It’s astonishing that anyone who is quite as lazy as Dirk Gently should simultaneously contrive to be quite so persistent. First presented to the public in the titular novel by Douglas Adams, he was always regarded as somewhat of an “also ran” next to Adams more celebrated work as a script editor and occasional script contributor to the BBC’s long running television show about a mad man with a box, and also something about hitch-hikers he did once and then several more times, yet Mr Gently is now entering his third broadcast portrayal.
Following Harry Enfield’s two radio series, the only direct adaptations of the two source novels and ironically the only performer to remotely physically resemble the character as written even though he was never seen, then Stephen Mangan’s short lived BBC series consisting of one pilot in 2010 and a “season” of three episodes two years later, the duty of investigating the fundamental interconnectedness of all things has now fallen to Jupiter Ascending’s Samuel Barnett, more recently seen as Renfield in the later episodes of Penny Dreadful.
Produced by BBC America, it was perhaps inevitable that the lead role would be given to a performer considerably more photogenic than Adams conceived, though with Barnett far from a major star name he has been given an unwitting and unwilling sidekick in the form of Elijah Wood, whose genre work began before he was even ten years old in Back to the Future Part II and has subsequently appeared in Deep Impact, The Faculty and three somewhat successful films based upon The Lord of the Rings.
Wood is frustrated bell-boy Todd Brotzmann, his unremarkable life turned upside down when there is an astonishing and inexplicable murder at the plush hotel where he was employed until the moment he was summarily fired, bloody hand prints on the walls, great holes burnt through the furniture, bodies dismembered, chunks bitten out of the ceiling.
Having been asked to attend a disturbance in the penthouse, it was Todd who discovered the crime scene but his suspicious reticence to discuss it with police officers Estevez and Zimmerfield (Suits’ Neil Brown Jr and The West Wing’s Richard Schiff) is related not so much to what he discovered but what he witnessed on his way to the suite – himself, dressed differently, engaged in panicked conversation with an unseen individual about a time machine.
Returning despondently to his apartment building, under siege from his landlord who insists $600 of rent is missing, Todd equally emphatically insisting that it has been paid, his bad day is made worse by the impromptu entry through the window of a stranger who accosts him then interrogates with prescient insight into the events of Todd’s day.
“Have you notice an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late, perhaps a series of intense or extraordinary events which as of now seem unconnected with the exception of each being separately bizarre? Today everything changed and your life became a swirl of interesting activity. My name is Dirk Gently, I’m a detective, I live here now and I’ll be sleeping here tonight.”
Commissioned by BBC America and written by Max Landis, screenwriter of Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein and Mr Right, unlike the BBC television version, this does not feel like the work of Adams, and nor does Landis have the late novelist’s unmistakable skills with language, yet it is hugely engaging nevertheless as it breathlessly leaps between scenes with nothing but the most tangential connection other than Dirk’s insistence that they, and indeed everything else, is connected.
Whimsical from the outset despite dismemberments, in directing opening episode Horizons, Galaxy Quest‘s Dean Parisot has consciously underplayed the surrealism and avoided overt styling so as not to further distract from the apparently random procession of scenes, aware that the unconventional structure of the narrative, flitting between fragments of scenes and never enough for it to begin to accrete that elusive quality of sense, that it could be offputting to viewers unwary.
Questions pour out like water from a colander: who is hacker Ken (Falling Skies‘ Mpho Koaho) working for? To what target will the universe eventually lead holistic assassin Bart Curlish (True Blood‘s Fiona Dourif)? Why did a stray corgi take Todd to the home of Gordon Rimmer (Battlestar Galactica‘s Aaron Douglas), the man he and Dirk almost ran down earlier in the day? Who are the Rowdy 3, why is their leader Martin (Eadweard‘s Michael Eklund) looking for Dirk, and why are there four of them? What is the significance of the black kitten?
Scatter-brained, hyperactive and a necessarily compulsive liar, Barnett is endearingly insufferable, and while this interpretation is a far cry from the source material – he drives a nicer car, for one thing – he and the wide-eyed Wood who endures his inescapable presence are an effortless if reticent double act. “Now that I’ve told you you’re working the case, you’re working the case. The universe will make you a part of this whether you are complicit or not. You are now a vital part of the investigation.”
More immediately and overtly science fiction than the earlier BBC version, mirroring Dirk’s admission that he’s very good at getting into situations but less good at getting out of them, the question of whether the series can maintain consistency and momentum and tie the multiple strands of insanity together across the full season of eight episodes remains to be answered, but the company along the twisting road will ensure the trip will be far from dull or predictable regardless.