I might as well get the bold statement out of the way, for the sake of argument, as it’s just going to clog up the article if I don’t get on and say it :
The Red Dwarf novels, in my opinion, are better than the TV series upon which they are based.
There. I’ve said it. Now I’ve left myself with the unenviable task of justifying it.
Perhaps I should qualify this a bit. I’ve never been a huge fan of Last Human, while Backwards is the book that probably comes across the most like a fleshed-out novelisation of the TV series. However, the four books taken as a whole entity, and in particular the first book (which for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to by its unofficial title Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers throughout this article) and Better Than Life, do so much to expand upon the concepts of the television series, presenting much more epic plots and settings than could be achieved on a BBC budget, and building up the levels of characterisation, that I really do think they are far more than simply companions to the TV series. If anything, I consider the events of the books to be more canonical than the TV series, particularly once they started buggering things up in VII and VIII.
Now that you’ve waded through my muggy and sentences and parentheses a bit, I’ll get on with explaining just why the books are so good.
“DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.”
Saunders had been dead for almost two weeks now and, so far, he hadn’t enjoyed a minute of it. What he wasn’t enjoying at this particular moment was having to wade through the morass of forms and legal papers he’d been sent to complete by the Department of Death and Deceased’s Rights.
“Huh? What? Huh? Have I bought the right book?” That’s you, that is. Well, that’s you if you’re a poor unsuspecting watcher of the Dwarf TV series who’s just picked up Infinity for the first time. It’s not exactly what you might expect from what is apparently a novelisation of a TV series whose first episode introduced us to its lead characters in its opening scene. “Who’s Saunders? Where are Rimmer and Lister?” you might be thinking. Of course, as you read on, it becomes apparent that this is just a nice little bit of setup to introduce us to the idea of holograms. “Of course,” you’re thinking, “get that little bit of exposition out of the way as soon as possible. Ooh, look, chapter two, and here’s McIntyre, that’s more like it, now we’re on familiar ground. Before we know it, we’ll be on the ship, Lister will be singing “Ganymede and Titan”, and all will be right with the world.”
Lister flicked on the “For Hire” sign, and decided to take the hopper down Central and back towards Mimas docks.
“Mimas? What’s Lister doing on Mimas? Where’s Rimmer? Where’s Red Dwarf?” And still the bafflement continues (if you’re the sort of person to get baffled by this). Nevertheless, these opening chapters are intriguing. I could go on quoting, but you get the idea. It’s eight chapters and over 40 pages before Lister even sets foot on Red Dwarf. It’s five before we find out that the poorly disguised “officer” is good old Arnold Judas. The point is, by the time the accident has happened, we’ve had around a third of the book devoted to setting up the ship, the central characters and quite a lot of their background. Already we know that Lister is far more than just a “scuzzy space bum who’s powered by beer and curry” (thanks, Bushell), that he’s just a regular guy who keeps getting unlucky; and we’ve enough of a sense of Rimmer’s problems and neuroses to begin to feel sympathetic rather than condemnatory towards him. The End, meanwhile, gave us, ooh, about ten minutes or so before the accident?
That said, of course, the early series, contrary to what you might think, do actually give us a chance to feel sympathy towards him. Despite the fact that we are taken through the early episodes from Lister’s perspective – and that Lister’s perspective on Rimmer is that he hates him – there’s room for Rimmer’s background to come out. Naturally, much of this is to do with Chris Barrie’s stellar performances, and nowhere is this more evident in the heartbreaking scenes in Thanks For the Memory :
RIMMER : That was going to be our song. But I never found anyone to share it with. So now it’s just my song.
The books, of course, lack the performances of the cast, but by comparison, they take those small shards of humanity and sympathy and expand upon them greatly, allowing the characters to grow far more than the television series does.
However, the fact that the books “flesh out the characters” is probably the most overused reason when describing why they’re actually any good. It’s a catch-all phrase, that implies that you know what you’re talking about when really you just want to sound smart. It’s certainly a strength of the books, but it’s by no means the only one. And for all that Infinity… does well in expanding the conceits of the programme, on improving scenes from Kryten, Me2 and Future Echoes (to name just a few), and on vastly improving the idea of the Better Than Life game (especially the notion that it’s powered by the subconscious, directly contradicting at one point the episode’s moment where Lister imagines the bike), it’s Better Than Life that really ramps things up a notch. Why? Two words : Garbage World.
Let’s back up a bit first. It’s in the plotting, for me, that the books really come into their own. As writers of a low-budget science-fiction comedy series for the BBC, Rob and Doug were placed under various restraints. Writing novels, the only restraints exist in the imagination of the reader. Consequently, the books can present scenarios that simply couldn’t exist in the series. So we get the attempted rebuilding of the Nova 5 in Red Dwarf’s immense cargo hold (and, indeed, the overall expansion of the ship to unimaginable sizes). The argenoids can turn the whole of the ship into a terrifying torture chamber. Things in the backwards-universe can run far more convincingly. Lister can be imprisoned in a giant dome with a pink lake at the bottom. The events of High Midnight/Gunmen of the Apocalypse can become horrifically graphic and violent. And so on.
Arguably the greatest of these more epic notions, however, is the Garbage World section of Better Than Life. Now, I’ve personally had a long-standing view that Red Dwarf can only truly be considered to have ended when the crew have finally reached Earth once more. Despite Doug Naylor’s original intention to end Series VIII with that very occurence, however, the books suggest that the writers disagree with me on this one. Last Human ends with Lister and Kochanski rebuilding the human race on a random planet (which is essentially a new “Earth”, but certainly isn’t the little blue planet Lister’s spent three books trying to get home to). Backwards, meanwhile, deals with the conceit a lot better, closing with the following rather profound words :
For as long as [Lister] could remember, all he’d wanted was to get back home.
He’d always considered that Earth was his home, but as the ugly red brute of a ship loomed into view, he felt a tingling in his stomach, and thought maybe he’d been wrong.
Maybe this was home.
And my theory is further turned on its head by the fact that, halfway through Better Than Life, Lister actually does make it back to Earth, and while he’s at it he goes through possibly the finest section of any of the Dwarf novels. Notwithstanding the fact that the entire notion of Earth being designated a garbage dump for the rest of the solar system, and then basically farting its way out of it (“Ewe woz ‘ere”, indeed), is superb and original, the way in which Lister’s redemption and reconciliation with his home planet is handled is superb. Indeed, Better than Life explores better than any of the other books the true meaning behind being the Last Human in the universe; and would have been far more deserving of that title than Doug’s book (which actually, of course, features quite a number of humans in it, bizzarely). The quality of this section, therefore, allows me to overlook the rubbishing of my notions of what the ultimate “goal” of Red Dwarf is. And I’m a stubborn bastard, so you know that means it’s something special.
When it comes to gags, meanwhile, the Dwarf novels of course borrow heavily from the television series. It’d be silly not to. Last Human in particular is rescued, comedically, by inserting such classic exchanges as the opening scene of Legion (lucky, really, as that book generally demonstrates Doug’s then-worrying prediliction towards sci-fi over comedy). While there are occasions where the gags are expanded, though, it’s hard to give preference to the novels over the show. As we all know, delivery is often just as key as scripting in Red Dwarf – and, as I mentioned above, the cast’s delivery is the major thing the books lack. Nevertheless, the books do contain some original, comedically genius moments of their own. One that springs to mine is the lengthy description in IWCD of Rimmer’s exam revision technique. Maybe it’s because I was revising (or, rather, attempting to revise) for exams myself around the time I was re-reading the book, but that segment stands out as probably my favourite comedy moment from any of the four books – and is up there with the very greatest moments of the TV series.
Perhaps the most obvious praise for the Red Dwarf novels, however, is the fact that on their own merits, irrespective of the fact that they are based on a television series, they are excellent sci-fi and comedy books in their own right. It’s possible to read and love them even if you’ve never seen the TV series (I’ve yet to meet someone for whom this is true, but I’m sure they’re out there). It was reading the novels that actually rekindled my interest in the television series, and for that alone I will always hold them in high regard. Aside from that, however, the simple fact remains that Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers is one of the most thumbed-through books I own, and no matter how many times I read it I can always relish picking it up again. Interestingly, the same can’t be said of the DVDs; I’ve now watched series I-IV so often that re-watching in too short a space of time can become tiresome. My own personal opinions aside, however, it can’t be denied that the books succeed not just as an extension or adaptation of a TV series, but as some of the best books of their kind ever written.
And I doubt there are many TV tie-ins that could say that.