Cross-Examining Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

I should probably start by making it clear that I am a huge fan of Douglas Adams. I’ve read all his novels. I’ve even read The Salmon of Doubt, an unfinished novel and the third installment of the Dirk Gently series, Adams’ lesser known books about an…um…unconventional detective. I read the Dirk Gently books many moons ago, and when I heard they were trying to contemporize the story for a new BBC America show, I was both thrilled and wary.

I was a little nervous when the ads came in. They looked a bit like an Edgar Wright imitation, and Edgar Wright imitations are never as good as Edgar Wright. Still, I’m optimistic that shows with good source material will result in good adaptations (this theory has been proved wrong at least as often as it’s been proved right, but it’s still where I stand), I reread the first Dirk Gently book in preparation, from my ratty old copy that was half eaten by squirrels after I unwisely brought it with me on a trip. This exercise proved to be completely unnecessary. The thing that I had to let go of right off the bat is that the series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency takes three things from the novel:

1. the character of Dirk Gently, who is, in a loose sense, similar to the character personality-wise (and not at all physically)

2. the fact that the main character is currently in the middle of a rough patch with his sister and

3. the general idea of a holistic detective agency

and tosses the rest of the book out the window. Well, there’s one other thing it keeps: the spirit of the DG novels. And what I realized as I wound around the the end of the tiny 8 episode season was that, ultimately, that’s what I cared about.

That’s right. I’m saying I liked it.

It wasn’t perfect, but it tracked well enough. And I was really worried after the first few episodes, when they introduced SO many characters and SO many elements, that some of it would be redundant or excessive and fall by the wayside, but actually, it all fit together quite well. The writing was properly competent.

And so anyone trying to decide whether or not to watch this let me be clear: I usually like my British programming (of which DGHDA is in part) to be subtle. This isn’t. I’m usually cranky when I sit down to an adaptation of a book I enjoy, only for it to immediately veer away from every minute detail. This does. And in spite of that, I had a blast watching this.

It uses the “fixed timeline” model of time travel (this is the Prisoner of Azkaban model), so it avoids paradoxes and does the fun, “I know the thing, because a future me told a past me, but future me only knew that thing because past me already did it” bit.

I mean, I wasn’t immediately sold. The first few episodes seemed to rely too much on random luck (even as the characters seemed to be finding themselves in unlucky situations), and there seemed to be far too many characters who could all have character arcs/plot lines of their own. But I stuck with it. Maybe they could pull this out of the hat after all. And they did! The connections became clear, and the lead characters found themselves in an Indiana Jones style maze of booby traps. cast was refreshingly diverse, taking advantage of its wide scope of quirky characters. And, while there are many of them, I didn’t find myself having trouble remembering who was who or what they were after. There were also a couple of animals that were important to the story, a kitten and a corgi, who turned in excellent performances with the rest of the cast. Like, really top notch animal acting.

There were some moments that rang familiar, but the writing was comfortable enough with itself to make references in some of those moments, which added to the fun (yes, I’m thinking specifically of the Star Wars trash compacter).

And then there’s Dirk Gently himself. Yeah, I’m of two minds about this, so we’re gonna need to talk about him.

There’s a trend and, if you’ve seen things like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you might recognize this. Eccentric young males, who are often British (but not always) are clearly being directed to act as the Doctor from Doctor Who. Matt Smith’s in particular. And he isn’t even my favorite. But here’s the thing. Dirk Gently kind of has an excuse.

Douglas Adams, the original creator of the character, was the script supervisor (what would today be called the “showrunner”) of Doctor Who for a bit back in the 70’s. So some of his ideas for Doctor Who got funneled into the Dirk Gently books.

And I’m not saying Samuel Barnett’s (or for that matter Eddie Redmayne’s) performance wasn’t done well. And it was probably exactly as the directors and creators asked him to do it, but sometimes I felt more like I was watching a Doctor Who audition tape, and that took me out of it.

BUT he did some things really well. There were certain moments, and they were often the quieter ones, when the character felt like he was completely his own thing. And that springy over-exuberance was the top level of a layered character who was confused, frustrated, and frightened. He just figured that while he was in this series of messes that made up his life, he might as well make an adventure out if it. And I really liked that.

As a matter of fact, when Dirk and Todd get into their penultimate argument at the end, it’s Dirk that delivers the cruelest blow, one that I didn’t expect from him, and it left you legitimately concerned about the fate of their relationship. So, I guess, in the end, like so many things in the show, it worked itself out.

Speaking of the end:

If you haven’t seen the show you might want to stop here. *Spoiler warning.*

The show, which has been picked up for a second season, was left on one mother of a cliffhanger. There’s a moment halfway through the season that almost seemed like a throwaway, with a meathead-ish army guy saying some intimidating nonsense about being prepared for some mission or other, and I didn’t really care, and it didn’t really go anywhere. Until the very end.

If you’ve seen the show then you know the take away from the final scene seemed to be  that several characters had this psychic thing that Dirk had, and there was some secret, but large army battalion, dressed in SWAT gear and armed with guns, ready to take them all out.

I have some concerns. And not just because I like these characters and don’t want them murdered en masse.

The thing that made the first season work so well was that all the characters seemed so disconnected, but were slowly brought together. So first off, if they all get brought in, they’re all starting out in the same place. The opposite of what worked the first time around.

My other more major concern is that the new season would all be about them running from the army. I don’t like this since a.) this often turns into a sort of “aliens being examined in a white room” situation and b.) it makes the connections too far reaching. Rather than the pockets of people figuring out their mysteries, there’s a huge chunk of people involving themselves, and I’m not sure I want that to become the driving force of the show.

But, hey, they made it this far without letting me down, and I’m still on board. If you make another season I’ll certainly be tuning in. With bells on.



About Risa Romano

Writer type thing. I work on stories for kids when I'm on the clock and screenplays quite a bit less for kids when I'm not. I have a blog: I'm also the creator and moderator of the Doctor Who vodcast/podcast A Disused Yeti:
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