Dirk Gently – an attempt at a balanced review

Fit the First: I love Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams is a part of what makes me, me; like how The Dark Tower and Tron and Silent Running and The Farseer Trilogy and Terminator 2 are a part of what makes me, me. I love that Dirk Gently is one of DNA’s few fiction pieces that isn’t a part of the Hitch Hiker Guide to the Galaxy (which, don’t worry, I adore, too). It’s so tantalising: here was this amazing man with this amazing talent, and he only gave us two sets of books! H2G2 and DG (of course, he also invented Starship Titanic, but that was a) a part of the H2G2 world, and b) written by someone else (in book form)). Anyway, there’s Hitch Hiker’s, and… the other one. This is the other one.

I like the other one. It’s weird, but part of what makes it weird is that it’s set somewhere much more normal. It also does a lot of cool things normal books don’t do, and it gets away with them because Douglas is writing. Some of those things the recent TV series, sadly, overlooks. Firstly, Dirk isn’t really the main character in his own books. He’s the weird guy you get in to sort it out. In the first book the main character is really Richard MacDuff, in the second, it’s Kate Schechter*. That’s interesting. Furthermore, Dirk Gently isn’t explicitly an attractive man. In fact, I always had an image of him as distinctly ordinary, a bit unattractive, and decidedly middle-aged. I liked that. You don’t get a lot of title characters that aren’t born from the land of PHAW.

So here’s the thing with the new series: for all Stephen Mangan’s virtues in the role, he is on the better looking end of comedic actors, and he’s playing not just the title, but the lead role. It bothers me. It bothers me in the perfectly ordinary aspect that I’m a fan and I know the work quite well and I had a picture in my head of what I wanted. OK, fine, I concede that. But the trailer I saw did little to allay my fears. It presented a fairly nondescript show of fairly nondescript hi-jinks. This worried me, because there was absolutely no sign of Norse gods or electric monks.

And I guess that’s problem two. This is a book series so manically SF and/or F that it verges on surrealism. I mean, really – if you thought The Hitch Hiker’s Guide was out there, Dirk Gently is out there. If all we’re being presented with is a fairly pretty, funny guy who runs a vaguely bollocks sounding ‘holistic’ detective agency… it really does feel like they raided the stories for the lowest common denominator parts and stole those so that they could use them to claim the prize of ‘First TV Production of Dirk Gently‘. If so, truly, DNA would turn roundabouts in the soil.

So those are my fannish reservations.

Fit the Second: But let’s not be unduly harsh. First off: TV has different rules, and we tend to forget in our geek-circles that SF&F is still a fairly niche interest. No really. It is. Twilight didn’t change that. Iron Man didn’t change that. First off, those are films, and films have different rules – the latter is an action SFX movie, and the former is a teen-romance movie. In TV land we’ve got, what? Buffy? BSG? I LOVE those things, but they aren’t your prime-time BBC1 fodder, and they’ll never compete with the likes of Corrination Street and East Enders. The only thing that came even close was Star Trek, which in this country was strictly BBC 2 fodder, and second billing to The Simpsons. All of which is not to get down on the genre, it’s just to point out that TV works differently, and you market differently for it. You only take risks on things you can afford to fail (e.g. Being Human – which succeeded, but only by losing some of the things that appealed to me), or that you can market as more mainstream. So I can have my Fan Hat on going: Dirk’s Not Right! But as TV series go, this is no biggee. You have to sell Dirk in TV land, before you can sell the crazy stories that follow him about.

And in terms of craziness the series is right on the nose. The whole thing with Dirk pretending to be someone that no one he knows recognises in a psychiatrist’s office in order to get access to files is, well, very Douglas. And there’s a whole thing with the tropes of tea and cats that’s very appealing, very Douglas.

And… it’s not so very far removed from the book. Here we see the refrigerator debacle. There we see Gordon Way and Richard are in the picture, just in slightly different places (but at least Gordon Way is dead).

And… even if it weren’t Dirk Gently it would seem quite witty and bizarre, I think. Certainly, the whole holistic thing is there. It’s shot well, the script is snappy. It’s got that woman-who-I-always-think-is-the-woman-who-last-played-Kristine-Kochanski-in-the-serieses-of-Red-Dwarf-that-we-don’t-speak-of-but-who-is-actually-a-slightly-better-actor. And, despite what Twitter led me to believe, it is SF: there was clearly a time travelling cat.

So… I don’t know. I’m torn. It is, in many ways, wrong. But I think if I didn’t already know the books so well, I’d quite enjoy it. If you’re gonna make a series out of two very short books, something has to change. And… this is Douglas Adams. His most famous work was made into a radio show, 5 books, a TV series, and a posthumous film. Each one was dramatically different from the last, and I like them all, to varying degrees. Just as I find it a bit weird that people denigrate the film because it wasn’t like the books, or the radio series, it’d be a bit weird if I didn’t like this just because it was a bit different to the books. Douglas was all for changing to suit the medium; I’m not sure he’d have very many problems with this at all. If there were ever a body of work where it was canon to change the story… it’s his.

So then the question changes to: does it work? And… I think it does. It works, and it works within the spirit of DNA. Will I watch any future episodes, though? I don’t know. I am still disappointed that there were no electric monks or Norse gods. Not because it needed those things to work, but because they were so wonderful. And, actually, more than the electric monk, I’m disappointed that there was no ancient, bitter alien or Bach music in our DNA. Something core is missed in lacking those things. Not long after I read Dirk Gently there was an episode of Tomorrow’s World where they played music composed based on genetic code, and it blew my mind. It was heart-rendingly beautiful. And that element didn’t even come close to making the cut.

On the other hand: we don’t know where this will go. We’ve seen that they do want to include SF, but maybe they just don’t want to do it all at once. So: my jury’s out on that front. Which leaves my interim position: this is not Dirk Gently as I know and love it – it is not all that I want from a Dirk Gently series – but… it’s actually quite a good TV show, and at least it does stretch the imagination a bit.

*You may disagree with me on this, but that’s how I always saw it.

4 thoughts on “Dirk Gently – an attempt at a balanced review

  1. how can you say:

    SF&F is still a fairly niche interest. No really. It is. Twilight didn’t change that. Iron Man didn’t change that. First off, those are films, and films have different rules – the latter is an action SFX movie, and the former is a teen-romance movie. In TV land we’ve got, what? Buffy? BSG? I LOVE those things, but they aren’t your prime-time BBC1 fodder, and they’ll never compete with the likes of Corrination Street and East Enders.

    Are you in some parallel universe where Doctor Who doesn’t exist?

    Wait, hang on, are you in the parallel universe where he does exist, but not as a TV show? How did you post from there into our world?

    • Hey – I love Doctor Who – massive loads! And it makes an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of, but I’m not sure it’s an effective counter-example. It’s a fairly short TV series (OBVIOUSLY talking of individual series length rather than longevity of the show) that, although it does get aired on BBC 1, doesn’t get viewing figures that equal those of soaps (except maybe Christmas specials). And, in the greater scheme of things, Doctor Who has had a long career of being popular-but-not-mainstream-for-adults.

      Again, let me emphasise: I’m not saying it’s unpopular, OR that’s it’s ‘just’ a kids show (as I know some people would) – I don’t think either of those things. I am not saying that SF/F isn’t good TV, or that it can’t justify a licence fee, I’m just saying that it is niche. And using the most popular long-lived SF show in British TV as your counter-example doesn’t speak to the majority of the genre, or how it’s placed against other, more successful non-genre shows. OF COURSE it’s popular. I love it, I’m an addict. But I’m not from another planet to say that SF isn’t mainstream.

  2. I enjoyed the episode but it doesn’t feel like full on Dirk to me. Maybe it’ll get madder as it goes on, or maybe it’ll be a nice entertaining show for people who like something a bit quirky if we try not to remember it’s meant to be Dirk. I always loved these books too.

    • I know what you mean. I’m *hoping* it gets madder if it gets picked up (I think this was a pilot?) as it goes on. I think it’s in the spirit of Dirk, but it isn’t really Dirk *yet*. Did think it was quite fun all the same, though.

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