Tag Archives: science fiction

PULP on TV: “Red Dwarf”

16 Feb

n the early 1980s, comedy writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were stuck in radio and looking for a way into British television. Having written two sketch shows – Cliché and follow-up Son of Cliché – they decided to spin one of their favourite recurring sketches into a TV pilot.

“Dave Hollins – Space Cadet” was, more than anything, a comedy homage to its genre. The titular Dave was accompanied only by a computer named Hab – a parody of 2001‘s Hal – and was drifting in space either 300 or 7 trillion years away from Earth, depending on which sketch you were listening to. By the end of Son of Cliché, Dave successfully returns to Earth, however the human race has since become subordinate to fruit flies, beetles and P.E. teachers.

When the pilot was finished, Grant and Naylor shopped it around to just about every production company in Britain. Each said the same thing: the comedy worked, but the science fiction was either unfilmable, or a distraction from the comedy. Even after Paul Jackson (a producer for The Young Ones among other sitcoms) commissioned it in the mid-80s, electricians’ strikes and other obstacles meant that production was delayed until 1987.

Red Dwarf itself

Red Dwarf had finally made it to BBC North three years after the pilot was written, being recorded in front of audiences that had been press-ganged into the studio from nearby pubs.

Combining sci-fi and comedy has never been the most obvious or most successful choice for film or television, but Red Dwarf at its best featured sci-fi concepts that were more original than many of its ‘straight’ sci-fi contemporaries, while still managing to poke fun at the absurdity of the more conventional sci-fi tropes.

It is the 21st (or, the 23rd) century, and Dave Lister is the lowest of the low on Red Dwarf, an ugly, five-mile long mining ship. A Liverpudlian slob, Lister’s direct superior and bunk-mate on board ship is the neurotic, chronically underachieving Arnold Rimmer. After Lister is found with an unquarantined cat, he is sentenced to spend 18 months in suspended animation.

Series I: "Me²"

Unfortunately, during this time, the crew is wiped out by a radiation leak and Lister awakes 3 million years later to find himself alone but for the ship’s computer (renamed Holly), a creature who evolved from his pet cat, and a hologram projection of his dead roommate, Rimmer.

he first two seasons focused on the antagonism between Lister and Rimmer more than on sci-fi plots, since Grant and Naylor wanted to establish the characters before writing them into overtly sci-fi scenarios that might turn viewers off. What was more, Red Dwarf‘s future featured no aliens, and no humans other than Lister. Though they covered some familiar terrain – parallel universes and virtual reality – they also ran into more unusual situations: the Cat-people’s religion venerates Lister as their God, and a mutated version of the flu turns Dave’s hallucinations into flesh and blood in “Confidence and Paranoia” (an episode that featured a pre-American Craig Ferguson as the American incarnation of Lister’s Confidence, below).

Luckily, the BBC had commissioned two seasons from the outset, so the crew’s second outing featured more science fiction, and a little more back story that made Rimmer a tad more sympathetic.

y the third season, Doug Naylor had convinced Rob Grant to bring back a guest character from season 2. Initially resistant to the cliche of a robot on board ship, Grant gave in, and android Kryten was added to the mix, along with a new female version of Holly, and a total revamp to the sets

Series 3 introduced Kryten and a more up-to-date look

which made it appear as though Dwarf‘s budget was much larger than it truly was.

From the third season onwards, the show was at its peak, garnering up to 8 million viewers for each new episode – an all-time high for BBC 2.

Though the sci-fi focus was stronger, Grant and Naylor’s background in sketch writing still shone through in season 3’s character moments. The first show, “Backwards” opens with this conversation between Lister and the Cat as they watch television from their bunks:

Lister: D’ya think Wilma’s sexy?
Cat: Wilma Flintstone?
Lister: Maybe we’ve been alone in deep space too long, but every time I see that body, it drives me crazy. Is it me?
Cat: Well, I think in all probability, Wilma Flintstone is the most desirable woman that ever lived.
Lister: That’s good. I thought I was going strange.
Cat: She’s incredible!
Lister: What d’ya think of Betty?
Cat: Betty Rubble? Well, I would go with Betty… but I’d be thinking of Wilma.
Lister: This is crazy. Why are we talking about going to bed with Wilma Flintstone?
Cat: You’re right. We’re nuts. This is an insane conversation.
Lister: She’ll never leave Fred, and we know it.

A fourth, fifth and sixth season followed in 1991, ’92 and ’93, but each successively forced comedy onto the back burner and put sci-fi at its centre. After a break of four years and the departure of Rob Grant, season 7 added filmization and Lister’s ex-girlfriend

Series VIII: "Gunmen of the Apocalypse"

Kochanski, and dropped both Rimmer and the studio audience, while season 8 saw the return of both. However, resurrecting the whole crew of Red Dwarf during season 8 undid the original premise of the show and meant that Lister was no longer the grossed-out slob of a last human.

Though neither season hit the comedy notes that the earlier shows had, they still rode on high-sci-fi concepts: the crew encountered a version of Earth where time is running backwards; destroyed a White Hole which was spewing time into the universe; crashed onto a moon that terraformed itself according to Rimmer’s psyche; and fought a computer virus via a virtual reality version of the Wild West.

But where Red Dwarf worked best was in the combination of its ‘Odd Couple’ sitcom set-up with a science fiction premise that allowed for the ultimate Lister-Rimmer antagonism. In season 5’s “Back to Reality“, Grant and Naylor hit the nail on the head. The crew is killed and awakes from a virtual reality video game named, of course, “Red Dwarf”. Having scored a pitiful 4% in the game, they have to come to terms with their new “reality”, including the revelation that Rimmer is Lister’s half-brother.

More Philip K. Dick than anything else, the episode has remained a fan favourite and one of BBC 2’s highest-rated broadcasts.

With a new season in the works, we can only hope that some of Rob Grant’s writing finds its way back into the show, and that the dreary Red Dwarf: Back to Earth specials of 2008 are soon forgotten. After all, in science fiction, anything is possible.

DLR, 02.16.11

A PULP Preface, 2.0

24 Oct

PULPable is where the many points on the graph of cultural modernity bubble just beneath the surface of popular culture.

If you’re wondering exactly what I’m talking about, then you should go immediately and read A PULP Manifesto, but if your attention span is better suited to Lois  & Clark than to Nietzschean “Supermen” then you should keep reading.

Though one can (and I do) trace PULPable back to the original pulp magazines and even further back to the days of Penny Dreadfuls and mass production, its origins for me were in the literary and musical choices I made as a teenager. PULPable was, to me, the pop culture subtext of a record or a novel, the assumed shared knowledge of a century

A Vogue cover referencing David Bowies Aladdin Sane album

A Vogue cover referencing David Bowie's "Aladdin Sane" album

of mass-produced consumables which underpinned the song you had just listened to or the sentence you had just read.

In The Velvet Underground I found Andy Warhol, and in Warhol a critique of the very culture that had created him. In William Burroughs there were drugs galore, sentences that vomited all over the bar and which were as impenetrable as those that  preceded him in Ulysses or The Wasteland. In Raymond Chandler I saw an America of surfaces and style, and in the Pulp magazines he wrote for were the beginnings of superheroes and comic book villains destined to be deconstructed within a century by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or Jonathan Lethem.

More vital than any other writer, singer or artist in exploring the PULPable style was David Bowie. The list above could go on for several paragraphs, but suffice it to say that the Velvets and Burroughs, as well as Anthony Burgess (and by extension Stanley Kubrick), Christopher Isherwood, Orwell and Huxley amongst others were introduced to me indirectly through obsessive listening to Bowie’s records. He was inspired by that which was considered ‘high culture’ to create that which was considered ‘low’, and in referencing writers and artists, philosophers and bands, he mirrored more closely deconstructive authors than fellow pop musicians.

This sense of an unknown pop culture grid, something that lurked beneath the superficiality of what was ostensibly popular entertainment, piqued my curiosity. Though I read and was forcibly loaned comic books (or, as some insist, Graphic Novels), watched science-fiction movies and TV shows, I also consciously selected books that felt as though they belonged on the graph of culture modernity. If I could piece together Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man with Catch-22, or place A Clockwork Orange alongside L’Etranger then maybe, just maybe, I would be able to begin to connect the points on the graph.

Books, art, music, comics, film: they all interlaced and overlapped. The pop culture surface was immediately graspable,  a series of symbols which began to attain the status of modern myth by virtue of their being instantly recognisable and signifying something near-universal: the Coca-Cola logo, Superman’s costume or Warhol’s “Marilyns”. But beneath the surface, there existed a secondary stream of culture which fed on the popular,

The Escapist mock comic book cover, based on Michael Chabons Kavalier & CLay

The Escapist comic book cover, based on Michael Chabon's "Kavalier & Clay"

sometimes for entertainment (Bowie and Chandler), sometimes for art’s sake (Warhol strikes again), but more often than not for both.

There is no easy definition, for if there were then we would be immediately constrained, and why should we be forced to choose between Superman and Michael Chabon, between Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas? PULPable is where both live together in imperfect harmony. The mainstream will swim on, and, from time to time, those bubbling under will rise to the surface and take a breath before diving for cover once again.

DLR, October 24th, 2009