TV - Red Dwarf is back... why?
It arrived towards the end of the eighties, at a time when TV science fiction was about to be severely culled as a British institution (we did it, we did it well, and had done effortlessly for the previous forty years). Michael Grade, the son of an actual TV mastermind, looking at the worst of the self-indulgent embarrassing science fiction, seemed to be determined to see it go. And he largely succeeded. For killing it at the BBC would mean the few commercial channels of the time had no SF success they could emulate. There had become no need to make science fiction TV.
Perversely it would be the same self-indulgent embarrassing science fiction TV show (with better production values and more in step with current programming) that would remind people that science fiction and genre shows were popular. Though the regrettably too influential Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the actual catalyst. That's not to say there weren't brave attempts in the mean time. There were at least half a dozen half-decent genre shows that never found a real audience. Two I have a soft spot for, The Last Train and The Uninvited, even turned up on ITV. And of course, the Americans carried on, doing it not quite as well as we could have, with far too much money.
But back in the 80's, while still in fifth form, I avoided the first episode of Red Dwarf as if it had some sort of futuristic STD. I was a huge science fiction fan, but I'd already become pretty discerning. You can call it snobbery, but old reruns of Star Trek just weren't enough for me. I was heavily into 2000AD and Judge Dredd (which from 77-87 was doing things nobody else was), I had begun my love of 1970's science fiction films and was looking for well-written, intelligent science fiction (that sometimes had the benefit of not even appearing to be "science fiction"), that had something to say and a unique way of saying it.
On this quest I would be armed only with critic Alan Jones' book SCI-FI NOW (which a few years before I had swapped for an inflatable Action Man dinghy, probably now priceless, but I got the best deal). And not forgetting the occasionally fatherly lecture from Alex Cox on Moviedrome, who guided my love of SF and cult movies through into adulthood. I really wish I had all of his introductions still on tape. Here was somebody who had something to say about films that had something to say. And he did it with a real passion. Eventually he got replaced by some idiot and Moviedrome went away.
Anyway, if anyone is still reading, they probably want to hear about Red Dwarf. But, even if I wanted to, I couldn't extract it from everything else that was going on around me. I missed the first episode because I knew it would be rubbish. It wouldn't just be bad, it would be crass, it would be dumb. It would be exactly what I didn't want from science fiction and to watch it, would actually upset me. However, I was wrong, I would have to wait till season 8 of Red Dwarf before I went through those range of emotions. Arriving at school the next day, people were talking about it. 'Bit rubbish was it?' I asked (on a sunny lunch break where I still think I may have swallowed a fly) and was slightly horrified to discover that people thought it was really good.
Sure, they could just be idiots. But what if I'd made a terrible mistake? I was trapped in the 1980's. Unless someone had videoed it, I may never get to see it again. And I wouldn't, not until 1990 at Birmingham University when a man I vaguely knew as Mark (although he could have been called something else) made me a copy of it. You see, I'd seen the odd science fiction comedy before. It was woeful. Woeful because it was people making the same old jokes about the same old bad science fiction shows. Or, it was a standard sitcom, but hilariously transposed into space. Oh it could be done well, such as in The Sleeper by Woody Allen, but on the whole, it wasn't.
So, there I was waiting for the second episode. Sure, it was still probably going to be rubbish, but I had to know for sure. I was probably hooked from the opening credits. If it had started with zaniness and all kinds of whacky fun, I would probably have walked off in search of cheese on toast. But here was a downbeat and slightly doom-laden piece of music playing as a man laboriously paints a wall with a squidgy mop. Pulling back, we realise he's working on the exterior of a spaceship, which appears to be the size of Phobos. The ship is called Red Dwarf.
Dave Lister, a feckless skivvy, is now the last human being in the galaxy. With him is his old room mate, Arnold Rimmer, now sadly dead but just as pedantic and obnoxious in holographic form. And finally, Holly, a senile supercomputer, who looks and sounds just like a boring bald bloke. They will be later joined by a cat-evolved humanoid called Cat and Kryten, and a strange simpering robot who eventually will come to turn in a passable Herman Munster impersonation.
I have to say quite candidly that I loved the show. In addition to being funny, It had fairly well written science-fiction stories, caught the mood of the times and had touches of real emotion about it. It was one man's quest to find the love of his life, even though she had died several million years before. But this was Christine Kochanski, played by the lovely Claire Grogan, so it was quite believable. There was also nothing like it around at the time, not just in terms of comedy, but in science fiction. If you wanted some watchable British sci-fi, Red Dwarf was the only thing on the robo-menu.
I was lucky enough to meet writers Grant and Naylor at a book signing at the Andromeda bookshop in Birmingham in about '90. It was a nice night, there was free punch, pork scratchings and a warning that I'd pay for anything I spilled punch on. It was also attended by a handful of guys in their twenties and thirties. I asked the writers the odd dumb question which they happily answered and they signed my book to 'The Brothers Grim' for me and my brother, which them even laughed at, bless them. It must have been a long way from the fan convention circuit they would face one day.
And I rather enjoyed that first book. It was something different from Hitch-Hikers, which though I liked, was always treated as if it had invented science fiction comedy. There was also a slightly soppy romantic side to Dave Lister that rather appealed. He seemed to encompass everything that was base and crude, but also all the great aspirations as well. He was as likable as Rimmer was unlikeable, i.e. not almost, but not quite, entirely. Poor old Rimmer was left with everything petty and selfish.
So I liked Red Dwarf. It was funny, it had science fiction, stories made some sort of sense, it had an edge of sadness and unrequited love. Red Dwarf was the last light on in an otherwise uninhabited universe and the crew spent all their days squabbling, being petty, playing tricks on each other, being bored and occasionally getting into implausible situations. It looked cheap, but it had it's own look, a grey submarine claustrophobia, on board a truly titanic spacecraft.
Then series 3 arrived like a slap in the face from a man in a clown outfit. They had a bit more money, the theme music was a bit zanier and that bloody robot was now in it all the time. Twist my nipple nuts indeed. It's the show that, had I not already seen two series, I would have turned off for more cheese on toast experiments. But I was already involved, and despite some of my reservations, the show had its moments, and could still get a laugh. It wasn't really my thing any more, but I would continue to watch it, and get something out of it, for a good many series to come.
I remember buying an issue of the Red Dwarf comic, and apart from me thinking it wasn't very good, it also wasn't about the show I liked. That show had gone at the start of series 3. As I said at the start, I AM a bit discerning/snobbish. I don't like everything reduced to a mushy paste to be spoonfed to idiots, but at the same time, I can watch things with obvious flaws if they are coming from beyond a mainstream viewpoint. And in a perverse way I find that flaws are sometimes strengths. For instance I love the beachball alien in Dark Star, it's inspired. But Red Dwarf is no longer the lovable underachiever, but a garish, over the top comedy that seems to be increasingly riffing off old science fiction shows. But I must try and overcome some of these attitudes, for I enjoyed Mr Flibble and the gag 'are you sure you want to go to Red Alert? It means changing the light bulb.' as much as anyone else. The show was hugely popular, and in some respects I know I am always doomed to be standing on the edge of such a crowd, tutting pompously.
Where the show really went off the rails I think was when the writing partnership split. Just as when a married couple splits, it's all very sad, and the children can't help but be effected. And so it is with writing partnerships (see also Wagner and Grant on Judge Dredd). I thought series seven actually had some very nice genuinely affecting moments in as well as some of the funny crassness of the previous four series. Ace Rimmer surfing a crocodile while fighting World War II Nazi's shouldn't have been as funny as it sounds, but I thought it was.
Series 8 however was an embarrassment all round. This was juvenile and mostly incoherent stuff, that had more than an edge of desperation about it. Red Dwarf had had its day and like many a series, it would end without a proper end. It's always a sad way to go. However good Deadwood was, it never ended, it just drifted away. It just seems like madness to me, spending millions on a TV series and then not giving it an ending. It is the most horrific and crass thing studio executives can do, especially as any money spent would eventually be recouped on higher DVD (or Hyperdynamic Krystal-Kube if you're in the 22nd century) sales. Deadwood (to digress) should have ended, showing you how the Wild West itself had ended.
Because stories have to have an end, without an ending, it's not a story, at best it's an unsatisfying anecdote. Some series, like Red Dwarf, just drift into it. Nobody starts these things thinking it will be the last season, it just turns out that way. It doesn't get recommissioned, viewers flag, or it's time has gone, or some new executive has come on board and wants his own tosh to be winning awards.
So here we are at Back to Earth. I watched the first episode last night, and despite whatever flaws it has, I found myself enjoying it and liking it. It had a little of the original show about it, the Dave Lister I knew would dress up in his wedding outfit to lay flowers at the grave of Christine Kochansky (even if it IS the wrong one) and read Jane Houston's Sense and Sensibility at the graveside hoping their would be more car chases in it.
I think most of all I'm giving it a go, because it's the end. Or at least even if it turns out not to be the end, it's an end. And despite how the show it went in directions I wasn't keen on over the years and however much I would like to say I'm too savvy for this stuff, in truth I've known these characters for a long time and part of me still has a soft spot for them.
However it goes, and there's two episodes left to make me regret everything I've just said, I have to say in all sincerity...
Farewell Red Dwarf.
Can't believe I've just typed all that out. What a f*cking geek.