The brief for my main assignment for the first semester of my TV Production course was to analysise any television programme, of any genre, from any period. What do you think I chose? The first part is an overall analysis of the narrative; the second is a technical analysis of a five-minute section. Enjoy!
Back To Reality is the final episode of the fifth series of Red Dwarf, first aired on 26th March 1992. By this point, the series had picked up a cult following, with an official fan club, a monthly magazine and an annual convention having been started. The episode plays on the knowledge and expectations of its established audience by placing the characters into a new situation, and revealing hitherto unknown details of their origins.
The show starts with an ominous sequence set aboard a crashed spaceship. This sets a dark tone for the episode, as well as establishing a threat to the crew in the form of the ‘despair squid’. The theme of suicide is also planted, to return towards the end of the episode.
The opening scene starts at quite a slow pace, with three characters surveying the wreckage and relaying information back to the other character, Rimmer, who is left behind due to his intangible status as a hologram. This slow start builds up tension, and is juxtaposed with a quick action/special effects sequence afterwards.
At this point, the four main characters die. It is then revealed that the preceding three million years of space travel was a fantasy; part of a “total immersion video game”. The characters in the TV series we watch were in fact characters in the game, and the true personalities of the players are revealed. In order to communicate this to the audience, the writers construct a sub-plot that the crew have amnesia, brought on from spending four years in a computer game. This enables information to be given to the audience in a naturalistic way.
The personalities of the alter egos play heavily on the audience’s knowledge of previous episodes. Lister, considered by many to be the central character, was established in recent series as the moral conscience of the crew; giving speeches on justice, war and love. His alternate personality, Sebastian Doyle, however, works for a fascist regime, organising and carrying out the murders of voters, “to purify democracy”.
Similarly, The Cat’s alter ego is also the diametric opposite of his established character. The Cat is cool, sharply-dressed and, above all, superficial. Duane Dibbley’s personal artefacts include a cardigan, plastic sandals and a key to a Salvation Army hostel. Duane Dibbley is the lightest and most traditionally humorous of the alternate personalities; adding accessible comic relief to a very dark premise.
Kryten, the mechanoid servant, is happy with his ‘real’ personality at first. Jake Bullet is part-human – human status has always been Kryten’s dream – and works for the Cybernautics Division of the police. However, during the episode, he shoots a fascist cop dead. Kryten is programmed never to harm humans; in previous episodes, Kryten explains that he believes in Silicon Heaven, where mechanical life forms are rewarded if they are good to their human masters. With this basic tenet defying, Kryten has no option but to “terminate” himself.
The final alter ego, Billy Doyle, is somewhat more complicated. The character of Rimmer is essentially a loser; he spent fourteen years stuck as a measly technician onboard Red Dwarf, while his brothers all became officers. He then brought about his own death, and that of the entire crew of the ship, through negligence. And worst of all, he only had sex once during his 31-year life.
The problem the writers faced is that they couldn’t construct a new character that was more of a loser than the existing one. As an alcoholic bum who “smells like a yak latrine”, Billy is definitely a step-down from Rimmer, but that is not necessarily enough to push Rimmer over the edge. Therefore, the writers added an extra twist – Billy and Sebastian Doyle, aka Lister and Rimmer, are half-brothers.
This is a blow to Rimmer for many reasons. On a basic level, Lister and Rimmer have always been enemies; constantly feuding and bickering over the previous 29 episodes. More fundamentally, however, Rimmer has always blamed his failures on his parents. He is convinced his father hated him, and the feeling was mutual. At the age of fourteen, he “divorced” his parents, but retained the resentment, which grew throughout his life, and indeed in his death. However, having been brought up in the same family as Sebastian, who is rich, successful and powerful, Rimmer has no option but to blame himself for his failures. With the psychological defence of blaming others removed, Rimmer cannot cope with his situation.
Up until around twenty minutes into the episode, the audience are lead to believe that the show is either coming to an end, or that the entire premise is changing. The fact that the show was the last in the series adds to this conceit. However, after Jake Bullet shoots the cop, we cut to the crew, dressed in their usual clothes, standing in the same positions in Starbug’s mid-section. The ship’s computer, Holly, tries to tell the crew that they are hallucinating, but she can’t make herself heard. Again, this device allows the audience to be given the relevant information in a non-intrusive way.
The action cuts between the ‘real’ world and the hallucination for the remainder of the episode, including a very amusing car chase, which takes place with the crew sitting on boxes and miming. After dumping the ‘car’, the dramatic peak of the episode takes place, as the desperately depressed crew enter a suicide pact. Fortunately, Holly manages to manipulate Kryten to release an antidote to the venom that causes the hallucination, with seconds to spare.
In the aftermath, Kryten explicitly states the reasons why the characters were unhappy with their alter egos. This explains the situation to more casual viewers, who might not know the back story of the characters. The episode ends with a very slow-paced scene in the cockpit, which seems somewhat out of place after the action and quick-fire that precedes it. However, it works well as a reflective, contemplative conclusion to a fine episode.
The section I have analysed comes from the beginning of the episode, from approximately 0:55 to 6:50. During this section, Lister, Cat and Kryten are exploring the wreckage of the recently discovered S.S.S. Esperanto, and relaying their findings to Rimmer, who is in the shuttle craft Starbug. After finding the corpses of several suicide victims, Lister discovers some venom, which turns out to be a hallucinogenic. After returning to Starbug, the crew are chased by the squid that produces the venom, which leads to the craft crashing and exploding.
Despite Red Dwarf’s unique style and science-fiction themes, the series obeys the majority of sit-com conventions. Each episode is shot mainly in a studio, with a multi-camera set-up. There is a studio audience, and a laugh-track is audible throughout. There are, however, a number of pre-recorded sequences in each show, which are played to the audience on monitors. In this section of the episode, the pre-recorded elements are the footage on the Esperanto, which was recorded on location, and the model shots.
The most interesting aspect to this section is the lighting style. John Pomphrey uses a combination of gels to produce various effects, which add to the overall mood of the piece. In the Esperanto section, the key light is tinted blue, to give a feel of night time or low-light conditions. Given that the ship is buried underwater, this also reinforces the theme of water.
Green gels are also in use on the Esperanto, and are particularly visible on the faces of the actors. This colour gives the scene an ‘alien’ feel, as natural light is never this colour on Earth. Another source of light in this scene is the torches that the crew carry. The beams from the torches are used to illuminate the face of the speaker, when applicable, and also to highlight important objects that are discovered. The former purpose is most useful for Danny John-Jules, who plays the Cat, whose dark skin is under-exposed at times. A problem faced frequently on Red Dwarf was simultaneously lighting for black actors and the very light cream coloured make-up worn by Robert Llewellyn as Kryten.
When the crew move into the airlock, the main blue light is retained. There is also a red light shining on the left hand side of the screen. Although the source of the light is not visible, its presence suggests that there is a warning light or headlight within the airlock. Throughout the Esperanto sequence, the crew are wearing shiny silver spacesuits, which reflect the light. This helps ensure the actors are visible and reasonably well-lit.
When the action moves to the cockpit, the scene is initially very brightly lit; more so than similar shots in other episodes. However, when Lister cuts the power, the lights are lowered dramatically, to suggest that the artificial lights aboard have been switched off. This gives the reason for the brightness at the beginning of the shot; there needed to be a significant drop in the lighting conditions, but the lighting still needed to be sufficient for us to see the action after the cut. After the power is cut, the light is beamed from in front of the actors, in the shape of Starbug’s view screen.
For the majority of the shots, the camera is still. There are, however, a few exceptions to this. When the crew spot the first corpse, there is a crash zoom into its face, which we see via Rimmer’s monitor. The shot is from the point of view of the camera the crew are using to communicate with Starbug, so the zoom represents Kryten moving his camera closer to the object. It also makes the image more striking for the audience.
When Lister first discovers the ink from the Despair Squid, we see the action unfold on a handheld camera. The reason for this becomes apparent when the crew run away and the camera follows. From a logistical point of view, it’s easier for the camera to follow action when it’s handheld, as opposed to using a track or a dolly. But there is also a dramatic element to the decision. Handheld are traditionally used in action scenes to draw the audience in. The style is reminiscent of electronic news gathering, which helps to make the drama seem more ‘real’. The element of instability also heightens the sense of peril and danger.
The most noticeable instance of the camera moving is when Starbug starts fleeing the location, when it shakes violently. This is a very effective way of conveying the idea of movement, and adds to the drama of the action sequence. The most vital component of this is the special effects, which are created using miniature models.
Due to the dark lighting and blue tint, these model shots aren’t the best example of the genius of Peter Wragg and his team. However, despite being over 12 years old, the shots still look good today, and are amazing considering the limited budget. Had the show been made today, the special effects would most likely have been computer generated imagery, which can’t possibly look as good as physical models on a BBC sit-com budget. CGI is used here, however, to add the ominous shadow of the Despair Squid pursuing Starbug. This is a good example of how the two techniques can be used to complement each other.
Quite a few shots in the Esperanto sequence are taken from a low angle. Traditionally, low angle shots are used to denote power or stature, with the viewing effectively looking up at the characters. This is not the case here; all characters have the same level of power, and are in fact in great peril. The low angle shots that occur before the venom is discovered could signify the crew’s misguided confidence and lack of awareness of the imminent threat. Alternatively, the unusual angle could be simply used to disorientate the audience.
The sequence starts with an establishing model shot of Starbug and the Esperanto, to let the audience know where the action is taking place. There’s also an establishing shot of the interior, where the camera tilts up from the actors’ feet to show the derelict scene. Throughout the sequence, a mixture of group shots and close-ups are used. Sections of dialogue usually start and end with a two or three shot, with close-ups of the speaker being used in the middle.
As the crew discover each corpse, it is shown in the foreground. The perspective of this means that it is seems bigger in proportion to the actors, thus emphasising its importance. This even applies to the dead haddock, which the Cat holds at arm’s length, meaning it is closer to the camera than the actors.
The speed and frequency of the edits increases dramatically when the Despair Squid starts moving towards Starbug. This heightens the urgency and panic within the scene. The dialogue in this segment is shown in close-up or extreme close-up, for two reasons. It allows the audience to see the emotion of the actors’ faces, as well as giving the characters less talking space, thus making them seem less comfortable.
Sound design is an important factor in creating both mood and realism in this piece. Throughout the scenes on the Esperanto, a constant backing track of underwater sounds is played. This helps the viewer to suspend their disbelief and accept that they are watching a crashed space ship, and not a disused pumping station, which was the location used.
Other authentic-sounding effects include the distorted sound and crackling when we hear someone on the other end of the communication line. This is reminiscent of walkie-talkies and early mobile phones, which helps the audience to identify with the action. There is also the semi-frequent beep of the radar; a sound-effect synonymous with underwater craft.
In order to add to the mood of the piece, incidental music is used in key places. Howard Goodall’s excellent original score is mostly understated and subtle. It almost doesn’t register with the viewer, but subconsciously, it adds tension and a sense of peril to the scene. When the action gets more dramatic, so too does the music. As the crew run to the airlock, the tempo of the music matches their actions and it is mixed louder. Interestingly, however, there is no music played during the chase between Starbug and the Despair Squid. Instead, the sound of the radar, the dialogue and engine sound effects provide a suitable pace and sense of panic for the scene.
Finally, there are a couple of graphical elements to the sequence. There is a computer animated radar, which is used to convey the imminent threat of the Despair Squid. This is used nicely in a sequence where we see the crew through this screen, which shows us both its importance and the emotions of the actors. There is also a ‘game over’ screen when the transition is made between the ‘real’ action and the hallucination, which is fitting with the computer game style.