Past Echoes

Despite Red Dwarf‘s futuristic off-world setting, it’s always been a show deeply rooted in reality. Rob and Doug drew their inspiration as much from Steptoe and Son and Porridge as Blade Runner and Alien, deriving humour from workplace antics, characters being trapped together and the good old British class system, all things that are far from alien to the viewer at home. As such, it’s always been intrinsically linked to the time and place in which it was made, and the fact that this time and place was up to 31 years ago now makes for some interesting anomalies between the future as predicted in the late 80s and early 90s, and what we now know about how society and technology has developed since then.

Some of them are fairly incongruous, like the cultural references. While things like The Flintstones, Marilyn Monroe and Casablanca remain widely-known touchstones for modern audiences, the same can’t be said for Teasy Weasy, Ishtar or Doug McClure. I hate the term “dated” when it comes to discussing such references in old television – the gags still work in all those cases, regardless of your familiarity with the specifics – and indeed find such anachronisms charming, which is why it rankled when some were removed or replaced in Remastered. What’s more interesting, though, is the concepts that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, and which we never question because we’re so familiar with them, but that start to fall apart as soon as you think about them from a 2019 perspective.

Like when Rimmer worked for The Samaritans, and spoke to a bloke who’d meant to phone up for the cricket scores. Why would anyone from Rimmer’s time need to call a hotline in order to find out sports results? Such a service did indeed exist in 1989, but now we have apps and websites, providing instant access to the information required. The idea of waiting for anything like that seems ludicrous now, like Lister patiently waiting for the snail mail to arrive so that he can watch Zero G Football highlights, rather than just streaming them on the Groovy Channel 27 app. And why were Holly and Gordon playing chess via post, rather than on Facebook or something?

Lister’s football highlights were famously presented on VHS of course, and it’s long been a source of amusement that the predicted future for home media would be the same fundamental technology, but triangular. This was brilliantly tackled head on in Back To Earth, of course, when DVDs were cited as a passing fad before everyone went back to VHS. But after just ten years, that too seems wrong now, as it fails to take into account that DVDs themselves would be overtaken by Bluray, or indeed that any kind of physical media would lose so much market share to streaming services.

The “what we have now will eventually be replaced by what we had before” explanation could happily headcanon away a fair few discrepancies, such as the fact that both Lister and Kryten go to the bother of developing photographs that they’ve shot on actual film. We’d best stick to that rule for this one actually, given that the premise of Timeslides depends on analogue photography still being a thing, as indeed does the entire series, with Hollister intercepting Lister’s photo of the cat kicking off the whole chain of events. Similarly, we have to accept that Polaroids also remained in use, simply because in 1988, that was the only imaginable way of instantly seeing a picture you’d taken. You could explain away all the monitors in the early series being 4:3 CRTs in this way too, were it not for the Dave era using modern flatscreens throughout.

Aside from technology, there are other instances of real life events catching the show unawares. While there’s still time for Cliff Richard to be shot, nobody involved in the production could have known that Berni Inn would shut down in 1995, or that Norweb would be merged and rebranded out of existence, or that Lewis’s would go into administration. It’s a source of perturbation that the Aigburth Arms has now been renamed The Victoria, and they don’t even have a pool table any more. Although amusingly, there was a new version of Tales of the Riverbank made, revived on Channel 4 just a year after Camille aired.

Society changes too. Hardly anyone smokes on TV any more, and these days most countries have some sort of regulations about smoking in the workplace, so it must be strange, for anyone who grew up after such things were put in place, to see the pre-accident drive room shrouded entirely with carcinogenic fog. A show with four male characters and absolutely zero female regulars probably (or perhaps hopefully) wouldn’t be commissioned today, although proportionally speaking, Red Dwarf still has better ethnic diversity than most current British comedies. And it’s perhaps unfortunate that the anger-free Rimmer in Polymorph so closely resembles Rolf Harris, but at least that’s not as bad as when the Smegazine cover described Craig Charles as “the Gary Glitter of space”. In light of recent revelations, it’s debatable as to whether the first song someone from Lister’s time learns to play would be a Michael Jackson number.

But there’s one big thing missing in Red Dwarf that once you notice it, you can’t stop thinking about how weird it is. It’s a common one with a lot of sci-fi made in the 20th Century, but set beyond it. Why does Holly have a big database of books, that Lister can go in and alter? Why does Kryten have to delete information on women’s bras or Bay City Rollers songs in order to free up space? Why are all the hologram personalities saved on easily-damaged discs? The same reason Lister gets videos through the post and Holly communicates with another computer by mail… in the Red Dwarf universe, there’s no internet.

Computers in whatever century the show is set work the same way as they did in all but the last few years of the 20th, with all information stored internally, and any networking strictly local. Granted, signal would probably be patchy in the darkest reaches of deep space, and a fair few servers probably went down when the human race was wiped out, but it means that even today, Kryten has to go around “best guess”ing everything they encounter, when the viewer at home has the sum total of human knowledge accessible via a device in their pocket. At this stage, it’s partly artistic license, of course – for the same reason, you’ll find that characters in soaps and other contemporary-set dramas will often incongruously mention that their battery has died, because smartphones and the internet can resolve a lot of plot points much less dramatically than twenty or thirty years ago.

Interestingly, while never quite addressing the issue directly, the Dave era has reflected some developments, with the JMC on-board computer providing many of the functions you’d expect online, and software upgrades being a key element of various stories. You can sort of see the seeds of this much earlier, with things like the simulants transmitting the computer virus in Gunmen, made just at the time that the world wide web was starting to get noticed. And in fairness, Todhunter does mention modems as a potential means of cheating in an exam right back in the first episode – the details are wrong from a modern perspective, but the gist is sort of right. It’s key to note that not all of Red Dwarf is a product of 1988, just the bits made in 1988. It’s always moved with the times to varying degrees, which manifests itself most obviously when Doug takes inspiration the likes of nanotechnology, 3D printing or even call centres.

And for all that it entirely understandably failed to predict about the immediate future, it was pretty spot on in other areas. Things that were a pipe-dream in the late 80s are everyday items today, such as wearable tech – not only are smartwatches a thing, but you can even customise them to have Norman Lovett’s face as the home screen should you desire. Smart luggage is also on the market, although not quite yet at the level required to wheel itself round the airport looking for you. Plus, someone’s invented a talking toaster, and it’s programmed to complain if you neglect to use it. There’s even rumours that cola companies are going to start advertising in space, although in real life it’s Pepsi doing the deed, rather than the ones being buried.

Virtual Reality, having had a stop-start development life since first being experimented with, has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years. While the frontal-lobe-burrowing properties of Total Immersion games have yet to come to fruition, current home VR systems really aren’t so different to the type of AR Lister plays, both in terms of the types of games on offer and the look of the kit itself, at least the Series VI design. Holograms are another outlandish concept that’s slowly becoming a reality, not quite in the way Red Dwarf envisaged yet, but at the very least, they can be used to insert dead musicians into concerts, and there’s even holograms that can be touched, which is either the path we follow to get to hard light, or, as with most new technology, the all time number one.

It’s still a far cry from a fully autonomous simulation of the deceased, but maybe that would be possible if combined with the main area that Red Dwarf got right: artificial intelligence. In the present day, AI is being built in to more and more appliances and devices – if we’ve got smart fridges and smart kettles now, why not dispensing machines, toilets, speaking slide rules, camcorders (yeah, they’re AI, hence them exploding when they don’t understand timeline anomalies) and little arm-shaped service droids in a few decades’ time?

Spearheading this army of computerised minds is of course Holly, and while Red Dwarf was far from the first piece of sci-fi to depict a computer you could talk to (especially considering Holly is based on Hab from Dave Hollins, who in turn is based on Hal from 2001), he or she really does feel like the natural end point that the current range of virtual assistants could evolve into. You summon them by calling their name, they can tell you the time and what it’s like outside, or conjure up pretty much any piece of information you enquire about, and they can be accessed in multiple rooms across multiple interfaces. They don’t always get things exactly right, but you can usually see where they’ve gone wrong, and you can tell them to shut up while they’re in the middle of rabbiting on, and they will. Whether it works the other way, and current devices can record and recall every conversation you’ve ever had in their vicinity, is a matter for the conspiracy theorists.

So just think how much more efficient Holly would be if he or she could access the web too. This is the fundamental dichotomy of any fiction that’s based on current society but set in the future – the older it gets, the more its content becomes a strange mix of the accurate, the archaic and the sheer ridiculous. But it’s by no means a fault; it’s all part of the charm, and Red Dwarf benefits enormously from always remaining relevant to and tailored for its contemporary audience. If the result is a computer that can navigate at light-speed but can’t order a pizza in, or a black box that captures video footage of everything that happens on board but displays tracking lines when you fast forward through it, then so be it.

With thanks to Phil Pagett, Paul Hughes, Mike Bond, Steve Weiss, Seb Patrick and Jo Sharples for suggesting examples for this article.

41 Responses to Past Echoes

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  1. It is interesting to compare Todhunter’s warning about modems with the Valeyard’s “megabyte modem” being presented as cutting edge technology in “The Trial of a Time Lord”, broadcast just fourteen months earlier.

    Did I say “interesting”? Well, maybe that’s a little too generous.

  2. > With thanks to … Paul Hughes

    You’re welcome.

    Great article. There’s no getting around the ‘no internet’ issue at this point, is there. I guess Hitler can’t do much with his smartphone other than take photos. Imagine if he’d used a Polaroid camera to take the selfie. Would the joke have worked? Maybe, but really it would be a different joke altogether.

  3. > you’ll find that characters in soaps and other contemporary-set dramas will often incongruously mention that their battery has died

    What’s more annoying in Corrie is the way nobody ever has their phone locked, so they kinda have their cake and eat it. You get characters easily finding out secrets by reading each other’s texts etc. but also situations where people are stranded or unable to be contacted in an emergency because of the ol’ dead battery.

  4. Well, hate to be a …… nit-picker? …… but the absence of an Internet has never struck me as odd or even worth noting if I may be so bold. I mean they are 3 MILLION years into deep space. They have found nothing but a few research stations scattered about, no planets where even civilization has died out. Those few stations are also widely scattered so the absence of an interplanetary/star system internet is no surprise to me at least. Nice article though and I enjoyed every word.

    Oh! Thank you for clearing up , to THIS yank at least, that Doug McClure is an actual person/actor as I’ve always just assumed he was a made up name to symbolize a ….. terrible actor? As a throwaway gag in one episode I never , lol yeah in all this time, looked him up on …….. the internet ;D

  5. Even without a ‘functioning’ internet, you’d expect the post to simply be something downloaded to Holly and not something that arrives in the form of discs, tapes and letters.

    Good article. The lack of internet is definitely one of those strangely unforeseen things. The other is CCTV, which is at least something Dwarf has a little of. So many sci-fi shows have a mystery at the heart and I always think “yeah but if you had a CCTV camera up you’d be able to solve it straight away”. How can a ship like the Enterprise – with the various dangers and diplomatic / political missions it undertakes – not have security video cameras everywhere?!

  6. Really interesting article! I agree that a lack of internet is not really that surprising given their time/distance from Earth, although they do apparently now have ‘Rednet’ – I assume this is some form of intranet run by the JMC on-board computer as a replacement for Holly’s database?

  7. NorWeb is (was) real?! I thought it was made up to sound funny. People still take pictures with film cameras despite it being 100 times less convenient, for the aesthetic.

    Similarly, I thought the Aigburth Arms was fictional, and Tales of the Riverbank was just good worldbuilding. No idea what Teasy Weasy, Doug McClure or the Berni Inn are. Smoking on TV is illegal now, isn’t it? And Czechoslovakia doesn’t exist, so don’t have any traffic wardens, of any size.

  8. How can a ship like the Enterprise – with the various dangers and diplomatic / political missions it undertakes – not have security video cameras everywhere?!

    Somebody pointed out to me that they could potentially have the technology to do this, but choose not to because the enlightened 24th century tech guys are really big on privacy

  9. While Lewis’ and the Aiggy are gone, I can report that not only does Bootle Golf Course still exist, it is now back under the purview of Sefton Council. So while it doesn’t have “municipal” in its name, it is indeed munipical once more.

  10. Really good piece, I love that Red Dwarf’s very age can actually open up new things to talk about. And again I find myself with the really good articles automatically going ‘ooh, that’d be a good one if they do another book’. DO ANOTHER BOOK!

  11. G&T Admin

    Several hundred pages ahead of you on that one.

  12. Another one for you: nobody under the age of 40 knows who Jeremy Beadle is.

  13. How much of that is the “idea for an episode” thread?

  14. G&T Admin

    Another one for you: nobody under the age of 40 knows who Jeremy Beadle is.

    I am 37 and he was a large presence in my childhood. A pleasant one, I hasten to add.

    He presented Beadle’s About until 1996, and You’ve Been Framed until 1997, and that’s not forgetting his later shows. I’d say most people in their early 30s onwards would know him.

  15. I’m 34 and remember him. Particularly the time when I was 18 and he was cleaning chewing gum off tables in my school dining hall.

  16. I think early/mid-thirties ish is probably the last generation to enjoy it first time round. While the pets in You’ve Been Framed clips were still alive.

  17. Jeremy Beadle was still relevant enough to be referenced again in The Office and other shows a few years later. I’d agree with the ‘early thirties’ assumption.

    I think the concept of “prank TV” in general is possibly a past echo, though. I don’t watch an awful lot of TV these days but the zany-pranks-on-unsuspecting-public idea, in the Jeremy Beadle / Noel Edmunds / Steve Penk mould, seems to be a thing of the past. I guess there’s still the ‘celebrity’ pranks such as those in Ant & Dec’s shows, but the idea of hidden-camera prank shows even being a thing several centuries from now seems unlikely.

  18. There’s still a regular feature that basically *is* a hidden-camera prank show on Saturday Night Takeaway, isn’t there?

  19. Jeremy Beadles association with hidden cameras ended in 1996 when Beadles About was axed. It was already a dated reference when shitty old Krytie TV aired.

  20. G&T Admin

    There’s still a regular feature that basically *is* a hidden-camera prank show on Saturday Night Takeaway, isn’t there?

    This is going off the point, but: most certainly. And like everything to do with Saturday Night Takeaway, they take it to the nth degree and often do several gags over several months to the same person.

    Plus this kind of show still exists elsewhere. Dunno if it’s on right now, but when I worked on CBBC ‘Just Kidding’ was a classic-format hidden camera show on endless rotation, introducing a whole new generation to the idea.

  21. They do hidden-camera pranks on Sam & Mark’s Big Friday Wind-Up too, so yeah maybe it is more of a kids’ TV thing these days.

  22. Oh! Thank you for clearing up , to THIS yank at least, that Doug McClure is an actual person/actor as I’ve always just assumed he was a made up name to symbolize a ….. terrible actor? As a throwaway gag in one episode I never , lol yeah in all this time, looked him up on …….. the internet ;D

    He was a yank himself, so you can’t rely on that excuse for your ignorance ;)
    He’s also one half of the inspiration for Troy McClure (the other being Troy Donahue). You may remember them from such films as ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ and ‘Dr. Alien’.

  23. > the idea of hidden-camera prank shows even being a thing several centuries from now seems unlikely.

    CBC here in Canada still does Just For Laughs: Gags. For some reason.

  24. “Hell baby, even Doris Day!”
    Today’s news reminded me of that line, and of how I didn’t know who Doris Day was until today. It was just a name I recognised, probably from Meltdown itself.

    Also I’ve debated if this even needs clarification, but “literally nobody under 40” was clearly exaggeration, if nobody picked up on it

  25. It’s believable that Doris Day would have a waxdroid and still be spoken about in a few hundred years.

  26. G&T Admin

    Also I’ve debated if this even needs clarification, but “literally nobody under 40” was clearly exaggeration, if nobody picked up on it

    It doesn’t work as exaggeration, because it’s too close to the correct figure.

    You needed to say “nobody under the age of 87” or something.

  27. Okay, who remembers Game For A Laugh?

  28. Okay, who remembers Game For A Laugh?

    Nobody under the age of 4…

  29. I guess the closer you are to 40, the closer 40 is.

  30. Kryten in a Ronald Reagan mask in Backwards? I doubt you’d see such a mask around much now… thirty years after Reagan left the presidency and fifteen years since his death.

  31. Not just a Ronald Reagan mask, an official Spitting Image Ronald Reagan mask!

  32. I also disagree about the “Ishtar”, Doug McClure etc. references. While leaving them in may be good for 1980s nostalgics, they will impede many peoples’ ability to connect with the material and ratings will take a hit. And, what follows ratings… is revenue.

  33. Millennials switching off in droves the second they hear the word “Ishtar”

  34. Old media largely appeals to old people. When it comes to advertisers it always comes back to demographics, demographica, demographics…

  35. Kryten in a Ronald Reagan mask in Backwards? I doubt you’d see such a mask around much now… thirty years after Reagan left the presidency and fifteen years since his death.

    Yes but since Backwards is explicitly set on Earth in the 90s there isn’t really an issue is there? Unless you for some reason have the blistering urge to wear a shitty plastic Reagan mask right now

  36. Am 27. Definitely knew who Beadle was pre my Dwarf discovery (around 2001). Friends of mine definitely do to, probably due to the fact he hosted Saturday night family TV.

  37. > Unless you for some reason have the blistering urge to wear a shitty plastic Reagan mask right now

    Point Break cosplay?

  38. I mean, Red Dwarf still has a very healthy foreign audience, despite all of the British specific references. Why should anachronistic references get in the way any more for younger viewers than those do for foreign ones?

  39. reagan mask one of the show’s rare nonanachronisms. other examples include lemons, jfk and jesus

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