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H2G2 @ 42 – Infinite Improbability: A Guide To The Unseen (& Unheard) Hitchhiker’s Guides

One of the most notable features of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series is his concept of ‘Plural Zones’: these are basically the notion of what would now be called a ‘multiverse’, years before either Marvel or DC had popularised the idea through their output. Adams had posited that Earth existed in an area of space where there was an inherent instability, and people and planets in such areas could phase between different dimensions.

As a result, it means there’s a potentially infinite number of alternative realities, all varying in different ways from each other. It’s certainly one way of trying to reconcile all of the varied and equally conflicting versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, be they the radio series, the novels, the TV series, the film, the computer game, etc. But for all those different iterations we’re familiar with, there are others which are far less well known.

Here, we’re going to take a brief guided tour through some of the Hitchhiker’s Guide variants which never came to be, starting with where it all began.

The Radio Series

It was so very nearly ‘The Ends Of The Earth’, an anthology comedy series where every episode ended with the planet getting destroyed in a variety of different ways. However, once Douglas Adams realised there was some mileage in the first episode’s concept – where Earth gets demolished for a hyperspace bypass – it was time to work on the format and the characters.

Step forward, Ford L. Prefect and Aleric B. Or, as you know them, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent.

In the original pitch document, Ford had added the ‘L.’ in order to try and make up for his mistake in believing the name he’d picked to be nicely inconspicuous. Aleric B, on the other hand, seems to have been specifically chosen by Douglas Adams to fool the listeners into thinking this was the alien, because of the rather unusual and otherworldly designation, rather than Ford.

Trillian (or Tricia McMillan) could have been either Smoodle or Goophic, and at one early stage of Hitchhiker’s Guide’s development, was even planned to be a man: the character was going to be another survivor from the destroyed Earth, and would have been someone with whom Arthur could talk about normal human things, while all the space stuff was going on, so that the listening audience would have some common frame of reference.

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Trillian (or Smoodle, or Goophic) was originally to have kept gerbils, until it was changed to white mice (it seems Trillian was based on an ex-girlfriend of Adams, who not only had a similar description, but also kept gerbils). Marvin was very nearly Marshall the Paranoid Android (with Adams naming him after his fellow comedy writer Andrew Marshall), until producer Geoffrey Perkins had it amended, to remove any military overtones.

And Slartibartfast was nearly Maviviv. Or, apocryphally, the more than mildly obscene Phartiphukborlz.

Zaphod was still a hoopy frood dude, but was also intended as a grifter, who had originally stopped off on Earth before its destruction in order to pick up the full recorded works of The Beatles; once the planet had bit the dust, thanks to the Vogon Constructor Fleet, Zaphod was going to sell bootlegs of the now copyright-free music to the whole of the Galaxy. In our reality, it was probably a non-starter when it came to getting clearance and paying the requisite fees to use their music in the programme.

Oh, and one of his heads was going to speak French.

The whole backstory would’ve been markedly different from what we actually ended up with. Hitchhiker’s Guide would have been framed by an intergalactic conflict between two opposing powers: ‘Mrs Rogers’, a super computer described in terms of being a combination of Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher; and The Naughty One, which appears to be an incredible intelligence stuck in the form of a Chinese meal, sitting in state on an asteroid.

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It also appears that the initial idea would be less to have a continuing story arc, and more standalone adventures. One mooted storyline had Ford and Arthur being shrunk down – à la Fantastic Voyage – by a rich alien, so that they can protect the food he eats as it passes through his digestive system from an internal war which is raging inside him. It would have been one of a number of odd jobs they’d take in order to earn their passage around the Galaxy.

In another, they would come across a race of alien dentists who were in exile from their home world, for having radical ideas about oral hygiene. A further story would have seen the duo ending up on a parallel Earth, where first contact with alien life was about to occur; these extraterrestrials were actually there to see the dolphins, who were declared to be a higher form of life than humans.

Adams went through great swathes of material, much of which went unused in any version of the story told in any medium. For example, one discarded idea was to have the headquarters of the Guide involved in a terror attack, which ended up turning into a major PR coup for them. In another, Adams coined the notion of the Wisheteria, which was to be a self-service café unlike any other, as whatever food you wished for from the menu would appear.

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When the first series (or Primary Phase) proved to be such a success, it was decided that Hitchhiker’s Guide would get a Christmas episode for 1978, following in the best traditions of BBC series. One idea was to have Marvin falling through the atmosphere of Earth in Biblical times, appearing to be the star which guided everyone to the Manger, into which he promptly crashes. Baby Jesus would then cure Marvin’s depression, at which point the robot would lead everyone in an uncharacteristically rousing singalong.

In trying to devise a way to rescue Ford and Arthur from Earth’s prehistory, Adams considered starting an episode with it being told from the perspective of a Victorian girl, whose grandfather had invented a time machine. Having agreed to try it out – not thinking for a moment it might work – she ends up back in the time of cavemen, as well as Arthur and Ford, with the latter seeing it as a possible way out.

When it was first mooted about doing a Tertiary Phase in 1993, Douglas Adams was too busy to write it himself, so producer Dirk Maggs picked an experienced radio writer, Alick Rowe, to adapt Life, The Universe And Everything. Adams was less than impressed to find Rowe’s attempt at a first episode had a talking dinosaur, something definitely not in the book. As a result, Adams had a crack at the first episode himself, but the project ultimately stalled until it resumed a decade later.

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The Television Series

It was never the intention to end Hitchhiker’s Guide on television with Ford and Arthur stranded on prehistoric Earth with the useless middle section of Golgafrincham society. It was planned for there to be a second series, so Adams was tasked with coming up with a storyline, with the intention that production would start later in Spring 1981, complete with a budget twice the size of the first season, according to the BBC.

At one stage, Ford and Arthur would have come across a pair of aliens, Adman and Eve, who were an advertising executive and his secretary. The duo would encounter a robotic advertising snake, which had the ability of being able to spontaneously sell anything to anyone. All of this would take place in, essentially, the Garden of Eden. One other character Adams had created was The Consultant, who’s been left in charge of things by God.

Adams also wrote a list of ideas or concepts he might want to explore in this mooted second series, and pages of script by Adams detailing the opening of the first episode for this sophomore year actually exist; these pages were uncovered by Adams and Hitchhiker’s Guide biographer Jem Roberts while researching his book The Frood, and he enacted them with radio Hitchhiker’s Guide actor Toby Longworth as part of 2014’s Chortle Book Festival.

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Essentially, though, the goal was to get Ford and Arthur from Earth’s past, and into the present day, with Adams having the duo happen across a random doorway in a field, containing a staircase and lift which would take them back and forward in time. This, it seems, would be the MacGuffin which would take Ford and Arthur to the middle of a Test Match in Australia, and it would enable Adams to adapt his unused Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen script.

Sadly, the sticking point seems to have been Adams’ noted unhappiness with producer and director of the first season, Alan J.W. Bell. He thought that Bell shouldn’t produce the season, and insisted on Geoffrey Perkins taking over that role, as Perkins could help with writing the scripts, as well as having produced the radio shows; Adams reportedly even went as far as presenting the BBC with fifty reasons why he didn’t want Bell to produce the new season.

Alas, things came to an impasse, and the whole project fell apart, with the BBC being adamant that Bell should carry on as both director and producer, putting Adams’ nose firmly out of joint. The deadline for submitting scripts approached, with filming dates penned in, but Adams failed to deliver, so that was that. Adams recycled the already recycled plot for Life, The Universe And Everything, so Ford and Arthur got to that Test Match in one medium, anyway.

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Except, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. By 1984, Perkins – along with fellow Adams collaborator, and now known as supremo of Q.I., John Lloyd – had moved to ITV to work on Spitting Image. The duo made overtures about reverse-engineering Life, The Universe And Everything from a book back to a TV series; however, it appears the rights to Hitchhiker’s Guide were tied up by a movie deal which had been struck in the meantime.

Before all this kerfuffle about the second series, however, America had been sniffing round with a view to making their own adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide for TV. ABC worked on a pilot script without any input from Adams, who hated what was written. After execs quibbling about the colour of aliens, the project was shelved when the 22-minute pilot as budgeted at some $2.2 million, which was prohibitively expensive.

However, things appear to have come full circle, as it was announced in July 2019 a Hitchhiker’s Guide TV series is being made by Hulu, an American streaming service which is majority-owned by Walt Disney (who also now own ABC). Carlton Cuse (former joint showrunner on Lost) and writer Jason Fuchs are working on a new adaptation, which is due to start production in Summer 2020 at Elstree Studios, for a launch in 2021.

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The Movie

For almost as long as there’s been the Hitchhiker’s Guide, there’s been a drive to put it on the big screen. In 1979, Adams was offered $50,000 for the movie rights to his creation, but alarm bells started ringing when the phrase Star Wars with jokes” was used. A separate offer was made by someone else, which Adams accepted, but then changed his mind, only to later find the cheque hadn’t in fact been returned, which led to a sizeable payoff down the line for him to regain the rights.

In the early 1980s, The ex-Monty Python’s Flying Circus member Terry Jones approached Adams about a possible collaboration on a Hitchhiker’s Guide movie. However, it ultimately went nowhere after issues with breaking down the story into a cinematic format, but they still ended up working together later when Jones wrote a tie-in novel for Adams’ computer game Starship Titanic. Terry Gilliam also expressed interest in a Hitchhiker’s Guide film, but nothing was ever seriously discussed.

The first serious overtures came in 1982, when Joe Medjuck, Michael Gross and director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) acquired the rights, with a view to doing it as an animated feature, only for Adams to insist it was to be a live action movie. Adams produced three drafts, none of which found favour with the producers or director, as they felt there to be some structural issues with making the story work as a self-contained movie.

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Nonetheless, development work continued on the film, with Adams agreeing to let Ford be played by an American actor. Reitman had Dan Ackroyd in mind for the role, while eyeing up Bill Murray as a possible Zaphod. During the discussions about the part, Ackroyd sent Reitman a script he’d written: Ghostbusters. And that’s how Ivan Reitman ended up with that movie being Columbia Pictures’ big summer release for 1984, rather than Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Reitman still didn’t give up on the project, however, and he tried to get David Cronenberg signed up as director at one point, with a view to getting it out for 1984. By 1986, a writer called Abbie Bernstein was hired to produce a draft, working from the material Adams had already produced. It wasn’t, however, well received by Adams when he got to see it himself, describing it as being the worst script he’d ever read.

Apart from changes like Ford saying he was from Astbury Park, New Jersey, rather than Guildford, the middle section of the script is maybe the biggest alteration, as it saw the starship Heart of Gold take a trip to Ursa Minor Beta, where the Guide’s publishers are based, as Ford wants to submit his entry on the (now-destroyed) Earth. Along the way, he hooks up with an ex, who now happens to be the editor of the Guide.

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Zaphod, meanwhile, ends up finding a clue as to the actual location of the mythical planet of Magrathea, while Arthur gets himself into a bit of a pickle with Ursa Minor’s Police, which leads to him to getting arrested, and then having to navigate the planet’s tortuous legal system. Ford, Zaphod and Trillian team up to free Arthur, and off they all head to Magrathea.

By 1987, David Puttnam was briefly linked to the movie, but it ended up being kicked into the long grass for a number of years. In 1993, Adams struck up a deal with Columbia so he could buy back the movie rights and then start trying to get fresh interest in the idea. Earthmen might never invite their ancestors round for dinner, but Douglas Adams had become acquainted with Monkees. Well, one, to be precise: Michael Nesmith.

With a mother who’d come up with Liquid Paper, Nesmith himself went on to basically invent a prototype version of MTV, from which the channel was directly developed. He’d also moved into movie production, and so he teamed up with Adams to try and get a Hitchhiker’s Guide film into cinemas. It was planned to be filmed in IMAX, but the whole thing ran eventually aground in 1996 with no backing being forthcoming.

Then, just as the concept of Hitchhiker’s Guide on the big screen seemed to be a non-starter, along came Disney and director of Austin Powers, Jay Roach. But that’s a story for another time…

Check out the rest of our H2G2 @ 42 coverage!

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