“Dirk Gently” Review

“Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.”

That quote, from Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency does not actually make it into Howard Overman’s pilot for Dirk Gently, but it perfectly encapsulate Gently’s approach as portrayed by Stephen Mangan.

Overman has not so much adapted the novel as cannibalise it to fit a one-hour drama series format, and he has done so superbly. The plot for the episode is a satisfying combination of the logical and the completely impossible, even though it is far removed from any part of the the intricacies of the story that inspired it. The reveal was a surprise even though I’m very familiar with the book.  It’s hard, and perhaps rather irrelevant, to make comparisons with the book, so here are a few thoughts on the episode itself:

Things I liked:

  • Stephen Mangan as Gently manages to confound and confuse with an air of confidence and an unrelenting supply of apparent nonsense.  He’s nothing like I imagined him visually, but he nails making the apparently irrelevant impressively urgent.
  • Helen Baxendale. Like, wow.  All over again.  Wow.
  • Baxendale’s character Susan is a significant upgrade upon the way Adams wrote her.  She’s funny. And fierce.
  • Dirk shovelling bourbons into his pocket caused me to exhale wine through my nose.
  • An Austin Princess (of COURSE it’s a classic car).
  • Gilks.
  • Gently’s account of Schrödinger’s cat through flashback – and his not being called on it.
  • Making the case all about Mrs Sauskind’s cat (or whatever she is called in this).
  • Taking pure Douglas Adams and blending it in seamlessly (eg. Dirk phoning MacDuff mid-burglary and giving him a lesson on housebreaking).

Things I didn’t like so much:

  • MacDuff being a bit… stupid.  I can see the intention is to give Dirk a sidekick who needs everything explained.  But I found this version of the character rather unlikable. What happened to the intelligent but absent minded programmer? Well, obviously he became Gordon Way in this, but… I liked MacDuff in the book.
  • Also, I’d have like Dirk to make him jump in the canal under hypnosis because I love that sequence, but I’ll let that one pass.

In summary: absolutely brilliant and it will be a travesty if a full series isn’t in production by Monday.  More please!

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

7 thoughts on ““Dirk Gently” Review

  1. Loathe though I am to admit it: After the rapid decline of quality/funny of the later HHGTG books, I never bothered to read any Dirk Gently, so I came into this completely cold (apart from some general understanding of the concept.)

    It was quite entertaining, but I wonder if a series about a wild bunch of coincidences… sorry… the interconnectedness of the universe… will have legs.

    I certainly hope they give it a go, though.

    I would not have recognized Helen Baxendale, but the last thing I saw her in was back in 1994…

    1. I’m astonished you’ve never read the Dirk Gently books: they’re excellent (and very different). The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul is especially good; most of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency will be familiar as I assume you have seen the Doctor Who serials City of Death and Shada on which it is based. (I wouldn’t agree that the quality of the HHGG books declined so much as dipped while Adams recycled a rejected Doctor Who script and adjusted his style to suit novel – rather than script – writing.)

      Anyway, both books, like this pilot, neatly dovetail a succession of wild coincidences into a singular explanation. It can’t be easy to write, but I love it. I think Howard Overman’s got the track-record to do it.

      So did you see the brilliant Cardiac Arrest? I don’t think Baxendale’s changed much. (And Susan, like Dr Claire Maitland, is a medic 😉 )

      1. I really don’t know exactly what it was about the hitchhiker’s guide books. The first one, which I read while at college, is the first instance of a book that made me laugh out loud, sometimes uncontrollably. (I read it in advance of the original series showing on PBS)

        (I think Ben Elton’s “This Other Eden” was the only other book that kept me as amused as the original HHGTG.)

        To a lesser degree, the second book was the same, but the third… and forth… and on… didn’t resonate as well, and for that reason, I just didn’t want to invest my time in the Dirk Gentlys.

        I’ve never counted, but I’d guess I read somewhere around 30-40 books a year, but there are so many books to read, so little time. Based on this show, I think I’ll try to squeak at least the first DG book in this coming year.

        Actually, I saw Baxendale as Emily in Friends, and I would NEVER call her Rachel.

        1. Ironically, I gave up on Ben Elton before This Other Eden. I saw mini-series adaptation (or perhaps “upgrade”) of Stark (with the wonderful John Neville), and made the mistake of reading Gridlock. I didn’t realise his stuff got good later.

          I didn’t think Baxendale was particularly recognisable in Friends (though I’m sure that was later than ’94 – I remember it being post-Cold Feet). In fact I think the only person whose performance in that show I didn’t find hugely irritating was the the great Hugh Laurie. But he’s wonderful in everything.

          1. Did I say, “94”? Sorry, 99ish…

            I won’t defend Friends other than to say that I found it to be a generally agreeable if not-at-all thought-provoking comedy. Baxendale was entertaining and cute in her guest role, and I think she may have been “playing up” her accent to emphasize her Britishness, which also made her harder to identify in DG.

            I wasn’t as thrilled with Gridlock. I knew Ben Elton from Man From Auntie, Black Adder, etc. and just happened to run across This Other Eden at a college bookstore – an import, I suspect. Heavy-handed, but funny.

            Gridlock, Popcorn and Stark didn’t strike me as funny, although I did quite enjoy Inconceivable.

  2. What a dreadful adaptation. It reduces the wonderful scope and broad flavour of the novel into something trite, clichéd and formulaic. Stephen Mangan is hideously miscast as Dirk Gently – even Harry Enfield’s performance as the character for the Radio 4 adaptations was better. In common with most other current TV productions, the whole thing is smothered in unsubtle incidental music that is anything but incidental, desperately trying to hammer home the point that this programme is KOOKY and ZANY – “laugh here folks!” – when the rapid-fire humour of Douglas Adams has been all but erased from this Godawful script. Avoid like the plague.

    1. Thanks for your comment Max.

      I’m not sure this should be considered an adapation. Certainly Howard Overman has been clear that he considers this a new story rather than an attempt to adapt what’s in the book. I don’t believe it would have been possible to present the “scope and broad flavour” of the novel in one hour – the radio series was three times the running length.

      Personally I preferred Mangan’s Dirk to Enfield’s by a considerable margin. To me, Enfield came over as being rather stuffy and arrogant. Mangan was nimble witted, flamboyant and shameless in a performance that matched my sense of Dirk (if not the appearance in my mind’s eye). Especially the way in which he stole Gordon Way’s file from his psychiatrist.

      I must admit the music did not make much of an impression. I’ll have to watch it again and listen more carefully.

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