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Yet another SF adaptation-or-remake rocks up on BBC4, to wit: Dirk Gently, the ‘first ever adaptation’ of Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (except for the adaptation which comprised part of The South Bank Show episode on Adams in 1992, obviously). I’m a considerable admirer of Adams as an individual, but the original novel is probably my least favourite of his books, for reasons we’ll come to presently.

The adaptation is the story of philosophically-inclined detective/con-man Gently (Stephen Mangan), retained to locate an elderly client’s missing cat. In the course of his investigations he hooks up with old friend Richard Macduff (Darren Boyd) and finds himself entangled in the affairs of recently-vanished businessman Gordon Way.

Heresy! He’s not wearing a red hat!

As usual for a piece of BBC4 drama, this was clearly made on a budget of about fifteen quid, but had the usual sort of engaging performances we’ve come to expect from this kind of production. The slightly byzantine plot unfolded (I’m tempted to say unravelled) accessibly enough, but it all seemed a little bit self-consciously quirky and the major surgery the story had undergone seemed to have affected it for the worse.

The plot of the novel is convoluted, sprawling, and – I always hesitate before speaking ill of Douglas Adams, and did so even before his untimely death – arguably partly plagiarised. Harsh words, but given that one of the major characters is an impossibly old man who lives inside a time machine which is bigger on the inside than the outside, surely justified. The general steals from Doctor Who are compounded by the way the book recycles the plot of a particular story – the brilliant City of Death, which Adams co-wrote with two other men, neither of whom is credited in the novel.

One of the reasons I was curious to see this version was to see how the makers managed to incorporate all this suspect material, and their cunning solution was to omit it entirely from the main plot – although references to some of the removed material, such as the Electric Monk (a labour-saving device for people too busy to believe things themselves), were sneaked in here and there. This did mean the plot was almost entirely different, losing much of its scope and not unpleasantly mind-buggering quality, and the sudden appearance of a time machine (the same size within and without, this time) quite close to the end was a jarring, credulity-stretching moment and triggered a sharp tonal shift from quirky comedy-drama into full-on fantasy. This was probably quite a big ask to make of any viewers not acquainted with the original story. Viewers who had read the book, on the other hand, were no doubt startled by how little this resembled the original (though genre fans who’ve seen the most recent BBC adaptations of The Day of the Triffids, The Lost World and Dracula should have known what to expect).

Mangan’s big performance and big hair certainly suggested a man staking his claim to a place on the list of auditionees when Matt Smith eventually moves on, although the format – brilliant, eccentric detective teams up with comparatively thick assistant – inevitably recalled Sherlock Holmes as well. (Odd how Holmes and the Doctor seem to be spiralling towards each other more and more these days.) Boyd was rather good in a less showy part, but possibly best of all was Helen Baxendale who managed to bring a bit of emotional depth and realism to what was ultimately a rather frantic and self-consciously silly story.

Dirk Gently wasn’t really up to the same standard as other BBC4 offerings like the recent First Men in the Moon, but it was pleasant enough and passed an hour engagingly. From some angles it even resembled the pilot for a very strange detective/SF fusion series. I can’t honestly believe the BBC would be insane enough to proceed with a full series of original Dirk Gently stories, but I’d certainly give it a look if they did.

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