Well, we certainly weren’t expecting this to happen today. We only caught wind of the possibility of Red Dwarf collaborating with The AA last Thursday, when a giant Starbug was pictured with an AA van near the Angel of the North, with resultant undeclared promotional pieces reported in the local press. When Danny John-Jules reassured us that “all will be revealed” on the 1st July, we were expecting a tweet or a press release. Not for a minute-long chunk of full unadulterated brand new Red Dwarf to turn up unannounced at ten o’clock in the morning. This is what all those hints about the cast getting back together have been leading to. It’s not Series XIII – though that’s not to say that work isn’t also taking place on that – it’s Rimmer, Lister, Cat, Kryten and Starbug appearing in a television advert for The AA.
The idea of my favourite show doing an advert might have filled me with dread and disgust at one time, with that Bill Hicks quote about “being off the artistic roll call” ringing in my ears. But the world has changed since then, and there are lot of things working in favour of this particular ad. It’s all original material, not just exploiting old clips and tainting them by association. It looks and feels like the current show, not some nostalgia trip trying to recapture past glories. And of all the brands they could have associated themselves with – betting companies, loan sharks, shady foreign exchange business – there’s not much fault to find with The AA. As it happens, there’s no need to worry. This advert is so well-made and so charming that it’s impossible not to be wooed.
It looks wonderful. Given the relative amounts of money available in advertising compared to non-“terrestrial” TV, this is undoubtedly the biggest budget-per-minute that Red Dwarf has ever had, and it shows. It opens with a lovely effects shot, rich in texture and detail, the sandstorm and flashes of lightning doing so much to sell the scene. We move elegantly through Starbug’s filthy windscreen (a great touch) into the cockpit, which looks better than it ever has this century. It’s ostensibly the same look as Series XI and XII, but with the levels of blue slightly toned down, and moments such as the dynamic lightning flashes adding an extra layer of flair to the cinematography. The production values are faultless.
I’m just grateful that they bothered to get the proper set out of storage, rather than knocking something together on the cheap or going for the easy option of green-screen. With the costumes, hair and make-up all on point, there’s no doubt that this is proper full-blown Dwarf, not some hokey half-arsed cash-in. It’s a full-arsed cash-in. In fact, it has some advantages over the series proper; when the cockpit door slides open (which in itself is an improvement on the rarely-used vault like thing from XI & XII), we can see the mid-section behind, something there simply isn’t space to do when the set is squeezed uncomfortably into the corner of the studio. The single-camera set-up allows for a greater shot choice and tighter editing, giving this the best atmosphere and pace of any audience-less Red Dwarf to date.
But is it actually any good? All of this is nothing without good performances and good writing, and luckily this ad has both. The dialogue feels very much like it’s from the pen of Doug; if it’s not, then it’s someone doing a very good impression. A lot of gags are packed into a very short running time, and it’s to its credit. Each character essentially takes it in turn to offer a solution to the breakdown problem. Cat gets given a bicycle joke – urging everyone not to panic and then panicking – which isn’t the most original of gags, but it’s elevated both by Danny’s amusing performance and the pace of the edit. It doesn’t linger on the punchline, just moves straight on, and it’s better for it.
Rimmer’s bit undoubtedly treads similar ground to Trojan, and it wasn’t a terrifically furtive ground for observation humour even then, but it gives Chris the chance to do some funny angry acting. A drawback of the format is that he doesn’t get anywhere near enough time to ramp up his annoyance convincingly, but his constant interjections to say “one” in a variety of languages throughout the rest of the ad compensate for shortcuts taken at the start. Whereas Kryten’s gag is my favourite of the lot. His idea is straight from the Series VI playbook for cockpit scenes, and it’s the enthusiasm with which he discusses the prospect of his head exploding that makes it. It’s a simple moment, but it nails my absolute favourite iteration of the character.
Naturally, it’s Lister who solves the problem by delivering the actual advert-y stuff, and it makes sense that he’s the one to do this, as the crew member it’s hardest to caricature for comedic effect within a limited time-frame. Although I’d question whether he’s sensible and organised enough to actually get round to joining the AA. Nevertheless, the arrival of a big yellow van with Back To The Future style hover-wheels is a rare example of a gag delivered via an effects sequence, and a successful one. It also brings with it another rare treat – a female guest character who doesn’t end up dead and/or secretly evil.
Instead, she fixes Starbug, setting up a comedic denouement in which Cat makes good on his various recent threats to exact a violent revenge upon Rimmer. It is of course broad and unsubtle, and a little derivative of Backwards, where it was funnier for the fact that it was done by accident, but the sketch needed a punchline, and you kind of have to hit people over the head with something if you want them to pay attention to your slogan. And so Starbug flies off, its little legs bending back as it takes off, another lovely little touch that’s unique to this production.
But it’s accompanied by what is literally the worst thing about this whole endeavour: the music. It’s either a complete mistake or an unavoidable substitution, because there’s no way you’d choose this over the actual theme tune for artistic reasons. It sounds very much like they’ve used the rendition of the theme tune from the audio books, with its irritating yet catchy synthesised guitar. Perhaps there are unknown rights or availability issues surrounding the proper Goodall recordings, but then again the original incidental cues are used throughout. Either way it leaves an unfortunately sour taste to end on, as it’s the only element of the entire ad that doesn’t feel like a legitimate part of the Red Dwarf oeuvre.
It’s also sadly present on the supplementary radio ad, which is another thing we didn’t expect to have existed. It’s a different “story” from the telly ad, although Lister’s promotional spiel is the same. Kryten records a ship’s log about another life-threatening breakdown, which ends in a reprise of him engaging panic circuits, where once again the familiarity of the trope is offset by the execution; the tiny sequence of all four of them collectively panicking for just a second or two is great, rounded off perfectly by the faint sound of Rimmer squealing “mummy”. We end with a gag about Cat looking in mirrors, and it’s the same again – an obvious joke, done well. It’s a tough brief to get characters that people know so well across in such little airtime, just thirty seconds in this case. Broad strokes are what’s required, but they make for a lovely composition.
So at the start of today there had been a total of zero adverts featuring the Red Dwarf crew in 31 years, and now there are two. So what’s next? Is this advert a one-off, or will they make more, considering the warm reception this first effort has received online today? Actually, who’s to say they haven’t already made more, given how good a job they did of keeping this under wraps? And given that it’s already covered two mediums, will this campaign spread to posters, billboards, newspaper ads, newspapers, the web or social media? Based on what we’ve got so far, and how much fun it’s proven to be having a miniature dollop of new Red Dwarf dropped on you of a Monday morning, let’s hope so.
Besides which, all of this is incredibly good news for Red Dwarf as a brand. There’s a surprisingly high proportion of people that react with utter shock when you mention that the show’s still going. But this ad was played during the break in Coronation Street tonight, and even allowing for those who fast-forwarded through or went for a piss, the viewing figures for that break will be higher than any new episode since the 90s. And a healthy brand means a happy fanbase, as the opportunities for new material, merchandise, stage shows and God knows what else increase. Red Dwarf started out niche, became hugely popular, and then ended up niche again; nobody would have predicted that now, in 2019, it would be brought back into the spotlight in such a major mainstream way. What a wonderful thing to have happened to our show.