Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's cold outside, there's no kind of atmosphere.

No, faithful blog readers, today's entry is not about the ridiculously apocalyptic weather Mother Nature has blessed the Northeast with this winter. Today's selection is a combination "I freaking need to update this blog NOW"/shameless promotion piece about a British television series called Red Dwarf. Why, you may ask, am I writing a blog about this particular show, when I watch hundreds of hours of other sci-fi and/or comedy television, probably on a monthly basis, and never bothered to write about any of them? Well, you inquisitive and nosy little reader you, I'm writing about it because I WILL be writing about it. A LOT about it. A whole book's worth, actually.

For those that don't already know, one of my "extra-curricular" activities involves being co-owner and art director for Hasslein Books, a little venture my good friend and author Rich Handley and I created to publish unofficial sci-fi genre reference books. To date we have published two well-received guides to the Planet of the Apes mythos: Timeline of the Planet of the Apes and Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes. Having sucked the last bit of life out of that particular universe, we decided to expand our lineup to include other franchises; currently Rich and fellow author Greg Mitchell are teaming up to tackle the Back to the Future universe, no small task by any means.

As with the Apes projects, my involvement in production of these new books won't really kick in until after the manuscripts are written which, given the depth and detail to minutia these books typically include, can be well over a year. I've now watched Rich do this twice, and both times I had wondered: as big a 'fan' as I claim to be about certain franchises, television shows, movies, bands, etc., was there actually anything I truly felt so passionate about, wanted to know about in such intimate detail that I'd spend years hunting down, pouring over and dissecting every last scrap of material I could find? Invariably there was only one series I could ever see myself even attempting to do: Red Dwarf.

If you're unfamiliar with the show, I only need three words to describe it – British. Sci-Fi. Comedy. That's all you need to know (that, and the term Red Dwarf refers to an immense crimson mining ship in space and not, as some people have actually asked me, about actual dwarfs). Trying to describe it any further than that would ultimately do the show a major disservice; Like most brilliant sci-fi television shows, it's not so much the overall premise that hooks you, so much as it is the characters (and more importantly the interaction between these characters), and how they play with the conventions of science fiction. And when it comes to Red Dwarf... oh, how they play; and sometimes not very nicely. Logic holes, plot holes, inconsistencies and whatnot, things that would normally drive a nitpicker like myself absolutely insane within a more serious program, are absolutely accepted (and in fact encouraged) in a typical Dwarf episode. It's the juxtaposition of simultaneously mocking and embracing science fiction clich├ęs that makes the show more than just a comedy, but a smart comedy.


And I've just tasked myself with writing the comprehensive encyclopedia on it.

Fortunately for myself, there's not a huge amount of material to sift through... 'huge' being a relative term, of course. Some may consider meticulously analyzing 53 television episodes, 4 novels, 23 issues of fanzines, an official website, a roleplaying game and several other books on the subject a 'huge' amount; comparatively speaking, however, it's quite small compared to many sci-fi franchises such as, say, Planet of the Apes, which had literally hundreds of comics, books, novels, shows, unpublished scripts and other media in addition to the original movies.

Despite the limited amount of resources to go through, I'm already finding myself running into a few interesting challenges. For one, much of the humor of Red Dwarf depends on the use of similes, metaphors and references to fictional and real-life people, places and things. So even though a serial number on a robot is easy enough to log an entry about, a character referencing Mary, Queen of Scots requires a pause, a google-search of "Mary, Queen of Scots" to verify it's in fact a real person, a stopover to wikipedia to get a brief history, and writing an entry that not only includes some real-world info but how the reference was used and in what context. And there are dozens of such references in every episode, including things like basic british vernacular and slang, which I have to decide whether to even include. Suffice to say, a half-hour episode could end up taking upwards of 9 or 10 hours to get through. The other issue I face is basic continuity; despite what I said earlier about inconsistencies being part of the charm of Red Dwarf, in reality it wrecks havok when trying to write a compendium on it. From what I remember of the novels, for example, entire premises have been altered, characters have been replaced, and descriptions have been completely changed. Most of these discrepancies will probably just be mentioned in notes, but the bigger ones will have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, something I'm hoping will get easier as time goes on.

In spite of these challenges, though, I'm finding the process incredibly fulfilling. The biggest thrill is hearing things for the first time; with much of british comedy it always difficult to get everything the first time around, indeed I've watched these shows several times over and still pick up on a new joke or comment here and there. Now, watching the episodes with captions (an absolute necessity when writing about them) allows me to soak in every word and absorb every last joke, and having to research references makes many of them that much funnier, now knowing the source.

Of course, getting my hands on new material (in the form of books, novels, etc.) is always part of the fun. I have noticed, though, an attempt by several authors of these books to adhere to the same off-the-wall comic tone as the show, with varying degrees of success. As much as I appreciate that type and style of humor, I'm trying to maintain a more reserved approach when writing the encyclopedia, treating it as more of a serious reference book and less as an extension of the show. The reason is three-fold: first, I'm not convinced their particular style of humor translates well to the written form (the novels notwithstanding, of course). Without mentioning names, a few of the books reviewed for this project came across to me as somewhat trite and forced, as if the writers wanted to say, "Look at me, I can write comedy for them too!" The second reason is time; it would literally take twice as long to come up with funny filler material in between actual facts. And the third is quite simply a legal matter. This is an unauthorized book; trying to add original jokes in the same vein as the show would eventually involve me creating new material, which is strictly forbidden in an unlicensed reference book. I can report the facts of the material, as they are presented, but cannot create new fiction. Don't get me wrong, that's not to say the book will be dull and completely devoid of any humor; those facts I'm reporting on are inherently hysterical by their very nature, so no matter how 'straight' I try to make the entries, the humor cannot help but seep through. I'm hoping it'll ultimately make for a good balance of fun and informative reading.

I will say from what little I've done so far, I now have a newfound respect for the amount work Rich puts into writing these books. It makes my few months of graphic work on the projects seem pale in comparison, and committing myself to this project gives me a real sense of finally 'pulling my own weight', as it were. I can only hope to do the series justice, and create a book not only worthy of the 'Hasslein' name, but of the Red Dwarf moniker as well.