Fantasy and science fiction can come in all shapes and sizes. From outer space to inner space, they cut a wider swathe through literary creation than almost any other genre. You can usually count on reading some of the most imaginative stories and meeting outlandish and odd characters in science fiction and fantasy novels. However, even by those standards, the work of British author Douglas Adams was decidedly eccentric.
Most famous for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams’ quirky sense of humour and delightful understanding of the absurd made his books a pleasure to read. They also offered a kind of satirical running commentary on life in Great Britain during the 1980s. While Guide captured the most attention, being made into first a television series and then a movie, it was two books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, set on earth which best showed off Adams’ ability to stretch the fabric of reality in a truly original manner.
The title character, private investigator Dirk Gently, has a firm belief that all events are somehow interconnected. No matter how tangential something appears to be in relationship to the case he’s working on, in the end it will prove as deeply significant as if it were the murder weapon. While this allows him to justify rather dubious billing practices, like charging someone for the replacement of his refrigerator while investigating the disappearance of their cat, he also turns out to have a remarkable success rate as well. Even though Adams died in 2001, Gently lives on thanks to the BBC series Dirk Gently now available on DVD from Acorn Media.
The two-disc set contains four episodes, each approximately an hour long. The only drawback is that there are just four episodes, for the creators of the television adaptation have done an excellent job in recreating the absurdist atmosphere of the books, taking viewers into the heart of Dirk Gently’s universe. After basing the first episode on events in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, they made the wise decision of creating three new cases for Gently to investigate instead of trying to stretch the second book, plus the unfinished third novel The Salmon of Doubt, over three episodes.
Key to the success of the series is the casting of Stephen Mangan in the title role. Not only does he carry off the more extreme elements of his character without overacting, he also manages to make him more than a one dimensional mad scientist. Like many hyper-intelligent people, Gently lacks even the most basic of social skills and has difficulty in understanding why certain behaviour might be considered a) in rather bad taste and b) illegal. Most people, upon taking an interest in somebody else, wouldn’t stalk them or break into their house to obtain samples of their handwriting in order to know how to best manipulate a situation to make her interested in him.
This less-than-endearing habit is complemented by his raving egomania and the deep-seated belief that he’s always right. His conviction of the latter is so strong that even when he is wrong, he manages to find a way to prove he was right. The bending and folding of logic and reason out of all shape are a site to behold when he maps out why his wrongness is actually proof of his being right. Eventually those he’s arguing with, usually his stolid business partner Richard MacDuff, played by Darren Boyd, become so frustrated with him they surrender to the inevitable and admit he was right and they were wrong.
In another actor’s hands we would have become sick of watching this type of character probably before the end of the first episode. However, Mangan is somehow able to inject just the right amount of humanity into his characterization to make him likeable. We see how most of the time he doesn’t understand how what he’s doing is both wrong and potentially hurtful. There’s a strange sort of innocence about him which makes him seem more like a child whose not yet learned the social skills required for smooth sailing among his peers in the adult world than someone who is being deliberately hurtful or mean.
While most of those Gently comes in contact with end up either recoiling in disgust, trying to kill him or arrest him, his partner MacDuff is one of the few who seems to be able to abide his company on a permanent basis. While Boyd plays him as a conventional, not so bright but nice guy, we also see he has genuine affection for Gently. He’s one of the few to recognize Gentry’s emotional vulnerability and understand how his anti-social traits are actually defence mechanisms.
Like a concerned parent, he monitors Gently’s behaviour and tries to smooth over all the ruffled feathers he leaves in his wake. This doesn’t prevent him from occasionally feeling like ripping Gentry’s head off or treating him like a spoiled child. In fact, the give and take between the two characters as they attempt to solve the cases crossing their desks over the course of the discs provide the majority of the humour in the series. For in spite of what appears to be his rather callous attitude towards the human race, the cases he takes on are serious and sometimes dangerous.
While the local police think killing Gently would fall into the category of justifiable homicide, that’s only because, much to their dismay, he manages to solve crimes which stump them. They might be okay with his success rate if he wasn’t so obvious with both his disdain for their methods and the pleasure he takes in proving them wrong. You see, Gently is perfectly serious in his use of the theory of interconnectedness for solving crimes. His ability to see patterns where none apparently exist are helped by his belief in everything being possible, even when it means time travel was involved in order for events to have played out the way in which he envisions them.
While we sometimes forget due to becoming caught up in the fun of watching Gently in action, these episodes are a mixture of science fiction and mystery stories. So no matter how outlandish a theory Gently might come up with in answer to a particular investigation, the chances are he’s right and everyone else is wrong. Part of the pleasure of watching each episode is watching Gently going madly off in all directions, yet still being able to discover the truth. Even better, he’s able to make even the most fantastic conclusions sound perfectly logical and we have no trouble accepting time travel as a fact of life in the world he lives in.
Those looking for any special features with this set will be disappointed as there aren’t any. While it’s not in surround sound, only stereo, the show is in wide screen and looks and sounds fine played through a surround sound system and on a wide screen television. What’s most important though is how well the series manages to capture the spirit of the books its based on. While the scripts reflect both the absurdities and fantastical elements of Adams’ stories, what really brings the world to life is the acting job of the two actors in the lead roles.
Not only do the two characters complement each other in the series, the men playing them do a magnificent job of finding ways to balance the other actor’s performance. Separately they might not have too much success, but together Gently and MacDuff seem to be a recipe for success. You might not want them looking for your lost cat, but if there’s a strange murder to solve or your husband is acting particularly odd, they’re the team for you. Not only will they find out what’s going on, you’ll have a lot of fun watching them figure it all out.