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!

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