John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Red Dwarf – Back To A Dearth Of Ideas

by on Apr.14, 2009, under Television

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.

15 Comments for this entry

  • Bobsy

    It’s a tragic end indeed, and I’m glad I didn’t take any pains to see it. Red Dwarf famously struggled to get comissioned because a sitcom in space was judged to be a really bad idea. Grant Naylor managed to prove this to be wrong, and then slowly proved it to be very much correct over the course of many years. Depending on who you are the decline began with season 3 reinventing it as wacky adventures in space, or with 6 making it wacky adventures and stories in spaaaace, or 7 being entirely unwacky stories in spaaaaaaaaaace. To be honest I consider it a slow, sad decline from brilliance. It’s not easy, but just try and imagine the show ended with what you consider the last great episode.

  • Optimaximal

    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 wasn’t. It was the result of Dave trying to poach yet another show from another network and doing it by trying to sell/justify their purchase by reinventing it.

    Take their WRC coverage: Pad out the 30 minutes of actually official FIA rally footage with another 30 minutes of some charmless & unfunny goon talking to celebrity of the week who is either a Dave ‘regular’ (i.e. some comedian) or just plugging a new product of theirs (in one case, Robery Llewellyn trying to sell the Dave Red Dwarf).

    Couple this with endless re-runs of their ‘filler shows’ (WRC’s Greatest Crashes & retrospectives on Colin McRae lose their edge after the 42nd showing) and it all comes off as a poor attempt to ape the BBC/ITV sports coverage, ending up as just amateurish tosh.

  • Cradok

    I thought it was great to get the gang back on the screen, but other than the occasional witty lines and the old spark between the crew, it was horribly lacking. I laughed at the first Blade Runner joke, but they grew tired by the fourth or fifth.

    And it was obvious to me that Doug Naylor was the ‘wrong’ choice to continue RD on his own after reading the two separate novels. Naylor obviously had the ideas, but Grant was obviously the one who made them into stories.

  • NM

    On the official Doug Naylor site, he says:

    “Quite late into the Back to Earth pre-production schedule it was decided not to shoot the new specials with a studio audience”.

    Gosh. You don’t say?

  • Cradok

    It’s also a shame they nixed the ‘clip show’ episode, the one which was going to just be the four of them on a stage trying to remember past favourite scenes and doing some improv. As the DVD commentaries show, they can be pretty funny when they’re just riffing off each other.

  • mrrobsa

    Great critique, Senior Walker. I missed the aired episode but assumed it wouldn’t recapture the old magic.
    Even my friend, who isn’t an experienced analysis-droid like yourself, commented on the stilted performance of actors waiting for a studio-laugh which never came.
    It is sad day.

  • simonkaye

    Sorry, I know I’m coming late to this one, but…

    I actually liked the latest Red Dwarf episodes. The absence of a laughter track was very strange indeed – I once saw a dubbed version of Friends minus the canned laughs, and it was unsettling. Perhaps they looked at a late edit and thought – we need to make this more adult, more of a drama. Like… a dramedy. Or some such rubbish.

    But I loved the Blade Runner flourishes. The whole thing felt like exactly the end that the series needed, in fact. They couldn’t ever really get home. Nobody seriously wants or needs another full season (7 and 8 were pretty bad). This is a proper, totally-self referential ending.

    So, as a bit of self-indulgent self-analysis by the writer, I don’t think these episodes were so bad.

  • PC Monster

    Crank up the data-valves – John’s got an Electronic House!

    I don’t know…I’m on two minds about it. I was expecting a car-crash, naturally, and I think I got one…but find myself spotting little moments of beauty and other interesting things; rubber-necking as art criticism. It was a very strange and cold Red Dwarf, and a little bit of me literally died when they leapt into the “real” world. But still, some of the music was nice – the acting was decent despite some very ludicrous material (Post-box droid? Poor Robert) and Russian chick needs to give me her address and phone number pronto. It was also fascinating to see some actual honest-to-gosh effects happening: anything that fleshes out the crimson short one is okay in my book. But yeah. the Blade-runner references were starting to grate horribly by the end.

    Oh, and I think that was the original actor who played Eldon Tyrell, wasn’t it? The Bladerunner fan in me lapped that up. :)

    To conclude: Thanks for the memories, Dave, but let’s hope that’s the end of it.

  • John Walker

    The “Russian chick” was Big Suze from Peep Show. I strongly recommend that for a chance to see her being funny.

    If a “little bit” (fnarr) of you has literally died, I recommend hospital or a lawyer.

  • Saul

    Good write-up, Walker. I guess the only additional point I would make is the absolute irony that the creator is trying to kill off his characters while they’re still at their peak, which is what should have been done at the end of series 6, and still doesn’t manage to happen, although I doubt we’ll see them again.

    The lack of a laugh track is mystifying and unsettling (as it was when the extended versions of three series 7 episodes were released on video back in the day).

    Red Dwarf remains one of my all-time favourite shows, but as far as I’m concerned there will only ever be 36 episodes.

  • Simonkaye

    Will no one else defend it wholesale? I think it at least qualified for a thumbs-up overall…

  • John Walker

    Simon – I think the onus is on your to counter the consensus. The defence you’ve made so far has been to say you liked the Bladerunner references and that you thought it was a good ending.

    Can you explain why you liked the Bladerunner references, and what you thought they had to do with anything that happened? And can you say why you thought it was an ending at all? Also, did you find that anything in it made you laugh? I really cannot think of a funny moment in all three episodes.

  • Jockie

    I wasn’t overly impressed, though there were a couple of decent gags in there that gave me a chuckle i’m hard pressed to remember any of them. In retrospect and after reading this article, it does seem a little sad in the portrayal of the show as something it quite clearly isnt.

    The problem with the Blade Runner references is they kinda just took them wholesale and didnt do anything funny or inventive with them. Instead they just sorta used them in a lazy way.

    But the mind boggles as to why they didnt have a laughter track it just felt alien and strange for me watching Red Dwarf without a laughter track (though it was also a bit alien and strange watching Red Dwarf without knowing what the next line was going to be..).

  • Zoe

    For years i enjoyed watching Red Dwarf, although i must admit it took a while for the Back to Earth episodes to get going by the end i found myself enjoying the characters that we had all come to love. Red Dwarf will always be a good laugh as the characters are so well portrayed and interact with each other like an adorable bunch of school boys.
    The only disappointing thing i found was the odd gap between series 8 and Back to Earth, i found myself wondering if i had missed a series and hoped to find out what happened to Rimmer after he kicked Death in the ‘privates’. Please go back and fill in the blanks!

  • Smee

    I really, really liked Red Dwarf. Watching these three episodes felt like seeing a fondly remembered uncle from your childhood after he’s been admitted to hospital years later. Old, weak and and tired. I wasn’t expecting greatness, but I wasn’t expecting it to upset me in the way it did. A kind of melancholy that has put to rest happy memories from my past.

    (Nonplussed means ‘suprised and confused’, not ‘ambivalent and dismissive’)

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