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H2G2 @ 42 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Gallifrey: Douglas Adams & Doctor Who

“Q: What is the point of Doctor Who?

A: The whole point of Doctor Who is that, if you take the second letter of each of the fifty-ninth words of all the episodes over the last twenty years of broadcast and run them together backwards, the original location of the lost city of Atlantis is revealed. I hope this answers your question.”

From Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Neil Gaiman

Years before he’d even thought about galactic hitchhikers and their travelling needs, Douglas Noel Adams was solidly steeping himself in science fiction adventures, courtesy of Dan Dare in the boys’ comic Eagle (in which, at the age of 12, he had a very short story printed). Latterly, he became an avid viewer of a new Saturday teatime sci-fi serial on the BBC, little knowing their paths would cross in a professional capacity over a decade later.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy wasn’t Douglas Adams’ first foray into writing science fiction. After co-writing a comedy pilot, Out Of The Trees, with former Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe member Graham Chapman, the pair were commissioned by Ringo Starr to write a pilot for a new American TV show starring him. What they came up with – Our Show For Ringo Starr – was an hour-long SF comedy.

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The script, signed “by Nemona Lethbridge and Vera Hunt”, was to showcase Starr as a chauffeur who carried his boss around piggyback-style, before being mistaken by a robot from a flying saucer for his intergalactic counterpart, Rinog Trars. The robot gives Starr powers which include the ability to travel in time and space, as well as being able to destroy the universe with a wave of his hand. Needless to say, the pilot script wasn’t well received.

However, Adams being a great one to recycle unused ideas, he took some material from the unmade pilot script which was ultimately repurposed by him as the Golgafrincham B Ark sequence in Hitchhiker’s Guide. This idea was itself taken from an even earlier rejected script, one which he had submitted to the Doctor Who production office way back in 1974, whilst he was still studying at Cambridge University.

The story was all about a huge ark in space, filled with the useless segment of a planet’s population who were fleeing from a galactic calamity. Alas, the concept happened to be too similar to a story which was already in production for transmission the following year, called ‘The Ark In Space’, and so it all came to naught. But Adams wasn’t one to give up, and some two years later, he came to pitch another idea to the series he’d watched while growing up.

An unsolicited spec script from Adams turned up one day in 1976 on the desk of script editor Robert Holmes, and while the story wasn’t felt by the show’s producer at the time to be suitable, Holmes encouraged Adams to send in more ideas. The initial pitch nearly ended up a few years later becoming the third ever Doctor Who movie, before it was eventually reused as the basis of the third Hitchhiker’s Guide book, Life, The Universe And Everything.

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The script, entitled ‘The Krikkitmen’, was about a race of highly xenophobic aliens with deadly robot warriors, after whose distinctive appearance the Earth game of Cricket was fashioned, in an appalling example of cosmic poor taste by humanity. While the TV pitch had been rebuffed, Adams revisited the idea the following year, and he tried to pitch ‘Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen’ as a potential film idea instead.

Adams later became acquainted with movie producer Brian Eastman, who he got interested in making a Doctor Who movie. This ultimately led to a meeting in London in 1980 between Eastman and a Paramount Pictures executive by the name of Jeffrey Katzenberg. Adams and Eastman had Tom Baker in mind to play the Doctor on the big screen (Baker had himself been pitching his own movie idea, later novelised in 2019).

Despite a positive reception to the idea, the movie failed to materialise, which in a way was lucky for Adams, as he had signed a contract in July 1981 for a third Hitchhiker’s Guide novel, and he needed a plot. However, even this wasn’t to be the final end of ‘Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen’, and an adaption of the story was published in January 2018 as a full length novel by James Goss (who later worked with Tom Baker to turn his unmade movie script into a book).

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This wasn’t to be Adams’ only brush with the show, as he sent a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series pilot to the Doctor Who production office, and on the strength of that he received his very first commission to write for the programme, in the shape of a four-part story entitled ‘The Pirate Planet’. Around the same time, Hitchhiker’s Guide was picked up for a full run, so the deadline-averse Adams ended up writing both projects concurrently.

’The Pirate Planet’ has its fair share of Hitchhiker’s Guide references, intentional or otherwise. For example, there’s a planet called Bandraginus V, which is remarkably similar to the name of Santraginus V, which is a world on which one of the main ingredients of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster can be found. The Doctor also tells a character “Don’t panic” at one point in the story.

The Doctor’s line “I’ll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again” was rewritten for Hitchhiker’s Guide as Arthur’s reaction of going into hyperspace for the first time. Another bit of the Doctor’s dialogue – “Standing around all day looking tough must be very wearing on the nerves” – was given wholesale to Ford Prefect when speaking to the Vogon Guard.

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The latter part of 1978 was to ultimately become one of the busiest periods of Adams’ professional life, as he ended up being recommended to take over in the post of script editor on Doctor Who by the post’s incumbent. It was to coincide with working on the second series of Hitchhiker’s Guide for radio, as well as writing the first Hitchhiker’s Guide novel, after signing a contract with Pan Books.

Adams rewrote significant portions of Season 17’s opening tale, ‘Destiny Of The Daleks’, by Dalek creator Terry Nation, including adding a humorous regeneration scene for a Time Lady companion Romana. In fact, Adams’ signature sense of humour loomed large in the whole season, including in this story – Adams had a trapped Doctor read a book, ‘Origins Of The Universe’ by Oolon Colluphid, who was also name-checked in Hitchhiker’s Guide.

He was to co-write the next story – ‘City Of Death’ – with series producer Graham Williams after the original script fell through at short notice, due to the writer going through severe marital difficulties. The story was due to be filmed on location in Paris, so with travel dates looming, Williams took Adams to his house and locked the pair in, where they frantically rewrote the story over three days, putting it out under the BBC pseudonym ‘David Agnew’, in order to cover up its true writers’ identities for reasons of internal politics.

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Part of the plot – an alien inadvertently creating all life on Earth after an accident with his crashed spaceship – was reused in Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. ‘City Of Death’ is generally regarded as being one of Doctor Who’s all-time classics, and is also the highest-rated story of the show’s original 26-year run, peaking at 16.1 million viewers (helped, no doubt, by ITV being off air due to lengthy industrial action).

Adams’ final contribution to the series, before also leaving as script editor at the end of Season 17 – due in part to the growing demands of Hitchhiker’s Guide – was ‘Shada’, a six episode tale which became infamous in its own way as being an unfinished story, due to a strike at the BBC halting production. When the strike came to an end, studio space at the BBC was prioritised for higher-profile shows, and ones which needed to be ready for Christmas 1979.

Despite all best efforts, it was never possible to remount the story and finish production, and it was formally axed in the middle of 1980, with all footage being archived. Clips from location filming were later used in 1983’s 20th anniversary special ‘The Five Doctors’ in order to represent the Fourth Doctor, after Tom Baker declined the invitation to return to the programme.

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’Shada’ refused to die, however, and in the following years it was to be adapted as an audio by Big Finish Productions starring Paul McGann; novelised by Gareth Roberts; put out on VHS with linking sequences narrated by Tom Baker to fill in the gaps; and finally released on DVD and Blu-ray with animation used in place of the unfilmed sequences, with the surviving original actors returning almost 40 years later to provide the audio track.

Never one to let a good idea go to waste, Adams took both the character of Professor Chronotis – a retired traveller in time – and the setting of St. Cedd’s College, Cambridge, for use in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. But as far as Doctor Who was concerned for Adams, it was a case of so long, and thanks for all the scripts. He was to move on to other things, like not meeting deadlines, and repeatedly not getting a Hitchhiker’s Guide movie made.

But despite leaving the programme, it wasn’t to be the end of Adams’ connection with Doctor Who, as the soon-to-be current incarnation, Peter Davison, was to play the Dish of the Day in the 1981 TV adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide. In addition, when the famous title sequence was put together by Doug Burd, it had to be partially redone as Burd had used the Doctor Who ‘time tunnel’ effect to represent what the astronaut was flying through before finally emerging from the Hitchhiker’s Guide logo.

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There were to be yet further links between the two over the coming years. Adams had once pitched a story called ‘The Doctor Retires’, over which he dug in his heels, thinking the producer would relent at the last minute, and allow it to go into production. Sadly, it proved not to be the case, which resulted in Adams having them hurriedly write ‘Shada’ as a replacement. However, Steven Moffat used that very idea for his 2012 Christmas special, ‘The Snowmen’.

In Russell T. Davies’ 2005 festive episode, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, the newly-regenerated Doctor saved the day in just pyjamas and a dressing gown, and referenced Arthur Dent, as though he were a real person. Big Finish even got in on the act in their 2003 audio ‘The Wormery’, in which the Doctor uses the “ask a glass of water” joke about being drunk from Hitchhiker’s Guide, and attributes it to “my old friend Douglas”.

Another occasion where Hitchhiker’s Guide was referenced in Doctor Who was in 1989’s story ‘Ghost Light’, where the Doctor posed the question “Who was it said Earthmen never invite their ancestors round to dinner?”. One of Adams’ alien races, the Hooloovoo, was also mentioned by the Doctor in 2013’s story ‘The Rings Of Akhaten’, although they didn’t actually resemble the hyper intelligent shade of the colour blue Adams had depicted.

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Shortly before his untimely death in 2001, it was rumoured that Adams had been speaking to the BBC about something to do with Doctor Who. Speculation was rife that this could either be for a new TV series, or even a film; however, in all likelihood, it could have been about possibly novelising his stories from the 1970s. The man who did revive the show, Russell T. Davies, wrote the foreword for the 2009 reprint of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, providing yet another tie-in between Adams and the Doctor.

It’s tempting to think what Adams writing for the modern Doctor Who would have been like, with a loud wheezing, groaning sound emanating from the showrunner, not the TARDIS, as they waited for him to turn in a script, while yet another deadline whooshed by.

Check out the rest of our H2G2 @ 42 coverage, with more coming soon!

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