Saturday, 6 October 2007

Retro review: Red Dwarf - The individual novels

Occasionally my excitement for things that I used to love is reignited, and not so long ago I found my it lit up for the classic BBC TV sci-fi comedy show, Red Dwarf. It's always had a soft-spot in my heart (and undoubtedly will), and I decided to re-read the classic novels written by Rob Grand and Doug Naylor.

After seriously enjoying
Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life (the first two books), I decided to give the subsequent solo novels another go and see how I felt about them; Doug Naylor's Last Human and Rob Grant's Backwards.

For those who are unaware, or may have forgotten, Doug Naylor and Rob Grant wrote the first two Red Dwarf novels together (under the pseudonym Grant Naylor), but after a split in their working relationship and an aborted attempt to write a third novel together, they separately wrote two completely unrelated sequels. Unlike their work together, which was well received, their individual efforts received mixed reviews, especially from fans.

Here were my immediate reactions after reading them again:

Backwards by Rob Grant

I've just finished re-reading Backwards and I have to say that I'd forgotten how completely brilliant it was. I'd forgotten just what a good, satisfying well-paced read it is. I was also surprised (and perhaps pleased) at how little was taken from the TV series. In all, there were four ideas taken from three episodes: Backwards (obviously), Dimension Jump (the idea of Ace Rimmer) and Gunmen of the Apocalypse (pretty much the whole show, including the idea of xenophobic battledroids hunting humans).

Only really Gunmen was referred to heavily (which was an odd choice considering how much of that show was based on visual humour), and even then almost all of the dialogue was different (unlike the first two novels which copied dialogue verbatim, more often than not, when taking things from the TV series). The other ideas taken from the series were expanded and changed considerably, even more so than the first two novels.

For whatever reason, it seemed as though Grant was trying very hard not to use too much from the series, and thankfully it's not to the book's detriment.

Despite feeling like a fairly large tome, the story runs at an incredibly comfortable pace. You really get the idea that Grant could have just happily kept on writing and writing and, interestingly, I don’t think the reader would have gotten bored, either. Maybe because of this, the ending does appear a tad rushed and/or abrupt (although this may just be an illusion caused by the spelling errors that even made their way into the final chapters of paperback edition).

Still, despite it’s size and apparently rushed ending, it’s a incredibly cohesive and satisfying read. I don’t think I really noticed the journey that Rimmer goes through when I first read it (no idea why, perhaps I was too young to pick up on it), but this time it was clear to me that he was the backbone of the whole story.

There was at least one missed opportunity by Grant, though: A scene where an uptight Rimmer and a reluctant Ace talk in private to try and figure out where their lives diverged would have been utterly priceless (and could have set up the epilogue nicely, too). Bizarrely this undoubtedly interesting conversation is replaced by the “wrap things up quickly” scene from the TV series (where Lister has sudden and amazing insider-information on where the change took place). Ah, well, in another universe, perhaps.

Rimmer's personality is reset to “bastard mode”, which doesn't fit continuity from the warmer person he changed into when Lister grew older in the second book. That said, it's no surprise, as Rimmer generally works better as a character when he's at his most antagonistic, and it felt like the right starting off point for the book.

(As an aside; is it just me, or is that chapter featuring a teenage Cat and a young nubile woman in a gingham dress just a little bit weird/creepy/disturbing/wrong? Why is it in there?)

In all it was a great read, much better than even I remembered or expected. I ordered a copy of Last Human to see if it could impress as well.
Last Human by Doug Naylor

I made it 50 pages into Last Human, and I just couldn’t take any more… It’s very funny, don’t get me wrong, and there’s some brilliant lines, but it doesn't feel right. Reading it was like driving in a car in dire need of a mechanic; It looks OK and is driveable, but it keeps making such horrendous and unhealthy noises that you don't want go keep going.

For a start, Naylor clearly has no issue with messing with the entire Red Dwarf canon. Take for example, Rimmer's inferiority complex regarding his more successful brothers. Whereas Grant thoroughly explored these issues, and used them as the backbone to his entire story (turning them into something we could all relate to in process), Naylor says they're all down to the fact that Rimmer didn't get a memory implant when he was a boy. Not an inferiority complex as much as actually being inferior. Not only is the explanation completely unrelateable to the reader, but it's also completely illogical: Why doesn't he buy a memory implant now, as a grown man?

The fact that this character-changing line is tossed away in such an unemotional manner is unfortunately indicative of the care and thought seen elsewhere into the book. Another example is the amount of pseudo-science, that not only doesn’t hold up to even the tiniest bit of scrutiny, but also disregards everything we know about the Red Dwarf universe.

All over the place random scientific sounding bits and bobs that are tossed into the story and dialogue without explanation. All of a sudden even the Cat is an astrophysicist. Things like “unused time lines” (how can a parallel universe be considered "unused"? We can supposedly visit them, so do the people living in them consider their universe "unused"?) or the fact that Starbug has a “Hubble telescope” installed (I mean, come on) are just horrible.

I guess Doug would argue that it’s all about entertaining readers, and don't care about the science and technology (so long as it sounds ok), they just want a laugh, and while I can definitely agree that Last Human tries very hard to tickle your rib bones (and succeeds very often, too), I have to ask; if you're going to do the science-fiction without the science, why bother?


Reading both books gave me a very strong idea of who did what in the Red Dwarf universe. Doug Naylor was clearly the man with the funny one-liners but, unfortunately for his book, no grasp of characterisation and no exploration of ideas or concepts. Rob Grant’s book feels deeper and more satisfying, with the laughs tickling your brain more than your ribs, but it's also much heavier by comparison. The writers seem like two parts of the same brain.

When they merge they turn from two funny, talented guys into one hilarious, unique, sublime, gestalt entity. I hope they work together again at some point.

Grant Naylor, are you out there?


Anonymous said...

I really don't know what caused the split between them, nor do I know the reason Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews (Father Ted writers) split. Maybe it's because they just got bored of working together. I'm pretty certain Rob Grant chose it though, for the fact that Naylor was the one who inherited the Red Dwarf series.

I did read Last Human to the end, and you know what? Every single funny line in that book is ripped from the TV series. Backwards is not afraid to create new humour, although it is far more... gruesome in places then I expected.

On a personal note, I've got the first two novels signed by Rob Grant. Hoorah!

Johnny Walker said...

Nice one!

Yes, I think you're right about Last Human, a LOT is taken from the series. I seem to remember feeling as if entire chunks of the script had just been cut and pasted into the book.

I think, like with Matthews and Linehan, Naylor and Grant just reached the end of the road. Something got in the way of the creative process that wasn't there before.

Linehan describes it as ego, more than anything: He used to feel inferior to Matthews, so if he disagreed with anything, he'd always make sure he had something funnier at hand so that he could have his way.

Now he says, he'd just dig his heels in and say he didn't like something.

I'm sure it was something similar between the two: I think both of them wanted to see their own creations come to light without any compromises (maybe Grant more than Naylor), and it just couldn't work in a partnership.

I do hope that they find a way of working on something together without feeling as though their creativity is being stifled.

Jason Madison said...

I think this analysis is near-spot on.

Rob Grant, from all the evidence I’ve been able to scour throughout the internet, seems the more grounded, deeper and intellectual of the two. However, that seems to have come along with a certain amount of ego and narcissism, and at the end of the day, felt that Naylor’s name on his work cheapened it.

Doug Naylor seems more of a ‘team player’, willing and able to work with others, passionate about his work. But, his head is a bit ‘in the clouds’ and he will just write down any fantastical idea that comes into his head. Rob undoubtedly used to draw a line through some of his more ridiculous ideas.

Still, ultimately, it’s a tragedy that such a brilliant writing duo will unlikely ever be able to collaborate again. Doug has repeatedly asked Rob to return and you can see why Rob refuses. Rob wants to carve out his own name and, on some level, believes himself superior to Doug.

Disclaimer - opinion and wild-mass-guessing only. Only Rob and Doug will truly ever know.

(P.S. same ‘Johnny Walker’ as the frequent commenter on Ken Levine’s blog? Small world..)

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, James. I don't know if I'd call it "narcissism", but I think you've probably hit on the truth of what happened between them. Apparently the cast considered Rob to be so important to the show, that they were fearful it could even continue when he left. It seems that, as far as they were concerned, it was Rob who wrote it.

Then consider that, when Rob left Grant Naylor Productions, his subsequent production company was called TAKEN FOR GRANTED.


Doug has always maintained that Rob wanted more than just RD on his headstone, but that's clearly not true: The two of them had just secured a series with ITV called "The Ten Percenters" (completely non-sci-fi) when he left GNP. Clearly he just didn't want to work with Doug any more, for whatever reason.

Also, yes, I'm the one and same from Ken Levine's blog :)

Jason Madison said...

True, ‘narcissism’ is probably too strong a word. I didn’t know that bit about the cast, but it makes sense.

I’d hazard a guess that Rob did all/most of the structure, plotting and pacing of each show whereas they saw Doug as more of the “crazy high-concept ideas man”. That would naturally lead to a “How the heck is he going to write this on his own!?” reaction.

Could also explain why, as above, a lot of “Last Human” is just ripped wholesale from the show. That must’ve stung poor Rob even more.

A conundrum without a solution. As we’ve seen on Ken’s blog, writing (and other) credits on TV shows are an absolute nightmare and it would still seem a disservice to Doug to ‘demote’ him credit-wise.

Oh well. Great to see you’re an RD fan anyway! Ken’s blog certainly teaches us a lot, and it’s a testament that neither he nor Isaacs ego appear to have threatened their equally great partnership.

Johnny Walker said...

Very true, and very nice to meet a like minded soul. Do you write?

Jason Madison said...

No - I wish.

After reading an interview with Karey Kirkpatrick (who edited the final script for Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide movie), I realised I could probably do that kind of writing, i.e. ensure the structure, plotting and pacing of a script was solid.

But come up with brilliant ideas and lines like either Douglas? (Adams/Naylor) not a chance, those guys are certified genii!

Otherwise, definitely, I'd write like crazy. Anyway I can see you're heavily involved in writing, are there certain forums or things like that online where like-minded individuals frequent? I'd love more insights into the writsphere.