Picking apart what went so horribly wrong with the recent attempt to revive Red Dwarf is probably something that should begin twelve years ago with the start of series seven. When Rob Grant left the former Grant-Naylor writing team, it became clear that Doug Naylor was not the man who had brought the gags to the show. They were an effective team, but obviously each brought different elements and the programme needed both. Having split over creative differences about where the show was heading, you can see Grant’s point. Series seven and eight (I admit I didn’t see all of eight, for the same reasons I look away when I see the remains of a pigeon that’s been hit by a car) did not take the show anywhere it needed to be.
I’m not arguing that Red Dwarf was ever amazing. It was always cheesy and aiming for primitive laughs. However, it was invariably charming. Performing science fiction in three-camera sets in front of a studio audience was a mammoth task, and the restrictions this imposed forced both creativity within a tight budget and confined space, and a focus on the relationships between the main cast. While there were duffers, there were also episodes like Polymorph, Backwards, Quarantine, and the touching Back To Reality that managed to cram in huge amounts of plot into 28 minutes. The four year gap between series six and seven saw much change, Naylor not able to capture the tone that had made the late 80s/early 90s’ episodes so fun. So the ten year chasm between series eight and this brief reprise, Back To Earth, didn’t bode well.
The first and possible most confusing mistake was to lose the audience laughter. There are two extremely large reasons why this wasn’t a good idea. First, giving the show freedom from the constraints of the theatrical sets lets the writing loosen, and the imagination behind it get more lazy. Second, and perhaps more significantly, the entire thing was written and performed as if expecting to have audience laughter. Through all three episodes there were awkward silences after the punchlines, the script designed to appeal to a cheery studio crowd, and delivered by a cast who must have been expecting it. Since there wasn’t a single funny line in all three episodes, the onus put on the viewer to fill these gaps was extremely uncomfortable viewing.
Naylor’s script was a horrible mess. Given ten years to come up with a story, and perhaps even a few jokes, that the best he could manage was a reference to how there’s always coins down the back of a sofa, or how people forget to put DVDs back in their boxes, is a little sad. The cast spent the first episode delivering lines that were designed to evoke memories of their twenty-one year old characters, and ended up feeling like Red Dwarf karaoke. So Cat said the sort of thing Cat used to say, you know, about how he cared about his hair. And Rimmer was a bit fastidious about something, and annoyed by Lister’s being gross. Oh, and that Kryten, eh? Remember him? I’ve no idea if they killed off Holly in series eight, but he/she was absent in either form, and entirely unmentioned. There’s a story about a big squid thing in the ship’s last water tank, which they attempt to investigate but instead it attacks them.
However, the big plot was to be their discovery of their fictional nature when a dimension-jumping portal goes wrong and sends them to our own present-day Earth. They appear in an electronics store, after falling out of television screens showing highlights from the forthcoming new Red Dwarf three-parter, Back To Earth. Do you see?
As if the League of Gentlemen’s film had never been made, the characters learn that they are part of a TV show called Red Dwarf, which may well be about to show its last ever episodes. Realising that their mortality relies on the continuation of the programme, they set about trying to find the show’s creator to beg him for more life.
Reading the back of the extraordinarily comprehensive promotional box for the forthcoming DVD (there’s a joke about how VHS replaces DVD in the future which makes little sense, but instead feels like the words of a sad, confused man who wishes it was still the 80s) they learn that they first visit a comic shop, on a journey that will eventually end in their deaths. It’s as they walk into the comics store that the most distressingly sad element of the episodes becomes clear: Naylor’s created a fictional universe where people still care about his show.
The shop is packed with Red Dwarf merchandise, like no comic shop anywhere in the world is. People are just stoked about the show’s return on the Dave channel. And when the four characters from the programme walk into his shop, the manager is completely nonplussed by their appearance. They explain that they’re from the TV show, and he says something about dimensions and is fine with that. Huh? Blather, blather. They then make their way to the set of Coronation Street, where they’ve heard Craig Charles now works, and meet up with the confused actor. From there they find the creator of the show, who isn’t Doug Naylor (which would have at least made some modicum of sense), but is instead yet another part of the utterly nonsensical Blade Runner referencing.
Throughout all three episodes there are nods toward the film. Not spoofs, or pastiches, but simply stuff that’s in Blade Runner. Sets are replicated, characters are dressed to look like Scott’s characters, and Cat makes origami objects that he leaves everywhere. When confronting their creator, who I guess was meant to be like Dr. Eldon Tyrell, he explains that he was inspired by the movie when he first made Red Dwarf, and was again inspired by it in these final episodes. He tells them how it ends for them, and we see a dramatic Blade Runner-referencing chase sequence where they’re all shot falling through a shop window, surrounded by mannequins. They then kill him, and discover that by typing on his typewriter they can write their own future. But then they can’t, and then they realise that they’re probably not really there, and then go back to Red Dwarf. Er.
This is not before Lister meets Kochanski (played by Chloë Annett again, and not Clare Grogan, damn their eyes) dressed as Rachael from Blade Runner, despite the creator guy being dead, and what? Seriously, what? Why is it still referring to the damned film? Absolutely bugger all made a moment of sense. Oh, talking of which, when they meet Charles on the Coronation St set, he tells them that the script for the third episode is about to arrive. A show that’s still unfilmed, waiting for the actors to receive scripts, that already has point of sale displays in electronics shops and the DVD cases printed? What?
So it turns out the squid that attacked them was another despair squid. You know, from Back To Reality – Red Dwarf’s truly great episode. The one where they find themselves back on Earth, learning that all of Red Dwarf was a computer simulation they’d been taking part in, and forcing them to return to empty and unwanted lives. It was bleak, smart, and convincing. When they finally returned to the ship it was an enormous relief. Joss Whedon later repeated the idea in Buffy, when the slayer wakes up to find that she’s in a psychiatric hospital, her superhero existence simply a fantasy. It’s a clever device that plays with your having suspended your disbelief to accept a programme’s more ludicrous elements.
Except this time it was a female despair squid, and “therefore” the ink had caused them to not experience despair, but elation. It was their dreams coming true! But… but this had been about them fighting for their lives, knowing they were about to be written out of existence, and failing to escape. Only Lister had any hope, realising he could find the actor who’d played Kochanski. But it was a sad, miserable hope of making do. No one showed happiness at any point. Bearing in mind their previous desperation to return to Earth, this was even more bizarre – finding themselves home again should surely have caused at least a smile? But their time in the fantasy was spent in fear. If this is Naylor’s understanding of elation, then no wonder the whole thing was so astonishingly unfunny.
Instead it was a sad, lonely fantasy for one man, Doug Naylor creating a world where people still remembered his last TV show. In his fictional Earth there had been ten series of Red Dwarf, and it was a show everyone cared about. Stores promoted his DVD with exuberance, every screen showing the programme; comic shops were packed with memorabilia; and ten year old children on the bus knew who Dave Lister was.
The tragedy is, if he’d only told the truth he could have had a decent story. Imagine the three-parter where the four characters fall out of a television set showing Red Dwarf to a world that’s almost forgotten it. Twenty-one years old, fourteen years since its last decent episode, they’re mostly forgotten characters, sometimes remembered by a subsection of a generation of thirty-sometimes who watched it in their teenage years. Its last chance to come back is a measly three part run on crappy cable channel Dave. They’re fighting for their existence in a world that’s moved on. Then there would be empathy, tragedy, and most of all, honesty. Or, you know, he could have just set it in space with a funny monster, weird happenings on the ship, and a bunch of silly lines for a studio audience to guffaw at. Just… just not what he actually did.
Trying to do Back To Reality again, but this time with a much worse idea (and an obsessive and meaningless desire to replicate Blade Runner) just cannot have been the result of ten years’ thinking. It did nothing to honour the memory of a cute, silly programme that delighted a fourteen year-old me when he stayed up past his bedtime to watch Polymorph, and couldn’t believe he’d found a show that was about science fiction and also comedy. That first episode was such a wonderful moment, a programme I found hilarious (as an adult I find it rather loses that, but remains fun) with monsters and holograms and slobby idiots in spaceships. That’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s legacy for me, and I treasure it. They were fine writers, and they made a fine show. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to make it now.