Thursday, August 31, 2017

Ranking the Red Dwarf novels

I was first exposed to Red Dwarf by accident when I was about nine. My grandparents' telly inadvertently caught the end of a repeat broadcast of 'D.N.A.,' where the disgusting curry monster blows up. I probably enjoyed it more than they did. A week later, I caught the beginning of 'Justice,' where Lister's swollen, pus-filled head bursts. Needless to say, I had a new favourite programme.

I still hadn't seen any of the early episodes when I spotted the first sort-of-novelisation at the library a few years later. Not having my mental images diluted by claustrophobic grey sets, I was blown away by Grant Naylor's elaborate descriptions of the city-sized ship as they rewrote future history and indulged their newfound freedom from having to worry about budgets and practicality.

I got the abridged audiobooks of the first two novels a while later, and Chris Barrie read them to me over and over as I refused to drift off to sleep. I read Last Human once or twice as well. Don't know if I ever made it all the way through Backwards.

Returning to these adolescent favourites a lifetime and a literature degree later, will they still hold up as sci-fi comedy classics? Or will they be exposed as a string of reprinted TV scripts with speech marks and "said Rimmer" pasted in, linked by a tenuous narrative? Which of Grant or Naylor's solo efforts is slightly better than the other one? Do I ever find my singing tie-pin?

Kristine Kochansk-key:

Grant Naylor
Doug Naylor

Rob Grant

4. Last Human (1995)

In hindsight that was only postponed by a couple of years, it's clear that Doug Naylor was brainstorming possibilities for a new and "improved" Red Dwarf series (and the long-gestating film) in his first and only solo novel. I wonder if fans who read this at the time had a good idea how the next series was going to go down. The plot itself may be unique, but there's still a lot that made it.

Rooted in an alternate take on the then-recent sixth series, it isn't concerned with restoring default settings by resolving the search for the missing Red Dwarf, reintroducing Holly and doing other things the fans would have liked. Naylor admirably (if disappointingly) runs with his own ideas by reintroducing former lost love idyll Kochanski in a substantial role and prophetically (MCMXCV spoiler) killing off Rimmer (you know; again).

I enjoyed the planet-hopping GELF action and unabashed sex scenes as a teenager, which is the right time to read this book. It all comes off a little immature now. This is also where the Red Dwarf universe (some of the universes, anyway) starts to feel over-crowded, something that's continued to irk me in Doug Naylor Dwarf to this day. It's supposed to be cold outside.

3. Backwards (1996)

Grant's further splitting of the multimedia multiverse came out later than Naylor's take, but it's a more direct and conservative continuation of the second novel, since he didn't have the same vested interest in exploring new directions for the series.

The solo project is a lot less obvious this time, mainly because it incorporates Grant Naylor scripts more directly, riffing on the same general era as the other book, but tactfully opting for different episodes. Some of the most popular, as it happens, though the whole 'Gunmen' sequence feels as randomly shoehorned as 'Future Echoes' did in the first book.

That's not to say Rob Grant fails to make his voice heard, though anyone desperate for confirmation of their childishly simplified theory that Rob wrote the sci-fi and Doug wrote the jokes won't find their evidence here.

The most notable trait of Grant without Naylor is a darker, crueller and just plain grosser streak. Remember the end of the 'Backwards' episode, where it was comedically implied that the Cat had reluctantly experienced reverse defecation? Grant tells us "something unspeakable happened" before going into unrequested anatomical detail anyway.

2. Better Than Life (1991)

Re-reading changed my mind on this one. It might be a case of the abridged audiobook being superior, as that wisely loses pretty much all the copy-pasted series III scripts that feel flatter on the page. There are some fantastic sci-fi concepts here (some of which made their way into the series, rather than the other way around), but less focus on character, fewer laughs, and the whole thing doesn't hold together quite as well as the first book.

Now I've got that out of the way, I can talk about how much I love Garbage World: brilliant pessimistic world-building that brings the series' "mission" to an abrupt halt halfway through the second book. It turns out that getting "home" isn't all it's cracked up to be, and Lister will have to find a new purpose to keep him going – one that falls into his lap in the surprisingly happy ending. He deserves it after the unrelenting torment he's been through.

1. Red Dwarf (1989)

When I listened to this repeatedly as a teenager in abridged form, I didn't feel anything was lacking, even though I was well aware that it was. Finally getting around to reading the book again, it's only really the 'Future Echoes' adaptation that feels a bit clumsily inserted and pointless, since it wouldn't get a follow-up. But since that was the part that most impressed me at eleven, not having seen the episode, I guess it still had a purpose.

The most interesting part of this book, which is the most interesting part of all the books, is getting to know more about Lister and Rimmer before the accident. In Rimmer's case, his fleshed-out quirks and neuroses have always informed how I see him in the early episodes. Book Lister is a different beast from TV Lister, and I prefer him. They both develop very nicely, to the extent that you could have a fulfilling reading experience even if you'd never heard of the TV series and thought this book was all there was. It is properly good.

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