G&TV: BiteBack (23/05/93)

For this month’s G&TV, we take a look at an old favourite: Rob and Doug appearing on BiteBack, also known as “Points of View but with a budget”. This was broadcast on the 23rd May 1993 – precisely 25 years ago today.

I should warn you: at 41 seconds in, they do a “Beam me down, Scotty” gag. I’m warning you now so your expensive phone or computer doesn’t end up through the nearest window.

A few points.

  • Anybody who thinks that Red Dwarf doesn’t clip well should take a look at that section of Quarantine used at 1:07… and think “Yes, Red Dwarf really doesn’t clip well.”
  • Forget wanting to watch rushes of Red Dwarf episodes. I now want to watch rushes of the dubbing sessions of Red Dwarf episodes.
  • There’s a very odd moment where we hear Rob Grant talking about how Red Dwarf is one of the top-watched sitcoms on BBC2… and then the reporter says “it wasn’t easy to sell the idea of science fiction to BBC drama chiefs”. Drama chiefs? It’s a sitcom!
  • I’m intrigued by Doug Naylor’s comment that the first few episodes of Red Dwarf don’t have any science fiction. My first reaction is to dispute that: and then I remembered how Hancock’s Half Hour did Better than Life without being a science fiction show. Challenge: how would you keep the fundamental basis of the first series of Red Dwarf while removing every single SF trapping?
  • Yet again, in a piece to camera, the reporter says: “Red Dwarf is the only new sci-fi drama series to be made at the BBC.” Now, I know you want to make a big point about Doctor Who being cancelled, but surely there’s a better way of doing it than mislabelling the series entirely.
  • I want to query something said by the representative from Interzone Magazine, where she says: “Back in the 50s, Quatermass was pulling in Coronation Street-sized audiences”. Which is a bit of a confusing statement anyway – as Coronation Street only started in 1960, when exactly are we supposed to be comparing audiences for it? In 1960, as soon as it started, or 1993? And which Quatermass serial does she mean? All I’ll say is that Quatermass II (of which a clip is shown directly after her statement) got an average of 8 million viewers an episode… and Coronation Street in 1993 was getting 16 million. If that isn’t the comparison she meant, then it certainly isn’t clear what she does actually mean.
  • Intercutting the BBC’s Head of Drama saying “I’d very much like a good sci-fi drama series” with an out-of-context dodgy CSO shot from the Doctor Who serial Robot really doesn’t feel like particularly honest programme-making on behalf of BiteBack‘s production team. You could make the opposite point by cutting in an entirely different clip of Who, after all. What exactly are they trying to say?
  • On the plus side, I thought Creegan’s point about the BBC not actually getting a lot of writers submitting SF shows to them was an interesting one – indeed, the most interesting thing in the entire piece.
  • Come on, then: any guesses for exactly what Creegan is talking about when he says “The project that we’re talking about for BBC1 is a major, serious sci-fi, that – if we make – would really be one of the major projects, probably of the decade”? My guess: Invasion: Earth. That was broadcast in 1998, but it’s hardly impossible for that to be in development five years earlier, and it seems to fit the description.

But here’s the thing which I really take from this BiteBack piece – and it’s got nothing at all to do with science fiction. It’s to do with BiteBack itself. There are a fair number of clips on YouTube, so you can get a feel of the series beyond what I talk about above. The show ran between November 1991 and March 1997; it’s also worth taking a look at some clips of Open Air, its daily predecessor which ran for four series on BBC1 from October 1986 to May 1990. And we start to see some of the things I miss about current television.

Surely we still have programmes like that, though? Well, yes, there’s Points of View, obviously, and Newswatch which is specifically about BBC News. But they rarely have features these days, at least of the kind we see above. Taking a look at the most recent episode of Points of View, it’s mainly just emails from viewers, clips from programmes, and wry looks to camera from Jeremy Vine. True, there is a four minute section on the new weather graphics which could conceivably be called a feature, but it’s hardly the same kind of thing BiteBack piece above. Three viewer complaints and an answer from a BBC Weather producer? Fine as far as it goes, but where is the kind of contextual material included in the BiteBack piece, or the attempt to tell some kind of story – or hell, a reporter, doing some reporting? To say nothing of the fact that the piece is also half the length.

Taking a look at the latest episode of Newswatch, it’s even worse: the programme has no actual features in the programme at all. Clip, complaint, link, clip, complaint, link: over and over and over. Again, fine as far as it goes… but that’s the crucial issue: as far as it goes. The comparison to the kind of thing BiteBack was doing is stark.

Of course, the above BiteBack feature isn’t the most scintillating piece of journalism I’ve ever watched. But it draws a number of things together – someone reporting, interviews with a fair few interested parties, a look behind-the-scenes at one of the BBC’s most popular shows, a representation from a BBC executive – and ties it altogether into something with a bit of thought and context behind it. These days, we’re lucky to get a voice and some text on the screen, before we move on to… another voice and some text on the screen. Where are the magazine programmes actually making something about television which have a bit of production value in their own right?

They’re nowhere to be seen. Because while some kind of shows still have a healthy budget attached – your big 9pm dramas, for instance – others have been starved of money for years, and it’s steadily getting worse. It’s difficult to imagine a show like BiteBack being commissioned now, and being given a half-decent budget to do proper investigative reports.

After 25 years, maybe we are now making Doctor Who again, as well as Red Dwarf. But when it comes to magazine programmes actually about television, we haven’t just got stuck. We’ve actively gone backwards. That’s something to consider… and mourn, if you feel inclined.

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21 Responses to G&TV: BiteBack (23/05/93)

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  1. I always thought the show in development he mentioned was BUGS. Sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi – right up Creegan’s street.

  2. Also, Doug’s comment that the first few episodes of series 1 don’t have any science fiction is true if you take him at his word from before Future Echoes was moved.

  3. Even excluding Future Echoes it doesn’t make any sense. The End has stasis, an AI, hologrammatic people and a super-evolved cat race as key plot points. Balance of Power is the only episode in Series 1 which is especially light on sci-fi, and even then Lister’s motivation for out-qualifying Rimmer is that he wants to temporarily remove him from existence and replace him with a different hologram.

    Anyway, the insistent mistake of labelling Red Dwarf as a drama is interesting. Is this karma for the Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series masquerading as a drama in order to claim a bigger budget?

  4. That Quarantine clip seems well-chosen to me. Interesting sci-fi concept + joke + glimpse of characters’ personalities.

  5. Marvellous. I’m sure I watched this at the time as I hoovered up every available nugget on the forthcoming series VI. Series 1 was released on video around this time and The Key The Secret was riding high in the charts. I’ll get me coat.

  6. Coronation Street – I’d say it’s been used as shorthand for ‘very large regular audience’.

  7. It’s taken me thirty goddamn years, and that not particularly inspired reporting segment, to realise that the original opening theme is a take-off of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

    Arrrgggh that’s so irritating yet also so satisfying.

  8. G&T Admin

    I always thought the show in development he mentioned was BUGS. Sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi – right up Creegan’s street.

    I did think of BUGS, but the thing which puts me off was his description of the supposed programme as “major, serious sci-fi”, which is (of course) an inaccurate description of the show. Now, he could well have been being *deliberately* misleading considering the obvious tone the BiteBack piece was going to take – saying what he thinks people want to hear, etc – but when there’s something that actually matches his description a few years later, it’s a little trickier.

  9. The other thing is that the ‘slick, expensive, glossy’ Amblin version of Doctor Who was in official development with the BBC involved at that point, so I wonder how much of that segment was influenced by the BBC’s desire to draw battle lines.

  10. God, the ideas they had for that version of Doctor Who were so fucking hit and miss. Some genuinely good ideas, but a lot of “let’s remake classic serials but worse”. What a bizarre alternate timeline we were almost privy to.

  11. G&T Admin

    The other thing is that the ‘slick, expensive, glossy’ Amblin version of Doctor Who was in official development with the BBC involved at that point, so I wonder how much of that segment was influenced by the BBC’s desire to draw battle lines.

    BiteBack is an interesting case, in that it was deliberately outsourced to an independent – Humphrey Barclay – with the idea that an independent would be more likely to hold the BBC to account.

    I mean, I can see that argument, obviously… but you could easily argue that BBC staffers working on an in-house production would be more likely to hold the BBC to account, as they aren’t going to lose a lucrative contract if they get a little too bold in their investigations!

    There’s clearly something weird going on in that piece anyway, yeah, regardless of exactly what it is. Twice calling Red Dwarf a drama is just odd. and that Robot clip is a spectacularly poor piece of journalism at best.

  12. Challenge: how would you keep the fundamental basis of the first series of Red Dwarf while removing every single SF trapping?

    I get what Flap Jack is saying above, that there are Sci Fi elements littered throughout Series 1 (indeed, the whole bloody show is set on a spaceship) but I think that’s being a bit literal. I think what Doug means is that the fundamental ways in which the scripts work are not heavily reliant on their science fiction concepts. And I think this is true.

    I’ve always taken issue with the notion that Future Echoes is a story that explores a Sci Fi idea. I think Future Echoes explores real science around the speed of light to more or less the same extent that the TARDIS explores the reality of having a time machine that’s bigger on the inside. Which is to say, not at all.

    The essential story mechanism of Future Echoes is a series of prophecies, which our main characters react to, exploring the extent to which they can determine their own destinies. This is a very old story. All Future Echoes does is superficially clothe it in Sci Fi trappings.

    And following the same line of thinking, I reckon you absolutely could substitute all of the Sci Fi elements of Series 1 and end up with 6 episodes of a sitcom that had exactly the same shape, albeit with a rather different flavour.

    THE END
    This episode establishes an ensemble cast in a workplace hierarchy, and then pulls the rug from under your feet by removing them all from the narrative, and instead focussing on 2 lowly characters who hate each other. You could do something like set up an office workplace sitcom, but then have the company go into liquidation halfway through episode 1 and everybody gets made redundant, but because Rimmer somehow caused the company to fail (despite being only a lowly staff member) he gets, I dunno, thrown into prison with his colleague Lister or something. The two of them are stuck together in a confined environment where they meet whichever comedy buffoon represents the Cat.

    FUTURE ECHOES
    Like I say, this episode is just about prophecies and destiny. You could do that just as easily as Hancock did BTL.

    BALANCE OF POWER
    A character piece about one work colleague trying to better another in order to get what he wants. Lister’s motivation is a distant unattainable woman. It’s easy to see how these themes could translate to a non Sci Fi setting.

    WAITING FOR GOD
    The strongest episode of the first series is all about satirising religion and dealing with the loneliness of existential dread. Eternal themes you don’t need to be on a mining ship to explore.

    CONFIDENCE AND PARANOIA
    This story definitely has parallels in those old cartoons where a character hallucinates an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. This episode is a fun way of exploring Lister’s psychology, but the Sci Fi is very thin on the ground anyway.

    ME2
    The plot structure of this one is largely about two students who share a flat, and one of them finally moves out to live next door with his girlfriend, but they realise they absolutely despise each other. The slobby character reads the other guy’s diary and learns some juicy secrets, which leads to the Rimmer character relating an embarrassing story. By the end of the episode the relationship with the girlfriend is over, so Rimmer and Lister will move back in together.

    So yeah… the actual structures of the above 6 episodes don’t need Sci Fi. You could shoe-horn them into being set in a prison, or a student house, or an Oil Rig in the North Sea or something…

    But let’s be honest, whatever you came up with would be inferior to setting it on a mining ship in deep space.

  13. That’s true of a lot of sci-fi though. It explores universal ideas through the filter of that genre.

    But that doesn’t make it not-sci-fi.

  14. It’s a lot more specific than that even.

    The central mechanics of Future Echoes owe more to Macbeth than they do to any sci-fi. And the Lister/Rimmer out-of-synch scene is virtually a Two Ronnies pastiche (a show which finished only eight weeks before Future Echoes aired). Then Balance of Power is Porridge, Waiting For God is Endgame, Confidence & Paranoia is Play It Again, Sam, Me2 is The Odd Couple. They’re all quite direct lifts from stuff when you peel away the dressing, and so much of the apparent heavy sci-fi in series 1 & 2 is a veneer (even when you get to higher-concept ‘true sci-fi’ stuff later like Stasis Leak which is just A Christmas Carol. And Kryten & Queeg go all out and just say what they’re adapting that week!) The grey set years are all just Rob and Doug playing with their characters and world and trying to find ways to ‘do’ old stories and plot mechanics they like, while pretending it’s deep sci-fi. This changes over the years but it’s interesting to look at the ‘playhouse/anthology’ idea as a key premise of the show.

    The takeaway from this is maybe Doug should do it more these days? Twentica was a rare modern example of Doug taking a film he likes and kit-bashing it into the show, and though I don’t think that episode worked narratively at all, the pitch of ‘First Contact, but Red Dwarf’ was a bulletproof one.

  15. Here’s another good one – Parallel Universe is an 80s alternative comedy repaint of Some Like It Hot, which only uses its sci-fi very fleetingly to find a more right-on workaround for the drag material. The mechanics of the laughs are very similar.

  16. I think all of this is interesting and I agree with most of it, but when these ideas are reworked and used in a sci-fi setting with sci-fi trappings, that *is* sci-fi.

    In the same way that Star Wars uses ideas familiar to fans of Westerns and Samurai movies but does it in a sci-fi/fantasy/space opera context, or Star Trek is a sci-fi retelling of tales of frontiersmen. They’re both sci-fi.

    To be honest, I struggle to think of much sci-fi that *can’t* be boiled down to core human ideas that transcend the setting and are a lot more universal. It feels as though there’s often an effort among sci-fi fans to explain away or excuse the sci-fi elements of their favourite stories, as though it somehow makes them lesser to be tagged as sci-fi, and I’m not really sure why. I love sci-fi.

  17. when these ideas are reworked and used in a sci-fi setting with sci-fi trappings, that *is* sci-fi.

    Speaking generally you’re right, Dave, anything with robots and spaceships in is indeed considered Sci Fi by the general public. But being more analytical and pedantic about it, Science Fiction should build its story around explaining or exploring a real science subject, or speculatively hypothesising about potential futures using current technological advancements as the starting point.

    I think Red Dwarf held off from being too Sci Fi in its early days in order to appease people who don’t like Sci Fi. I think the absence of a humanoid robot in the first series is a superficial example of this. It takes a while for the White Holes and the Quantum Entanglements to be at the centre of the plots.

    When I was at Uni, in amongst all the obvious sensible stuff, I did a module in Science Fiction. The lecturer attempted to separate all of the different meanings of Science Fiction so as to avoid students getting bogged down in arguments about whether something was or wasn’t Sci Fi. The problem was he labelled his three distinct modes as “Sci Fi” “SF” and “Science Fiction” – which is just impossible to differentiate.

    I think what the BiteBack clip illustrates is that in those days there was a sizeable resistance to Science Fiction. Certainly my memories of the 90s were that Science Fiction was a niche interest, primarily for socially awkward adolescents and adults who hadn’t grown up.

    So Rob and Doug were fighting a losing battle really, because they were trying to convince people who were utterly resistant to Sci Fi that Red Dwarf wasn’t really *that* Sci Fi because it just used the Sci Fi as window dressing, and it doesn’t drive the plot.

    But the kind of people they were trying to persuade were the kind of people who would think “Has it got a spaceship in it? Yes? Then it’s Sci Fi.”

    As you quite rightly point out, Star Wars is labelled Sci Fi because of its superficial trappings and iconography. But there’s nothing remotely Science Fiction about its narrative at all. The Force is magic, lightsabers are just swords, and the original film ends with them flying fire breathing dragons at a big castle to destroy the evil king in the shiny black helmet. It actively goes to the trouble of positioning itself as taking place “a long long time ago” in order to remove the possibility of being read as a depiction of a speculative future – essentially the opposite of Science Fiction!

    But, yeah, generally speaking, of course it’s labelled Science Fiction.

    Incidentally, I certainly don’t consider the Sci Fi tag as meaning a work is in any way lesser. Something like Black Mirror for example strikes me as a very good Science Fiction series. I think I consider Red Dwarf as first and foremost a character-led sitcom, but with Sci Fi ornaments.

  18. Delicately put, sir.

    (By which I mean I agree with pretty much everything you said there. There are lots of different kinds of sci-fi, and Red Dwarf often isn’t *that* kind.)

  19. I’ve seen Star Wars and Doctor Who described as Science Fantasy, which is just Sci-Fi light on the actual science. Star Wars is about adventure and (later) family and deals with the devil, and Lucas has said that the spaceships are there basically because he likes cars, and all the spacebattles are just ww2 dog fights. Doctor Who has been going for so long and taken so many approaches it is hard to narrow it down to one genre, but the TARDIS is basically just a fantasy concept which allows them to move from one story to the next, and Moffat treated the show like essentially a sci-fi fairy tale. Christopher H Bidmead was hell bent on including “real science” in the show, but with CVEs, E-Space and Block Transfer Computations I don’t know what the hell kind of “science” he was reading about, and the show remains pretty fantastical, just with bigger, more technical words.

    I like the “science fantasy” naming. Red Dwarf is much more sci-fi after 1 and 2, and I think at least Future Echoes, Me² and Kryten have to be called sci-fi.

  20. I’m normally fairly lax about the use of ‘sci fi’ as a term – most TV sci-fi is pretty light on the science, really – but I draw a line at Star Wars, which is just fantasy in space. It’s your basic good vs. evil with magic story. Who probably fits the science fantasy description, but I’m happy to call it sci-fi because it still utilised scientific explanations, even if they were made up gobbledegook ones.

    The first two series of Red Dwarf are relatively light on sci-fi for a supposedly sci-fi show, other than the odd episode. Between III and VI Rob and Doug gradually introduced more and more, until VI itself tips the balance slightly more towards sci-fi plots than actual character stuff for the first time.

  21. if you suck out all the space stuff from Series I it just turns into Freshers i think

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