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Douglas Adams: The Writer At the End of the Universe

by on March 11, 2013

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Today would have been British writer Douglas Adams’ 61st birthday. He passed away in 2001, and for someone who hadn’t even lived 50 years, he surely cemented his place in the worlds of both comedy and science fiction. His hyper-intelligent yet ridiculously absurd way of looking at the world gave his writing a freshness and funkiness that few fiction writers possessed at the time, and even do now.

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He has the distinction of being the only non-Python credited with written material on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, contributing a rather bloody sketch about the absurdity of medical red tape for the penultimate episode of the series, “Party Political Broadcast.” In 1978, Adams’s radio series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, premiered on BBC Radio 4, which led, later that same year, to his writing the second serial of Doctor Who‘s 16th season. Entitled “The Pirate Planet,” the story contained the same level of humor as Hitchhikers and the same love of hard science in science fiction.

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douglasadams_cropAdams was appointed script editor for the final serial of Season 16 and kept the job for the entirety of Season 17. His sensibility, coupled with star Tom Baker’s restlessness after five seasons, contributed to a distinct tonal shift in Season 17, focusing much more on humor and less on scares. Adams penned two more serials himself, both for his season as script editor. The first was “City of Death,” which he wrote, along with producer Graham Williams from an original story by David Fisher, under the pseudonym “David Agnew.” This featured the Doctor and Romana’s famous trip to Paris, several counterfeit copies of the Mona Lisa, and the formation of the Earth. The second, “Shada,” fell victim to a strike and as such was never broadcast, nor even finished. The story, about the Time Lord’s prison planet, eventually became the premise for the first Dirk Gently novel.

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After his work on Who, Douglas Adams adapted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a series of novels beginning in 1979. These were then turned into a six-episode television series in 1981, which still holds up to this day and has inspired countless writers the world over, myself included. The Babel Fish, Marvin the Paranoid Android, Deep Thought, the improbability drive, 42 – all of it has become part of the nerd lexicon, and it still fascinates today. It took a very long time, four years after Adams’ death, but eventually, Hitchhikers was brought to the big screen. He was posthumously credited as a producer.

The importance of Douglas Adams’ work cannot be overstated. He was a mad genius who died far too soon. To paraphrase him, So long, and thanks for all the words.