Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Red Dwarf - Back to Earth pts II & III

Well, it tied together two of the stronger story ideas which the series/books have ever generated, threw in a scene of genuine emotional clout, and ended on a hopeful note. What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, the whole was far less than the sum of its parts, and the blame lies squarely on some lamentable writing decisions.

I'm trying hard to make these posts a balanced and well-reasoned dissection of new episodes of a much-loved show. That said, the best thing I can honestly say about the return to Earth is that it now occupies pride of place in my Jar Jar Binks Archive of Things I Pretend Never Happened. A plot line in which characters interact with their audience and their creator is a potentially interesting one, but absolutely must never be used with already-established characters, lest the magic of those characters be irretrievably destroyed. The cast and crew speak proudly of their four-walled TV sets, but their writer systematically demolished the fourth wall by having his characters abruptly aware of their own fictional existence. Self-parody is joined by recursive self-reference, fanwank in-jokes, and cheap topical gags, and the result is jarring in the extreme. Even if this were a good idea, and I cannot emphasise enough that it wasn't, the execution is poor - the plot and the pacing grind to a standstill, and the use of characters is again weak. It isn't even funny.

The golden rule of writing is "Always be true to your characters". Have them behave realistically, and within their own personality. Rimmer commits a cold-blooded murder, and nobody even reacts to it. Lister, in the space of two minutes, is in fear of his imminent death, experiences his own death, kills his creator, and yet can laugh hysterically as he repeatedly hurts Rimmer's nadgers. This would only be remotely credible if Lister were a psychopath; he isn't, and it isn't. Sorry, this is crap writing. These aren't human beings, they are the playthings of the author. Ms Hologram, having served her purpose, is unceremoniously dumped into the Darth Maul Dustbin of Undeveloped Utility Characters. She could have done so much more.

The dystopian Blade Runner angle worked really well, once you accepted the abrupt jump there from Coronation Street, and that we were previously in "real life" (no huge monoliths in Westminster last time I checked). It looked brilliant. So much more could have been done with this idea - I wish the entire Earth episode had been set there. At it was, it was an incongruous fantasy rampage shoehorned into, and with no connection to, what had been done previously. An opportunity wasted.

The scene in which the crew are in Carbug (fabulous prop, but better off in a Top Gear stunt) and "land" it as though a spaceship was witty, original, and funny. A moment's thought, however, and we notice Lister's comment about his hometown having lots of stolen cars, and Rimmer being a classic car expert (previous episode) - it's a pedantic point, but surely this undermines their necessary unfamiliarity? A more careful author would have cut out these in favour of keeping the (worthy) landing scene, to no other cost to the script.

Having endured the embarrassing tour of modern-day Britain, we are rewarded with a noticeable recovery in the end section. Lister is faced with the decision to leave his personal utopia (rework of the book version of Better Than Life) knowing that it is a fantasy. This is a really strong idea. Craig Charles shows us how much he has developed as an actor, and delivers a scene of genuine poignancy. Bravo. The Earth plot is then tied up as a fantasy (explicit Back To Reality rework) - OK, so it's a bit holey in that the others weren't experiencing their own utopia (in BTR they were all respectively in plausible hells), but we can forgive that. We have the clunkily-set-up but otherwise strong idea of Lister chasing Kochanski in hope of a reunion, leading us forward into another (?) series. Hope for them, hope for us.

Watching the Making Of episode was a revelation. There are some seriously clever technical things going on behind the scenes, and credit is due for them. The production, on the whole, was very impressive, particularly given the practical constraints they must have. There were several good ideas in the writing which deserved much more than they got; there were a few very bad ideas which got far more than they deserved. There is some genuine merit in the writing - let this not be lost sight of - but it was too clouded by its rank failings for the result to be a success, and the overall sense is one of opportunities missed. Red Dwarf has never been perfect, but in its pomp the shortcomings were papered over by the sheer joy of its inventivess, wit, and panache. Not so here.

I hope there is a further series, and I hope that it is an outstanding success. I cannot, however, look forward to it. Forgive the repetition (this is a writing blog after all!), but I hope it's better-written than Back To Earth. I can only wonder what Rob Grant (those in the know will understand the schism far better than I ever will) thinks of what his co-creation has become in his absence. Were it me, I would be upset.

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