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Weekly Alibi The Hitchhiker's Guide to Monty Python

Douglas Adams and Terry Jones climb aboard the Starship Titanic.

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  Douglas Adams and Terry Jones are a long way from home. In point of fact, they're sitting in a Central Avenue pub, tossing back a couple Fat Tire Ales and giggling like schoolboys over a sign above the bar that reads: "No Sniveling!" Jones poses and Adams snaps a picture on his digital camera. Earlier today, the duo were similarly amused by a signpost between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that declares: "Gusty Winds May Exist."

So what brings two of England's funniest chaps to this parched desert landscape? To put it simply: a malfunctioning interstellar cruiseliner called the Starship Titanic.

It began as a throwaway sentence in Life, the Universe and Everything--part three of Douglas Adams infamous four-part Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Shortly after its maiden voyage, wrote Adams, the Starship Titanic had undergone Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure. Now, some 15 years after the fact, Adams has turned those nonsensical words into a multimedia empire. The Digital Village, an "online entertainment" company founded by Adams, is putting the final touches on its very first product, Starship Titanic--an interactive CD-ROM game in which players must navigate the decks of the massive interstellar cruiseliner, finagle free upgrades to first class and unravel an alien murder mystery. Unfortunately, thanks to bugs in the beta-testing version, the eagerly awaited game has been delayed ... and delayed ... and delayed.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic as written by Terry Jones. In lieu of a videogame, fans can sate themselves on the Starship Titanic novel--done not by Douglas Adams but by Monty Python alum Terry Jones. So how did the author of such wildly successful novels as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency hook up with the director of such wildly successful Python flicks as The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life?

Fortunately, both Adams and Jones are on a nationwide book tour promoting the print version of Starship Titanic. Said tour recently touched down in Albuquerque, where some 300 fans packed the aisles of Page One bookstore to catch a glimpse and snag an autograph from their twin idols. The two bent Brits were also kind enough to pop into O'Niell's Pub, share a pint and talk to Weekly Alibi about this bizarre collaboration.

So how did this crazy project start?

Douglas Adams: It would be slightly easier to explain if the game were actually coming out the same time as the book, which was the plan. But it's a piece of software, so it doesn't happen that way. The software inevitably comes out quite awhile after originally planned. It'll be out, I think, in February or March. The whole marketing was based around the strategy that the two would be out at the same time--but they're not. So that's why it's confusing. Because we're confused.

Terry Jones: And I was supposed to write (the book) in five weeks in order to get it out in time for the game. There was an absolute cut-off point. It had to be done.

Was Starship Titanic conceived originally to be both a novel and a game?

DA: My primary motivating thing was to do a game. And to do it from the beginning as a game. Because any idea begins to take shape the moment you decide what medium it's going in. Generally speaking, (a game) will be taken from a book and reversed into CD-ROM. I just thought it would be nice to plant the seed in the soil of multimedia to begin with. Then, we were going to do a book as well. Although that's my usual role, on the time scale involved, there was no way I could do that if I was going to continue to do the game--which is what I had signed up to do. So at that point, Terry, who was down to play one of the voice parts in the game--that of a semi-deranged parrot--(showed up). It's the part that in many ways he was born to play. All of his creative life has been leading up to this. (Laughs)

TJ: What a lot of people don't realize is that Brian's mother in The Life of Brian, The Virgin Mandy was, in fact, a parrot. (Laughs) Only Douglas actually realized it. "Ee's not the Messiah, ee's a very naughty boy! Ack! Ack! Awk! Pieces of eight." Douglas noticed, but he was the only person in the world who spotted it.

DA: So anyway, Terry was going to play the part of this parrot. He came in to discuss the role and motivations.

TJ: Millet seed. (Laughs) Millet seed is the main motivation. (Laughs)

DA: He came in and then looked at all the stuff we had been doing--all sorts of graphics and animation. He hadn't been that much exposed before to the sort of stuff that goes on in making a multimedia game. So he got absolutely very excited by it--said, "Is there anything else I can do?" So I said, "Wot? Do you want to write a novel?" He said, "Sure!" (Laughs)

Was it that easy?

TJ: (Laughs) Yes, it was actually. It was the easiest thing I've ever done actually. It was a bit like a school essay. Slightly better. Because Douglas had already written the story--the 20-page "treatment." You've got a beginning, middle and end. You've got characters. And you've got the locations. So I just had to fill the words in between. Really, it was such fun to write.

Is the digital Village, the company behind Starship Titanic, your brainchild?

DA: I am one of the founding partners of the company, one of the owners. The company exists not only to do software. To explain it the simplest way, I have to back up a little. When I started out, I was doing radio, television, stage, a book, a computer game and all sorts of different things. I really liked moving from medium to medium. But the book (Hitchhiker's) was such a hit, suddenly I had to write another one, then another one. And after a decade or so of that, I thought, "This isn't what I signed up to do." You know, I'm doing nothing but sitting in a room typing. I'm not sure I liked that as a sort of ... um ...

TJ: ... A way of spending your life.

DA: ... A way of spending my life. Thank you. (Laughs) See. He's very good at filling in the words. So whenever I did want to go off and do something--supposing I wanted to do a television program, or a bit of software, or whatever it would be--I would have to go to somebody else's production company. Which may or may not work out well, you never know. I just wanted my own sort of home, my own infrastructure. I wanted to be able to work with people again. So we put this company together with some like-minded people or complementarily minded people. The idea of the company is primarily--in the long run, or even in the medium term, or the short-to-medium term--to be an online entertainment company. The thing is that the world and his wife is online right nowadays. Everybody has got their own Web site. How do you do well in that arena? How do you get people to come? How do you attract readers, viewers, whatever you call them? There seems to be two answers to that. One is you've got to do great stuff. You know, you can't proscribe that anymore than you can proscribe how to write a great book or a great TV show or whatever. You just have to do the best you damn well can. But the other is you've got to be very, very visible. And the way you're visible is to do lots of stuff in the outside world that points at (the Web). Whatever project you do in traditional media--whether it's movies, books or CD-ROM (which) now counts as a traditional medium because the electrons are still shipped welded to their atoms--each of them points at something online, which is where we want to be primarily active. So my role is partly to be involved in the online site (www.tdv.com), because I love playing with it; but really it's to go back to what I was doing before, which was a lot of different projects in different media. And each of them, then, has a home on the Web. So, it's not that I'm not going to write books again; I will be writing books, but it will only be one of the things that I do.

TJ: It will probably enable you to write books again. After years of having gone off and done other things, to suddenly say, "Oh, be quite nice to write a book." I think I find that, in my own way. It's nice to be able to make films, direct films, fool around and then do a bit of writing.

Your perspective has, traditionally, been very historical ...

DA: Because he's older you mean? (Laughs)

TJ: But has more hair than Douglas. (Laughs)

I mean, you've done films like Holy Grail, documentaries like The Crusades and books like Chaucer's Knight. Are computers something you're familiar with?

TJ: Well, I remember Douglas sort of introducing me to the Apple Mac a long time ago--years and years and years ago. And I thought: "Yeah, all right. Fine. But I'll never leave my pen." I think I have actually converted, and I do use a Powerbook now.

How much is the game going to differ from the book?

TJ: Very, very substantially! (Laughs) The one really isn't a guide to the other. You're not going to solve the game by reading the book. The book is very much its own thing really. I deliberately didn't want to get into the game. ... At one point I thought: "Oooh, maybe Douglas wants the book to explain the game, but I was very relieved that he didn't. I think, in a way, the least interesting parts (of the novel) were the things that make the game function. In fact, when I read Douglas' original treatment, the problem was that it was lots of bits coming out from the game. All the motivation was game-solving. No real story actually. It's a totally different thing. In order to actually do the novel, I just had to be totally separate from that and just take the raw elements.

This must have been a very comfortable way for you to work, considering how collaborative I assume Monty Python was.

TJ: Yes, yes.

But it must have been different for you, considering most of your work has been ...

DA: By myself. Yes. This is what's been great about working on the game. We have a team of over 30 people working on it. Just an incredibly bright, energetic, creative bunch of people who are either artists or programmers and whatever. It's been a real recharging of creative batteries for me to be working with a bunch of people. The original structure for the game is mine. (But) so many people have had so much input. It's not remotely like a book where you're responsible for every last comma. You're basically the leader of the gang, I guess.

TJ: I think there's sort of the idea that collaboration is something you're supposed to join. Collaboration is something you learn, in a way. A lot of people, when they start out they think: "I want to make something. It's got to be me. It's got to be the whole thing--mine, mine, mine. I want to be Shakespeare or something."

Working on a computer game must be similar to directing a film, because you have a vision you want, but so many more people are contributing to it.

TJ: Absolutely. That's the idea. To greater and lesser degrees. I mean, the collaboration in filmmaking is actually vital--from the cinematographers, production designers, all these people, the actors--everybody's putting in different things. One reason a book is so effective is because, when you read a book, it's talking to you, directly in your ear. With film, it's a collaborative effort.

The culmination of Adams' and Jones' collaboration, the Starship Titanic videogame will be hitting stores early next year. You can check the vessel's progress on the Starlight Travel Homepage (www.starshiptitanic.com). In the meantime, Jones is working on a new documentary series entitled "Ancient Inventions." His film version of The Wind in the Willows (featuring several members of the old Python troop) may or may not be released in America later this year. The full-fledged Monty Python reunion will continue to wait, though. The surviving members recently gathered in England to discuss possible projects but, as Jones states, "(John) Cleese started nodding off after an hour or so." And as for that long-awaited film version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? ...

DA: The next thing I do will either be a movie or a book. I mean, I've been waiting to get into movies for a long, long time.

Does that mean you might be getting this gentleman in on it?

TJ: (Indignantly) No, he's not! He's got other directors. It's shocking! (Laughs)

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