Back when I reviewed Blade Runner 2049 (2017), I expressed the opinion that the whole thing would have worked better and been received with greater tenderness if it had been a lower-budget miniseries. Having bought and watched Red Dwarf: Back to Earth (2009) I find myself unexpectedly vindicated.
I never planned to watch Back to Earth. Having been around a television in 2009 and subject to the viewing of trailers, I thought it looked embarrassing: thawed out corpses being jerked around for adult-baby viewers who just want something more of the familiar. Red Dwarf finished in 1999; on for ten years and then off for the same. Red Dwarf: Back to Earth was a revival for a channel that had bought the syndication rights from the BBC and found them worth enough that blood from a fossil seemed worth the squeeze. Old guys in young-man uniforms. Fictional, speculative-future spacemen from what’s now a retro-futuristic setting (they use triangular VHS casettes to show how advanced they are) finding themselves “in our world,” “this year.” Sad. Bad-looking cash-in. And it wasn’t that good in the first place…
When we say “it’s not that good” about something of both cult and mainstream appeal, we have to recognise that we’re messing with people’s emotions. Our own, often—if it’s not “that good” but you watch it anyway, why is that? Is it cos you’re fond? Are you fond? As it turns out, I never knew, but I am fond. It doesn’t do everything right, Red Dwarf, but it does enough right to make the crap stuff feel endearing. Yes: I can see the places where the fur’s been rubbed off this velveteen rabbit. The patches make me remember it’s been loved. If you’re asking me to respect that love, you’ve found a request I can honour. Ding ding, Doug Naylor.
As a cinematic sequel, a story that claims by medium—artistically challenging cinema (there is artistic purpose in the editing, the length of all scenes, I think)—to be a legitimate heir, Blade Runner 2049 is peeving and trying because it is far too concerned with “canon” to be atmospherically transcendent and too bonelessly structured for you (or at least me) to feel like sitting there and watching it all at once is a worthwhile venture. Carved up into pieces so its mini-arcs were episodes or at least recognisable as “A” and “B” plots this would feel like a story that needed the viewer to see past its humble nature, rendering all the annoying bits expectable and all of the interesting pieces of the story gemlike and precious.
Red Dwarf is (though perhaps by accident more than design) precisely located within that able-to-experiment arena, that “bless you for trying” media-as-peer space. Because it’s always been a bit DIY-looking (some of the special effects were done for a signed copy of the script, the Back to Earth budget was so low), because it’s thematically about coping rather than coolly aiming to triumph, the failures assume the form of humane neutrality. The good stuff becomes transcendent. It feels “important.”
Back To Earth is a multi-dimensional attack on my weakness for secular hymns. Unlike Hampton Fancher’s script for 2049, which tried to canonise the events of his 1982 Blade Runner script rather than bask in what the film built on that script, Back to Earth is a tribute to itself or rather to the Red Dwarf of times past. Written and directed by only one of the original creative duo, and not unaware that it was hauling up a wreck from the depths to see if it might still float, the mini series/maxi length episode (you can have three episodes of the normal length or one director’s cut movie—remember that) doesn’t try to establish any new sci-fi ground or build any real character stories. It tells a sort of thematic hits anthology tale that states gratitude to fandom and appreciation of freelance/contractual employment, and to the opportunity to be creative in the specific way that making Red Dwarf at the BBC in the 80s and 90s allowed.
Back to Earth gives a big kiss to both the actors and the characters of Red Dwarf, and the way that people see them. And as well as that, it stands up on its desk and recites “Oh Captain!” to the sources that inspired co-creators Naylor and Grant. To the state or feeling of admiring inspiration, really—by the end of the third act, I wasn’t experiencing this special as just a fond/cynical Red Dwarf viewer, but as a Blade Runner fan; as a media appreciator and critic; as a creative thinker; and due to recent acts, I cannot lie, as a creator. Blade Runner 2049 didn’t feel like a love letter to Ridley Scott’s impact on Blade Runner; it didn’t feel like a paean to his style of creation so much as it did a diagrammatic reconstruction of the end results of his craft, visible on screen in that specific work.
Fancher, the hurried and put-upon Blade Runner screenwriter—Ridley Scott asked for numerous rewrites and Fancher’s slowness in providing them bought him an on-set nickname—was reclaiming his plot from its subsumption into a cult aesthetic hit; Naylor is post-BBC, celebrating the newly cult nature of his work’s popularity and what that, specifically, is allowing him to do. The latter is “more Blade Runner,” not because of its place in cinematic canon, but because of its uncompromising dedication to vision. The use of elements specific to Blade Runner in Blade Runner 2049 felt forced and tacky and bizarrely unearnt because a Blade Runner film should feel wholly original and wholly whole. The use and handling of Blade Runner within Red Dwarf: Back to Earth is magnificent. It’s not abusive of its source because Red Dwarf was created to be ironic about what already existed: in being smart-assed about borrowing bits from something that already exists, it’s performing its purest function. To source from Blade Runner with such specificity, in this case, feels like gratitude. “Thank you for inspiring me to make this work.” Or, “You gave me so much I had enough left over to make my own.” It has reverence for artistic action and fictitious capability and uses Blade Runner to create a meta narrative as well as a further narrative. 2049 contained only the latter.
Of course, you have to know Blade Runner pretty well to watch Back to Earth and get it (unlike 2049, which alleged enough inbuilt recap for any audience to manage). That’s not friendly to the viewer that didn’t come prepared (and it’s not like audiences were actually warned); it’s a bizarre gamble that I can’t believe resulted in further series renewals (Red Dwarf reached season thirteen in 2017). But bad decisions are sometimes worth it, and had this been the last of the lads, I’d still say it was. You can’t explain every joke. You can’t converse freely with your peers if you’re explaining every line to those who aren’t. Look, I don’t care if you had a bad time, because I had such a good one. Now play me that Hammond organ, miladdo!
Blade Runner, to explain a little of its Red Dwarf relevance, was really grimy. So was Alien, and there’s an Alien poster visible soon after the crew arrive “here,” in “our world.” But it’s Ridley Scott or Ridley Scott, choosing between Alien and Blade Runner, and Red Dwarf is so Alien anyway that another pastiche tribute would die whispering but—we’re doing a bit! The best thing about the Blade Runneriness of it all—not the best bit, but a good bit—is that Naylor Chekov’s Gunned it. He actually used the best-known trope in the book and I, your critic, didn’t notice. I didn’t notice! A casual aside in a cash-in revival, ha ha Lister discovers he’s made up and reads the DVD brochure for the special he’s currently in, “…and in best Blade Runner tradition, blah blah…” Well, that’s going to come to, hmm, nothing. The Cat produces golden origami in an odd shape soon after, and I forgot that was a motif in Blade Runner because I never found it especially interesting and I wasn’t, as I say, watching carefully. Because I was expecting “Red Dwarf, ten years later.” The Cat placed his little paper animal (with meaningful camera attention) carefully down and I just thought “that’s going to be what reveals that this “real world” thing isn’t really the real world,” because I have seen Doctor Who before (incidentally, that was correct; I guess Naylor digs the Deckard-as-replicant thing). I didn’t catch the clues because I wasn’t in the zone: I wasn’t taking Frankenstein seriously. And then it started to happen…
Details from Blade Runner crept in slowly enough to just seem weird, because you don’t remember everything you’ve ever seen all the time if you aren’t paying proper attention. Then the first scene of many went absolutely all-in—a man in a fur coat who makes noses, just like the man in the fur coat who makes eyes—and I realised, shit, they’re going for it, and God, that was sweet! To be surprised by the ostensibly obvious? Incredible. Delicious! Frankenstein, hidden, grabbed the gun on the mantel and shot and I, the viewer, had kittens. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m playing. See, I’m using “Frankenstein” to mean the revival of a dead show, but Frankenstein was also the name of Lister’s cat. And that cat’s kittens had kittens had kittens and that’s from whence came Lister’s crewmate, the Cat. So it’s funny, right? I’m working levels. It’s infectious. I can’t resist having Naylor’s kind of fun. The Red Dwarf crew, discovering themselves fictitious, go to see their creator.
Remember Blade Runner? Remember Tyrell and his fabulous building?
(It’s impressing me that the unheroic heroes of this dusted-off show are cast in the roles of the doomed and the technically villainous. They are the terrorist replicants, not the protagonist. Who cares about Deckard anyway? What’s his arc? What interest IS there, in a classic protagonist’s life?)
In Blade Runner, replicant (“artificially created human”) Roy Batty and his crew are looking for the man (Tyrell) who owns the company that engineered their bodies, their lives, their capabilities and limits. They go to find the specific scientific/artistic genius behind those aspects of them too. They murder them both in alternately wrathful and tragic vengeance; they resent their definition having been matters of mortal economics and design. The boys from the Dwarf go to find their creator to ask for more seasons. It’s not poignant because these characters want to live, it’s poignant because the people who are them want to keep being them. More verifiably, it’s poignant because the man writing them wants to keep doing it. The creator creates a scenario in which the creations express his desire to produce them! They go to beseech their creator, so he beseeches fate, commissioners, budgets, audience confidence (sorry), luck. They attack their creator, so he rails against that which he cannot control. It’s not appreciably bitter, because it’s not performed bitterly. It just seems like they want to live. So it just seems like Doug Naylor—the real creator, not the onscreen one—loves his creations, and creating them. And I … as I said, I am fond. I love love. I love loving the things you made because you loved the thing someone else made. I love people wanting to work creatively. I love using implication and cross-media context to create appreciable missives. Watching Back to Earth, I feel carefully communicated with in a language I taught myself. I feel, if not see, the correct approximate shape to fit into the chair of the last guy who sat here a long time.
I feel, in fact, like the last guy who sat here for a long time shifted his position in such a way as to make the indentation in the leather better suited to my personal accedence.
Listen. I have to talk about Kochanski.
Kristine Kochanski was Lister’s dream girl and she died in episode one with the rest of the crew of Red Dwarf. In early seasons she was remembered as a right lass who he had a crush on but never scored with; later retcons revealed he had a passionate fling with her, fell in love, and got dumped for her ex who’s called Tim. Later still, a Kochanski of an alternate dimension joined the crew to replace holographic roommate Rimmer, which is the kind of decision that strikes a match in a mine. If there’s misogyny in the room, boom. And there was.
When she joined the cast as a regular, Kochanski was recast and that was the first decision that turned things for the worse. Where once KK was an amused, coltish, Scottish charmer with little apparent interest in things “flattering” her suddenly, she was a plummy English blow-dried (virtual-) private school graduate with a predilection for bright red vinyl and a script that prioritised her being either too complaining or too female. Although obviously the latter, to the point of my ire, encompasses both. Kochanski 2 doesn’t make sense to me as either a person, or the person that she previously was, or a love interest for Lister, and she sets my back to the wall because I am her and she is not well served. She wasn’t written well, she wasn’t directed well, and Chloe Annett, who played her in seasons seven and eight (Claire Grogan being the first, with appearances in seasons one, two, and six), did not give off an air of feeling at home, physically confident, or calm in any way. And I relate to that appallingly: I’ve been Annett as I’ve been Kochanski. And she is not well served. I don’t care to remember being anxious and misconceptualised amongst men, in tandem with imagining a life as the last of humanity, trapped in a cold tin box. Micsonceptualised. Amongst men. It all rather spirals.
Kochanski 2 is not in Back to Earth, but Chloe Annett is. Kochanski has fled the Dwarf, seeking freedom from entanglement in Lister’s emotional slack. Godspeed, my sister! Find joy! Annett plays a fake Kochanski, an induced hallucination in the “real world.” She’s given Rachel’s Blade Runner role, Rachel’s Blade Runner scenes. Kochanski has Rachel’s hairstyles and outfits and approximations of her lighting. Annett has found Rachel’s self-possession and her command of answer—Annett’s Kochanski never had that before. She’d just demand people answer, by saying “I demand that you answer,” and frustration would shrill her voice and that would be the joke. Sing: it’s cold in here, this bro kind of atmosphere~!
Kochanski and Lister will never be together because that’s not the kind of show Red Dwarf is. First canon said he never got with her. Then it was that he did but she dumped him. Then he was going to be with her again in a future that never manifested. Then he found an alternate her. Then she turned out to be his technical mother. Then I guess we all decided not to mention that. Then she was saving herself for her alternate him. Then, in Back to Earth, she’s reported “dead” because she’s actually left him. Dave Lister isn’t good enough—it’s a source of comedy and pathos, and it’s also a fact. He’s not a great person. He’s yucky. He doesn’t deserve her just because she’s there and he’s not dead. She’s his dream girl, not his reward, and Red Dwarf restates that over and over. He has a vision of her that keep him striving; he has a vision of his vague and ideal future and she’s in it. He doesn’t have her for his long term lover in reality or real life, ever! She exists as a partner for him in what-ifs and video games and parallel universes and potential but not actual futures, and that’s fine, actually, I can say from within my feminism, because it’s not about her, it’s about him. Red Dwarf is about Lister. Rimmer is Lister’s antagonist. Cat is his cat. Kryten is his manservant. Holly is his computer. In practical terms Kochanski is a figment of Lister’s imagination.
At the same time, from season seven onward, she’s a real living character as well and unlike the rest of the cast her one-line definition of herself doesn’t match his. It’s thematic that this is when she becomes a problematic element, but I think it’s more thematic than it was meant to be. Sure, Lister has to face the burden of his realisation that Kochanski in the flesh is abrasive to the Kochanski in his mind, that’s storytelling. But Kochanski the character also has to bear the burden of her abrasion of the status quo: that’s sexism in action.
Naylor and Grant wrote about men because they were better at writing men than a mixed-sex cast (Holly is a computer and her role is not gendered, don’t bother me on that). Red Dwarf was not arranged to welcome women as well as it was arranged to welcome men’s visions of absent women. It was arranged to display or interrogate the loserishness of men, and that simply can’t remain unchanged if a woman is added to the context of that display! How men dismay themselves: great. Any dude can write this. How men dismay women: that takes a lighter hand than one with prime allegiance to the masc. If the writers were interrogating Lister’s entitlement to the myth of Kristine, great—but they were also creating it and textually validating his need, making us fond of the Dave that holds that ideal Kochanski. That doesn’t gel with the introduction of something which redefines that myth as incorrect or that entitlement as aggressive. She’s not like he imagined, so she’s definitively inappropriate, always weighed against what has to be a better her. That would be tough even if she were a well-written character unconstrained by established, socially normative modes of sexism.
In Red Dwarf, the 1992 novel, the events of the first five seasons are repurposed, adjusted and tailored to create a good book instead of a good TV show. A lot of the same stuff happens and it all has the same gist, but a lot of it goes down in different ways. Like in Back to Earth, Lister finds a Kochanski who loves him in a hallucinatory world designed to gratify. He tries to leave her to save his life, but he can’t, because he wants what she signifies and in this form “is” so much. He only escapes that deadly game world after external interruptions mean that she leaves him. Later he finds a Kochanski again, living backwards in another alternate world, and manages forty years or so living backwards with her. Then he has to leave, to live forwards again. Lister will never get Kochanski for good. It is not that sort of story.
Rachel, you might remember, is not going to live long. She’s a replicant, a “fake person.” They’re designed to “burn so bright” for “half as long.” Rachel is a dreamgirl any way you slice it but Deckard chooses to pack in his law-keeping job and go on the run with her for as long, or as little, as they get. He chooses bereavement over beige. He meets her, and everything changes. He meets her, and that’s the moment. It’s when he starts to wonder instead of avoid. It’s what turns his life around. Her questions, and her challenge to his measure, change him. Or at least push him to regard his own possibility. Kochanski-as-Rachel takes fake woman he chose and makes something of it in ways that Blade Runner 2049 totally failed to do. First of all, it contrasted the vision of an idealised individual (Lister’s Kochanski, always in those moments that captivate; Rachel appearing out of the golden shadows for the very first time; Rachel in the car with Deckard during the usually-deleted happy ending scene) with the chosen, written absence of the real individual (an older Annet-Kochanski, run away from Dave to live or die on her own): agency vs application.
2049’s romantic interests were a holographic woman who auto-updated based on the protagonist’s desires and psychological cues in the moment, and a replicant-class sex worker who was sort of involved in a replicant revolution that didn’t really happen. They both show interest in K (or Joe, if you prefer) and they team up to have sex with him because a hologram, even one who alleges her own personhood, cannot touch. There’s no hard light in 2049. K has sex with one woman’s body as a way to commune with his fake wife’s persona, the latter’s vision slipped over the former’s form. Both before and after the act, those women express hostility towards each other, and their hostility is based in his interest. Joi, the hologram product-companion, is destroyed before the film ends. Marietta, the other woman, remains alive and touchable.
The personally tailored cyber-wife vs own-species sex worker dichotomy of choice didn’t interrogate the disparity between dream and life, fake and real, for one of two reasons. I invite you to pick between them based on your own reading of the film. One is because it tried to imagine Woman as sex-giving monolith. “Your dream of a perfect gratification is unreasonable for a randomly chosen but specific real woman to embody,” or, alternately, “any real girl is automatically better for you than a psychologically engineered comfort tool” which is not appreciable advice because it’s wacky. Why would it be easy for ham to taste like memory of beef? Just because they’re both meats? The other is that it didn’t really present them as a choice at all, but both as rewarding objects which one may overlap for satisfaction and safely discard after use. “Fake Kochanski you can have vs Real Kochanski you can’t” is a practical thought experiment. It’s well defined. It’s relevant. Fake Kochanski is supposed to be Real Kochanski That Didn’t and Won’t Ever Leave. It’s not so much about romance as it is about existence. The humanity of a woman who can leave you is proven by her evidential free will.
Lister chooses life by choosing community over comfort. Deckard observes the life in Roy Batty when Batty proves his agency, saving Deckard on a whim: this is when he decides to engage with the rules of his society by flouting them and engage with the sapience of Rachel by travelling with her. Choosing the journey, choosing the struggle because it’s real, is what these two stories about enforced unreality and rules of existence celebrate. Back to Earth does it’s best for Kochanski by having Lister choose to pass on the tailored ideal of an imaginary doll-her for the lesser betrayal of having hope she might acquiesce to his relevance again. It’s a statement of entitlement, but it’s the entitlement of community in a way that outstrips the entitlement of misogyny.
This woman left you. Look at the differences:
You can have a facsimile of her that will love you, or,
You can try to become someone whose life she’ll appreciate being part of.
Kochanski-as-Rachel provides the best interrogation of the Lister-Loves-Krissie motif, the best statement of her position in the canon and her purpose as a part of the Red Dwarf machinery. As Rachel, fake Kochanski emphasises real Kochanski, and as absent, real Kochanski claims her own unseen story. It’s a more pro-woman framing of the scenario Red Dwarf started twenty years prior, scrubbed a little clean from the spunk dried in over the years. Dave Lister loves Kristine Kochanski and he just can’t manage to get with her, but the dream, man, the dream stops him from staring into the void. Kristine Kochanski is a high-achieving pilot with a wicked sense of challenge and, while there may’ve been some attraction, some small inclination to bunk with him once, maybe, perhaps, she’s got no need to trail around after a waster like Lister. Sometimes absence is the best stance available: in finding a way to allow Kochanski a proactive absence but give Annett her owed presence and paycheque (metanarratives matter), Back to Earth integrated the needs of canon with some smoothing of the faults of the franchise. It felt like a healing navigation of a poorly-pieced historic landmark. It settled my feathers because it gave Kochanski back the same vibe that Lister always had. She was never meant to be the Rimmer. Rachel was Rachel, if she was “real” or not. People need to be themselves.
Blade Runner stayed in the hearts and minds of the people because Blade Runner was like no other thing. It was, entirely, itself. Red Dwarf is always Red Dwarf, which means low budget and studio-audience and sitcom and sardonic references and moments of extreme earnestness. And men. Back to Earth isn’t quite right, no audience, not quite the right length, not much of the bunk room, extra characters, but it emphasises that wrongness by doing things with it that made the wrongness a feature communicating what it should be. Like dream Kochanski emphasising absent Kochanski, Back to Earth framed proper Red Dwarf as something that did it its way, and all for the better. The inclusion of Blade Runner works on every thematic level. When you’re offered life, take it.