people may not exist. You may not exist. I say what it occurs to me to say."

He admits that from time to time men come to his shack and ask him questions about things, which he answers as a purely academic exercise, because to him it's all hypothetical.
The men who come to me, say, so and so wants to declare what we call a war. These are the facts, what do you think? And I say. Sometimes it's a smaller thing. They might say for instance that a man called Zaphod Beeblebrox is President, but he is in financial collusion with a consortium of high powered psychiatrists who want him to order the destruction of a planet called Earth because of some sort of experiment...

Arthur runs off in a rage. Zarniwoop, not caring about Arthur or Earth, tries desperately to pin the Old Man down in a logical debate, but the Old Man's cheery solipsism is impervious; he might as well try arguing with the Old Man's cat.

They hear the sounds of the Heart of Gold taking off. Arthur is leaving Ford and Zaphod behind on the planetoid. "I want you to know that I respect you," Ford says turning to Zaphod. "Just not very much... that's all."

And here the series ends. Adams expected the programme to be extended for a third series, but it didn't happen. Eventually there were additional radio programmes, but these were adaptations of the later novels and pointedly did not pick up from the second radio series. Which perhaps is just as well. I'm not sure how Adams could have resolved that last big plot twist of Zaphod's complicity in planetary genocide.
And so the last episode finishes with a host of unanswered questions, not the least of which is:
Will there ever be another series of that wholely remarkable and mystifying entity The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy? ... Find out if you can!

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 5: The Bird-Men of Brontital

Continuing our look at the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series by Douglas Adams.

Everyone is once again on board the spaceship Heart of Gold. Well, almost everyone. Trillian, as we saw last time, got written out of the story, and the helpful Roosta, after providing some exposition last time, just sort of fell out of the plot. But Ford Prefect Arthur Dent are here, having been rescued from Earth's Prehistoric Past. So is Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has survived his sentence to the Total Perspective Vortex, thus proving that his ego really is as big as the entire Universe. Marvin the Paranoid Android is also here; although he probably wasn't asked if he wanted to come along, no one ever does; and Eddie, the ships excruciatingly chipper computer.

Perhaps now Ford and Arthur can get back to working on research for The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Good luck with that.

Ford and Arthur are chatting in the control room of the Heart of Gold while Zaphod is in his cabin autographing pictures of himself; ('To myself with frank admiration...'). Something is puzzling Ford. What really happened to the Earth? This annoys Arthur, and possibly the audience as well, because Ford was there; he knows bloody well that the Earth was demolished by the Vogons in order to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

But that's the thing. "Nobody makes bypasses anymore." The invention of the Infinite Improbability Drive made "all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace" obsolete. But then why was the Earth destroyed?
Ford only brings this up because he's just noticed that there's been a Vogon fleet following the ship for about half an hour now and he's starting to wonder if there's a connection.

There is. The fleet in question is commanded by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, captain of the constructor fleet which originally destroyed the Earth. I suspect that Douglas Adams was working on the first Hitchhiker novel at the same time as the this part of the radio series, because we are here re-introduced to Vogon Jeltz and the Vogons in general in a word picture that sounds very much like a narrative passage from a book -- and which was re-used in its entirety in the novel itself.

Vogon Jeltz is in contact with another familiar voice, that of Gag Halfrunt, Zaphod's private brain care specialist. Jeltz informs Halfrunt that he has located the ship bearing the Earthman. Halfrunt and a powerful consortium of high-priced psychiatrists were the ones who hired the Vogons to destroy the Earth in the first place. Why? The reason doesn't come up in this conversation, although later on the Narrator suggests that if the Ultimate Question to Life the Universe and Everything is ever found -- and the Earth, we have learned, is actually a massive planet-sized computer designed to calculate just that -- then the Universe might become a good and happy place, putting all the psychiatrists out of business.

Arthur is the last loose end. There must be no survivors.

(Well, Trillian is a survivor of Earth's destruction too, but since she left much earlier, the Vogons presumably aren't aware of her existence).

Gag Halfrunt is troubled to learn that Zaphod Beeblebrox is also on board the Heart of Gold. Zaphod is one of his most profitable clients. "He has personality problems beyond the dreams of analysts." But Halfrunt reconciles this ethical dilemma by trying to collect Zaphod's unpaid bills before ordering the Vogons to attack.

Unaware of this impending danger, Arthur has wandered off to the ship's cafeteria in search of a nice, hot cup of tea. He winds up arguing with the Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser, a machine designed to analyze a person's dietary needs, taste buds and flavor preferences to dispense the perfect beverage, which for unknown reasons always turns out to be almost, but not quite entirely unlike tea. Arthur hurls the cup of non-tea at the machine in disgust.
NUTRIMAT: If you have enjoyed the experience of this drink, why not share it with your friends?ARTHUR: Because I want to keep them. Will you try and comprehend what I'm telling you? That drink...
NUTRIMAT: That drink was individually tailored to meet your personal requirements form nutrition and pleasure.
ARTHUR: Ah. So I'm a masochist on a diet am I?
NUTRIMAT: Share and Enjoy.
The Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser was made by the Sirius Cybernetics corporation, which designed the A.I.'s in the ship's doors, floors and ventilation system; ostensibly to make their user's life better, but they never seem to. Here Adams is sort of the Anti-Hugo Gernsbeck; instead of wondering over the Marvels of the Future, he anticipates that the most incredible achievements of technology will be subject to the same SNAFUs as those of the Present.

"Then why did you create us?" the machines ask Arthur. They were built in order to serve people, albeit badly, but that's not their fault. Arthur didn't ask to have his needs anticipated by a faulty microprocessor; he just want's a cup of tea.

The Nutrimat cannot cannot comprehend this; it is counter to its programming. And when Arthur rhetorically asks if it knows why he likes tea, the machine takes it as a request for information; and, unable to derive an answer, routes the question to Eddie, the ship's annoyingly helpful A.I.

Which is why when, on the bridge, Zaphod orders the ship to activate the Improb Drive to get away from the Vogons, Eddie can't help them.
Sorry guys, I can't do that right now. All my circuits are currently engaged on solving a different problem. Now I know this is very unusual but it is a very difficult and challenging problem, and I know that the result will be one we can all share and enjoy.
Under imminent threat of obliteration by the Vogon fleet, Zaphod decides to hold a seance in order to contact his great-grandfather, Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth.
Yeah, I'm Zaphod Beeblebrox, my father's Zaphod Beeblebrox the Second, my grandfather's Zaphod Beeblebrox the Third ... There was an accident with a contraceptive and a time machine, I can't explain it now.
Great-Grand-dad is not too happy with young Zaphod. "We've been following your progress with considerable despondency," he says, "Not to say contempt." When Zaphod counters that he was President of the Galaxy, Great-Grand-dad is unimpressed.
You and I know what being President means, young Zaphod. You know because you've been it, and I know because I'm dead, and it gives one such a wonderfully uncluttered perspective. We have a saying up here. Life is wasted on the living.
The truth of the matter is, as the Narration explains, that Galactic President is an entirely ceremonial job, the purpose of which is to draw attention away from those who really wield the power -- "and if someone sufficiently vain and stupid is picked he won't realize this" Zaphod was a very good Galactic President.

As he was supposed to. "Zaphod, you became President for a reason. Have you forgotten?"
Yeah, of course I forgot. I had to forget. They screen your brain when you get the job you know. If they'd found my head full of subversion I'd have been right back out on the streets with nothing but a fat pension, secretarial staff, a fleet of ships and a couple of slit throats.
Everything Zaphod has done: getting elected President, stealing the Heart of Gold, searching for Magrathea and his unsuccessful attempt to find Zarniwoop; have all been part of a conspiracy so secret that he had to block the knowledge away from himself and he still doesn't fully realize what he's trying to do.

Great-Grand-dad agrees to help Zaphod, (after liberally dispensing some more abuse). Suddenly, Eddie the Shipboard Computer snaps brightly to life having solved the problem of why Arthur likes tea. "This unearthly voice came and solved my problem for me". Arthur likes tea "Because he's an ignorant monkey who doesn't know better. Cute, Eh?"

The ship improbs out, just in the nick of time; arriving... where?

"We seem to be in some kind of cave, guys," Eddie tells them. "Do you like caves? There's something very strange about this one." It is very cold and very circular and appears to be made of marble. This is because it is not exactly a cave as much as a huge marble statue of a cup, suspended some thirteen miles above the surface of the planet, which is named Brontitall.

In exploring the cave, Zaphod slips and finds himself clinging precariously to the rim, high about the ground. Arthur, who went off a moment earlier, has fallen off too and is now plummeting to the ground much like a rather surprised sperm whale, whose fate he undoubtedly would share if not for fortuitously landing on the back of a large passing bird.

The bird is an angry one, and resents having a passenger land on his back; but learning that Arthur fell out of the cup, swings around to show Arthur the entire statuary piece. "Only decent thing our ancestors ever did," the bird says.

It's a statue of Arthur Dent.

Upon learning that Arthur is the original model for his planet's greatest monument, the bird takes him to the rest of his flock, who are nested in one of the statue's ears. Their leader, the Wise Old Bird tells Arthur of their planet's history and of the two great blights which afflicted their planet. The second of which... they don't talk about; but the first of which was the Blight of the Robots.
ARTHUR: Tried to take over did they?WOB: My dear fellow, no. Much worse than that. They told us they liked us.
In short, the people of Brontitall suffered from the same kind of over-helpful droids that
Arthur found so annoying on the Heart of Gold. Until one night, an improbable warp in reality opened up in the skies and the people saw the image of Arthur Dent arguing with the Nutrimat and throwing his cup at it.
In a moment we realized the truth! Just because the little wretches liked us, it didn't mean to say we had to like them back! And that night we rounded up every last one of the little creeps...
The people of Brontital set the robots to work building the statue of Arthur Dent Throwing the Nutrimatic Cup as an eternal reminder. But by then, the second and more deadly blight was too far advanced and their civilization perished. The Wise Old Bird still refuses to elaborate on what this other blight was, but whatever it was it caused them to desert the planet's surface, evolve into birds, and shake the dust of the earth off their...

"...from our things, our whatchamacallits."

In order to find out what this other blight was, Arthur is directed to go down to the planet's surface.

Ford and Zaphod are on their way to the planet's surface too. At Zaphod's panicked urging, Ford finally tries to pull him up from the mouth of the cup; but they wind up both falling.

"I suppose we couldn't get picked up by a bird on the way down do you think?" Ford asks. Naturally they do.

Arthur arrives at the surface, via an express elevator in the statue's spinal column. Almost as soon as he emerges from between two of the statue's toes, he finds himself under fire from a limping footsoldier with a zap gun. Fortunately, he is pulled to safety by a female archaeologist.

She is on Brontiall to unearth the planet's history, and it has something to do with why those soldiers are limping.

NEXT:  Why are those soldiers limping? What was the the Second Blight which doomed the planet Brontitall? What is the Horrible Secret of the Lintillas and the Mystery of the Spaceport of the Damned. And remember Zarniwoop? All this and an Old Man with a Cat, next time!

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 4: Zaphod's Quest

There is a theory which states that if every anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. 
There is another theory which states that this has already happened. 
There is yet a third theory which suggests that both of the first two theories were concocted by a wily editor of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in order to increase the level of universal uncertainty and paranoia and so boost the sales of the Guide. This last theory is of course the most convincing...

When Douglas Adams began writing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the BBC, he did not expect it to run beyond the six episodes initially required; so he gave the first series a definite ending, with Zaphod, Trillian and Marvin seriously dead and Ford and Arthur stranded in Earth's prehistoric past. Not exactly a "Happily Ever After" situation, but definitely an end.

Then he was approached to write one more episode to air on December 24th. British programmes often do special Christmas episodes; it's the reason why in Doctor Who aliens attack London every Dec. 25th. Adams considered a story in which Marvin, plummeting to earth like a meteorite, is mistaken for the Star of Prophecy by Three Wise Men and there are some Shepherds and a Baby in a Manger and by the time it's all done, Marvin has somehow been cured of his depression.

Geoffey Perkins, who produced the radio series and edited the published transcripts called the idea an appealing one. My own reaction, to quote Marvin himself, is: "Sounds ghastly." Fortunately higher-ups in the BBC thought that doing a story like that on Christmas Eve might be "In slightly poor taste" and the idea was ditched in favor of something that would pick up from the previous series and serve as a bridge to a new one.

As the episode begins, the sub-ether waves are abuzz with reports of the death of Zaphod Beeblebrox. "Yes, the Big Z is now finally Big D-E-A-D." Zaphod, as we recall from last episode, was eaten by a Haggunenon, a hyper-evolutionary creature which had momentarily evolved into a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast.

The news is of great interest to Zaphod himself, who is hitching a ride on a frieghter to Ursa Minor Beta, home of the company which publishes The Hitch-Hiker's Guide, and who remarkably enough is not dead. He explains that after the Haggunenon swallowed him whole, it fortuitously evolved again, this time into a convenient escape pod. "Yeah. I can't help it if I'm lucky."

After escaping from the Haggunenon, he says that he received a psychic message in a dream "from a person I admire, respect and deeply love. ... Me."

This it treated lightly in the radio series, but in the novel we learn that Zaphod has been receiving messages from a section of one of his brains that has been surgically isolated from the rest of his consciousness -- and rather brutally too. And that although he doesn't remember it happening, he did it to himself. These subconscious directives from an isolated portion of his brain are why he stole the spaceship Heart of Gold and went searching for the Lost World of Magrathea and now why he has come to the corporate headquarters of Megadodo Publishing, the offices of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to see a man named Zarniwoop. "When I find him he'd better have one hell of a good reason for me wanting to see him."

The Narration informs us that Trillian and Marvin also escaped from the Haggunenon, but that Trillain was "carried off and forcibly married to the President of the Algolian Chapter of the Galactic Rotary Club". I've always felt this was an unfair way to write the character out of the story, and I've always wondered why Adams did that. Perhaps he didn't know what to do with her. Maybe he thought there was only room for one character who was actually intelligent and Marvin was the more popular one. I don't know. We'll get to Marvin in a moment.

And what of Arthur and Ford? They are stranded two million years in the past on the prehistoric planet Earth with a shipload of useless telephone sanitizers and account executives. Fortunately, the Book tells us, "they have found a way of coping with they're predicament. They are drunk."

As the two of them are sitting around one day, and Ford complains that getting wasted every day isn't getting them anywhere, he suddenly sees a mysterious spaceship hovering in the air. But just as the and Arthur think their troubles are over, it vanishes. Then it reappears again, and vanishes again.
FORD: What is it? Some kind of deputation from Galactic Alcoholics Anonymous?ARTHUR: What do you mean by that?
FORD: Well haven't you noticed? Every time I put down the bottle it appears and every time I pick it up again it disappears! Look! I put it down, there it is, it's back again, I pick it up and poof it's gone. Here, gone, here, gone ... see, it works.
ARTHUR: But that's mad.
FORD: Mad it may be mate, but I tell you one thing, I'm not touching another drop of your filthy elderflower stuff until we're safely out of this solar system.
He reasons that they must be experiencing a time paradox. They are on the verge of two alternate futures. In one, they figure out a way to signal a ship which travels back in time to rescue them; in the other, they just keep getting drunk and ignoring the problem. But how are they to accomplish this?

"I wonder what Roosta would do?" Ford muses. Roosta, he tells Arthur, is a fellow researcher for the Guide. "Great little thinker is Roosta and a great hitcher. He's a guy who really knows where his towel is."

The towel wound up becoming one of the iconic symbols of the series, and going over the script I was surprised that it was introduced this late. In the book version, Adams introduces towels much earlier. As Adams later explained it, the thought came from a holiday he had taken in Greece where every time he wanted to go to the beach, he had trouble finding a bathtowel to bring.
"I realized that my difficulties with my towel were probably symptomatic of the profound disorganization of my whole life, and that it would therefore be fair to say that anybody who was a really together person would be someone who would really know where their towel was."
Or as the Guide puts it, more poetically:
A towel ... is about the most massively useful thing any interstellar Hitch-Hiker can carry. For one thing it has great practical value -- you can wrap it around you for warmth on the cold moons of Jaglan Beta, sunbathe on it on the marble beaches of Santraginus Five, huddle beneath it for protection from the Arcturan Megagnats as you sleep beneath the stars of Kakafoon, use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy river Moth, wet it for use in hand to hand combat, wrap it round your head to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, (which is such a mind bogglingly stupid animal it assumes that if you can't see it, it cant' see you) and even dry yourself off with it if it still seems clean enough.
Meanwhile, two million years in the future, Zaphod has arrived at the entrance lobby of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide offices. The receptionist blandly informs him that Zarniwoop is indeed in his office, but that he's too cool to see anybody. "Mr. Zarniwoop is on an intergalactic cruise ."
ZAPHOD: This cat's on an intergalactic cruise in his office? Listen, three eyes, don't try to outweird me, I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal.RECEPT: Well, just who do you think you are honey, Zaphod Beeblebrox or something?
ZAPHOD: Yeah, count the heads.
One aspect where the movie version of Hitchhiker fell short was it's depiction of Zaphod. Yes, he was portrayed as shallow, immature and egocentric, and Zaphod is all these things; but he is also one cool frood. He is almost as cool as he thinks he is, and that's saying something.

In the lobby, Zaphod is reunited with Marvin, who also escaped the Haggunenons and having survived several adventures "which he has never been able satisfactorily to explain" has turned up on Ursa Minor Beta. At the beginning of the series, you will remember, Adams felt uneasy about using preposterously improbable coincidences and so devised the Infinite Improbability Drive to justify them. By this point he and the audience have gotten so used to it that we blindly accept coincidences that would make even Edgar Rice Burroughs embarrassed.

Zaphod and Marvin barely make it to the fifth floor where Zarniwoop's office is when the building comes under attack by a squadron of Frogstar fighters. "It's your government out to get you, Beeblebrox" says a fellow who turns up unexpectedly and introduces himself as Roosta. Yes, it's Ford's friend Roosta. Leaving Marvin behind to deal with the pursuing combat robot, Zaphod hurries on to keep his appointment with Zarniwoop; but before he and Roosta can get there, the building is ripped off its foundations and carried off into space.

Zaphod is being taken to the Frogstar, the most totally evil place in the Galaxy, where the the most hideous psychic torture known to man is located: The Total Perspective Vortex.

Back in the past, Ford and Arthur still haven't figured out how to signal Schroedinger's Spaceship from the potential future. Arthur suggests waving their towel at it, an idea Ford calls chronologically inept; but since they don't have any other options, they give it a try.

Incredibly, this works. The spaceship lands -- crashes, really, and in doing so, triggers an earthquake which causes a volcano to erupt. While fleeing from the eruption, Arthur drops his towel into a lava flow, where it got fossilized and millions of years later picked up by the Heart of Gold's Infinite Improbability Drive. Which is how Zaphod knows where and when to rescue them.

Yes, the spaceship is the Heart of Gold, which we last left parked on the planet Magrathea, and Zaphod is on board. He looks like hell, and Ford is shocked to learn that he has been through the Total Perspective Vortex.
ZAPHOD: Oh no ... the Vortex was OK, but ... afterwards!FORD: Afterwards? After the Vortex?
ZAPHOD: Well I had to celebrate didn't I? I've been drunk for a week. My heads are killing me.
So what is the Vortex, and how did Zaphod escape it?

It was built by an eccentric dreamer named Trin Tragula, whose wife always nagged him about how much time he spent in pointless research. "Have some sense of proportion," she would frequently tell him.
So he built the Vortex to show her. Based on the idea that every piece of matter in the universe is in some way affected by every other piece, it is theoretically possible to extrapolate the whole cosmos from a very small sample: "say, one small piece of fairy cake." Trin Tragula built a device to do just that; but when he plugged his wife into it, the shock of the experience annihilated her brain; which horrified the inventor, but at least gave him the satisfaction of proving "that if life is going to exist in a Universe this size the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion."

This is the device into which Gargravarr, the Custodian of the Total Perspective Vortex, places Zaphod. And moments later...
ZAPHOD: Hi.GARGRAVARR: (Stunned) Beeeblebrox. You're ...?
ZAPHOD: Fine, fine. Could I have a drink please?
GARGRAVARR: You have been in the Vortex?
ZAPHOD: You saw me, kid.
GARGRAVARR: And you saw the whole infinity of creation?
ZAPHOD: The lot, baby. It's a real neat place, you know that?
GARGRAVARR: And you saw yourself in relation to it all.
ZAPHOD: Yeah, yeah.
GARGRAVARR: And what did you experience?
ZAPHOD: It just told me what I knew all the time. I'm a really great guy. Didn't I tell you baby. I'm Zaphod Beeblebrox.
NEXT: The Vogons return! Arthur Dent versus the Nutrimat Machine; Zaphod Beeblbrox the Fourth; and the Mysteries of the Bird-Men of Brontitall! Keep your towel handy!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 3: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Arthur Dent, befuddled survior of the destruction of the Earth, along with his companions Ford Prefect, (a roving correspondent for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), Trillian, (a nice girl from Earth who isn't particularly interested in Arthur -- and don't get your hopes up, she won't either), and ex-Galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox, ("Vell, Zaphod's just zis guy, you know?"), have discovered that the Planet Earth was actually a massive computer designed to calculate the Ultimate Question to Live the Universe and Everything. (The Answer, we have learned, is "Forty-Two"; we just don't know the Question).

Unfortunately, the Police have just showed up to arrest Zaphod, or at least arrest his charred remains. In the furiously one-sided zap-gun battle which ensues, the computer banks which Arthur and his friends are using as cover begin to overheat and suddenly explode.

Strangely enough, they do not find themselves reduced to their molecular components by the blast. Instead, they are now standing in the middle of a swanky five-star restaurant. As Arthur observes, it's not an Afterlife as much as an apr├Ęs vie. It takes some effort for the snootily imperturbable maitre'd to convince them that they are not dead.

They have, in fact, arrived at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, an eating establishment suspended in a temporal bubble at the End of Existence where time travelers can enjoy fine ultra-cuisine while watching the Universe go "foom."

"But is it good?" Ford wonders skeptically. Zaphod points out that the menu includes Zylbatburger marinated in dodo spit, "a type of meatburger made from the most unpleasant parts of a creature well known for its total lack of pleasant parts."

"So you mean that the Universe does actually end not with a bang but with a Wimpy?" Arthur says, referencing a popular British fast food chain.

As they are getting settled, the waiter informs Zaphod that there is a phone call for him. It's Marvin, whom the group left back on the planet Magrathea. They are actually still on that planet, the restaurant having been built on the ruins of the latter, and Marvin has been waiting for them. "So we traveled in time, but not not in space," Arthur says, for once grasping the obvious. "Your monkey has got it right, sir," the waiter confirms.

They find Marvin in the car park. "What are you doing there?" Zaphod asks. "Parking cars, what else does one do..." Marvin replies. He goes on to explain that the computer panel which exploded was actually a hyperspatial field generator, and that when it overheated " blew a hole through the space time continuum and you dropped through it like a stone through a wet paper bag....  I hate wet paper bags." So while Arthur and his friends plummeted to the end of time, Marvin had to go the long way and wait for them to arrive.
The first ten million years were the worst. And the second ten million, they were the worst too. The third ten million I didn't enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.
Ford and Zaphod admire the classy spaceships in the parking garage. Impulsively, Zpahod decides to steal one, a sleek black mover of a spaceship with a frictionless paint-job. Since they left the last spaceship Zaphod stole, the fabulous Heart of Gold, back in Magrathea's past, they'll need some kind of a ride. Fortunately, Marvin is able to unlock it for them. "Didn't I tell you, I've got a brain the size of a planet? No one ever listens to me of course." Perhaps more relevantly, Marvin has been parking the spaceships, so of course he would have the keys to this one; but that doesn't seem to occur to Zaphod. I guess neither of his brains are as large as Marvin's.

Having successfully skipped out on the restaurant without paying their bill, (or finishing their dinner, alas), Zaphod reminds Arthur of another piece of unfinished business from Magrathea.
Hey look Earthman, you've got a job to do, remember? The question to the Ultimate Answer, right? There's a lot of money tied up in that head thing of yours. I mean, just think of the merchandising ... Ultimate Question Biscuits, Ultimate Question T-shirts.
(Presumably Trillian would also have been a part of the computer program to find the Ultimate Question, but her connection with this is conveniently overlooked.)

Arthur doesn't see how he's supposed to come up with the answer; "It could be anything, I mean, what's six times seven?" Marvin, however, knows.
MARVIN: It's printed in the Earthman's brainwave patterns, but I don't suppose you'll be very interested in knowing that.ARTHUR: You mean you can see into my mind?
MARVIN: It amazes me how you manage to live in anything that small.
Before Marvin can edify his companions, the ship emerges back into normal space at it's pre-programmed destination, which turns out to be at the head of a whole fleet of black battle cruisers. "What do you expect if you steal the flagship of an admiral of the space fleet?" Marvin says.

Here we have another excursion into alternate universes. For some reason, Douglas Adams must have been dissatisfied with this section of the story. He had taken a break after the fourth episode to write the "Pirate Planet" storyline for Doctor Who, but had trouble getting back into Hitchhiker. "My writing muscles were so tired," he later commented, and he was assisted in the last two episodes of the first series by John Lloyd who, according to Adams, helped him think up words like "prehensile", "anaconda", and "ningi". Whether this had anything to do with it or not, when Adams was later scripting the TV series and the novels, he replaced the bit with the space fleet admiral with a different idea. In the later versions, the black spaceship Zaphod steals belongs to an ultra-metal rock band called Disaster Area, and is programmed to fly into a supernova.

In the radio series, the sleek, black ship is the flagship of the Haggunenon star fleet. The Haggunenons are an aggressive, warlike, hyper-evolutionary race which, as the Guide puts it, "would do for Charles Darwin what a squadron of Arcturian stunt apples would have done to Sir Isaac Newton." Instead of slowly evolving over thousands of generations, the Haggunenons are likely to mutate several times over lunch. It is only because the Haggunenons are so changeable that the Fleet's second-in-command, contacting the ship by a viewscreen, fails to realize that Zaphod is not his superior.
TRILLIAN: The second in command assumed that the admiral, Zaphod and I were the same person not because we look similar but because we look completely different.
And this is when the real Haggunenon admiral wakes up. He's been sleeping all this time in the middle of the control room, in the form of the large chair in which Zaphod has been sitting. He now wakes up, and morphs into a simulacrum of the legendary Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. All around them, other pieces of furniture, ashtrays and bric-a-brac begin to stir, awaken and transform into a variety of deadly beasts.
Arthur and his friends flee for the ship's escape pods. It is only after the pod Ford and Arther have taken launches that they look back and see that the other pod bay is vacant. Zaphod, Trillian and Marvin are trapped. Arthur wants to go back and rescue them, but pressing the wrong button, he activates the pod's star drive sending them who knows where.

Arthur can only imagine what is happening to his friends, but the lucky audience gets to hear the three of them being masticated in the malevolent maw of the erzast bugblatter beast.

Ford counsels a pragmatic stoicism:
FORD: Arthur, you'll have to learn, it's a convention in all space travelling species that if you have to ditch someone ... you know, a friend ... there's nothing you can do. You just let it be, you don't talk about them, OK?ARTHUR: What ... Really?
FORD: And then we get blind drunk about them later
The escape pod has arrived in the hold of an enormous spaceship, surrounded by what seem to be thousands upon thousands of sarcophagi. According to the plaques on them, they contain hairdressers and advertising account executives and telephone sanitizers.

Ford and Arthur are quickly seized by the ship's chief of security who takes them to the bridge, where the ship's Captain is enjoying a nice relaxing hot bath. He has been in the bath, we are told, for three years now. "You need to relax a lot in a job like mine," he says. This is undoubtedly a reference to Adams's self-confessed habit of procrastinating by taking baths and making Borvil sandwiches whenever he got writer's block.

The telephone sanitizers in the ship's hold aren't dead, the Captain explains; they're sleeping. The ship is full of millions of hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, management consultants, etc. "We're going to colonize another planet."
Oh, don't misunderstand me, we're just one of the ships in the Ark Fleet, we're the B Ark, you see. ... Yes, so the idea, was that into the first ship, the A ship, would go all the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists, you know, all the achievers, and then into the third ship the C ship would go all the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things, and then into the B ship, that's us, would go everyone else, the middlemen, you see. And we were sent off first.
It seems that their homeworld of Golgafrincham was doomed. "Apparently it was going to crash into the sun. Or was it that the moon was going to crash into us?" Now that he comes to actually tell the story, he's rather vague on why the planet had to be completely evacuated. For that matter, he hasn't heard a peep from the other colony ships which were supposed to be following them either. Funny, that.

The truth of the matter, as the Guide informs us, is that the spurious tales of impending doom were invented by the Golgafrinchams as a pretext to get rid of an entire useless third of their population.
The other two thirds, of course, all stayed at home and led full, rich and happy lives until they were all suddenly wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.
The B Ark, with Ford and Arthur along, crashes into "a small blue green planet circling an unregarded yellow sun at the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the Galaxy." Perceptive listeners, (or those who have listened to the tapes that frequently) will recognize that description from the beginning of episode two.

A year has passed. The Golgafrincham colonists are holding a meeting to discuss how the colonization is progressing. It's the five hundred and seventy-third committee meeting so far, and they still haven't discovered fire yet. They're trying to form focus groups do determine "what people want from fire, how they relate to it..." About the only thing they have done is declared war on the next continent, and decided to adopt leaves as legal tender; which has resulted in everybody becoming immensely rich, but also has resulted in such rampaging hyper-inflation that they are now considering a campaign of massive defoliation to effectively re-value the leaf.

Ford is frustrated by these ninnies. In the past year, he and Arthur have been exploring the planet and have made a tremendous discovery, although it's one the Golgafrinchams will find meaningless. They found Slartibartfast's name carved into a glacier. Arthur and Ford have wound up back on Earth, roughly two million years before the time they started out.

Ford leaves the committee and returns to Arthur who is trying to teach one of the indigenous cavemen of the planet how to play Scrabble. "We've got to encourage them to evolve, Ford. Can you imagine what a world is going to be like that descends from those cretins over there?"

"We don't have to imagine," Ford replies, "let's face it, we already know what it's like, we've seen it, there's no escape. ... The human race is currently sitting round that rock over there making documentaries about themselves."

But this has tremendous implications for the whole Ultimate Question problem. "If the computer matrix was set up to follow the evolution of the human race through the cavemen, and then we've arrived and caused them to die out... then the whole thing is cocked up ..." Whatever Question Marvin found in Arthur's brain wave patterns is likely the wrong one.

Arthur has an inspiration. The caveman, randomly drawing tiles from Arthur's Scrabble bag, has spelled out the word "forty-two". Arthur guesses that introducing a random element -- like pulling tiles out of the bag -- that can be shaped by the pattern in his brain, might be able to determine that Question.

"It might be right, but it's probably wrong," Ford says. Still it's worth a try. Arthur pulls out the tiles, one by one and Ford spells out what they say:
"What do you get if you multiply six by ... nine."
"I always said there was something fundamentally wrong with the Universe," Arthur says.

Many fans have observed that "6 x 9" does equal "42" if the equation is written in base thirteen, which as a friend of mine once observed means that the Universe is basically unlucky.

This is the point where the series was to have ended; with Ford and Arthur stranded in Earth's prehistoric past, and the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong crooning "What a Wonderful World" in the audio equivalent of a camera pulling away from the characters and leaving them in the distance.

Except that it didn't.

NEXT: Zaphod's Quest; a deputation from Galactic Alcoholics Anonymous; The Hitchhiker Offices under attack and The Most Evil Place in the Universe.