Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the book, introduced Douglas Adams‘s untrustworthy and other-world-weary detective to unsuspecting audiences, and he followed it up with The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Now, flush with Doctor Who and Sherlock success, the BBC has followed up their one off Dirk Gently episode with three more. If you hurry, you can still just get them on iPlayer. And you probably should.
Before we go any further, we need to recognise that the Dirk Gently of the TV series is not the same as the Dirk Gently of the books. In fact, they don’t even live in the same universe.
The TV-series universe is a naturalistic universe with a teasing take on technological advance, and possibly science-fiction of the plausible kind. There’s already a shift between the one-off and the mini-series. The one-off had time travel, the mini-series has coincidence, a bit of (far-fetched) artificial intelligence, and a proto-House bit of speculative medical diagnosis.
The books, on the other hand, are in at the deep-end of fantasy/science-fiction with multiple-plane existence and the question of what gods do when they retire.
I quite liked the original book. I loved The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, which I regard as the best thing Adams ever wrote. It’s clever, witty, observed in enormous detail (which the Hitch Hiker stuff never was), perfectly plotted and mysteriously elusive in its world of ideas.
So, it’s not to say I didn’t like the TV series, because I did. But they are fundamentally different beasts.
The TV Dirk Gently is really the third in the trinity of Doctor Who — Sherlock — Gently.
To expand: there really is only one detective in detective fiction. It’s Sherlock Holmes. All subsequent detectives take some of his characteristics and vary others. Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, VI Wachowski.
Doctor Who, despite the semi-mythical quality which the BBC has tried to give him recently, is another Sherlock Holmes. He’s the cleverest, most observant, most informed, most athletic and most infuriating person in any situation. Even his mannerisms are getting more and more Holmes.
After many Sherlock Holmes, both more and less successful, the Sherlock take is probably the best return to the original. By keeping the character and ditching the context, Steven Moffat has managed to recapture the sociopathic spirit of the original.
The BBC Dirk Gently completes the set. Like Sherlock he’s a sociopath. Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, he arrives at his conclusions without seeming to deserve them — but he still always wins, though the victory is seldom complete.
Not that this should surprise: the original story on which the first book was based began life as a Doctor Who script which was never filmed because of industrial action. Adams’s surgery on his own plot involved replacing the Doctor with the Detective. In this way, the book is as much a spoof on Who as it is on Holmes.
So, back to the shows. Worth watching? Definitely. In an off-beat, despondent, way, it’s a beautiful tour through the inconsequential bits of our existence, with enough emotional content to slip in something quite profound in each episode, just when you’re not expecting it.
Enough — stop reading the article, and get on iPlayer while the show is still available. If it’s already gone, get the books, and wait for the rerun.