If you gave Ford the choice between going to a party and saving an entire world from destruction, he would choose going to a party every time. Since Douglas Adams wrote for Doctor Who, the popular British science fiction show, we feel free to make this comparison: Ford Prefect is a version of the Doctor who is terrible at his job.
|The Doctor||Ford Prefect|
|From Gallifrey||From Betelgeuse|
|Alien with weird name||Alien with weird name|
|Travels through space and time in his ship||Hitchhikes through space and time|
|Travels all over||Has been stranded on Earth for 15 years|
|Travels with a human companion||Travels with a human companion|
|Always gets into trouble||Always gets into trouble|
|Runs into danger to save people||Runs away from danger to save himself|
|Always gets out of danger due to quick-thinking and the help of his friends||Always gets out of danger, often because of accidents that just happen to help him|
So Ford Prefect looks a lot like a terrible Doctor Who, especially since he is unable to protect his human companion, Arthur, and that, as we all know, is the most important job of all space hobos. For instance, when the Heart of Gold is threatened by nuclear missiles, Ford tries to save everyone but doesn't know how to fly the ship:
Ford leapt to the controls—only a few of them made any immediate sense to him so he pulled those. The ship shook and screamed as its guidance rocket jets tried to push it every which way simultaneously. He released half of them and the ship span round in a tight arc and headed back the way it had come, straight towards the oncoming missiles. (17.71)
Notice how Adams gives us (a) the attempt and (b) the failure right after that, so there's never any doubt in our minds that Ford is a screw-up here.
In fact, while Arthur may seem like the least heroic person in the book, Ford truly makes it a close call. When the Vogons are about to throw Arthur and Ford out of the airlock, Arthur asks what will happen next and Ford's only response is to narrate how they'll die: "the hatchway in front of us will open automatically in a few moments and we will shoot out into deep space I expect and asphyxiate" (7.116).
Then, just to remind us that Ford isn't trying to save anybody, Adams tells us how Ford starts humming an "old Betelgeusian battle hymn." Yeah, that sure would be heroic—if Ford were actually going into battle. But is he doing anything of the sort? Guess again. He's just humming the hymn and doing nothing—except preparing to die in deep space.
Maybe it's just us, but Ford sure can seem incompetent and ineffective. Like, he's a hitchhiker—who gets stranded for 15 years. And he's a researcher for the Hitchhiker's Guide—who gets the entry on Earth expanded from "Harmless" to… "Mostly harmless." Way to go, champ. However, Ford is pretty good at least one thing: staying cool under pressure.
Ford may be incompetent, but at least he doesn't freak out. For instance, remember when he meets Zaphod on the Heart of Gold? Zaphod is pretending like it's all no big deal, and Ford picks up on this. His response? Does he freak out? Does he get intimidated? Nope—he just wants to make sure that he's not "outcooled" (13.27) by Zaphod. Of course, this is just an act, but it shows you what's important to Ford: being cool is more important than saving lives.
Or take that time when Arthur and Ford get picked up by the Heart of Gold. Ford doesn't act at all nervous or surprised:
"There you are," gasped Ford, scrabbling for a fingerhold on the pavement as it raced through the Third Reach of the Unknown, "I told you I'd think of something."
"Oh sure," said Arthur, "sure."
"Bright idea of mine," said Ford, "to find a passing spaceship and get rescued by it."
The real universe arched sickeningly away beneath them. (9.10-13)
We're not going to mistake Ford's coolness for actually being good at his job. Sure, as far as aliens go, Ford seems like one we might want hang out with. But we're not going to put him in charge of anything important.
Adams, in fact, goes out of his way to remind us how Ford's cool act isn't all that appropriate. When Ford says, "I told you I'd think of something," we know this is pretty much a bluff, since we've already seen him "scrabbling for a fingerhold." That's right—it isn't even a full "handhold." Ford can barely even manage a fingerhold. He can say "bright idea of mine" all he wants, but Adams reminds us that things are totally out of his control: "The real universe arched sickeningly away."
Ford may not be great at his job, but he does help out Arthur (and us) by explaining things. Of course, it wouldn't really be Ford if he were good at his job, so we could note how the job of "explaining things to Arthur" gets spread around. Rather than fulfill his role as guide, Ford gives Arthur the Hitchhiker's Guide; and then other characters, like Trillian and Slartibartfast, take up the job of explaining things to Arthur. Ford isn't even that good at this role.
This is a joke that no one gets anymore. "Prefect" looks like a misspelling of "perfect," but it's actually the name of a car. So that's the joke: Ford Prefect looked for a name that would blend in on Earth and he chose a car name. (Check our Shout-Outs section for more.)
Great choice, Ford. Next time we're trying to blend in, we think we'll just go around calling ourselves Volkswagen Beetle. No one will ever guess.
But anyway, why not name him "Ford Anglia" or "Ford Granada" or "Ford Almanac"? (Only two of those are real names for Ford model cars in Britain, but we won't tell you which ones. Can we all agree that people give cars weird names?) Here are two reasons:
(1) Almost "perfect": the fact that Ford Prefect's name looks so close to "Perfect" might remind us that Ford isn't perfect.
(2) You're not the boss of me: a "prefect" is someone who has some power over some space, which reminds us that Ford has no power and also no particular space to call his own. He's the opposite of a prefect—he's a hitchhiker.