The Holistic Approach: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

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If Douglas Adams hadn’t passed away at the tragically young age of 48, the chances are that we’d have seen a great many more new creations from his ‘digital writing system’. But he did alas, and so, with the exception of a few non-fiction pieces, the printed output of perhaps the greatest ever British sci-fi humorist is restricted to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. And to be brutally honest, it’s hardly an even distribution of plaudits, because Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency will pretty much always be known as Douglas Adams other book series.

Not that it’s much of a series. Hitch-Hiker’s made sport of the fact that it was ‘a trilogy in five parts’, but Dirk Gently could equally be said to be ‘a trilogy in two-and-a-half parts’, which is just as funny, but in a slightly sad way. Even then, the third half-book in the Dirk Gently trilogy, The Salmon of Doubt, is a slightly odd affair. Legend has it that Adams had the story and the title, but vacillated between whether to make it a Hitch-Hiker’s book or a Dirk Gently one. In the end Fate took the decision out of his hands (the bastard) and The Salmon of Doubt was published posthumously as a Dirk Gently book. Or at least half a one.

It was often said of the comedian Spike Milligan that television and film producers knew he was a genius, but could never quite decide on what to do with him. The same could be said of Douglas Adams; the reason that the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie took so long to reach the big screen is that the material was very un-Hollywood and it took that length of time for anyone to decide how to do it in a way that they could believe wouldn’t lose money. If anything, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (in its written form) is even less commercial; wilfully odd and unrepentantly British, is a series of stories that work so much better in the mind’s eye than up on the screen, and yet film and TV producers have always been terribly keen on putting it there.

Let’s take a step back. It’s 1986 and Douglas Adams is riding high on the huge success of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; it’s been a couple of radio series, a TV serial and a collection of exceptionally successful novels. He had just published the fourth in the series, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, which was a massive hit, but Douglas has had his fill of the Guide and wanted to move on to pastures new. His publishers were just keen to be able to slap his name on the cover of a new book and the end result was Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Always a great recycler of material, Adams borrowed heavily from his unmade Doctor Who script Shada (and less so from his made ones City of Death and The Pirate Planet) to flesh out the earthly adventures of holistic detective (or conman, depending on how you look at it) Svlad Djelli, better known as Dirk Gently.

Although there were all the expected criticisms that it wasn’t as good as Hitch-Hiker’s etc, etc, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was a big success and popular enough to spawn a sequel and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul came along in 1988 – an incredibly fast return from the infamously deadline-dodging Adams! The sequel relies less heavily on pre-existing material and drafts in elements of mythology, in particular Norse mythology, which Adams had also explored in the third Hitch-Hiker’s novel Life, the Universe and Everything. It would be another four years before Adams’ next novel Mostly Harmless, for which he returned to the Hitch-Hiker’s universe. It would prove to be his last complete work of fiction. At the time of his premature death in 2002, he was working on The Salmon of Doubt, a third Dirk Gently novel, the existing part of which was published after his death.

In his last years, Douglas Adams had been working with screenwriter Carey Kirkpatrick on the script for a big screen version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so the rights to his most famous property were all tied up. For anyone in the media keen on a bit of Douglas Adams, this left Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but as I mentioned earlier, they didn’t quite know what to do with it. The first person to play Dirk was the writer and broadcaster Michael Bywater in a 1992 episode of the famous arts documentary series The South Bank Show dedicated to the work of Douglas Adams. Bywater was a good friend and university peer of Douglas Adams and he was said to be the inspiration for the character, much as Simon Jones was the inspiration for Arthur Dent.

The South Bank Show appearance consisted of a few excerpts from the first novel, but apart from a little-seen stage show developed in 2005, it would be 2007 before the first full adaptation of the books would be produced. Radio producer Dirk Maggs had adapted the later books in the Hitch-Hiker’s ‘trilogy’ in 2005 as The Tertiary Phase, The Quandary Phase and The Quintessential Phase, so adapting the Dirk Gently novels seemed a natural next step. Comedian Harry Enfield played Dirk in the Above the Title production for Radio 4, with Olivia Coleman as Janice and Billy Boyd as Richard Macduff. Interestingly, the part of Reg, a character based on Professor Chronotis from Shada, was played by Andrew Sachs, who had previously played the part of Skagra in the Big Finish adaptation of the famous ‘lost’ story.

Enfield’s interpretation of the title character is very close to the that way he is presented in the novel: endlessly over-confident, always under-prepared and unswervingly convinced that the cosmos will offer up an answer to any problem with minimal effort on his part. He perhaps sounds a little older than you might imagine the character in the books and Enfield’s voice is very distinctive to a British audience from his long-running comedy sketch show, but this is a minor quibble; Harry Enfield’s interpretation of Dirk Gently is perfect for the purposes of audio. Publicity shots taken at the time show him in a mac and fedora hat, the affected paraphernalia of the old school private eye, which is pretty much how he’s represented in the books. This is the only one of the major versions of Dirk Gently that shows him this way.

An adaptation of the second book The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul followed in 2008. Once again it was a very faithful rendition of the novel featuring the return of Harry Enfield, Billy Boyd and Olivia Coleman, with guest appearances from a whole host of actors associated in one way or another with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Stephen Moore, Susan Sheridan, Jon Glover, Philip Pope and Peter Davison. It’s another great adaptation of the novel and Dirk Maggs intended to continue on with a version of The Salmon of Doubt, but his departure from Above the Title Productions put an end to that plan. Although only half of The Salmon of Doubt was completed, Maggs had previously had to do a great deal of rewriting and manipulation to get So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless to fit into the Hitch-Hiker’s radio continuity, so it’s not beyond belief that a workable ending to The Salmon of Doubt could have been created in the distinctive Douglas Adams style.

After the two radio series, two years passed before BBC3 was ready to have another crack at the character.  In its early days, the BBC’s ‘alternative’ digital channel (now reduced to the ignominy of  ‘online only’) were quite prepared to splash the cash on a genre series that may or may not be a hit. They produced Being Human, which was a huge success, and Torchwood, which staggered on bravely through many iterations despite struggling to find an audience beyond Doctor Who fans. Dirk Gently is fondly remembered despite running for a grand total of four episodes. Starring Stephen Mangan as Dirk Gently and Darren Boyd as his long-suffering business partner Richard Macduff, Dirk Gently started as a one-off 60 minute pilot episode, with a full 18 months passing before the 3 episode series came along.

Upon its first screening, Douglas Adams fans were not overly impressed with Dirk Gently, for although it pretty much nails the characters of Dirk and Richard, it more or less dispenses with the plot of the first book, choosing instead to concentrate on a new one based loosely upon throwaway references to a lost cat from the novel. Although there is the implication of time travel in the pilot episode of Dirk Gently, the science fiction elements are played down and it’s very much presented as a quirky detective series in the mould of Jonathan Creek. Perhaps BBC3 thought this was a more palatable way to sell the series to a wider audience, but it certainly wasn’t the way to get the Douglas Adams fans on board.

Such was the lengthy gap between the pilot show and the main series, a lot of people thought, quite reasonably, that it hadn’t been picked up. But a year and a half later, along came the first – and, as it turns out, only – series of Dirk Gently. It wasn’t much of a series at 3 episodes; barely even a mini-series, but it was a welcome return for the characters. The ‘series’ ramped up the science fiction elements, much to the delight of Adams fans and it has a strong Doctor Who connection with New Adventures novelist Matt Jones and later Doctor Who scriptwriter Jamie Mathieson joining series creator Howard Overman for script-writing duties.

Jones’ story particularly has a very Doctor Who feel with its tale of sentient robots and brainwave transference, whereas Mathieson’s jigsaw puzzle of events seems to grasp Adams’ driving concept of ‘The interconnectedness of all things’ better than any that had gone before. It was a series that was quite clearly growing quickly into its format… but alas, it would never get the chance to develop its full potential. BBC3, seeing that Scandi-dramas were the new in-thing, decided that the budget a second series of Dirk Gently was exactly what they needed to import a bunch of dour Nordic murder mysteries and so, very sadly, that was that for Dirk Gently and Richard Macduff. Because the series had been so slow getting the appreciation of Douglas Adams’ fans, there was little outcry at its cancellation and BBC3’s Dirk Gently passed quietly into TV history.

Looking back, it’s a shame because although it did not use Douglas Adams’ plots, there’s a lot that the series gets very, very right. Stephen Mangan makes an excellent Dirk; he gets the character just right, striking the perfect balance between charismatic loner and unlikeable arsehole. The relationship between Dirk and Darren Boyd’s Richard Macduff is also firing on all cylinders by the end of the series. Given another couple of years, Dirk Gently could have really blossomed and become a firm favourite among genre fans, but as it stands it’s just one of those short-lived oddities that are legion in the TV archives.

In 2015, American comics company IPC released the first of 3 mini-series of Dirk Gently comic strips, The Interconnectedness of All Kings. Their vision of Dirk Gently looked something like David Tennant’s Doctor Who on heavy medication and returned not long afterward in a second series, A Spoon Too Short. But IDW’s interest in the property spread beyond comic strips and in 2016 they co-operated with BBC America and Netflix on a new TV series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.  Produced by Max Landis, son the famous movie director John Landis, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was an 8-episode series that debuted on the streaming channel in October of that year. Like a lot of streamed shows, its episodes varied alarmingly in length from just over half an hour to almost twice that duration, which gave it an oddly unsettling made-up-on-the-spot feel.

In the title role of Dirk Gently was British actor Samuel Barnett, but apart from that it’s USA all the way, with the action being relocated to the States and all  the other characters – none of whom, incidentally, are from the Adams books – being played by American or Canadian actors. Fans in the UK balked, and well they may balk, because although this is a likeable enough series, it really does have bugger all to do with the books on which it is based. The time travel elements that the BBC’s shot at the property avoided are back with a vengeance, but they’re at the centre of a much darker and bloodier tale. Barnett is very impressive as Dirk, resplendent in a series of 80s style coloured leather jackets, but he’s a fish-out-of-water among the gore and the guns. Oh, so many guns!

Elijah Wood, star of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is Todd, the unfortunate innocent caught up in the midst of the mayhem and, though he puts in a great performance, Todd lacks the British long-suffering quality of Richard Macduff. He’s not just frustrated and annoyed like his literary counterpart; his life is an actual hell and the perpetually chirpy Dirk doesn’t help at all. Also in the mix is Fiona Dourif (daughter of Brad) as Bart Curlish, a ‘holistic assassin’, who kills pretty much everyone she encounters in the knowledge that eventually she’ll kill the person she’s supposed to. It’s a clumsy idea, just sticking the word ‘holistic’ on the front of something that I have difficulty imagining ever appearing in one of Adams’ books.

A second series of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency followed in 2017 and treads the same path of being quite watchable but totally unconnected with its source material. The viewing figures were down, only slightly, but enough for the show to be cancelled. IDW incorporated the TV version of Dirk into their comic series and interestingly placed him alongside their original comics version in a multi-reality plot line. Although the TV series was produced by BBC America, which is nominally an offshoot of the British Broadcasting Corporation, it has never been broadcast on terrestrial television in the UK and although the first series was released on DVD in Great Britain, the second series has yet to follow some 3 years after its production.

It’s safe to say that Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has a chequered history, not only in the written medium, but also on radio and television. When all seems to be going well for the franchise, Fate seems to consistently step in and kick it to the kerb. Unlike its big brother The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency does not have a definitive version outside the printed page (surely the original radio series for Hitch-Hiker’s). I don’t think there’s any chance at all that we’ve seen the last of it and the definitive film or TV version is still lurking in the back of some producer’s mind, waiting for that elusive green light. All it needs is that interconnected chain of events to set it in motion.

 

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