Hitchhiker’s v. Dwarf (1988 – present)

“The most original of authors are not so because they advance what is new, but more because they know how to say something, as if it had never been said before.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The most common argument is, since Hitchhiker’s came first, that Adams influenced Grant Naylor, or that Grant Naylor ripped off Adams’s work. What is it about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf that makes people argue so much about which is better? This article will, hopefully, put an end to these silly and pointless arguments once and for all – but as opposed to comparing Red Dwarf to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and seeing which is better, the next logical step is to go back into the past to see who influenced the writers of both series. Who or what influenced Adams when he was writing the original radio series/book? What were Grant and Naylor reading in the years before they created Red Dwarf? Everyone is influenced by someone or something, and it will inevitably show up in one’s writing. Lucius Shepard once wrote, “Writing fiction is like taking a rubbing of your brain. All the bulges and convolutions and fissures will show up in your work whether you want them to or not.” [1]

Let’s start with Red Dwarf. What exactly were Rob Grant and Doug Naylor reading before they created the show?

RG: I was always a science fiction fan. When I was a kid, I’d take Superman and Batman underneath the bedcovers, because it wasn’t respectable then to like comics. Then I moved on to prose science fiction: HG Wells, John Wyndham, Arthur C Clarke, etc. Red Dwarf came about because I was writing comedy for a job, and science fiction was what I did for enjoyment. We just put the two together to come up with something fairly original.
DW: Did you read any SF humor books?
RG: There was a lot of humor in science fantasy–Terry Pratchett and everything. I was really reading science fantasy by then. I was aware of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but I think it’s meant to be taken at its own level. I don’t see it as a spoof as such and it didn’t really influence me.
http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/3887/RG.html

Here he outright denies the influence of Hitchhiker’s on Red Dwarf. However, subconscious influences can sometimes be more important than conscious influences. He also describes what exactly he was reading: H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke are particularly interesting. The science fiction they wrote was generally very imaginative and had tremendously large concepts within them. (Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has to do with the definition and rebirth of humanity, and Wells was the most famous science fiction pioneer; at the time, War of the Worlds was about as different as a book could get.) So, Grant’s fascination with SF was a serious one, and it shows that his influences are not just from other comedy, which is why Red Dwarf is so fresh and imaginative; generally speaking, something that has only been inspired by things within that same genre is stale and unimaginative, a diluted effect of the original inspiration.

I’ve got no objections to being the comedy person, but I have got objections to not being the science fiction person. I mean, I don’t think you’d get Doug to say he was a major science fiction fan, I was the one who was trying to drag us into writing a science fiction thing. I am the SF freak. I am a fan. This is why it’s so much fun for me doing Red Dwarf. I am a Star Trek fan, I’m a Next Generation fan, I love science fiction.
http://www.hawkida.com/view.php?recordid=44

Based on these interviews, Rob Grant seems to have been mainly influenced by written science fiction; comic books, novels, possibly even magazines. Doug Naylor, on the other hand, seemed to be more influenced by television and film:

Andrew Guest: “Are there any other TV shows that influenced the way you wrote Red Dwarf?”
Doug Naylor: “Porridge, Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads, Fawlty Towers, Woody Allen, Dark Star. There were lots of influences, not all from TV.”
[…]
Raz asks “How easy was it to adjust to writing without Rob Grant?”
Doug Naylor: “It was hard. My entire writing career up to that point had been spent with Rob. All scripts had been talked through down to the smallest detail so being in a room on my own was a huge change from that. Also it was something I never believed was a good idea. Rob wanted to write on his own as early as 1987, in fact the first time he decided to split was after we had rehearsed the first series of Red Dwarf but the electricians’ strike had made it impossible for us to shoot. I remember spending the best part of a whole summer saying he was totally insane wanting to leave the series at this point because it had every chance of being a big hit.”
http://www.angelfire.com/tx/komix/doug.html

Here, Naylor admits that the split was difficult to handle; Grant was obviously an integral figure to their partnership, and to continue without his influence would have been difficult, just as it must have been difficult for Grant to adjust to working solo.

Robert was always a big science-fiction fan and had read a lot of science-fiction books and stuff, and I was kind of, uh, I’d read some science-fiction but I wasn’t nearly as conversant with the literature as he was.
http://www.dvdanswers.com/index.php?r=0&s=13&c=14

Doug seemed to be the driving influence behind the visual element of Red Dwarf – while they were undoubtedly both concerned about the look of the earlier sets, Doug seemed to be the one willing to sort things out. Indeed, it seemed to be Doug that was the first to question why no one had made a television show that was similar in style to John Carpenter’s 1974 film, Dark Star. Rob, being more of a literary SF fan, seemed to drive the show forward in the development of its concepts. The inclusion of a direct reference to Arthur C. Clarke in the first Red Dwarf novel, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, is almost undoubtedly something Grant added. However, it was clearly the combination of both Grant and Naylor that made the episodes work. Like the Lennon-McCartney relationship (directly referenced in Red Dwarf), it was clearly the influence and energy of the other that made the episodes/songs work. Much like Lennon-McCartney, when Grant & Naylor went their separate ways, their solo careers were noticeably disappointing. Compared to their earlier, collaborative, efforts, their new work seemed strangely lacking.

We move immediately to the late Douglas Adams. Neil Gaiman, in his introduction [2] to the omnibus edition of the Hitchhiker’s series, wrote:

He liked science fiction, but he was never a fan. […] The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used the tropes of science fiction to talk about the things that concerned Douglas, the world he observed, his thoughts on Life, the Universe, and Everything. As we moved into a world where people really did think that digital watches were a pretty neat idea, the landscape had become science fiction and Douglas, with a relentless curiosity about matters scientific, an instinct for explanation, and a laser-sharp sense of where the joke was, was in a perfect position to comment upon, to explain, and to describe that landscape.
–Neil Gaiman,
January 2002

M.J. Simpson, author of Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, once said in an interview, “It’s common for SF fans to complain that Douglas wasn’t the first person to combine comedy and SF – citing Sheckley and co – but to be fair Douglas never claimed this. It’s a claim made by the same sort of ill-informed, lazy journalists who constantly refer to HHGG as a spoof or a parody, which it very, very obviously isn’t. As Douglas pointed out, he never set out to spoof SF, he used SF to spoof everything else. And nobody, with the possible exception of Woody Allen in Sleeper, had done that successfully before.”

Simpson is correct in his assertion that Hitchhiker’s is not a spoof, but it can certainly be a satire at times, even of SF concepts. Simpson also shows he has a decent knowledge of the history of SF, at least in relation to Adams. Robert Sheckley is a well-known Silver Age SF author, and generally known for his short, satirical, fiction. “If the Marx brothers had been literary rather than thespic fantasists, they would have been Robert Sheckley,” said Harlan Ellison. However, Sheckley was an SF author, as opposed to Adams, who was an author who “used SF to spoof everything else.” Based on the evidence that Adams was not an SF fan and not even terribly well-read within the genre, it is clear that some of his concepts would – consciously or sub-consciously – reference the SF that he had read. And while Adams was tremendously imaginative within these concepts, the concepts themselves had an element to them of SF satire. For example, explorations of the history of the Earth and even the idea that the Earth had been built specifically for/by a race of super-intelligent beings was a well-used one in the 50s and 60s. However, the idea that these super-intelligent beings were mice was what made the idea so interesting. It was Adams at his best; taking well-known concepts and turning them on their ear.

Dr. Jack Cohen, an evolutionary biologist, once said, “‘Douglas wasn’t really interested in biology as such […] but he was very interested to meet a biologist and we spent some time talking over coffee. […] what Douglas was spoofing in his scripts was the folk elements of the genre, not specific works. I don’t think he was well-read in science fiction – in fact he was quite dismissive of it.'” [3]

It is clear, then, that Adams was never an SF fan as Rob Grant had been. Even on his official website, there is this:

Who are your favorite authors?
Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, P.G.Wodehouse, Ruth Rendell
http://www.douglasadams.com/dna/articles.html

Even the most science fiction-y writer on this list, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was merely a writer who occasionally dabbled in science fiction. He was never “a science fiction author.” Most of his straight SF works were published under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout. (Aside from the 1975 novel, Venus on the Half-Shell, which Philip Jose Farmer wrote as “Kilgore Trout” to get him out of a deep bout of writer’s block. Farmer disguised himself for the jacket sleeve by wearing a false beard and a Confederate hat. The history behind some of these pseudonyms can be very strange and bewildering.) Indeed, with Adams’s two main influences being Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse, it’s clear that he was more of a comedy fan than an SF fan, and this shows in his writing. In most Red Dwarf episodes, the science fiction element can be taken seriously. Examples would be: White Hole (where it would be quite easy to write a serious, dramatic story about a white hole spewing time back into the universe), Future Echoes (what with messages from the future), as opposed to the idea of the Improbability Drive (a great idea, but even its name suggests that its conception was tongue-in-cheek), or the idea of the Earth being demolished for a galactic freeway.

It’s clear that Adams and Grant Naylor are approaching the same subject from very different angles, and hopefully after this article at least a few people will stop arguing that Dwarf rips off Hitchhiker’s, because it’s clearly not true. Someone can like Hitchhiker’s more than Red Dwarf (which all depends on taste, and whatnot), but the idea that Grant Naylor stole from Adams is false.

Oh, wait. As it turns out, I’m completely wrong. Red Dwarf clearly rips Hitchhiker’s off in any number of ways. To demonstrate this fact, just look at this list. It’s irrefutable proof that Grant Naylor was entirely unoriginal.

[Queeg]
HOLLY: It’s probably not serious, don’t panic.
RIMMER: Well, when it’s not serious when your genitals can go wandering off on their own, I wonder what is?

[The Last Day]
KRYTEN: Is it just me, or is that cockroach shuffling too loudly?
RIMMER: Kryten, it’s called a hangover. Don’t panic.

[DNA]
KRYTEN: There is no need to engage your panic chip, sir. The machine can only operate on organic life. I am mineral, and therefore immune.
COMPUTER: New genetic structure accepted. Metamorphosis in ten seconds and counting.
KRYTEN: Oh. Wait a minute! No. My brain is part organic and therefore it is entirely possible for the machine to transmogrify my physical condition. Engage panic circuits. Panic circuits engaged.

[Justice]
LISTER: Look, don’t panic, man. We’re going to get you out of here.

[Dimension Jump]
RIMMER: The plastic card, the plastic card with the cartoons of the crash procedure on it!
LISTER: Don’t panic, man!

[Meltdown]
CAT: Get us out of here.
LISTER: Don’t panic me, man! I’m doing my best!

CAT: They’re building a gallows! They’re hanging us!
LISTER: Look man, don’t panic. We’re gonna escape.

[Rimmerworld]
RIMMER: You rigged the readouts! You didn’t want to cause any– [hyperventilates, and recovers as he grinds the worry balls] –I can’t breathe, I’m hyperventilating.
KRYTEN: Please sir, don’t panic.

Works Cited

1. Shepard, Lucius. “God is in the Details.” Paragons. Ed. Robin Scott Wilson. St. Martin’s Press, 1996: 195 – 206.
2. Gaiman, Neil. “What Was He Like, Douglas Adams?” The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Del Rey, 2002: vii – ix.
3. Simpson, M.J. Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams. Justin, Charles & Co., Publishers, 2003.

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5 Responses to Hitchhiker’s v. Dwarf (1988 – present)

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  1. Great article, Austin! I landed here because I was researching the whole who-influenced-Douglas-Adams question, and I wanted to ask you if you had any examples of the SF stories you mention that involve “explorations of the history of the Earth and even the idea that the Earth had been built specifically for/by a race of super-intelligent beings … a well-used one in the 50s and 60s”?

  2. The Garbage World stuff in Better Than Life is the only thing that strikes me as Adams-esque.

  3. The Garbage World stuff in Better Than Life is the only thing that strikes me as Adams-esque.

    Thanks, Pete. My question was really about what influenced Douglas Adams, rather than how Adams influenced Dwarf.

    So, yes, my question is off-topic for this site, for which I apologise.

  4. Er…I wasn’t actually replying to you, Ant. I was simply commenting on the subject of the article.

  5. (FWIW, I thought this was a newly published article rather than one from 11 years ago)

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