Sunday 12 April 2009

Red Dwarf: Back to Earth

Smeggin' hell! Red Dwarf's back after a 10 year absence! 

Time for some backstory. Among Red Dwarf fandom, there has long been debates about which series, or rather series of series, are the best. For the purists only seasons I and II were any good. Then there are those who champion series III-VI, and others who defend VII and VIII. I'd place myself in the wishy-washy camp. For my money series I to VI (1988-93) produced some of the finest moments in British comedy. But unfortunately series VII and VIII were, well, not as good. Both suffered the curse of the twee and compared very unfavourably with what went before.

The man mainly responsible was Doug Naylor, who along with Rob Grant formed the Grant Naylor writing partnership. At some point between the end of series VI and the start of VII, Grant quit the partnership determined to have more under his belt than just the 'Dwarf. Several unfunny novels later he's still scribbling away in relative obscurity, determined to escape his history. Naylor proved much smarter. He stuck with
Red Dwarf and steered it through those difficult couple of seasons in the dying years of the 90s. But without Grant VII and VIII lacked bite. So when I heard a three-parter was due to be screened on Dave, entirely written and directed by Naylor, my hopes weren't high. But alas I was unprepared for what followed.

Red Dwarf: Back to Earth finds the boys - Lister, Rimmer, The Cat and Kryten continuing to float aimlessly through space. Nothing is happening. But then the crew become aware of a dimension-hopping squid has taken up residence in the ship's remaining water tank. They set out to investigate and inadvertently activate Katrina, a hologram of the ship's deceased chief scientist. Her mission is to use Lister to start off the human race again, and sets about using a severed tentacle to reverse the polarity and open a transdimensional gate way back to Earth. But something goes wrong, we are informed the reality in which they live is invalid and the crew is sucked through. They are vomited out of sets in a TV shop, the screens surrounding them full of the unfolding action. Isn't there something strange going on here? The chaps stumble across a Red Dwarf: Back to Earth DVD and from its blurb learn they are really characters in a TV show and are not real. They also read that they're scheduled to die at the end of the special, and so go off to find the writer and plead for extra life.

The problem is, it's terrible. The clever-clever postmodern plot of media creations becoming self-aware as media creations is hopelessly dated. The thing is you can tell Naylor thinks it's original and edgy, when in fact it is a hopelessly tired trope that's been not only done to death, but also carried off with greater aplomb elsewhere. If one was being generous, and I mean
really generous, you could interpret this pomo turn as wry comment and cod philosophy. I'm sure media commodification absorbed a mighty blow when it made hey with Red Dwarf  being brought back to cash in on the nostalgia of an affectionate and devoted fan base. And then there comes the Baudrillardian twist - it is all a dream and it happens we are the outgrowths of their imaginations, not vice versa. Deary me. This plot device could partly be forgiven if the jokes were spot on, but almost without exception they fall completely flat. The only consolation is that as comebacks-long-after-a-series-has-ended go, it's not as awful as Blackadder Back & Forth, but it comes pretty close.

Overall the viewing public pretty much agreed. From ratings of two million for episode one - a triumph for a digital channel - it had fallen by over half last night for episode two, and I doubt it recovered for tonight's finale. On TV and related forums, blogs and the tweetosphere, apart from die-hards who
wanted it to be good, the verdict was damning.

There is talk of a 10th series (deliberately skipping the ninth - what it is to be ever so quirky!). If so it really needs to up its game. But I doubt it will work. Our post-ironic, post-alternative and irreverently banal times demands much more than the pen of Doug Naylor can produce.

Edit: Slightly more favorable review from Iain at Leftwing Criminologist here.


Rob said...

The plot was also disturbingly similar to that of the League of Gentlemen Apocalypse film (apart from the final twist).

Phil said...

Forgot to mention how derivative it was - even cannibalising plots from previous Red Dwarfs! It was atrocious and everyone associated with it ought to euthenise themselves.

Rob said...

I wonder whether the basic idea of the script wasn't written a long time ago, or at least thought up a while ago, whilst still fresh before languishing in development hell for a while. This strikes me as the only possible explanation for how a plot so derivative could possibly be thought up.

Phil said...

Either way it's all very tired. If there is to be a new series new writers need to be found ... and the fancy CGI needs dumping too!

But still there were some people who like it. When I went through some of the Red Dwarf fan forums last night there were people claiming they were rolling around the floor in tears. They must have been the only ones who were.

Rabelais said...

Couple of questions: Wasn't there talk of a Red Dwarf feature film? Could this have been the intended script?

And were the final two series made with an eye on trying to crack the US market? I seem to remember that aesthetically they looked quite different - more polished, bigger budget - which I always felt sort of betrayed the series' 'bad British TV sci-fi' roots (Blake 7, The Tomorrow People etc).

Phil said...

There's been talk of a feature film ever since I first started watching Red Dwarf in the late 80s. I don't think this script was for that.

As for the US market, I'm not sure about that. But I'll tell you something - the last series may have been crap but it was the highest rated of the show so far. How did that happen?

Ed said...

It was awful. You're bang on about the tiredness of the programmes' plot - I couldn't believe it when it first became clear that that was the way the plot was going. It just seemed too awful to be true. I thought they really over-egged the Blade Runner references too, as if they had to force it home in case anyone missed it. Also, there wasn't a single funny joke - the only bit that made me chuckle was the bit where the crew are introduced to the creator by two mini-Rimmers (but even that was a reference back to the Rimmer World episode years ago).

They showed the 'Back to Reality' episode with the Despair Squid (when they think they've been in a virtual reality game) on Dave after the third episode of the Easter Special. The quality of that old episode was 100 times better - and what's more it was funny. Very disappointed.

Damon Lord said...

I honestly think that they didn't show the episodes. Instead, they brought a despair squid to Earth and infected us all so we are hallucinating and we all dreamed in our despair that they showed something shockingly shite and named it Red Dwarf. Even that would have made a better plot.

Henceforth, I thinking I should pretend that those three shows are not part of the Dwarf canon. The show ended with Series 8.

prianikoff said...

Yes, some disappointing Easter viewing alright.

The latest Dr Who was decidedly crap, so was Red Dwarf.
- A bit like the middle-aged reunion of a once successful rock band.
Trying to recapture the old magic usually doesn't work, because they're in a different place.

To be credible, the characters had to be psychologically developed.
Without that credibility, what was once funny becomes arkward, embarassing and repetitive.
Lister is still dressing like he's going down to Camden Lock, but looks more like someone who spends his time browsing for antiques in Camden Passage.
The Cat's preening narcissism and Rimmer's insecure-bombastic schoolboyish nerdyness no longer seem quite appropriate.

But the scriptwriter's laziness landed the characters with lame dialogue and an equally lame plot.
So who cares about the obligatory "How it was Made" bonus episode?
It all reeks of trying to cash in on the burgeoning DVD and international satellite market.

A left wing discussion of the "Twilight" series might be more interesting right now, as it seems to be capturing the teen imagination.

Phil said...

I'll have to leave the Twilight discussion to someone else - I haven't been following the series at all. Is it better than Buffy? What's all the fuss about?

prianikoff said...

A lot of girls seem obsessed with "Twilight". If anything, the heroine, Bella, is the "anti-Buffy".

Rather than sunny Sunnydale, it's set in Twin Peaks territory; cloudy and wet Forks, Washington.
Nor is Bella an action hero, but a klutz who can't fight her way out of a paper bag.
To compensate, she drives a big old pick up truck to High school, like a suit of protective body armour.

Much of the drama centres around her developing relationship with her enigmatic classmate, Edward Cullen.
It transpires that he belongs to a family of all-American, "vegetarian"vampires.
They're sharply dressed, drive flash cars and play baseball in the woods.
While not all 'blood relations', they form a cohesive unit.
Whereas Bella's parents are divorced and barely talking.

Edward is immortal, so he's been 17 for a "long time".
(Evidently not long enough to graduate High School).
He doesn't need to eat or sleep, but is otherwise just a regular guy.

Bella can and does get hurt, ending up dancing at the High School Prom with her foot in a cast.
She's not very handy with wooden stakes either.
She spends a lot time being driven by Edward at high speed, getting carried through the dripping forests and admiring his "perfect looks".
But there's nothing camp about Edward. He's torn by unexplained inner turmoil.

You should be able to work out what the fringe benefits of hanging with the Vamps might be for Bella.
However, the Vampire community disapprove of mixed marriages and most just aren't 'veggies'.
Cue gore.

Phil said...

Yes, very much the anti-Buffy. She went put and kicked ass, and this one cowers in the shadow of her vampire protector. Not the most progressive of gender messages is it?