Dirk Gently and the short, quirky science fiction show that didn’t suck

This post originally appeared February 23, 2014, on the Contact – Infinite Futures SF blog.

I heard the words, “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” while hunched over my laptop at the dining table. I couldn’t see the TV but I could see my husband.

“Is that Dirk Gently?” I asked.

Voice infused with incredulity, he said, “How did you know?”

He had that look on his face. I’ve seen it several times before, after I’ve just said something uncanny.

“I read the books when I was in college.” Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988) by Douglas Adams — better known for the inappropriately-named Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy.

“But it’s only the first minute of the show!”

“Is it on Hulu?”

“Amazon Prime.” The words came out in a kind of sigh or relief. I wasn’t psychic after all, and he didn’t need to reassess his atheism before the impending apocalypse.

While I enjoyed the adventures of Dirk Gently much more than those of interstellar hitch-hiker Arthur Dent, some twenty years later I couldn’t recall exactly what those adventures entailed. A quick check of Wikipedia reminded me that Dirk was a “holistic detective” who refused to believe he was psychic, insisting that he merely had a “depressingly accurate knack for making wild assumptions.” The depressing part being that he couldn’t use his knack to win money on horses. I could empathize.

The Dirk Gently TV series was a comedy detective drama with science fiction elements such as artificial intelligence and time travel. An hour-long pilot episode loosely based on the 1987 novel was broadcast on BBC Four in December 2010 and watched by 1.1 million viewers. Three one-hour episodes were subsequently commissioned in March 2011 and broadcast in March 2012.

Sadly, the show ended there. It’s well worth watching, as I discovered after leaving my laptop and joining my husband. The obvious standard for comparison and contrast was Doctor Who. Like the Doctor, the detective was sharp of mind and tongue, quirky and British. Unlike the Doctor, he’s a self-centered anti-hero, loathed by everyone around him except his stalwart friend, the kind-hearted and loyal Richard MacDuff.

One of the show’s writers, Matt Jones, also wrote episodes of Doctor Who and TorchwoodDirk Gently writer and producer Howard Overman also wrote for the show Merlin, and is the creator of the science fiction comedy-drama Misfits, comedy-drama police procedural Vexed, and fantasy-adventure Atlantis.

Though the books were written over twenty years ago, the TV program updated Dirk and incorporated modern technology. Which got me to wondering: How much should an adaptation stick to its source material? I thoroughly enjoyed Dirk Gently on the small screen, but was that a product of my inability to recall details from the books, and thus I viewed the show with unbiased eyes?

Fans with better memories have said the usual “it wasn’t as good as the book.” Is anything ever as good as the book? And how much does that affect your enjoyment of a television series or movie?

~ J.L. Hilton

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