There’s a belief that radio drama is dying; I think it’s simply been becoming something else, and it’s been becoming something else for decades. Radio plays seem to be alive and well, at least in England, even though they are difficult to find in the U.S. Radio shows are cheaper to produce than TV is, and BBC Radio 7, despite airing a lot of reruns, does produce original shows.
Dirk Gently: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is one such show. This BBC drama is just as well-acted and exquisitely-engineered as it’s predecessor, and while the writing isn’t quite as good (the ending in particular is a letdown), some of the acting is even better than series 1.
The story has a great setup: The Norse pantheon is being sold to an advertising agency. No, really, sold, and not just their rough-and-tumble image but the cosmic powers of Father Odin are to become available for use by the Draycotts, two soon-to-be-immortal Evil BusinesspeopleTM That is, they’ll become immortal if the deal goes through successfully.
The story uses Adams’s recurring theme of the boredom that would be inherent in immortality, in a sideways, non-obvious way. Odin has become obsessed with a simple, clean life away from the dirt and mud associated with being the Allfather, and Thor has become a sad figure of violence under a tarp of sometimes-successful self-control. While they and the rest of the gods and goddeses live in The World of Men, Dirk Gently continues to struggle to pay the bills, and starts digging into the murder of a client — a client who he perhaps could have kept alive, and who (unsurprisingly) turns out to be related to the Draycotts’ dealings with Odin.
Except for small roles, most of the major cast is new to this series. Harry Enfied continues to perform wonderfully as the Holistic detective. Thor is wonderfully played by Rupert Degas, who has an amazing chemistry with Laurel Lefkow, who plays the American reporter Kate Schechter. One of my favorite scenes involves Thor taking a bath in Kate Schechter’s apartment, trying so very hard not to spill or break anything, booming a “sorry!” down the stairs when he does. There’s an obvious… I won’t say “attraction” between the two characters, but I found myself wishing the reporter would end up with Thor. Unconsummated romance being a specialty of Mr. Adams, it’s not hard to guess how this turns out. While Simon and Cynthia Draycott are more or less stock villians, it’s to the actors’ credit (and also to the writers’ credit) that Thor is far more than a redheaded bulky boor, and that Schechter is far more than a loud American journalist.
The story’s end doesn’t live up to the rest of the script; if I remember correctly, that’s a flaw partially inherited from the book. While the writers, Dirk Maggs and John Langdon, took liberties with the 22-year-old material in order to update it, I find myself wishing they had added another episide or two, or perhaps added some closure to the end; the book does close things out a little more gracefully than this play. (I suppose it’s possible they were leaving material for a third series, based on the unfinished Dirk Gently novel The Salmon of Doubt.) Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed the production, and intend to re-read the book again soon.
The theme of deities who exist only so long as humanity believes in them runs all through this story. Adams used the theme of living forever in Life, The Universe and Everything, and this play/novel comes from that earlier work. Why all the obsession with immortality? I read an answer of sorts in the book The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumously released volume of short stories, essays, and unfinished works. When asked why, as a ferocious atheist, he kept writing about religion, Adams replied:
I am fascinated by religion. … It has had such an incalculably huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing. [The Salmon of Doubt, page 101]
This clarifies Mr. Adams’s fascination with religion, but not necessarily with immortality. (The same article goes into depth on why he was this way.) The writer created some notable immortal, or at the least extremely long-lived characters. Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, bored by immortality, is a variation on the theme of an interminably horrible, endlessly long life, a bar set very high by Marvin, the Paranoid Android. The robot (who was not an android) travels through time extensively and is eventually older than the universe itself. To paraphrase Voltaire, life is suffering indeed, and Marvin is finally granted his one wish for it to all end. While Marvin is mostly played for laughs, there’s a level of uncomfortably profound triumph in the character’s death, which echoed for me in the unhappiness of Odin in Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. That Odin is played by Stephen Moore, the voice of Marvin, only helped this association along.
In the end, I don’t know why Douglas Adams was fascinated by long-lived characters, but he plainly was. I suspect that, if one were to look into his work as a script editor on Doctor Who, one would also find some immortal characters (the Doctor himself aside, of course).
Again, if you enjoyed the book, you’ll love this play. Highly recommended.