4 years, 9 months ago
Oh, come now, did you all really think I wasn’t going to cover these two? What’s next, being surprised by the Queer as Folk post? It was just a matter of timing. And with Sky Pirates! Coming on Wednesday, this seems to be the time to finally deal with the strain of British comedy devoted to sci-fi/fantasy. It’s worth noting, first of all, just how important this subgenre was in the mid-90s, simply because it’s easy to overlook, especially for American readers for whom the works are not part of their basic cultural context. Red Dwarf was never huge as such, but it was the BBC sci-fi show that was still running in the mid-90s, which, at least for Doctor Who fans, put it in a position of considerable envy. Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, was and is absolutely massive: he was basically Britain’s best-selling author until J.K. Rowling came along. Given this, it was basically all but inevitable that Doctor Who, then a novel series with lingering resentment about being recognized by anyone other than a die-hard fan as a cancelled television series instead, was going to do at least one story in this mode. Between it being by miles the most popular sort of genre novel in Britain and the one BBC sci-fi show left (a position that no amount of people trying to be clever and declare that Doctor Who was now really a novel series and didn’t need to return to television would ever keep anyone from believing made Doctor Who fans apoplectically jealous) it was as inevitable that the New Adventures would do a comedy novel as it was that they’d do a cyberpunk one. So let’s understand this sci-fi/fantasy-comedy subgenre, or, at least, its two biggest examples.
Red Dwarf was just recently written up by Lawrence Miles on his blog, and let me tell you, you don’t realize how much you like a critic until you spend some time working with stuff they haven’t commented on. His observations on the basic arc of Red Dwarf are spot on. To begin with, at least, the series is a straightforward sitcom that happens to be set in outer space, using the potential eradication of humanity as little more than a premise to justify a classic “two people who hate each other stuck in a room together” setup. Rimmer and Lister are as straightforward a chalk and cheese duo as has ever existed in a sitcom. Like any chalk and cheese duo, their similarities are actually far more important than their differences: both are borderline incompetent at their jobs and of painfully low social status, but where Rimmer aspires to better himself (but only ends up being a rules obsessed and hated jerk), Lister is perfectly happy to coast along at the bottom of the social hierarchy and to get by on the standard sort of idiot’s guile that is common in comedies.
It would, in other words, have been wholly unremarkable if not for the fact that it was also a sci-fi show. To a degree this just implicates the degree to which the basic Steptoe and Son structure that Red Dwarf works off of had run dry by the late 1980s: it was so desperate it had to reach for “IN SPACE!” premises. But in the case of Red Dwarf the premise turns out to be perfect simply because there’s a glorious tension between the two halves of its premise. Steptoe and Son is a comedy about the working class, whereas science fiction is a thoroughly middle class genre. And like any middle class work of art, it therefore tends to depict a completely classless world. This is not a universal law, of course, nor is Red Dwarf the first thing to tackle it: the Pat Mills/Eric Saward conflict on class issues in Song of Megaptera are a related issue. But equally, the equation of science fiction with “cult TV” in the 1990s is only possible because the audience for science fiction television is both smaller than the audience for, say, Friends, but also, demographically, overwhelmingly middle class white boys who advertisers drool over. And science fiction, post Star Wars, is almost always at its most interesting when it finds ways of pushing against that and looking at voices from outside the white middle class.
So Red Dwarf ends up with two premises that each illuminate the other. The sci-fi setting allows wildly new variations on the standard sitcom structure, and the working class sitcom allows for some really fresh takes on sci-fi cliches. When the show works the two play off each other gloriously. “Marooned,” one of the episodes Miles deals with in his blog post, is a perfect example of this. On the one hand, as Miles points out, it is a straight up “two people stuck in a room” setup: Rimmer and Lister are stranded on a hostile planet and bicker for half an hour. On the other, however, and this is the bit Miles focuses less on, it’s a very standard sci-fi setup, as is the entire post-apocalyptic approach of Red Dwarf in general. So familiar tropes from science fiction like “the world’s last copy of great literature” and all of that make their appearances amidst the bickering, coupled with delightfully prosaic responses to the concerns like ripping one particularly racy page out of Lolita before it’s kindled. Which is, if anything, a refreshing contrast to the florid speeches about humanity’s greatness that usually populate this subgenre. (Actually, Rimmer starts in on one of those speeches before it’s revealed that the only bit of Shakespeare he knows is the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, and even there he only knows “now.”)
Over the seasons, though, the sci-fi aspects of Red Dwarf began to exert their gravity. Miles takes particular issue with an episode in the sixth season called “Gunmen of the Apocalypse,” in which the characters, for plot-related reasons, end up in a Wild West virtual reality system trying to flush out an alien virus. It’s not that the episode isn’t funny: it is. But other than a certain zaniness of premise, there’s not a lot to distinguish this from any other science fiction show. Admittedly, Red Dwarf was always very good at zaniness of premise - the character of the Cat, the distant descendent of Lister’s pet, is a delightful conceit. But this is a relatively slender line. In truth the difference between “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” and any given episode of Sliders is little more than skill of production. Sliders, after all, routinely injects clear comic relief segments into its plots, constructing at times elaborate set pieces just to get an (usually not actually very funny, and often a bit racist) gag in. This is more than just saying that Sliders has funny bits. Sliders has things that are overtly and consciously structured to be gags. In which case it becomes difficult to understand Red Dwarf as anything other than “the funny sci-fi show,” as opposed to understanding it as a comedy that appropriates sci-fi concepts.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a different matter. Pratchett is at his heart a satirist, and his books function primarily as commentary on the world in which they’re published. The same can certainly be said of Red Dwarf as well, although there is a fair criticism to be made that Lister and Rimmer are a generation outdated, and are more recognizable as stock comedic characters than as commentaries on anything in particular. (When Red Dwarf started it was already getting to the point where the all-male nature of its cast was a bit jarring. That it’s come back in 2012 and still has an all male cast borders on the staggering. Put simply, it looks more like a sitcom cast than like an actual set of characters drawn from a place.) But Pratchett has a shop-worn approach that basically goes like this: take a familiar aspect of the world. Put it into a generic fantasy setting. Then exploit the way in which standard issue fantasy tropes interact with the familiar, or the way in which the real-world familiar skews normal fantasy tropes for comedy. Repeat until you are one of the most successful authors in the country.
No, this doesn’t describe every Discworld book, but it does capture the basic pattern that Pratchett works with. His original protagonist, Rincewind, is basically a character who understands that he is stuck in a fantasy novel and who adjusts his behavior appropriately so that he survives it. This does not, in practice, mean that he is particularly savvy. In fact, he survives it by acting in a manner that appears to anyone who is unaware that they are in a fantasy novel - which is to say large swaths of the people around Rincewind - to be absolutely and mind-wrenchingly idiotic. The result is compelling. It is not, in practice, that Rincewind is more sensible or intelligent than the characters around him. Rather, it is that he behaves in a way that highlights the tension between the genre-standard fantasy world he lives in and the real world that it’s meant to parody. Rincewind works because he is absurd and ridiculous in either world.
Furthermore, Rincewind works because his knowledge is of limited use. It’s not useless by any measure - indeed, it keeps him alive with solid frequency. But knowing how fantasy novels work isn’t overly helpful simply because the way they work is ridiculous and, more importantly, not inherently advantageous to someone like Rincewind. His knowledge is more analogous to that of a black man who is used to dealing with the police: he may get harassed less, but it doesn’t actually put him in a position of any power. Rincewind is capable of surviving his fantasy books with reliability, but his knowledge does nothing to help him actually succeed in any meaningful sense. If anything, his knowledge mostly just makes him know how unlikely it is that he ever is going to succeed.
A similarly interesting character is Death, who on the one hand is the most stereotypical image of the grim reaper imaginable, including, in one of Pratchett’s most basically entertaining conceits, talking in all capital letters. This is something that the characters in Discworld are aware of and comment on, despite the fact that they ostensibly hear him speak as opposed to reading his words, which is one of those fantastic bits of textual description that makes conceptual sense without being translatable into any empirically sensible phenomenon. (Actually, the solution figured out by the TV adaptations is just about right: have Christopher Lee do the voice.) But although he acts the part of the dour reaper, Death is in practice quite concerned about the well-being of people and a nice guy who consciously and willfully conforms to human expectations of him, which in turn allows him to comment on those expectations. In all caps.
The other thing that jumps out about Discworld, though, is that it is just wonderfully well-written. Terry Pratchett’s narrative voice is absolutely charming. He is one of those rare writers who can get away with riding on his own cleverness because he’s capable of being likably clever instead of smug. (See also Douglas Adams, Steven Moffat, and, when he’s on his game, Neil Gaiman) This is an indispensable trait in a comedic prose writer, and especially vital for what Pratchett specifically does, because it allows him to acquire the readerly good-will needed to make lengthy monologues on various aspects of culture. It’s also a terribly black or white trait: largely you’ve either got the comedic voice or you haven’t, and mediocrity is nearly as bad as awfulness. This, by its nature, limits the degree to which Pratchett (or any other comedic writer) can be imitated. But it also serves as one of the reasons that Pratchett avoided the sinking into the muddy twilight area that Red Dwarf fell into over the years: he can get by on wit and charm in a way that a non-narrated sitcom never could.
But the larger reason is that Discworld is not, as it initially appears, a novel series. Rather it is six distinct novel series with some stand-alone books mixed in for good measure. Different books focus on different chunks of Discworld, and give Pratchett the ability to keep introducing new sets of ideas to skewer. This just isn’t an option Red Dwarf, with its set cast of four, ever really got the chance to use. And this forms what is perhaps the most basic and central observation to hold in mind as we move on to Sky Pirates!: how well a piece of comedic genre fiction works is almost entirely related to how well its use of genre tropes is turned to some external point, as opposed to being the point in and of itself.
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