During the current break in production between Red Dwarf XI and XII, now seems the perfect time to talk about something very specific to the Dave era of Red Dwarf. Oddly enough, it’s something we haven’t really discussed in any great depth here on Ganymede & Titan, although we did touch on it briefly in our commentary on Gunmen.
Firstly, for some context, let’s go back to how the BBC-era shows are presented on Dave. And for all my whinging about Red Dwarf repeats, there is one particular joy I have in watching Red Dwarf on a commercial channel – one which you might think of as merely a pain in the ass. And that is: the commercials themselves. Or, more specifically, the placing of those commercial breaks.
In Polymorph, the break is placed directly after the creature’s first actual attack. In Gunmen of the Apocalypse, it’s after the simulant takes out our four heroes: “I have no alternative.”. But my favourite example is from Queeg: on Queeg’s line “From now on, Red Dwarf is run by Queeg 500” – bang, off we go, into the break. It simply works superbly. I feel bad for saying it – this is a moment constructed years after the fact, with no input from the original production at all – but it’s such a delightful moment that Queeg is almost a better viewing experience on Dave than it is watching the episode without a commercial break.
At this point, I could get into a complicated discussion about act structures. But we don’t really need to. (I’ll save my analysis of the structure of The Sweeney for another time.) The only thing you really need to take away from this is: the placing of an ad break matters. They can’t just be placed willy-nilly at random places. When you choose to go to an ad break gives gravity to the previous scene, even just the previous line: it’s a great big fat punctuation point in the episode. And they can work absolutely brilliantly as cliffhangers.
All of which makes Dwarf‘s transition to Dave rather interesting. For the first time, ad breaks are expected, and can be planned for. How will Dwarf use them to its best advantage? Now, a mid-episode cliffhanger can be built into the show from scratch. An extra opportunity for the production to grab the audience, and refuse to let them go. And Red Dwarf, with a more action-adventure bent than most sitcoms, seems ideally suited to take full advantage. Another little weapon in the production’s arsenal.
Of course, the first episodes of Red Dwarf which were planned from the beginning to have ad breaks was Back to Earth – but I’m going to be kind, and entirely ignore those three episodes. Let’s not forget that BTE was originally supposed to be two parts, and extended to three very late in production. Under those circumstances, it would have been difficult to place the breaks at their most effective points anyway. Whether those ad break placings work well in the transmitted episodes I will leave as an exercise for the reader.
Red Dwarf X is a different matter. Six standalone episodes. The chance is there to place the breaks for their absolute maximum effectiveness – to keep the viewer hooked, and waiting for the next part. If UKTV can conjour up great ad break placings out of thin air for their repeats of the BBC shows, what wonders could the show do when such breaks are baked into the programme?
Sadly, the DVD chops these ad breaks out, to create continuous half-hour episodes. (More on this later.) Which means if you’re watching the episodes on DVD, where the ad breaks were placed is now completely invisible. For the record, then, from the original broadcasts, here are where those ad breaks were placed. And, because I can’t resist sticking my stupid opinions in where they are quite literally unwanted, I’ve also included how well I think the placings work as cliffhangers.
WHERE: (13:33 / 29:48) Just after Rimmer’s line “Who am I kidding, I’m never gonna pass this exam. It’s so unfair!”, as he has a Negadrive blow back… sorry, overload of resentment.
DOES IT WORK?: Not a brilliant start, really. I’m probably biased in this regard, as I really dislike the beachball-of-doom stuff in Trojan – so this ad break seems to give the gag a gravity it doesn’t deserve.
Fathers and Suns
WHERE: (14:11 / 29:56) Right at the end of the double Lister scene, with Lister storming out yelling “I hate you! Bastard!”, whilst his father looks on sadly.
DOES IT WORK?: To be fair, ending a part with one of the best scenes of the series is probably a good way to get viewers to come back for the second part. But it doesn’t really work for me as a cliffhanger. Not that I have any other suggestions when it comes to the episode in its current form – it’s tempting to suggest placing it once Lister discovered he wasn’t a registered member of crew and started being menaced in the corridors, but this would be far too late in the episode.
WHERE: (15:01 / 29:40) After Jesus’s line “I fear thou are impatient for thine food. Please… join me.”
DOES IT WORK?: Rubbish. Right in the middle of a scene, destroying any momentum the episode was gaining up to that point. Pretty much any other point in the episode would have been a better placing. It’s tempting to say when the crew make it back to the ship, but again, that’s quite late on in the episode. Or perhaps during the chase scene with the Romans?
WHERE: (14:49 / 29:35) Lister pondering “Maybe that’s our answer”, and Blue Midget flying down to the BEGG planet.
DOES IT WORK?: The first placing that really works for me: Lister’s question sets up a bit of intrigue, and flying to the BEGG planet seems a natural cut-off point. It’s not really very exciting, but maybe that’s my general dislike of Entangled bleeding through.
WHERE: (14:27 / 29:12) Right at the very end of the charades scene.
DOES IT WORK?: No. But then, nor does Dear Dave as a whole, so expecting the ad break to work in this shambles of an episode would be expecting too much. What the episode’s really crying out for is for the ad break to come in just after Lister’s discovered he might be a father, but yet again, that’s probably too late in the episode’s current form.
WHERE: (14:37 / 29:52) As the crew escape in Blue Midget, the three Annihilators chase them.
DOES IT WORK?: By far the strongest of the series – cut away just as the Dwarfers are running for their lives. It’s instructive to compare this episode with the cliffhangers for most of the rest of the series. This is how you do it.
As you can see, I’m not especially impressed with the ad break placing in much of Red Dwarf X. In fact, it’s just weird that you can actually get a better cliffhanger from Queeg – which was never designed to allow for an ad break – than a series which was commissioned by a commercial channel, and was always going to include commercials which literally help pay for the show to be made.
To be honest, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the production didn’t really care about the ad breaks, and would rather that they weren’t there. That feeling is enforced by the static, silent, almost apologetic Red Dwarf X slide which starts and ends each break. There is precisely zero ceremony involved. Even with the episodes which have the break placed nicely, the presentation of the break itself is weak. The show just… falls off air.
But perhaps the most telling aspect is the DVDs, which as I said earlier, have the ad breaks removed entirely. It’s difficult not to suspect that this is the form which is considered the canonical one. You only have to look at Lemons, where the central section where they meet Jesus is now presented as one continuous scene. It feels like this is the real version the production was going for.
Except… here’s the curious thing. DVDs are in decline. (Much to my chagrin – but we’ll pick that thread up in another article.) Many people are watching Red Dwarf on-demand – including through UKTV Play, UKTV’s own on-demand service. Which – surprise! – includes adverts. (Placed exactly where they were in the transmitted episodes.) Services like these are the choice of many, rather than watching the episodes on DVD. And let’s not forget that DVDs or no, Red Dwarf X was always going to have a healthy repeat run on Dave.
In other words: designing these episodes for continuous viewing on DVD is rather short-sighted. These episodes need to be at their best everywhere.
Right now, we’re bang in the middle of production of Red Dwarf XI and XII. And yes, sensible ad break placing isn’t exactly top of the list of things I most want from the show at this point. But that’s not to say that thinking a bit harder about them wouldn’t make the show a better viewing experience. Because yes, anything which makes the programme flow better, and which gets viewers watching after the ad break, is a good thing.
But it’s hard to shake the idea that thinking harder about the ad breaks might just add that little bit of extra structure to proceedings, which Red Dwarf X sometimes lacked. Even amongst people who really enjoyed the series, a common complaint was that the episodes took their sweet time to get going. Time and time again, it feels like the ad break would have been better placed later on in the episode. If the placing of the ad breaks had been considered more carefully, maybe some of the slower openings to the episodes would have been trimmed slightly.
Because an exciting moment to build to isn’t pandering to marketing people, or even pandering to the audience. It can actually just help make better telly.