Here’s something “interesting” I’ve just been thinking about. What is it that links the following three quotes together?
“Why don’t you listen to something really classical, like Mozart, Mendelssohn, or Motörhead?” (Rimmer, Balance of Power)
“Good evening. Here is the news on Friday, the 27th of Geldof.” (Newsreader, Better than Life)
“Everyone can remember how they lost their virginity. It’s one of those things … like everyone can remember where they were when Cliff Richard was shot. Or when the first woman landed on Pluto. Or when they installed the gigantic toupee over the earth to cover the gap in the ozone layer. It’s just one of those things you always remember.” (Lister, Marooned)
Got it? All these lines rely on how people in the future have a different perspective on today’s culture. It’s exactly the same as Hippies occasionally did as well, but the other way around, as that show was set in the past. For instance, there’s a bit between Alex and Ray, where they talk about how Mick Jagger will probably regret his hair-raising days when he gets older. “I bet he’ll be really embarassed about the whole thing…”
Now, there’s two things to note here. Firstly – there just aren’t that many of these jokes in Red Dwarf, compared to how often there is a chance to do this kind of thing. Secondly – and I await for someone to prove me wrong – but I think the level of this jokes went down severely throughout the show’s run. The best example I can think of is with Casablanca. In Better Than Life, it’s used as an example of the above joke:
RIMMER: Look, Casablanca! They’ve remade Casablanca!
LISTER: Philistines. I mean how can you re-make Casablanca? The one starring Myra Dinglebat and Peter Beardsley was definitive.
HOLLY: I saw that one. Knockout. “Of all the space bars on all the worlds you had to rematerialise in mine.”
Wheras in Camille, it’s the original that Kryten and Camille watch in the cinema, and reference throughout the entire show. And this applies to most references in Red Dwarf, especially in the later series. In general, references are just what they are – references. The Flintstones isn’t used as a silly joke about what season 56 was like – the Wilma stuff could easily have turned up in Men Behaving Badly. Captain Oates is mentioned on his own terms, with the story we all know now – we don’t find out some silly story about what really happened to him. Even Marilyn Monroe is used as a straightforward fantasy figure.
So why is this? It seems like an obvious kind of joke for Red Dwarf to do; they can be extremely amusing, and done in the right way, can also do TEH COMMENTS ON MODERN SOCIETY as well. Why the reticence, especially in later series?
There is the argument that references date the show; and certainly, references to “Peter Beardsley” are rather more incongrous than references to Casablanca. One of those will be talked about 100 years from now, and one won’t. But still, you could make jokes like that about things that people will still know about 300 years from now; and in general, it’s something the show didn’t do that much in the first place, and then moved away from completely.
I think there’s two reasons for this. Firstly, a joke like like that can be very funny… but doesn’t actually tell you much about the characters. The Captain Oates stuff with Rimmer is used to show his outlook on the situation. Using the story we all know about Oates to justify him not being switched off is an interesting character moment. Now, a silly joke about what really happened to Captain Oates is just that – a silly joke. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good silly joke, but if you can do some character stuff at the same time, then it’s even more satisfying. This applies even if you do a joke in this way to somehow comment on modern society – it’s still a joke that’s somewhat removed from the characters.
But then, Red Dwarf isn’t 30 minutes of pure character jokes – there’s plenty of stuff in the show that doesn’t have a huge amount of resonance on a character level. There’s room for a few jokes that aren’t explicitly character-based. I think there’s possibly a more important reason – and that is, by making that kind of joke, you’re actually eroding the reality of the show. I’ve often said that Red Dwarf doesn’t really break the fourth wall; there are isolated incidents (“Last week on Red Dwarf…”, for instance, or Cat looking straight down the barrel of the lens in Parallel Universe), but they are few and far between. With a show like Red Dwarf – set in an unreal situation, with characters that you want to get to know as characters, not simply devices – it’s important to make their situation feel real. A comedy set in space with a laugh track it may be, but for those 30 minutes, you really need to believe what’s happening.
What the kind of joke I mention above does is force you to acknowlege the unreality of the situation. The joke relies on the incongruity of what the characters are saying, and what you know now. In other words, it relies on the acknowlegement of you sitting at home being real, and what’s happening on TV being imaginary. Perhaps if you do that too often… the carefully-constructed artifice of the show comes crashing down.
And it’s partly that artifice that makes Red Dwarf work so well.