I know this is an odd start to the article, but have you been watching Doctor Who? I thought the cowboy episode was bad, but the most recent one gave new meaning to the word.
With Doctor Who the television series degenerating into a rytalin-fuelled series of scatter-gun sketches connected by lazy sci-fi plot devices and the kind of atrocious magic wand resolutions first-year screenwriting students would be arrested for, I’ve been turning elsewhere for my Time Lord fix. Doctor Who this year has been back-issues of mid-80s comic strips, Michael Moorcock’s startlingly imaginative Who novel The Coming of the Terraphiles, Gareth Roberts’ breathtaking adaptation of Douglas Adams’ unfinished story Shada … and the utterly splendid BBC4 Dirk Gently series.
Now, let me fill in the history of Dirk Gently. Douglas Adams wrote two novels (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul (1988)). Dirk, as the title suggests, is a detective whose approach hinges on “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” and so will follow chains of random links to wholly unexpected conclusions. The first novel reworked ideas from Adams’ classic Doctor Who episodes City of Death (1979) and the aforementioned Shada (which makes Roberts’ rendition a third or fourth-generation delight), while the second takes on, with rather forced whimsy, Norse gods and an ill-timed love affair similar to Arthur Dent and Fenchurch’s in the fourth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish (1984).
As a Who fan I bristled at Adams’ recycling his own ideas before realising it’s something the environmentally concerned/deadline-missing writer must sometimes resort to. Both novels remain strange curios for other reasons. Simply put, Adams was struggling to get away from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Dirk Gently represents a stunted effort to do this. As a character he doesn’t quite break away from the Adams-scripted Tom Baker incarnation of the Doctor, or Hitchhiker’s Ford Prefect, but lacks their charm and warmth. In effect, he’s neither fish nor fowl, and it’s his opaqueness as a character that, to me, contributes to the curious remoteness of the two novels—despite their brilliant and vibrant premises.
On television, Dirk Gently scales back the Who-infringing storylines and focuses on small-scale mysteries. The first episode ingeniously ties together a missing cat and a wonky time-travel company. The series developer Howard Overman wisely pairs Dirk (Stephen Mangan) with a hapless Everyman, Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd) and his fiancée Susan Harmison (Helen Baxendale). This grounds the series in something like sitcom normality—one of the earliest scenes, very Douglas Adams-like in its simultaneous hilarity and poignancy, has Dirk ask MacDuff, “Are you not at all curious as to the sequence of events that led you to your present nadir?!”.
The three follow-up episodes masterfully mix Adams-esque conceptual oddities with comic character moments. The result feels like something of a P.G. Wodehouse science fiction spoof, especially in its whimsical essays on S.F. standards: the idea, for instance, that a Cambridge scientist would secretly build an android. Its surrealism goes farther than a British series has for a long while; some of it harks back to the later episodes of The Avengers, although it goes farther even than that. Dirk Gently’s lack of world-threatening catastrophe is a welcome change from recent Doctor Who—whose stakes have risen so high as to becomes completely meaningless and dramatically inert. The potentially brittle combination of moments of wonder with deflating bathos is always well done, and hilarious (such as when Dirk describes the aforementioned android as “weirdly erotic”).
Stephen Mangan, as Dirk, smoothes over the prose character’s uncertainties. Scriptwriters Overton and Matt Jones have wisely cottoned on that viewers are unlikely to find such a smugly disreputable detective entirely endearing. What on paper hinted at a Wilde-an upper-class debt-dodger (think of Jack and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest) becomes a more fallible, but no less shifty, intellectual fraud. Mangan’s negligent, anarchic genius has a touch of Tom Baker and radio Ford Prefect Geoffrey Perkins. But he reads between the lines and suggests vulnerability beneath the pontificating bravado. For him, the idea of holistic detection is less the cerebral con suggested by the novels, but his firmly held creed (“As anyone who follows the principles of quantum mechanics to their logical extremes cannot help but accept”). His awe-inspiring speech to a group of Born-Again ex-cons in Episode 3 is almost a mantra for the self-mocking, self-doubting atheist. Combining the kernel of his conviction with its underlying existential anxiety and capped off with a joke about Inland Revenue, it really lays bare the soul of Dirk Gently. Here is a man who knows he’s the smartest guy in the room but never gets any benefit from it.
There’s also a satisfyingly dark flipside to Dirk’s escapades. Episode 1 and 3 play with his clients’ deaths, the latter setting up an appalling scenario where Dirk stalks a client so she’ll hire him to find the stalker. Jason Watkins’ DI Gilks recurs through the series as the face of ‘normal’ society, whose suspicion and derision of Dirk and his methods has a Kafka-esque oppressiveness to it. Comparing Dirk to Matt Smith’s Doctor—whose innate excellence in the role is consistently hampered by writers falling over themselves giving him self-consciously zany bits of business a hundred times an episode—it’s refreshing to have an irresponsible, selfish protagonist who isn’t constantly congratulated, and has to prove himself with merit rather than that increasingly magic-wand-like sonic screwdriver.
It’s a shame that the three episodes don’t make as inspired use of MacDuff or Susan as the pilot does. The latter only appears in the second episode, in a rather lame subplot about moving to Cambridge—it’s a shame because Baxendale’s ‘head girl’ sensibility is a very appealing counterweight to the chaotic mood and Boys’ Own feel of the chaps’ constantly botched investigations. MacDuff is always played brilliantly—Darren Boyd makes his exasperation and perennial slowness completely understandable and sympathetic. But he’s fighting against the writers, who never quite explore his relationship with Dirk (beyond their fighting over the management of the agency) or his wider life. It’s a constant problem of the viewpoint character, but MacDuff seems to be sidelined too often.
Then again, there’s hardly room for much character business, especially with the dense plotting that all four episodes have. The Dirk Gently novels had a certain tension between science fiction and downright mysticism that might be explained as ‘magic realism’. The series avoid that tension, offering instead straight (albeit tongue-in-cheek) science fiction, framed through the lens of investigation. Though there is an inherent logic grounding the whimsy, I doubt the Inspector Morse viewer would get too much out of these solutions. Sometimes it’s closer to South Park in the mordant satire (Americans swiping a computer program to give them an excuse to invade Mexico) and metaphysics (both the Schroedinger-esque cat of the pilot and the cybernetically reincarnated daughter in Episode 2) that lie under the larking. Maybe it’s a sign I’m getting old, but I’ll take such thought-provoking asides against the overblown, over-directed Sherlock heroics any day.
Maybe that’s petty, but it does seem a travesty that the BBC schedule isn’t broad enough to encompass Dirk Gently as well as its more-feted Whos and Sherlocks. Here was a premise with such potential, and its wings are clipped so early. There’s not just the opportunity to see Mangan expand on his revitalisation of the detective (the date that ends the third episode could have been only the beginning!), not to mention how he and Boyd could have fleshed out Dirk and MacDuff’s friendship. Then there are the vast unexplored treasures in those novels that the series barely scratched the surface of. I’m sure they could even have made sense of those Norse Gods in Kings Cross station.
But I can dream. And just as I dream that Overton—maybe alongside Steve Parkhouse, Gareth Roberts, and Michael Moorcock—might wrest control of the Doctor Who typewriter from the half-Whithouses and the charmless Chibnalls we’re currently enduring, I dream that Dirk Gently continues, its web of random interconnections spinning on infinitely.