Ah, Red Dwarf.
When I was growing up in the early 1990s, we didn’t have Doctor Who. A combination of poor writing, questionable casting choices, non-existent marketing and general apathy from the BBC had killed it stone dead. They didn’t even repeat it. We had to make do with Mandy from Eastenders chasing away the Rani. Instead, we got our science fiction kicks from four young(ish) men and a senile computer travelling through deep space. One of the travellers was dead, one had evolved from cats, and one had ‘a head shaped like a gelatinous ice cube’. There were nob gags and slapstick opportunities galore, but much of the humour derived from the sophistication offered by the outer space setting. Time travel was used frequently, along with parallel worlds, Asimov’s laws of robotics and astrophysics: in the climax of one episode, they play pool with planets to fix a temporal anomaly.
Everyone has varying opinions about Red Dwarf, of course, and this is mine: it’s ebbed and flowed and fallen down the pan and then crawled up from the abyss, and (while we’re doing cliché) the apple fell far from the tree but didn’t fall into the road, and is now sitting at the bottom of the trunk waiting for someone to make it into a pie. Which is another way of saying that the early episodes take a while to really gather steam but it’s in the second series that things really start to take off. Fast forward a couple of years, to Red Dwarf IV and V, and you reach the series I watched when I first discovered the show, and its arguable creative peak – ‘White Hole’ and ‘Back To Reality’ are as clever and inventive as they come, and ‘The Inquisitor’ has some wonderful interaction between Charles and Llewellyn, as evidenced by a scene in which Lister uses his doppleganger’s severed hand to open a security door:
Kryten: Logically there is only one way you could possibly have done that. I feel quite nauseous. Tell me. Where is it?
Lister: Where’s what?
Kryten: Oh, sir! You’ve got it in your jacket!
Series six is where the rot starts to set in, with a series of repeated gags and monster-of-the-week scenarios that varied in quality (although the finale, in which the crew encounter their hedonistic future selves, attained new levels of darkness, and was particularly memorable for it). By Red Dwarf VII the rot was seemingly terminal, thanks to the departure of Rimmer, the arrival of Chloe Annett (who I like, but she just doesn’t fit) and the transformation of Kryten into the show’s antagonist. His personality rendered jealous by Lister’s affection for Kochanski, the mechanoid is downright embarrassing to watch, particularly in ‘Duct Soup’, and his redemption arrived seemingly too late to save the show. But then in Red Dwarf VIII – a series that’s far better than it’s ever given credit for – Barrie returns, and while it’s not Red Dwarf as we remember it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny. By the time Red Dwarf X rolled around, the show seemed to have come full circle, and was back to four men in a spacecraft telling jokes, which worked nicely.
Sandwiched between these two is Back To Earth, of course, but we don’t talk about Back To Earth.
This whole thing spun out of a single joke. I’d always remembered the scene in ‘Queeg’ – the best Holly episode by a long shot – where the hapless computer forgets to give the crew vital information that nearly ends in disaster. Off the back of this, I watched ‘Voyage of the Damned’ at the tail end of last year with Thomas, and wondered what would happen if Holly were to appear on the screen in the Titanic shortly before the explosion that starts the chain of events that make up the rest of the episode –
Holly: Hold on. I’ve forgotten what I was gonna say now.
[Massive explosion, ship rocks from side to side, passengers scattered among debris and twisted metal]
Holly: That’s it. Yeah. A meteor is about to hit the ship. I knew it’d come back to me.
You can sort of guess the rest.
This was a two-prong process. Prong number one: I went through scripts for series I, II, VII and VIII – any episodes that feature Norman Lovett’s original and best rendition of Holly (sorry, Hattie, you were good, but Norman was better). I pulled out any dialogue that was potentially usable – less than you might think, given that much of it is delivered off screen. Then I went through Tennant’s episodes to find appropriate footage that more or less matched, and a rough shape (and even a narrative arc of sorts) grew out of a couple of evenings’ work. I’d initially thought of using Doctors Ten and Eleven, but found that there was more than enough Tennant to be going along with, which is why you don’t see Holly comforting Matt Smith as he weeps over Amy’s grave.
My one regret is that I couldn’t get the “Everybody’s dead, Dave” scene to work. It would have been perfect for the website obituary montage in ‘The Waters of Mars’ – indeed, Emily and I still recite it aloud whenever we’re forced to endure the episode (or even think about it). But it just didn’t hang together, largely because the Red Dwarf dialogue is accompanied by score. You win some, you lose some. There’s enough here to be going along with – although if the rumours about Lovett mending broken bridges with Doug Naylor are true, we could be looking at his return for the next series. Which means, of course, that I’ll have to do another edition of this. Curiously I’m rather looking forward to the prospect.