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.

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