May 4, 2009
A review by Martin Odoni of Red Dwarf: Back To Earth by Doug Naylor
The return of Red Dwarf might have been greeted with joy and elation by long-time aficionados, but for various reasons, it must also have been greeted with an uneasy caution. After all, ten years and an aborted movie project have passed since Rimmer landed that infamous kick to the Grim Reaper’s ‘nads in Only The Good, and it must be conceded, however politely, that those ten years have not exactly been kind to the cast, especially Chris Barrie and Craig Charles. And public reaction to the BBC run’s final couple of seasons had not been kind either. The real root of concern about how Back To Earth turned out lies in the reason why seasons 7 and 8 met with such furrow-browed clearing of throats.
Quite simply, Red Dwarf never quite adjusted to one of the most unfortunately-timed behind-the-scenes transitions in its long history; the departure of Rob Grant from the writing team for the start of season 7. This coincided with what can be seen in hindsight as a serious blunder, which was the decision to increase the season length from six to eight episodes. All of a sudden, Doug Naylor was writing and producing largely on his own, just as the workload was increasing by roughly thirty per cent. When a sitcom is given an extended run, it will need more ideas and more jokes to fill up the added time, and both seasons 7 and 8 were to show despairing signs, especially in their later stages, that there simply weren’t enough of either to go around.
Fortunately, other writers like Paul Alexander and Robert Llewellyn, capable and experienced comedy writers in their own right, were on hand to help out, but, while this partly alleviated the danger of work overload for Naylor, it was not enough to resolve the wider problem of adjusting to a much-altered writing environment. This was because Alexander and Llewellyn ended up writing their own episodes more or less on an individual basis, rather than in tandem with Naylor, who was far more accustomed to writing in a partnership. Worse, Alexander also retained his role as script editor. It’s a generally-agreed rule that a script-writer should never be his own script-editor, as he will have both less time available to commit to either job, and because he will get far less opportunity to gain outside feedback on his written work, which is crucial to tidying up weaknesses in a script; witness some of Russell T. Davies’ more wretched self-indulgences while working on Dr Who as both writer and editor.
Further problems of poor timing were caused by Chris Barrie’s decision to commit to appearing in only four of the eight episodes. To compensate for his early departure, another character was brought in to replace the departing lead role of Arnold Rimmer. This took the form of David Lister’s long-lost love, Kristine Kochanski; a mistake as it turned out, as the series replaced the delicious friction of the Rimmer-Lister relationship with a run-of-the-mill sexual tension of a kind to be found in any number of other comedies. Rimmer’s overbearing, petty arrogance and Lister’s mocking exasperation had served as the catalyst of so many of the series’ best episodes down the years e.g. Thanks For The Memory, Marooned, Dimension Jump, Quarantine, and this vital ingredient was never really there in the second half of season 7, succeeded only by a moon-struck, unrequited love that is standard fare in most US teen sitcoms.
The upshot of all this was that season 7 was probably the thinnest on laughs since season 1. There were still some good ideas in there, for example the brilliant lampooning of JFK assassination conspiracy theories in Tikka To Ride, and one or two episodes did genuinely have the audience laughing long and loud, such as Stoke Me A Clipper. But for the most part, it was an overlong, joyless, lethargic season with too few funny moments and too much focus on getting the changes made and worrying about having fun some other time. Of all the seasons of Red Dwarf, season 7 was the one that seemed to have a dearth of energy, and it was clearly treading water for much of Epideme and Nanarchy as it desperately battled to fill out the two extra episodes required to get the schedule filled.
When it came to season 8, it was clear that Naylor and Alexander had taken the harrumphing noises of the fans on board, and there was a substantial improvement in the fare that was on offer, at least in the first half of the season. Chiefly, there were far more jokes, and they were usually a fair bit funnier too. Chris Barrie’s decision to return was a big plus, as the Rimmer-Lister rivalry could now be moved back to the heart of proceedings.
But there were still big problems.
For one, the second half of the season again showed signs of treading water. Cassandra was a generic predeterminism story used in roughly two-and-a-half million episodes of Star Trek down the years – to this day, I can’t believe that it resorted to the Stone Age sneeze-gag where the fortune teller says ‘Bless you’ beforehand. Pete had exactly enough plot to make a decent one-part story, but by becoming a two-parter it was stretched way beyond its limits, again presumably to fill out the schedule, and the resulting gaps were heavily padded by repetitive and puerile gags. Only The Good meanwhile felt like a hangover from season 7; a fairly good concept for a story, but a bit thin on laughs.
Another problem was that the season once again highlighted limitations in the writers. Llewellyn was dropped from the team to focus purely on playing Kryten, while Naylor and Alexander seemed to be going out of their way to increase the number of jokes. This they achieved, but at a price. A lot of the jokes in season 8, while undoubtedly funny, seemed out of place, as though gatecrashers from a different TV series. The style of humour became less clever and more zany and screwball. In fact, there were times when this worked very well e.g. Back In The Red Part 1 and Krytie TV, but at other times it seemed unhealthily derivative, or plain childish e.g. Back In The Red Part 3, and Pete. The problem lay in the desperation to up the number of jokes. Partly it led the writers to lose focus on story ideas, so that many episodes seemed like retreads of the past – for example Cassandra is every bit the re-run of Future Echoes that it openly and shamelessly admits to being, and the time-wand from Pete was clearly just a copy of the time gauntlet from The Inquisitor – and a number of promising ideas went under-developed – Kryten being restored to his factory settings in Back In The Red, for instance, lost all its impact because of his files being corrupted again within just a few minutes.
But also, there seemed to be an "oh-anything-will-do-so-long-as-it-makes-people-snigger" attitude. Anything the writers could think of that resembled a joke was crowbarred in, no matter how much it might be at odds with the style of humour that Red Dwarf usually opted for, or how much it might get in the way of telling the story. The series was losing its ability to make the audience think, such a strength of past seasons, and that excellent balance of ideas, jokes and action that Grant Naylor had more or less perfected around seasons 5 and 6 had gone entirely.
This leads on to another weakness in Doug Naylor’s writing, which is an unnecessary desire for keeping the continuity right and explicit. This would be perfectly creditable, indeed I daresay it would be essential, when writing a drama series, but in a comedy it is not really important. Season 8, however, saw countless, often gratuitous, attempts to re-establish links with the first two seasons of Red Dwarf, seasons that had been more or less cut off from everything that followed by the enormous changes in established ‘lore’ from the start of season 3 onwards e.g. Lister having his appendix out twice, Lister having an affair with Kochanski despite having never asked her out etc. Naylor has openly confessed to being far more concerned about this sort of thing than Grant ever was. When they discussed such issues when writing for seasons 3 to 6, Grant generally got his way, and so continuity usually went hang when it might otherwise hamper the plot. But now that Grant was out of the series and Naylor was mainly writing on his own, he no longer had anyone to assure him that it was nothing to worry about, or to warn him against crowbarring superfluous backward-references into situations where they would sound fannish and unnatural.
My heart does sympathise with the desire to try and tie things together more, as it makes the adventures of the Red Dwarf crew seem like a much more self-consistent odyssey, but my head tells me otherwise. And so does season 8. The revival of the full ship’s crew, the return to the original sleeping quarters, the conversations about encountering future echoes or universes where time is running backwards, Rimmer banging on about going ‘up the ziggurat, lickety-split’ and so on all feel badly, jarringly out of place, as though they were just forced in to make long-time fans smile at nostalgic memories, and had no actual purpose within the story in front of us. There had been aspects of this in season 7, especially the memorial scene in Stoke Me A Clipper, but at least it made perfect sense in context. This was seldom the case in season 8.
All of which finally brings me round to Back To Earth itself, and the reasons why I was a little hesitant about it, and furthermore, why I was left somewhat non-plussed by it.
Part of the difficulty is this ongoing pattern of Naylor lifting story ideas from the series’ own past. Look at the scenario. We have a story whose title begins Back To…, and it features a squid that attacks potential prey or enemies with an ink that induces long, detailed, highly-complex mass-hallucinations.
Well at least the makers aren’t insulting our intelligence by pretending they’re doing anything new; the fact that the episode includes plenty of explicit references to Back To Reality shows how unashamed Naylor is in simply offering re-runs of the past, and in writing continuity stories entirely for their own sake.
In truth though, almost everything seems to have been taken from somewhere else in Red Dwarf folklore, and none more so than the resolution. It is of course the most clichéd and overused cop-out in the genre of sci-fi/fantasy; the "good-heavens-so-it-was-all-just-a-dream!!!" re-set button, a lazy writing device that most kids on a creative writing course will have abandoned before they leave school on the basis that it’s too childish. It’s always a very unsatisfying resolution to a big mystery, because it makes most of what the viewers have seen throughout the story seem pointless, as though their time has been wasted. It has been used in almost every fantasy series ever made, far too often to be worth the bother of listing them all, which makes it inexcusable in most shows. It might be forgiven in a situation comedy, in that the re-set button is required to maintain the situation that the comedy springs from. Not in the case of Red Dwarf though, at least not anymore, for one very simple reason; it’s already been used by the series too often.
To differing degrees, Better Than Life, Camille, Back To Reality, Terrorform, and Back In The Red Part 3 feature long tracts of key events that turn out to be hallucinations or dreams in one way or another (I choose not to include Confidence And Paranoia in this rundown, as the hallucinations in that story have the opposite effect from those in the other episodes listed – but I’m sure that many would include it without hesitation). Furthermore, in any way that matters, even Queeg, Timeslides, White Hole, The Inquisitor, Tikka To Ride and Pete could be added to this list in that they also feature huge catalogues of events that are shown "not to have happened after all". (This is not necessarily to say there is anything wrong with these episodes, not all of them anyway, or the way the routine was handled in them. It is merely to say that the ‘re-set switch’ routine is now completely worn out and that Red Dwarf really should have shelved it a long time ago.)
The sad irony is that, although it’s a cop-out, the re-set button could be seen as the saving grace of Back To Earth. This is because the plot as it appears within the hallucination is one of the most tiresome and self-indulgent the series has ever inflicted on its fans, a feeble pretext for crowbarring in a plethora of smug in-jokes about Red Dwarf fandom, Mancunians* and Craig Charles’ current day-job on Coronation Street. Even a crossover with a soap opera isn’t as original an idea as the story seems to think it is; Dr Who made a crossover with EastEnders – a thoroughly dire one, it must be admitted – called Dimensions In Time as far back as 1993. Perhaps Naylor wasn’t aware of it? I’m sure if he had been he’d have known better than to try anything similar. Had that stretch of forty-plus minutes of the Red Dwarf crew on ‘Earth’ been kept as established canon, not only would it have been a breach of the fourth wall violent enough to be classed as rape, it would probably have alienated many of the series’ long-time audience for good.
Several other things stink of gratuitous continuity and recycling on the scale of a 1980’s Dr Who story. The concept of Lister being trapped in a world created by his own desires and being unwilling to leave it, even though it endangers his life, is clearly a carbon-copy lift from the novelisation of Better Than Life. Katerina Bartikovsky seems a lot like a cross between Kochanski and Natalina Pushkin from Holoship. Whether that was the intention I don’t know, but one intention that was crystal clear was that she was an excuse to have a pretty actress with a large visible cleavage on-screen for about fifteen minutes in the hope of boosting the number of teenage boys in the audience. A blatant continuity-gasm is attempted with the Cat singing the I’m gunna eat you, Little Fishie song for the first time since Better Than Life, way back in season 2. (That was twenty-one years ago! No one’s going to remember it except hardcore fans, it serves no real purpose within the plot, and doesn’t even provoke a laugh. The only reason for including it is the hoped-for continuity rush.)
In among all this unnecessary backward-referencing, it’s slightly bewildering to realise that the other massive cop-out the story is guilty of comes from the opposite end of the scale; the decision just to skate over the bit where we left off ten years ago. A lot has no doubt been made already by other fans – in my laziness I haven’t bothered to check – of the declaration that we have missed out on two seasons of the series, but I’ll still throw in my tuppence-worth. It really is infuriating that we don’t get to see how the situation at the end of season 8 resolved itself. This does leave some annoying questions; how come Rimmer is a hologram again? Is he the revived Rimmer from season 8, or the old Rimmer who went off to become the new ‘Ace’ in Stoke Me A Clipper? If the former, how did he die, if the latter, why did he come back? (As he has memories of the Despair squid from Back To Reality, it’s probably the latter.) Are the rest of the resurrected crew still alive? Where did they get to after abandoning the ship? What exactly led Kochanski to leave? How come the good ship Red Dwarf still exists at all, and how did our "heroes" survive the solvent microbe crisis? All the aforementioned gratuitous references to previous events we’ve already seen is annoying enough, but offering little or no mention of any of these events that we haven’t seen feels mildly insulting.
Before I get so down on the story that I wind up depressing myself, I must make clear that there are some big pluses in it. The set for the sleeping quarters aboard the ship looked fantastic for such a tight budget, there were some cracking good jokes e.g. Lister’s tomato allergy, Carbug, and the search down the back of the sofa in the department store (I should also mention that the style of humour was about right here – managing to be funny without being silly or whacky in the manner of season 8), and some of the performances were superb; Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules were right back into their old roles so smoothly it was almost as if they’d never been away. Chris Barrie seemed a bit self-conscious about performing Rimmer again – his delivery of some of his lines in part 1 seemed almost as forced and stagey as it was back in the first season – while Craig Charles looked a bit tired and fed up back in his old Lister role, but they both still did well enough to make us believe that the time since season 8 wasn’t the ten years it truly was. And I would say there’s enough promise in what I saw to believe that Dave Channel has what it takes to revive the series properly.
But the hangovers from seasons 7 and 8 have definitely been carried over to the new channel, and they really do need to be addressed before a full revival should be attempted. More than anything else, the storylines desperately need freshening up, with no more retreads of old ground. I suggest that Naylor needs to look around for a new writing partner who has some genuinely different ideas, rather than using entire seasons to congratulate himself and Rob Grant for the great ideas they had in the distant past.
* Not that I have any objections in principle to people having fun at the expense of Mancunians; I live in Manchester and I have to put up with them every day, so seeing them being taken down a peg or three is something I usually find quite satisfying…