Looking Back At DIRK GENTLY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At DIRK GENTLY

Tony re-connects to a hero. Fails to find a cat.
Dirk Gently is a ‘holistic detective’ that actually made it through the hell of Douglas Adams’ writing process to star in two full books, and roughly ten chapters of a third, before Adams passed away.

If you know anything about the process through which Adams put himself to write books, this should tell you that Dirk Gently was an idea that simply wouldn’t give up.

In the two published Dirk Gently books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long, Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul, Dirk is a former pupil at St Cedd’s College, Cambridge, expelled in highly dubious circumstances. With a peculiar set of skills and a lifestyle bordering on the absurd, he has set himself as a detective up to solve crimes and mysteries by using his oft-repeated belief in ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.’

So. There.

What that means is that rather than progress logically from clue to clue, Dirk progresses in as random a manner as is humanly possible, believing that even though the link between events may not at first be apparent, those links will ultimately be there – and will eventually lead him not where he wanted to go, but where he needed to be, which is to a solution of the mystery.

Still with us?

Good.

Dirk Gently has now had two major adaptations for TV – one set in Britain and fairly faithful to the books, and one set in America, with what it might well please Adams to learn is a much more tangential and chaotic relationship to its source material.

In 2010, the British adaptation, with Stephen Mangan in the role of Dirk and Darren Boyd as Richard MacDuff, his one-time college friend and now business partner/assistant, hit our screens. MacDuff features in the first of the Dirk Gently books, and so makes a certain amount of sense as the TV Dirk’s sidekick.

There’s one thing that fans of the Dirk in the books really need to get over if we’re going to have any kind of fun with the TV adaptation though.

Dirk, as described in the books, is “a pudgy man who normally wears a heavy old light brown suit, red checked shirt with a green striped tie, long leather coat, red hat and thick metal-rimmed spectacles.”

Take a look at Stephen Mangan.
No hat, no glasses, and most importantly of all, any “pudge” that came near Stephen Mangan’s body would be battered to death by the simple power of his electrifying metabolism. Both in the 2010 version and its 2016 American re-imagining, in which Dirk is portrayed by the even more svelte Samuel Barnett, Dirk Gently has been relentlessly slimmed down for TV.

As we say, fans of the books really need to get over that to get the enjoyment they deserve out of the 2010 incarnation though, because there’s plenty of fun to be had.

With Dirk’s idiosyncratic approach to detection established, the 2010-12 series of just four episodes makes fairly free use of elements from the books, and then wildly invents around the premise. In these four episodes, we get some time travel, we get the achievement of sentient AI, we get the so-called technological singularity – the point where human bodies and machine intelligences combine. We also get the invention of a computer program that can convince you of the logical steps you need to take to get to a result you set – a kind of Hitler Engine, if you like, that would convince you of all the things you needed to believe before, say, declaring war on Switzerland. And we get a professional killer wiping out Dirk’s previous clients, for reasons no-one understands.

All of these feel remarkably like fresh and viable cases for Adams’ peculiar detective, and if some of them are adventures where you guess the resolution significantly ahead of the protagonists, there’s still enough verve in both the scripts and the performances to make the Mangan Dirk Gently series an enjoyable, eminently rewatchable experience.
Let’s talk performances briefly. We’ve said that Stephen Mangan, brilliant as he may be, does not look like the Dirk of the books. This is true, but bless our quantum pop-socks, he’s colossally watchable. In essence, this is Stephen Mangan giving us his Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, while also channelling the literary Dirk Gently and quite a heaping teaspoon of Sherlock Holmes to boot.

Whether on the move, in which case he has the energy of a demented ferret with its bum on fire, or in repose, when he looks like he’s crunching the quantum universe down to size, Mangan may not be the Dirk you’re expecting, but hot damn, he’s good value for screen money.

Meanwhile, Darren Boyd is an inspired piece of casting as Richard MacDuff, who both in the first Dirk Gently novel and in the show, starts off seeming miserable, listless, and lacking in purpose – something that irks his girlfriend Susan no end. Boyd here plays a reasonable hang-dog to begin with, but changes over time as his association with Gently gives him a purpose. Susan, by the way, gives a good part to Helen Baxendale, who is too often criminally underused when she’s cast in things.

She’s perhaps not used to the fullness of her potential here either, but she gives us quite enough to imagine how her character would have gone on in the universe in which this version of Dirk Gently’s adventures had carried on longer.
The one thing it’s actually a relief to find left out of this adaptation of Dirk Gently is the precise storyline of the first Dirk Gently novel. Involving a time-travelling Cambridge don, the dawn of life on Earth, an immovably stuck sofa, an impossible parlour tick, and the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the plot took a lot of elements from Shada, a Tom Baker Doctor Who story written by Adams, that was never completed or broadcast due to strike action in the Seventies. It has now, with an almost crushing inevitability, been reworked and re-told probably more times than any other Doctor Who story in history – though when Adams adapted it for the first Dirk Gently book, it hadn’t been subject to those reworkings, and it must have seemed like a golden opportunity to use the material in another format.

Dirk Gently on screen doesn’t exactly ignore that original, but it does recycle it to much better effect than any straight re-presentation would do. The pilot episode of the show makes use of some elements in a much-updated and fresher form. Episode 3 takes us back to Dirk and Richard’s Cambridge college to meet their professor – but the story that unfolds is brand new, fresh, and surprisingly moving.

While there will be diehard Dirk fans who find the 2010 TV version a kind of Jonathan Creek with quantum physics, and who disdain it on those grounds, for plenty of others, that’s precisely the key to its charm. There are adventures to be had, and a detective with a way of solving cases which is either brilliant and esoteric or a potential rip-off scheme to fiddle old ladies out of their life savings, or both.

The joy, which is almost less clear even in the books than it is in the Mangan version, is that Dirk never for one moment believes he is ripping off anyone – except possibly the taxman, but as he might say, in that instance, they did start it. He gets up in the morning and determines to find an old dear’s cat, or discover whether a husband is cheating on his wife, or where a hyper-advanced robot has disappeared to. If his methods involve potentially spending three weeks on a tropical beach holiday, that’s just the fundamental interconnectedness of all things kicking in. One way or another, Dirk Gently will get where he needs to be. That dedication of the character to the methodology he spouts, while it might make him sound like a raving lunatic to some people, at least here convincingly saves him from ever sounding like a heartlessly conniving con artist.

The Stephen Mangan/Darren Boyd version of Dirk Gently has charm, wit, time travel, Helen Baxendale, and a slightly watered-down rendering of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment.

Ultimately, it does more than enough to deserve more episodes than it got. The episodes that exist are superb binge-watching, while having the additional benefit that they only really count as a mini-binge. Four hours out of your life will give you a Dirk Gently you weren’t expecting, and show you a glimpse into a universe of further stories that could have – and arguably, should have – been.

Watch Dirk Gently today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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