The Prisoner remake: a load of number 2

Title for The Prisoner remake
When the title screen tells you to give up, you know you’re in trouble.

The short version: don’t waste your time watching last year’s remake of The Prisoner. Stick with the original.

Considered on its own merits, the remake isn’t terrible, but it never rises above mediocre either. There’s an over-reliance on camera trickery to create confusion on the part of the viewer, with lots of disjointed cuts between scenes that, at it worst, makes some episodes (particular the fifth one) simply difficult to follow. It can be hard to tell whether something is happening concurrently with another scene, or is a flashback, or a dream, or or an hallucination, or something else. Given that each of those happen with quite a bit of regularity, trying to disentangle the editing while making sense of the plot is a nontrivial task.

6 carries 93, wearing a dark shirt 6 seconds later, 6 is wearing a light shirt
Hey, no one noticed when John McClane’s shirt changed color, right?

It would have been nice if the editors had remembered to check for continuity between successive shots, though. Let’s get the basics before we start getting all fancy with the cuts, OK?

The remake does do a couple interesting things with the premise, and it certainly takes things in a very different direction than the original, but it does neither well enough to really stand on its own. And as a fan of the original, it’s impossible for me to evaluate the remake without constantly comparing it against the 1960s version. And there, it comes up far, far short of the mark.

Obviously, a remake is going to change some things. I understand that. Heck, the last time I wrote about a remake of something here, my major complaint was that it changed so little for most of the running time, except for the effects budget. But the The Prisoner remake makes the mistake of changing absolutely fundamental aspects of the original without providing a satisfying payoff for those changes.

The most grating is the issue of 6′s identity. In the original, Number 6 refuses to ever refer to himself as Number 6, the identity imposed upon him in The Village. He never calls himself by any number. He never wears the numbered identity badge that everyone else wears. There’s even an episode where Number 2 struggles to get him to even say the number six in any context.

Contrast the remake, where at the end of the second episode we see 6 screaming at 2 “I am 6, you bastard!” In the following episodes 6 shows no resistance to being identified as 6. The real Number 6 would die sooner than accepting that.

The Village
The remake’s Village is no Portmeirion.

The remake’s version of The Village and the people living there defies suspension of disbelief. The Village is surrounded by desert, and allegedly there is nowhere else. That’s right, the majority of people there accept The Village as being the entirety of human civilization, despite it obviously not having the industrial base needed to manufacture the cars and buses and everything else within it. This is taken to the extreme in the last episode, where we see people arriving by bus to The Village; not only can the new arrivals not explain where they arrived from, but no one besides 6 considers people arriving from allegedly nowhere as something worth questioning.

OK, maybe this isn’t entirely inexplicable, since it’s pretty obvious that the people in The Village live in abject fear of 2, and it would make sense that they would be terrified of voicing any opposition to what he tells them. Even though 2′s weapon of choice is sadistic psychological manipulation, he isn’t above orchestrating acts of terrorism to keep people in line, such as having a diner full of people blown up in the first episode in order to silence 554, where “silence” in this context means “put into a coma.” Although, given 2′s fondness of hand grenades, he may have simply done it himself.

2 holding a grenade
2′s the kind of guy who will throw a grenade at you and ask if you’ve had sex with your mother. I am not making this up.

In the original, most of the Number 2s didn’t sink to that level of obvious evil, and there was some ambiguity as to whether at least some of them were prisoners themselves who capitulated to The Village’s unseen masters. No, the remake’s 2 is pretty clearly evil. Nor is there any question in the remake as to 2 being in charge. This time around, when 6 asks “Who is number one?” — a recurring question in the original — the answer simply comes back that 2 is called 2 instead of 1 as a show of humility. Period.

I’m reluctant to call the remake The Prisoner In Name Only, but then there’s the issue of the episode titles. Each title is a one-word version of an episode of the original, but in only two of the six episodes is the plot even remotely related to the plot in the original. What’s the point, other than trying to slip in a shout-out?

It’s fitting how in the opening of the first episode we see 6 bury 93 in a shallow grave in the desert. 93 is wearing the same distinctive outfit that the original’s Number 6 wore. According to the commentary, the creators of the remake had even tried to get Patrick McGoohan to play the role of 93. I think that pretty much sums up symbolically what the remake does to the original.

Spoiler warning: If you don’t want me to spoil the endings of both the original and the remake, you better stop reading here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Aahh, doorknob! I mean, Mother 3!

Mother 3 title screen

Mother 3 is better than EarthBound (a.k.a. Mother 2).

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Mother 3 is the game where Lucas and the New Pork City stage in Brawl come from. (Tip: if you want to avoid Mother 3 spoilers, don’t play Brawl.)

Mother 3 delivers the same style of humor as its predecessor, despite having a more serious, even depressing, storyline. And manages to pull it off, no less. To avoid spoilers, I’ll save further discussion and speculation on that for a separate post, but suffice it to say I’m still trying to figure out whether or not I liked the ending. (And EarthBound’s cast list at the end blows Mother 3′s out of the water, but never mind that.)

Graphically, it has the same cartoony 16-bit sprite style of EarthBound, but larger and with much more detail. Whereas EarthBound gave you a two-frame walk animation, Mother 3 has sprite animation like this:

The battle system is much the same as in EarthBound, including the rolling HP meter. Fighting in Mother 3 relies on more exploitation on that mechanic, however; there are plenty of enemies that do lots of damage, but beating them quickly lets you exit battle before most of the HP drop occurs. Likewise, which characters you rely on to heal makes a difference, since the longer you wait, the closer everyone else could come to death. There’s also a new combo mechanic, where tapping the button in time with the rhythm of the background music deals more damage. Together, they keep battles fast-paced, despite being rooted in an archaic choose-everyone’s-action-at-the-start-of-the-turn system.

Even better, the final battle doesn’t depend on spamming a command that is either only available in the final battle (Sing in the original Mother) or is largely useless until the final battle (Pray in EarthBound). Instead, the final battle in Mother 3 is… something else entirely. But enough about that, without getting into spoilers.

Hippo Launcher

Like EarthBound, the enemies you fight skew strongly towards the goofy. In particular, the villains in Mother 3 spend a lot of time making chimeras, so when you aren’t fighting the Pigmask army you’ll be facing off against kangasharks (kangaroo + shark, complete with a joey + shark in its pouch), cattlesnakes (not a cat + rattlesnake, but cattle + snake), and hippo launchers (which do not launch hippos, but rather are a hippopotamus + rocket launcher, and are just as dangerous as you’d expect).

I’d say that the Pigmask army’s geneticists have too much free time, but their orders come from the top. Normal animals are boring, after all.

The music in Mother 3 is very good, and there’s plenty of it. The sound player accessible from the title screen has no fewer than 250 songs in it. In particular, there’s a lot of variety in the music that plays during battle, which prevents the tap-in-time-to-the-rhythm mechanic from being too easy, especially since some songs don’t have a steady beat to them. My only complaint musically is that the villain’s leitmotif is very heavily represented throughout the soundtrack, so if you don’t like it, that’s going to pose a bit of a problem.

Restrooms

While the “dungeon”-type areas you fight through are generally good, a few in particular stand out. Tanetane Island is wonderfully creepy and disturbing, and the boss at the end was indeed magnificent. The tower in Chapter 8, whose name I won’t mention due to it being a spoiler, is quite possibly the greatest final dungeon I have ever seen in an RPG. At the very least, it has the best use of toilets in a video game, period.

Although having experienced EarthBound isn’t strictly necessary to understand Mother 3, I’d recommend it. Not just because I’d recommend playing EarthBound in general, mind you, even though I would. There are connections to be found between the two games, which I’ll probably ramble on about at great length in the spoilery companion to this post. Maybe someday EarthBound will finally be released on Virtual Console.

Finally, I must say that the Mother 3 translation is very well done. The project’s blog goes into great detail about all the challenges involved in making it, and the end result shows a lot of polish and attention to detail. It wasn’t just a matter of replacing Japanese text with English text; there were lots of technical problems that had to be hacked through along the way, all without anything to go off of except the binary code of the game.

So stop reading this and go play Mother 3.

[Image credit: starmen.net]

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Everyone in the galaxy is an idiot. At least, that’s what I learned from playing Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.

Let’s say you’re the Galactic Federation. You hire a handful of bounty hunters to hand-deliver an antivirus to your computer systems after the Space Pirates have (choose one: compromised, owned, 0wn3d, pwn3d) your networks. Suddenly, said Space Pirates launch a surprise attack, and while aforementioned bounty hunters try to stop a very unpleasant-looking glowing space rock from smashing into your military base, they get blasted by the nigh-unkillable antagonist from the previous game with something that makes their bodies start producing phazon.

Phazon, by the way, is basically concentrated evil in mineral form. It’s extremely toxic and mutagenic, with the tendency to mutate anything or anyone who comes into contact with it into something very deadly and something eager to be deadly. Naturally, the Space Pirates love using the stuff in their genetic experiments.

In other words, suppose someone shot you in the face, and suddenly you started pooping weapons-grade uranium. Now suppose that weapons-grade uranium is also sentient. Well, being the GF, you’re now stuck with four bounty hunters with this condition. What do you do?

Naturally, instead of trying to cure them, you figure out a way to weaponize this internal phazon production in three of the bounty hunters and send them out to fight the Space Pirates. And when you mysteriously lose contact with them after a couple weeks, instead of suspecting that the evil sentient self-regenerating substance has done something, you know, bad to them, you go ahead and make the same “upgrade” to your last bounty hunter, and send her out to find out what happened. And kill Space Pirates.

For whatever reason, Samus apparently sees nothing wrong with any of this. If it were me, I’d be a little upset about them making changes to my armor while I was busy being unconscious with a life-threatening medical condition. Especially when it turns out that the fail-safes in the upgrade to prevent runaway phazon production, um, don’t exactly “work”.

In the GF’s defense, they do apologize when they find out what they did.

That’s the premise to Corruption in a nutshell. The same sort of 3D Metroid action you’d expect from the rest of the sub-series ensues as you travel between planets collecting power-ups and upgrades hidden in implausible areas in (mostly) abandoned environs in between shooting Space Pirates and the eponymous metroids. In that respect, it does things a bit better than its predecessors, in that the plot coupons needed to access the final area of the game are less blatantly arbitrary. In Corruption, they’re energy cells needed to systematically power sections of what’s left of the GFS Valhalla as you explore it, whereas in the previous two games they were “artifacts” or “keys” needed to pass an arbitrary barrier leading to the final boss. (Echoes was particularly bad in this respect, requiring a series of keys to be collected to reach every major boss.)

The Wiimote+Nunchuk control scheme works pretty well, with the decoupling of movement and aiming eliminating much of the need to lock on to enemies in order to hit anything. There’s a lot of waving the Wiimote around to activate knobs and levers and such to activate them, but by matching the motions Samus makes in-game, it avoids feeling like the “arbitrary waggle” controls that apparently plague many Wii games. Plus, swinging the Nunchuk back and forth to use the Grapple Beam works well, especially when using it to rip apart annoying flying enemies.

One problem with the controls, albeit a minor one, is that although all the dials-and-levers type stuff is done with the Wiimote in your right hand, Samus does the motions with her left hand, which breaks the verisimilitude a bit. Of course, her right hand is sort of occupied operating her arm cannon.

I’m less forgiving, however, of the attempt to force more traditional FPS elements into the game play. It comes up a bit in the Spire Pod sequence in SkyTown where you fight hordes of Space Pirates, but it becomes much more blatant in the last areas of the Pirate Homeworld. The combination of the X-Ray Visor and the Nova Beam acts like a sniper rifle, letting you headshot Space Pirates for one-hit kills. Soon after that’s introduced, you’re stuck with the task of escorting a squad of GF tactical demolitionists who have a surprising lack of combat ability. None of this feels very Metroidy, and it weakens the final areas of the game.

Speaking of which, I didn’t much care for how the entire way your health meter works is changed in the final area, especially not the ham-handed way it’s explained to you via a series of four or five dialog popups. I suppose it would’ve been worse if the permanent-hypermode you’re stuck with on Phaaze worked the same way hypermode does in the rest of the game, where letting the phazon meter fill up results in game over, but still, I can’t approve of changing such a core game play mechanic like that, especially once that guts even the limited options for weapons selection you had up until then.

And weapons selection is almost as limited as in the original NES version of Metroid: the new types of beams and missiles replace, rather than complement, the old ones. Worse, missiles as a whole aren’t all that useful once you have enough energy tanks in reserve to abuse hypermode, which is effective against pretty much everything you fight. I don’t think I ever ran close to running out of missiles even before my stockpile hit triple digits.

However, I must give credit for how the game has you deal with the shield protecting the Leviathan Seed on Elysia. On Bryyo, getting past it involved fighting your way to a pair of shield generators and calling in airstrikes from your spaceship. It initially seems like the same will happen on Elysia, until the Aurora unit in SkyTown suggests you just drop a giant bomb on the shield and blow it up. Of course, you then have to run around SkyTown assembling said giant bomb, but still.

Also appreciated is the ability to have all the locations of hidden items marked on your map near the end of the game, if you figure out how to do that. It beats traversing the game world again looking for those last couple items if you’re going for 100% completion. Though to my credit, I did manage to get 98% of them through careful observation and obsessive note-taking, using the endgame map only to find the last two missile expansions.

In practice, however, that’s really only for bragging rights (and unlocking slightly longer endings), since as I mentioned earlier, there’s little reason to use missiles except to get past certain obstacles. Ship missile expansions are even more useless, since aside from getting past a couple obstacles on Bryyo you never need to call in bombing runs again. Actually, it turns out that all the different buttons in the spaceship are just for decoration except for the one that lets you fly from one point to another. Not that I was looking for a dogfight sequence in a Metroid game, though, but if the ship only serves as transportation and a mobile save point, why bother with a cockpit screen at all?

Finally, getting back to my opening rant: the only reason Samus and the GF emerge victorious at the end of the game is that the Space Pirates are even dumber than the GF seems to be. The Space Pirates have hand scanners to activate their equipment. Space Pirate hands don’t look even remotely human, what with the three pointy fingers and all. So why do they have no problem accepting Samus’s hand, given that she is (a) human and (b) walking Space Pirate death. Samus is the last person Space Pirates would want using their stuff. It’s like if TSA made you use a hand scanner before boarding the plane, but the scanner was perfectly OK with bin Laden’s hand on it. Or a kitten.

And how exactly do hand scanners work when someone is wearing full body armor, anyway?

On On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

Last weekend I bought Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 1, and spent entirely too much time this past week playing through it.

I was curious about the game for two reasons. First, I like Penny Arcade, which happens to be the very first webcomic I was introduced to, way back when I was a freshman. Second, they actually produced a Linux version of the game, which you see pretty rarely in the world of commercial games. It seems like the sort of thing I should encourage.

Since they had a free demo of the game, I was first able to see if the game would actually run on my four-year-old laptop, which meets the minimum specs, barely. It does, albeit with swapping everything else out of RAM on startup and taking a long time to switch between areas. But doing the game itself, performance is acceptable, at least one you get used to the slight amount of lag in areas where timing is important. (Most noticeable in the Vandalism minigame, where I’d need to hit the space bar when the meter was centered over the left or right stack if I wanted it to stop over the center one.) Of course, this is more the fault of my old, ill-suited-for-gaming hardware; the game is indeed entirely playable.

The demo got me hooked, and the rest of the game didn’t disappoint. The battle system is nicely done, encouraging you to do more elaborate things than just “attack enemies until they die” to get the bonuses. There’s no random encounters — in fact, enemies never respawn, period, so there’s no grindiness to be found. Plus, you get to beat up barbershop quartets, which is always fun.

Really, the game is largely devoid of the typical set of annoyances you find in games. No random battles. A “Case Log” that reminds you what needs to be done to advance the plot. Auto-saving after any significant event (including battles). Automatic healing after battles. A tutorial level (the demo) where the tutorial content is both entertaining and skippable. You can tell the game was designed by people who play a lot of games, and decided not to put in the things that make games stop being fun.

But where the game really shines, naturally, is the humor. All the cutscenes are filled with precisely the sort of dialog you’d expect from Penny Arcade. My favorite, for some reason, is when the player tries to get a reaction out of The Silent Pope by singing The Name Game for “mime”, pausing after each line to wait for a response.

The game is fairly small in scope, but the level of detail is impressive. Loads of things on each screen have a humorous description or two to be found when you click on them. It turns out there’s a lot of things you can say about trash cans, or ice cream cones dropped on the boardwalk. It’s also a nice touch to have the little robots — you know the ones — say “01100110 01110101 01100011 01101011″, which means exactly what you think it does.

And for the record, the cat is not worthless. It is possible for its attack to do non-negligible damage, and it happens with greater than the roughly 1-in-2,000,000 probability claimed in-game.

Now they just need to come out with the next episode. My character needs revenge. And a house.

You Are (Not) George Lucas

[Editor's note: You knew this was coming eventually. Deal with it.]

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, the first movie in a four-part “Rebuild” remake of Neon Genesis Evangelion, was recently released on DVD in Japan. And while no distributors have apparently bought the rights to print money release it in the U.S. yet, a little thing like that’s not going to stop me from reviewing it.

As with any remake of something, there’s the question of how closely it will follow the original. Something has to be different about the remake, or else what’s the point of making it? (The answer: shamelessly cashing in.) There’s the opportunity to improve on the original and trim the filler. But there’s also the trap of losing what made the original good, and deviating from what fans liked about the original will lead them to declare that the remake sucks.

In other words, a good remake needs to stick to the original, but do something different, but not too different. And in this case, keep in mind that anime fandom is more, well, fanatical, than a survivor of the Kirk-Picard flamewars wearing a “Han Shot First” T-shirt. Squared. We’re talking about fans that sent the director death threats over how the series ended. Screw up the remake, and you can imagine how they’ll react.

So, does 1.0 pull it off?

Yes.

Blood Rainbow
When it’s raining angel blood, you do (not) want to know what’s in the pot at the end of the rainbow.

The first half of the movie roughly corresponds with the first four episodes of the series. Well, “roughly” might not be the right word, since most of the scenes are virtually lifted directly from it. They’re redrawn and reanimated everything in much higher quality, granted, but the scenes in the movie reproduce the originals almost shot-by-shot.

Of course, squeezing four 25-minute episodes into about 50 minutes of movie means that the scenes that aren’t copied from the series pretty much get left out entirely. Given that the episodes in question didn’t have much filler to begin with, the pacing of the movie ends up being way too fast, rushing from one major plot point to another. Shinji‘s relationship with his classmates, for example, is cut to the bare minimum: he gets punched; he rescues them during battle; they apologize. That’s it. If you haven’t seen the series, you’ll wind up wondering why you should even care. Likewise, Shinji running away — the bulk of episode 4 — gets reduced to a few minutes on screen.

As a result, the first half gives you prettier graphics but poorer storytelling.

Once the movie gets to episode 5′s material, however, the pacing slows to something more manageable and the movie starts realizing its potential. The basic plot of episodes 5 and 6 is mostly unchanged, but the scenes start unfolding differently, so it no longer comes across as something you’ve already seen, but rather as a different take on the same story.

The first engagement with the fifth sixth angel, Ramiel, illustrates this dramatically. In the series, Unit 01 deploys, immediately gets the bejeezus lasered out of it, and is promptly (after an end-of-episode cliffhanger) lowered back underground. In the movie, the fight is much more elaborate. Ramiel is no longer merely an animation-budget-saving regular octohedron, but now shapeshifts before each attack like a cross between an evil Rubik’s cube and the Windows flower box screensaver. Now instead of having Unit 01 retreat immediately, NERV raises a blast shield to block the laser, and Ramiel responds by firing a quad laser to melt through the shield. With the launcher melted by the blast, NERV rescues Unit 01 by blowing the supports and lowering the entire city block until Unit 01 is out of sight.

Just about all the scenes building up to the sniping mission at the climax of the movie are similarly “epic’d up” and made more elaborate, which ends up working quite well. The core of the plot stays unchanged, which is good; there weren’t any problems with episode 6 story-wise, but seeing its events rendered on more than a shoestring budget is appreciated.

But given how closely the storyline follows the series, it’s particular interesting to note the ways in which it explicitly diverges from the series, and speculate how they’ll play out over the next three movies. [Spoilers ahead.]

First, as I noted in passing, the angel that attacks the city in the opening scene, Sachiel, is now designated the fourth angel, rather than the third; the other angels that appear in the movie have their enumeration similarly adjusted. (Now I get to look up their names so as to refer to them unambiguously. Yay.) So what’s the third angel going to turn out to be? Hmmmmm.

Then there’s an added scene where Shinji is stuck between mope and angst (i.e., being Shinji) before the final battle against Ramiel. As part of a pep talk, Misato takes him down to Terminal Central Dogma, shows him Lilith, and tells him that NERV is defending it because if an angel reaches it, that will cause Third Impact and wipe out mankind. In the series, everything involving Lilith is a very closely guarded secret; Misato only discovers it when Kaji shows it to her in the second half of the series (and he only found out about it by snooping around being a triple agent), and even then they mistakenly think it’s Adam. The fact that in the movie Misato apparently knows all about it already is interesting to say the least.

Blood on the Moon
SEELE’s space program was funded by cutting the janitorial budget.

Finally (literally), there’s an added scene at the end, immediately following what was the final scene in episode 6, that opens up all kinds of questions. Apparently there’s some kind of secret SEELE base on the moon, where Kaworu (!) and a SEELE monolith make cryptic comments to each other, and we see a Lilith-looking thing in a pit (!) in the middle of a bloody swath across the lunar landscape (!) with Earth and its blood-red oceans (!) hanging in the background.

I mean, in a post-Second-Impact economy, how exactly does an organization, secret or otherwise, manage to construct a lunar base? Especially when that organization had already committed to constructing what are effectively giant fighting robots, and a city that retracts into the ground for them to fight in and only partially destroy with the collateral damage.

Plus, Kaworu’s totally not wearing a helmet. Or, um, anything else. Moving on….

Evangelion Unit 06
Now that the Cylons have an Evangelion, humanity is frakked.

Then there’s the next episode movie preview after the credits, revealing even more surprises. Intermixed with events from the series (Asuka and Unit 02 deploying; Unit 04′s destruction; the fight with the thirteenth whateverth angel, Bardiel) are things without any analogue in the series: Unit 05 deploying, weird ghost-and-halo-looking things bracketed by the text “ADAMS” (!) and “LILIN+?”, Unit 06 descending from the moon (!), and a new pilot. Needless to say, Evangelion 2.0: Division is going to diverge quite a bit from episodes 7 through 18.

(If you’re wondering how quick the pacing the movie would have to be to cover all that, keep in mind that episodes 7 through 13 have a lot of filler and you could safely cut entire episodes without too much damage to the story.)

Here’s my theory: the secret backstory from the series is the cover story used by NERV in the Rebuild continuity. Misato doesn’t actually know the truth about Lilith, because it’s a different truth this time around, thus suckering fans of the original series into thinking they know what’s going on as well. I don’t know what the truth is going to be, but a hint might lie in a comment one of the SEELE monoliths makes to Gendo about needing to fulfill a “contract with Lilith”. Whether that’s literal or metaphorical, I don’t know.

Or, as Gendo said in End of Evangelion, “The truth is, _____________.”

Moon Pit
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot or lookin’ at a thing in a pit.

Another theory: the creature in the pit on the moon is the as-yet-unnamed third angel. Kaworu makes a cryptic comment about “the third again, huh?” while looking at it. Though “the third” could refer to Shinji (the third child), since Kaworu’s next line mentions him while looking up at Earth. If that’s the case, than the thing in the pit would be a naked Unit 06, before its armor/restraints have been put on. But why would SEELE be building Unit 06 on the moon in the first place, unless there were a very good reason for it, such as cloning it from the as-yet-unrevealed third angel, if it’s also there somewhere? We’ve seen Lilith (the second angel) under NERV headquarters, and presumably Adam (the first angel) was in Antarctica and caused the Second Impact, just as in the series.

“Presumably.” But by my first theory, the secret backstory in the movies are different, so Second Impact could’ve had some other cause, since none of the details surrounding it have been mentioned in the movie yet. Hmmmm.

Or, a less out-in-left-field theory would be that Kaworu has been designated the third angel this time around (instead of the seventeenth), but that doesn’t explain what’s on the moon, or why Unit 06 would come from there, or why NERV would know anything about Kaworu to begin with — in the series, SEELE sent him to NERV as a replacement for Asuka, and they didn’t realize he was an angel until he took over Unit 02 and took it down to Terminal Dogma in episode 24, thinking he’d find Adam there.

So, even though the movie closely follows the storyline of the first six episodes, streamlining and possibly simplifying it, there’s just enough changes and added material to launch rampant wild speculation among fans of the series to try to figure out what’s really going on. The director, Hideaki Anno, managed to figure out a way to cater both to newcomers and the existing fanbase, and did so without ruining any of the classic scenes in the first set of episodes in the series.

Well played.

Don’t Panic

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: TV Series opening

I recently discovered by a lucky accident that Netflix has the old (i.e., from 1981) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series available. It was obvious what had to be done.

Unfortunately, the disc Netflix shipped to me at first was, in topological terms, a sphere rather than a torus. I almost panicked, due to the lack of any instructions in large friendly letters on the packaging to the contrary, but instead of throwing in the towel, I reported the problem and got a structurally intact disc.

The six-episode series follows the plot of the books a lot more faithfully than the movie. (Yes, I know the TV series is based on the original radio play, which the books were also based on. Sheesh, it says so right there in the title graphic. Quit being so pedantic.) The storyline runs from the demolition of the Earth by the Vogons through to Magrathea and Milliways and up to Arthur and Ford being stranded with the Golgafrinchans on prehistoric Earth.

Without a doubt, the best part of the series are the sequences narrated by The Guide, with accompanying fake “computer” animations. Of course, this is hardly surprising, since Douglas Adams’s narrative style is a large part of what makes the books so great, and The Guide’s scenes allow that to come through with full force. The animations also supply some nice supplementary material, such as examples of the first and second worst forms of poetry in the universe that put Vogon poetry to shame.

Zaphod Beeblebrox

It goes without saying that if you’re a fan of the books (and who isn’t?), you’ll like the series too. There’s only a few things to quibble with. One of them is Zaphod‘s second head. Can you tell which one is the fake one? It’s supposed to be animatronic, but you hardly ever see it move at all, except for bouncing around on the actor’s shoulder as he moves around due to inertia. I know, I know, there’s really no good way to do the whole two-heads-side-by-side thing in live action, especially with 1980s special effects. And to be fair, at least they tried; the movie punted by making the heads one on top of the other, with the second head conveniently hidden from view most of the time, and even then they contrived a way to get rid of it entirely in very not-at-all-in-the-book subplot. So they did do about as well as anyone could expect with Zaphod. But still, it looks goofy.

There’s also one other thing. When the Heart of Gold enters orbit around Magrathea and the planet’s nuclear missiles launch, the Guide is careful to point out in advance that everyone is going to survive the attack and that no one will get hurt aside from one of them getting bruised on the upper arm (but won’t say who it is in order to preserve some level of suspense). Given that warning, why oh why does the Guide not warn the viewer about the scene where you see Douglas Adams’s man-ass on display? I mean, seriously.

(No, I’m not going to tell you when that happens in the series. Be glad you’re at least getting a heads-up.)

But needless to say, the series is worth watching, especially if you’re one of those people who thought the movie was OK but wished it didn’t diverge from the books so much. You know who you are.