Sunday 12 April 2009

Best left buried - Red Dwarf: Back to Earth

There's a line in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoiler alert if you haven't watched season five of the show and might one day want to). Buffy and Dawn's mother has just died and Dawn tried to do a spell to bring her back. Buffy says: "Tara told me that these spells go bad all the time: people come back wrong.". In the end, she breaks the spell at the last minute. It's a shame Doug Naylor didn't learn the lesson here.

This list of great TV shows, many of them sci-fi TV shows, cancelled before their time is long and illustrious: Futurama, Sports Night, Studio 60, Farscape, and, of course, Firefly, to name but a few. (A surprising number of those begin with an F.) Babylon 5 very nearly joined them but was granted a last minute reprieve on another channel, though it did not come through the process unscathed.

For me, Red Dwarf doesn't really fall into this category, doubtless some will take issue with that. It had a decent run of eight series and around fifty episodes. It has been said that quality declined after the split of the creative partnership of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, certainly the final two series, where Naylor went it alone, didn't have quite the same sparkle. The BBC decided not to renew it for a ninth and, despite rumours of a movie that have refused to die, nothing materialised for the following decade. Until, that is, the end of last year when it emerged that digital channel Dave (best known for its endless reruns of BBC shows such as Top Gear and Red Dwarf itself) was resurrecting it for a multi-part special to air over the Easter weekend.

It's not clear if the three part script that is the result, entitled Back to Earth, was the basis for the movie script that Doug Naylor has been pitching in the intervening years; however, if it is, it provides a depressingly simply explanation why nobody has made it: to call it terrible would to be kind. They should have left it in the grave, with its reputation more or less in tact. Instead, Doug Naylor appears to have decided the try for the George Lucas award for defecating on the memories of a once fine franchise.

First things first: any other annoyances would be rendered nil if the thing was funny. After all, it was always a sitcom. But it wasn't. Indeed, the extent to which it was unfunny in the first episode was quite painful: the Cat's pun confusing the words testicle and tentacle (which Lister promptly explained, just in case the viewer only had an IQ in single digits) was a case in point. Similarly, Rimmer listening to music, oblivious, as the crew battled for their lives. Of course, Rimmer's cowardice is nothing new, but it used to be very, very funny: compare Back to Earth with the genius of him demanding that Kryten go at both the front and the rear so that he is safe. The Cat's purple wetsuit was funny, so too were Kryten's inflatable arm bands (though if memory serves, we've seen those before), but it wasn't enough. Episodes two and three are a little funnier, but not by much. The car converted to look like Starbug is reasonably amusing - but how come the crew know how to drive it?

Too many of the jokes were metafictional in jokes. Indeed, the episodes as a whole were one great exercise in metafiction: examples include a joke at the sci-scanner's expense, and how it always knows everything, or the Cat describing something as worse than Rimmerworld.

Any show, and particularly any sci-fi show, requires a degree of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. When you take away the humour, this audience member becomes less forgiving. Aside from a line on the screen indicating the time passed, not a mentioned is made of how Red Dwarf was saved from imminent destruction at the end of series eight (though apparently the DVD contained an alternate non-cliffhanger ending), or how Rimmer is a hologram again, or why the crew is all dead again, or what's happened to Kochanski (this last is actually explained in the end), or, well, I won't go on, you get the idea. Some in online forums maintain the show has done this before (Lister's pregnancy was never explained). I don't remember clearly enough, but I suspect I was forgiving of that because the show was still funny.

So what actually is the plot? (If you don't want spoilers, skip the next two paragraphs.) Well, a monster has moved into the last remaining water tank and the crew go down to fight it. It seems to be a dimension jumping squid and a new holographic science officer, who has randomly shown up, posits using it to take Lister home so that he can repopulate the species. This she does and episode two begins, and begins with a wholesale tearing down of the fourth wall. Our crew are transported into our world, where a new three part special of Red Dwarf is about to air. They accept their fate as fictional characters pretty blithely and set off in search of their creators to beg for more time, or rather not to die.

It then all gets a little Blade Runner - rather too Blade Runner actually. The trouble is, Doug Naylor is no Ridley Scott; indeed, it's been a while since I last saw it, but Scott's film was probably funnier too. They visit their creator in a pyramid structure reminiscent of the film that's appeared next to the Houses of Parliament, calling into question whether they have, in fact, crossed over into our world after all. Of course, Red Dwarf has spoofed before - the Casablanca spoof that is Camile being among the most prominent examples, but it wasn't quite so rammed down your throat. It's also worth noting that the Casablanca spoof was actually funny. It's worth noting that the 'characters tracking down their creators' thing has been done before. Indeed, the Fantastic Four did it in issue 511 (by Mark Waid), which remains one of my favourites, but that isn't the plot in and of itself: it is a means of expressing how far the family will go for their fallen comrade. In Blade Runner it says something profound about the relationship between man and god. Here, frankly, it's just embarrassing. Naylor resolves all this with the laziest get out in all of writing: it was all just a dream. Worse than that, exactly the same get out as they used at the end of series five in Back to Reality: the suicide squid (though in this case we are told it is a female squid that provides elation, although the only person for whom it's done that is Lister, and then only at the very end). Needless to say, this plot was infinitely funnier the first time round.

The absence of Holly, in either the Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge flavours, is notable. Perhaps those two had the sense to request a script before signing on. I'm sure it was fun for the cast to get back together for a reunion, but they could just have gone out for a meal, it would have been cheaper and it wouldn't have tarnished their reputations.

As I said, the list of great shows cancelled before their time is long, but the list of shows that went on too long is, well, longer. Red Dwarf now firmly joins it (if it hadn't already with series eight). Apparently Naylor wants to do a 10th series (no - not ninth, the episodes are replete with references to a ninth series, which was allegedly the funniest, perhaps it had a fictional co-writer, which doubtless would have explained the inconsistencies). I've loved the show for many years and would count myself as a fan, which means I take little pleasure in writing this. I hope they leave it there. I hope everyone else will know better and won't try to flog this horse any deader. I hope to still remember the show for its good times. If you missed it on Dave and are considering the DVDs, you'd be well advised to save your money and thereby your memories.


Johnny said...

I was pretty gutted at how poor back to earth was, it was far to unoriginal and far to predictable, I agree a lot with this article but I firmly believe if this three part special hadn't been recorded and aired they could have started from scratch and formed a proper script and a much better plot and story line and had been revised properly it could have been without a doubt great. I really enjoyed the only fools and horses specials and I understand red dwarf is completely different because it is more of a cult show but it could of been a similar in it's success if they hadn't rushed in and filmed in the time they did with such a low budget. A well thought out new series would work, but not if it's anything like back to earth.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of Red Dwarf, and even though it said on the Red Dwarf forums that I should like this if that's true I don't. I wished it wasn't made, it felt too thinly spread. It needed more action, more jokes, more wit and clever twists. It just wasn't what I expected at all, and I felt dissapointed. Also what was with the sadness of it all, I've never seen Dave Lister show any real sadness like he did in this, it was depressing to watch. For a sitcom that's not a good quality! At least like Terminator 3 I can try and forget this later episode, and keep watching the good old days on Dave or my DVDs.

Anonymous said...

I think this article pretty much hit the nail on the head. I have always loved Red Dwarf, but it did go down hill after the 'Grant Naylor' days were over. Back to Earth simply emphasised the fact that it just doesn't work as well with 1 writer. As much as it looked impressive, the plot was nothing new, the jokes were few and far between and it just didn't feel like a Red Dwarf episode. I got excited when I read an article before it aired saying that there would be a lot of 'nostalgia' for the Red Dwarf fans, but I felt very little (if nothing at all). When Dave played classic episodes afterwards, it felt a bit of a "Here's how it should be done" moment.

If they commission a 9th series with the previous partnership of writers there might still be hope for a decent comeback. But I doubt that will ever happen.

Anonymous said...

This article isn't that good and misses some of the more obvious points. Back to Earth will not be classed as one of the greats, but it certainly grows on you over time. Now, as for the questions, how come the crew know how to drive? Car's have featured a few times throughout the series. Rimmer talking about the Bentley in Marooned, the get away limo in Back to Reality, even car's and tanks in VR. In all truth it is a good episode, but should have been condensed into two rather than 3.

Tam Pollard said...

As to the driving, I take your point. And, indeed, given it was all just a dream, they weren't really driving anyway.

I'm not sure how condensing it into two episodes would have fixed it's many flaws. True it might have spread the few jokes a little less thin, but there weren't enough of them to make much difference.

Curious what obvious points I missed.

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