A few years ago, I inherited some of my dad’s book collection when my mum decided to have a clear out. Included in the books were all five volumes of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy “trilogy.” I couldn’t wait to read them.
As a child, I had been brought up watching the 1981 BBC television adaptation and as an adult, I had also seen the 2005 movie which I unfortunately couldn’t bring myself to like – although the yarn sequence brought me close. The books promised far more detail and depth so I read them almost immediately. Throughout experiencing the series in various forms, a few ideas have really leapt out at me and stuck in my head; the concept of Milliways: the Restaurant at The End of the Universe (although I have to admit that I’d rather eat at the Big Bang Burger Bar), the knack of learning to fly – you need to learn “how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” but one concept that really stuck with me was that of Starship Titanic.
The tragedy of the Titanic has fascinated people since the day of the disaster, almost one hundred years ago. Melissa Peltier, the producer of a 1994 documentary about the ship said during an interview,
“It’s almost like a Greek myth that really happened in our lifetime. It’s so unbelievable. It’s so mythic. The little human stories on board. All the morality plays that are happening, just the whole idea of the arrogance and the hubris of speeding through the ice field because (they thought) nothing could go wrong. It’s a huge moral lesson.”
Such an inimitable story would naturally find its way to be woven into science fiction, as with most other great tales, both fictional and real. In the Hitchhiker’s series, Starship Titanic is mentioned only briefly in 1982’s “Life, the Universe and Everything”. We are told of its majesty and beauty, how it was built in the “great ship-building asteroid complexes of Artrifactovol” in the early days of Improbability Physics and how, seconds after its launch, it suffered “a sudden and gratuitous total existence failure.” The ship is not mentioned again within the Hitchhiker’s canon, but instead became the star of its own computer game, devised by Adams sixteen years later in 1998 along with Monty Python’s Terry Jones. In the computer game, the ship undergoes “Spontaneous Total Existence Failure” and crash lands on Earth, more precisely, on top of the player’s house. It then becomes the player’s task to restore the sabotaged computer, Titania and save the ship. The game is notoriously difficult, I myself have only ever managed to wander around aimlessly and feed some chicken to a parrot. Gaming site Destructoid ran a “Games that Time Forgot” article on it which stated:
Additionally, Starship Titanic remains one of the most absurdly difficult adventure games ever made: the puzzles often seem designed to be funny, rather than challenging, and as a result their solutions range anywhere from obscure to downright ridiculous. It literally got so bad that later versions of the game came with a 120 page walkthrough, packaged completely free of charge. If you ever plan on trying Starship Titanic out, then, for the love of God, use a strategy guide. That, or plan on ripping out half your hair because you didn’t know that a robotic parrot enjoys eating brazil nuts instead of walnuts.
A book entitled “Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic” based on the game was written by Terry Jones who was also responsible for development of the game alongside Adams. Jones’ influence is strongly felt in the absurd and surreal humour found all the way through the game.
The year after the publication of the Starship Titanic game, Futurama got in on the act with its season one episode, “A Flight to Remember” in which the crew of Planet Express got to sail aboard the maiden voyage of the new Titanic space cruise ship. The plot of the Futurama episode was based almost completely on James Cameron’s Titanic, rather than the concept developed by Douglas Adams, and parodied it in several scenes including the famous dancing scene on the lower deck. As this was a short cartoon and the plot focused mainly on the characters, the ship was more of a convenient backdrop to the story than an integral part of the plot as it is in the material penned by Douglas Adams. However the ship has been re-designed to fit into the visual style of the Futurama universe perfectly, even using the famous Tube Transportation System for the passengers to embark upon the ship. The episode ended with the ship being pulled into a black hole rather than sunk by an iceberg after the ship’s captain, Zapp Brannigan, pilots her into a swarm of comets, referred to in the show as “the icebergs of the sky”. In an interesting change to the original story, the Futurama Titanic appears to have had enough lifeboats to evacuate everyone on board.
The concept of Starship Titanic faded into obscurity for almost a decade until the BBC’s re-vitalised Dr Who franchise used it for the 2007 Christmas Special “Voyage of The Damned”. In this special the Titanic, an interstellar cruiser from the planet Sto, crashes not into a house but into the TARDIS which is in orbit over Earth whilst on a sightseeing tour to observe the traditions of primitive cultures – specifically Earth at Christmas. Naturally a catastrophe is imminent with the sabotaged ship due to hit London causing the Doctor to spend most of the episode saving the ship and its occupants (and falling for yet another attractive – and doomed – young lady.) The special received the highest viewing figures for a Dr Who episode since 1979’s City of Death when it aired on Christmas Day.
For now, Starship Titanic is again at peace but for how long? For almost three decades the concept of Starship Titanic has been revisited and re-written in a multitude of formats. Is it so unthinkable that the future may bring more games, books, perhaps even a movie? The story of the Titanic has always had the potential for almost infinite re-writes and by moving the bones of the story out of our past and into our future, the possibilities become even broader.
For now, the Starship Titanic game is still available for purchase second hand if you feel like taking a tour of the ship and becoming incredibly frustrated, The Dr Who Christmas special is available as part of the Season Four box set and the Futurama episode is available on the Volume Two box set.