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Can 'Dirk Gently' Be Explained? A College Senior Takes a Scholarly Approach
October 13, 2017  | By TVWW Guest Contributor  | 4 comments

[Editor's note: On occasion, when I stumble across an atypically smart and creative student in one of my Rowan University media courses, I invite him or her to submit a guest blog on a TV subject of their choosing. Shannon Farrell chose a tricky and unusual topic, and wrote a lengthy but well-crafted treatise. So here it is. -DB]

By Shannon Farrell

Guest Columnist

A murder mystery, sci-fi, action, comedy, drama, and buddy detective story: created by Max Landis and starring Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood (top), Season 2 of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016) premieres Saturday, October 14, 9 p.m. ET on BBC America. (Season 1 is currently available to stream on Hulu.)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is energetic and enthralling. It captivated my curiosity instantly and solidified my esteem of its quality with a continually twisting yet grounded plot, with an extensive range of highly individualized and well-developed characters, and through retelling an old story in a way that feels new. Although Max Landis has built a different universe, it remains true to the irreverently chaotic signature style of Douglas Adams, original creator of the Dirk Gently character. The series is wildly unpredictable while retaining suspension of disbelief. The rules of the universe are well-developed and consistent, if revealed slowly, which places the myriad of absurd events in a thoroughly enjoyable context.

What the current reboot of Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency has done is borrow the Dirk Gently premise, then otherwise re-imagine the surrounding plot and add characters to create an entirely fresh world and story. There are, however, a multitude of allusions and connections, both implicit and explicit, that refer back to its origins. During my own attempt to track the evolution of Dirk Gently over the past thirty years, I found that the real-life versions of Dirk Gently are ironically interconnected as deeply and inseparably as the plot of the 2016 television series.

From the original Douglas Adams books -- Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988) -- to the 2006 stage play Dirk, the radio plays of the two books in 2006 and 2007, and the 2010-12 Dirk Gently television series, the Dirk Gently story has always thrived on the idea of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

Loosely based on a theory of quantum physics that indicates particles of the universe influence each other at a sub-atomic level, Dirk follows intuitive “hunches” and tangential methods that lead him to “holistically” solve the entire mystery. As Dirk says, “I rarely end up where I intended to go, but I often end up where I needed to be” (Episode 1, 2010). This roundabout, clueless scramble for answers inspires the slogan for his detective agency: “Cases solved with arguable efficiency” (“Fix Everything,” 2016).

Dirk Gently has undergone multiple shifts in personality and physicality during the many retellings of his story. He has been a borderline con-man, a clever detective, a pudgy and lazy fellow, and a believer in the psychic applications of quantum physics. In the current television adaptation, Dirk is a chaotic young man with seemingly limitless determination and enthusiasm, and a highly coincidental knack for getting into trouble.

Douglas Adams was a master of allusion. He frequently and subtly made references to his own otherwise unrelated works, as well as references to other sources. He was constantly re-writing and re-twisting the same storytelling components into new shapes. Perhaps that was part of the reason Adams invented the Dirk Gently character: a detective intent on unraveling the most tightly raveled and fundamentally interconnected mysteries.

Adams even borrowed from and rewrote his own stories. The title of the second Dirk Gently book, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, is word-for-word a phrase he originally wrote in Life, the Universe and Everything, his second Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy book. Adams said the idea for the Dirk Gently character came from two television serials, Shada and City of Death, that he had written for Doctor Who. In the universe of Dirk Gently’s author, as in the universe of his titular character, everything is, in fact, connected.

Max Landis, showrunner of Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency (2016), is continuing this tradition of self-referencing allusions. Although the 2016 television adaptation is the most divergent Dirk Gently story yet, time travel, electric fanatics, and supernatural possessions are all borrowed plot elements from the original books by Douglas Adams. For example, the events of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul are incited by a client who pays Dirk in advance to solve the client’s own murder, which is strikingly similar to the beginning of the Patrick Spring case in the 2016 TV series. Also, in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Dirk works a case that involves the Norse God of Thunder, Thor. During the pilot episode of Season 1 (2016), Dirk references “A thing with Thor” as one of his past cases.

In the Dirk Gently (2010) TV series, Dirk expresses an emotional attachment to his office plaque that reads: “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” which 2016 Dirk makes a point of wanting to design for himself in the future. One of the most striking references is a moment in the current TV series, when Bart, a self-proclaimed “holistic assassin” and dark mirror to the character of Dirk, is called an “angel of death” — a phrase which can be seen for mere seconds in a single shot in the 2010 TV series, written on a postcard as a description of Dirk himself.

In the 2010 TV series, the plot of the 1987 book was directly adapted into a single pilot episode, whereas the plot of the 2016 TV series loosely borrows concepts from the book across the entire first season. Examining these three stories side by side reveals a cocktail of similarities and slight variations.

At the least, all three feature the name “Gordon,” a missing millionaire, altruistically-intended time-travel that results in a causality paradox, and interconnectedness between particles of the universe that Dirk finds “to be particularly true when those particles are arranged in the form of a cat” (Pilot, 2010). As in the book of the same name, the plot of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016) hides and ducks from direct view, abruptly changing times, locations, characters, and events, in no particular order, until these fragmented pieces brilliantly converge.

While the many strings of the plot initially appear disconnected, over the course of eight episodes, those strings are braided together and ultimately provide a satisfying resolution. Even in the final episode, just when the audience is able to take a breath and feel that Season 1 is resolved, the set-up for Season 2 starts off with a bang and gives the viewer a big ol’ kick in the pants.

The incredible variety of distinct and refreshing characters in the current Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency enables audience members to more deeply relate to and engage with the show. This new Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) is neither especially intellectual nor interested in the formalities of police work. However, that’s not to say that Dirk isn’t wise or clever.

Unlike a typical police procedural or mystery, the type of cases Dirk investigates are cases that only he could solve. He follows his intuition, rather than his mind. In this way, he’s almost an inverse Sherlock Holmes.

Dirk leans into the nonsensical, the inexplicable. He doesn’t unravel the threads of the mystery with logic. Instead, he winds them tighter, adds a dash or two of cats and light bulbs, until the resolution reveals itself to him in its fully-formed shape. If the universe is a dot painting, Dirk sees a picture where the rest of us see meaningless circles.

This current Dirk has a chaotic childlike personality, all colorful excitement, and blind determination, but at times he reveals that he is painfully self-aware of his lonely isolation and powerlessness over the direction of his life. He craves friendship, as well as assistance in his detective work. Dirk is a man who sees order in chaos and sees patterns and explanations in the confusing world around us. In the 2010 TV adaptation, Dirk sees a perfectly clear plan for a computer software program in the paper-and-string idea board of a conspiracy theorist. How can we not be enchanted by a character who sees answers where the rest of us see more problems? He is the solution to the ultimate questions: Why? Why me? Why now?

Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) is Dirk’s reluctant assistant, the replacement for Richard MacDuff in the earlier stories. Todd is the audience’s bridge into the show— he is just as confused by the “acceleration of strangeness” in his life as we are. He has a certain millennial recklessness to him, particularly after losing his job, his car, and his apartment in the first episode. Initially dragged into the investigation against his will, Todd makes his position clear by yelling after Dirk, “I’m not your Watson, asshole!” (“Horizons,” 2016).

At first, Todd is a bit too grounded in reality for Dirk’s nonsense, but as the series continues, Todd becomes a dedicated believer in Dirk’s strange abilities. Todd remains a sympathetic and engaging character, despite (or because of) explicit character flaws that cause conflict for him: he’s habitually selfish, he lies, he’s a pessimist, and he initially rejects Dirk’s friendship with harshness. On the other hand, Todd is also brave, loyal, sarcastically witty, and a rational thinker. His practical nature is a steadying contrast to Dirk’s flighty eccentricities.

Bart Curlish (Fiona Dourif) is Dirk Gently’s universal counterpoint. While Dirk is a self-proclaimed holistic detective, Bart is a self-proclaimed holistic assassin. She possesses both an ignorance of societal norms and a sense of childish innocence, despite her tendency for dispassionately killing whoever she feels like. She is unapologetically violent, dirty, blunt, and genuine. Bart finds herself an “assistant” of her own: a renegade electrician named Ken (Mpho Koaho). Ken is to Bart as Todd is to Dirk— an otherwise normal person who has found himself inevitably drawn into an increasingly complicated series of events about which they are entirely clueless. He is funny, kind, and entirely accepting of Bart’s socially unacceptable quirks, like murder. As he discovers, though, her victims almost always deserve their fate.

Other excellent characters include Amanda Brotzman (Hannah Marks), Todd’s sister, who suffers from pararibulitis: a fictional disease that affects the nervous system and causes painful hallucinations. Despite this, she is rebellious and recklessly craves adventure. Farah Black (Jade Eshete, left) is the fierce, highly skilled bodyguard for the Spring family, while at the same time she struggles with insecurity and paranoia.

The Rowdy Three—of which there are actually four members: Martin, Gripps, Vogel, and Cross (played by Michael Eklund, Viv Leacock, Osric Chau, and Zak Santiago)—are anarchist harbingers of chaotic destruction, who are at times surprisingly protective and kindhearted. The artful balance of strengths and flaws in these characters enables the audience to become invested in their stories, and infuses a dose of realism into the show, making the plot carry emotional weight.

The aesthetic elements of the current series contribute significantly to its tone of highly-charged disorder. The soundtrack of the series is otherworldly and chaotic, incorporating distorted sound effects into the musical melody, as well as featuring a predominance of mechanical and electrical noises. The music has a reciprocal relationship with the plot, responding to and participating in the mystery. One of the most notable techniques is the use of parallel editing to help the audience form connections between important characters and events. The parallels between Dirk and Bart are especially emphasized through visual editing, both through jump cuts that frame the characters in similar poses and through sound editing that implies the same dialogue is being spoken by both characters at the same time in different places.

Dirk believes that you cannot “impose order on the world,” rather “we must embrace chaos if we are to come to an understanding of the world in all its complexity” (Episode 1, 2010). Each iteration of his story, and especially the current television series, is centered around this theory of the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” This theme is the golden core of every Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency and is the reason for its persistent reemergence throughout various forms of media over the past thirty years.

Interconnectedness is a reassuring theory: despite the apparent chaos of our world—no matter how confused, or scared, or self-destructive we may be—we are going to muddle through regardless until we more or less end up in the right place at the right time. It's an exceptionally human instinct to be drawn to connection and community. We as a people are doubly obsessed with destiny, in two opposing directions: fascinated by both the allure of greater purpose and the struggle for free will. Aren’t we all searching for how our own place in the universe relates to everything around us?

Perhaps we are all Dirk: escaping irreverently into a fantasy of detective stories and science fiction, especially when the reality of the world feels a little too dark.


[Shannon Farrell is a senior undergraduate student at Rowan University, studying both Radio/Television/Film and Writing Arts, with a minor in Biological Sciences. Her other favorite television shows include Stranger Things, Sense8, and Parks and Recreation.]

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