I just finished watching the latest take on Douglas Adams’ lesser-known series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. I’ve always loved the books, so I was excited to see that they were putting some budget behind this one. However it didn’t come out immediately on Netflix or Amazon Prime, so I more or less ignored it.1 Apparently I wasn’t alone. The series was cancelled after only two seasons, which apparently angered some people, but struck me as the right move. Let’s talk about why.
A Universe in Need of a Reason
The latest take on Dirk Gently feels like someone created a comic book-esque universe and needed a way to get it on the air. They had some very compelling characters. The Rowdy 3, for example, a four member ensemble of energy vampire punks. 2 Todd and his sister Amanda provide both an everyman in the form of Todd and an enthusiastic novice to the weird world in the form of Amanda. Bart, the holistic assassin, who kills people who need to die, is an interesting concept and a good compliment to the TV version of Dirk, the holistic detective, who seeks to solve crimes that need to be solved.
Not all the characters are great, of course. Alan Tudyk plays a character they call “Mr. Priest” but I called “Mr. Cliche”. Everything he says has been said by a dozen other man hunter characters. There’s a shapeshifter who speaks in a creepy little girl voice but is nice! Also there’s a guy from the Big Bad Organization who is possibly illiterate? But even if he can read he’s very stupid and looks like Vanilla Ice.
Anyway, I could have handled these characters If they had created this show centered around Amanda instead of Todd, If they had invented a new character instead of naming one Dirk Gently, I probably would have liked it better.
But it feels like Dirk was dropped into this world with little understanding of his character beyond “he seeks to solve crimes using the interconnectedness of all things.”
Yes, We See You Are a Fan.
The show goes out of its way to demonstrate their Douglas Adams fan credentials, mostly by referencing Hitchhiker’s Guide. Just a sample:
- One of the characters wears a letterman’s jacket from “D Adams” high school with the number 42 on the arm.
- There’s a dog named Agrajag, the character that Arthur Dent keeps killing on accident.
- Dirk quite clearly says “DON’T PANIC” to himself at one point.
- In a rare nod to the Dirk Gently books, Dirk mentions knowing Thor.
- Another nod to the actual source: characters call Dirk Svlad a couple of times, his original name.
Dear the writers: We see you. Yep! you’re fans of Douglas Adams! Thanks! Good to know.
But if you’re a fan, why did you ignore the books?
My main complaint with the new series is that it completely ignores who Dirk actually is in the original series. Dirk might have supernatural powers, but he denies it, and in fact works hard to fight it. He talks a big game about the interconnectedness of all things, but when he’s alone, in the middle of the night, just looking for a cigarette, that’s all he’s doing. Yes, he still ends up in the right place, but at his core, Dirk doesn’t believe his powers are real.
In the television series, not only does Dirk believe in his powers, but Frodo, excuse me, Todd, ends up basically being Dirk’s first apostle. The shadowy bad buy organization has a whole collection of these special people, like a more evil X-Men. Dirk (and Bart) keep saying things like “It doesn’t work that way,” whereas the original Dirk Gently would vehemently deny that there was any “it” that worked in any way. Making Dirk actually special made him less interesting.
Where Dirk Came From
Admittedly, Adams’ works have a history of being changed and warped over time. The entire history of Dirk Gently reflects that:
The original Dirk Gently was created out of a script for Doctor Who that never aired. The original story is called Shada and if you want to experience a good rendition of one of Adams’ old scripts read Gareth Roberts’ novelization of that story. It’s excellent.
Douglas Adams took Shada filed off all references to Time Lords or TARDISes or Gallifrey, created Dirk Gently by crossing the Fourth Doctor with Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a character created by P.G. Wodehouse.3, And magic was born. This isn’t the first nor the last time Adams would plunder his own works; the second Dirk Gently novel The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, got its title from a line in the Hitchhiker’s series, and its plot from a party in the same series. Going the other direction, the plot of one of the Hitchhiker’s books stems from yet another unaired Doctor Who script Adams wrote called Doctor Who and the Krikketmen .
My point is this:
The BBC is very good at making word-for-word adaptations of great books. They’ve made a number of shows based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, they’ve remade Pride and Prejudice more times than anyone can count, and they’ve always stayed true to the source material. I want the same treatment for Dirk Gently.
One thing you should have noticed winding through that history is that Douglas Adams was a screenwriter, and a very good one at that. The Dirk Gently novels are already screenplays. It would take very little work to bring the original Dirk to screen, and 80’s retro is in right now. Show us Dirk in all his disgraced glory, unsure of himself, bombastic and worried, wearing a stupid red hat. Show us his battles with his cleaning lady and his fridge.
Let us see Dirk the way Douglas first wrote him, working the cases Douglas gave him.
- After all, this isn’t the first time someone tried to bring Dirk to the small screen. In 2010 BBC Four made a show just called Dirk Gently that only made it four episodes before being scrapped. ↩
- They may have been an oblique reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy that eventually ends up with six books still gets called a trilogy because it’s funnier that way. ↩
- I can’t prove that, but Adams was very forthcoming about his love of P.G. Wodehouse and….look, read the Dirk Gently books, then read an Ukridge story and tell me they aren’t related.). ↩