Much like the cosmos it describes and satirises, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’sUniverse can be a confusing place. The original adventures of Arthur Dent began life as a hugely successful radio series back in the late 70s. The early 80s saw the Secondary Phase splash down on BBC Radio 4 and, shortly after, the TV show faithfully re-enacted the first radio series (using most of the original cast, and special effects so poor, even Doctor Who could look down his nose and sneer in supremacy). In the meantime, Adams bulked out the stories to the first two radio plays, turning them into novels, and carried on writing, eventually concluding the chronicles of Dent with a “trilogy” of five books.

An orbit of five novels, two radio plays and a TV series is how the Hitchhiker’ssolar system remained until Adams’ untimely death in 2001. The irony probably wouldn’t have escaped him that the motion picture and final radio shows, languishing in development hell for almost twenty years, were suddenly able to come into fruition with his passing. Like intergalactic buses, you wait twenty years and four Hitchhiker’s projects come along at once.

So, after an excellent start (the Tertiary Phase: Life, The Universe and Everything radio dramatisation which arrived last September) and a slightly shaky middle (April’s Hitchhiker’s movie) comes the Quandry Phase, an adaptation of the fourth novel So Long and Thanks For All the Fish. This series has been adapted for radio to play back to back with the Quintessential Phase, the fifth and final book Mostly Harmless, and so allow the Hitchhiker’s Guide to come full circle and conclude where it all began.

The Quandry Phase opens with the miraculous reappearance of the planet Earth, and the discovery by those previously concerned with its destruction that it has inextricably returned. Arthur Dent (Simon Jones, returning to the role he was born to play), now a seasoned galactic hitchhiker, returns home to find the Earth almost exactly (but not quite) as he left it. He gets more than he bargained for when he encounters Fenchurch (Jane Horrocks), a woman with a very peculiar orthopaedic problem who he immediately falls in love with. She also recognises that something is amiss with the world and together they set about trying to find out what is wrong, a voyage of discovery which may also help to explain the disappearance of the Dolphins and their eponymous final message to mankind.

Meanwhile, the Vogons, undisputed (and disgusting) kings of bureaucracy, frustrated at Earth’s return (without the necessary orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, etc.) are determined to destroy it a second time and restore equilibrium to the hyperspace by-pass system.

Ford Prefect (the ever reliable Geoffrey McGivern) is likewise fascinated to find that the Earth has returned (and thus his entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide restored and indeed extended beyond Mostly harmless). Making his way back across space, he also has an interesting revelation that may unsettle Arthur.

Last year’s Tertiary Phase: Life, The Universe and Everything was a tough act to follow. It was a rip-roaring adventure that saw Arthur Dent and co travel across space and time in the hope of saving the Universe from the sociopathic peoples of Kricket. It was a thoroughly entertaining story, as at home on radio as it was on the page (not to mention perfect fodder for a better-than-the-original sequel to the Hitchhikers movie).

It is a tribute to the quality of the writing and acting talent that So Long and Thanks For All the Fish is able to be an engaging, if a little less exciting, follow up to Tertiary. The first two episodes are a little disparate as the characters are reintroduced and lengthy scenes of exposition played out in order to establish the plot. It is worth remembering that Director Dirk Maggs has adapted books four and five to be a single back-to-back, eight-episode story, instead of two separate tales as with the novels. In which case these lengthy periods are probably forgivable (I say probably as I can’t judge how they will stand up alongside the Quintessential Phase and story as a whole). However, the final two episodes really are familiarly amusing territory. There are less plot strands and witty anecdotes from the Hitchhiker’s book itself (played marvellously by William Franklyn) but by the time Arthur and Fenchurch are consummating their affections two thousand feet above London on the Heathrow Flight path, you’ll remember why you’re a fan of the radio series in the first place and you’ll be whisked along nicely toward the open ended conclusion.

As mentioned above, the cast really sparkles in this production. It’s clear that all concerned are thoroughly enjoying themselves. There is no question, Simon Jones is Arthur Dent. His timing is impeccable and you can be genuinely absorbed by the story because his character’s reactions seem so naturalistic to any given scenario (as fantastical as they may be). Likewise, Geoffrey McGivern as Ford hits the comedy nail square on the head, metaphorically chewing scenery along the way. The generous helping of celebrity bit part players, which had the potential to turn into a self-congratulatory back slapping fest, can’t detract from the fun. An honourable mention here to Christian Slater who handles his material like an old pro.

Technically too, things have moved on a long way from the original radio series. The sound effects department does a great job in creating otherworldly yet believable aurals. They also give Quandry a sense of belonging to the Hitchhiker’s Universe as a whole and include some of the old retro bleepy and twinkly noises from the original series which I’m sure, even at the time, must have sounded, well, crap (I can’t say for sure as I wasn’t born when it was first broadcast).

Outside of the time constraints of the Radio 4 schedule, 25 minutes of additional material and extended scenes have been included on the Quandry Phase CD. Although they add little to the story itself, they represent the icing on the cake of what really is a very attractive four hours of radio entertainment. And I’m able to say this without even hearing how the Quintessential Phase will conclude the story.

As a fan, it is notoriously hard to be objective about these things, and to the uninitiated hitchhiker, So Long and Thanks For All the Fish may prove a little hard to swallow. For starters, it’s nothing like the film. Secondly, it’s similar to the Secondary Phase (the Hitchhiker’s series “difficult child”) in that all its elements don’t gel as well as the previous efforts. Therefore, I would recommend you seek out the original radio series, which is by far the best of the “trilogy”, before trying this one out. That should do the trick in making you a fan and by then you’ll probably seek out Quandry of your own accord, requiring little encouragement from me. Thus this review will be rendered completely redundant. Sorry for the inconvenience. I shall now disappear in a puff of logic.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Quandry Phase: So Long and Thanks for all the Fish (2005)
Dir. Dirk Maggs
Stars: Simon Jones, Geoffrey McGivern, Jane Horrocks, William Franklyn
Genre: Sci-fi Comedy

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