Red Dwarf: looking back at the past and ahead to the future

With Red Dwarf XII on its way, one fan revisits his love of the short rouge one, through the highs to the lows and back again...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

If not for Doctor Who and Star Trek – two low-key franchises of which I’m sure you’re dimly aware – Red Dwarf would be the longest-running, (still in production) sci-fi television series of all time. As a consolation, Red Dwarf can at least claim the distinction of being the longest-running sci-fi television series of all time in which the core cast hasn’t been replaced, re-booted or regenerated. But to what extent is this USP a curse? Thirty-one years is a hell of a long time for a group of guys to be marooned in deep space all wearing the same faces, especially when those faces have visibly sagged and etched and wrinkled over the fast-rolling decades (except in the case of Danny John Jules, who appears to share DNA with Ra’s al Ghul), and new audiences, weaned on a radically different diet and mode of TV, have risen to cast judgement upon them.

Can Red Dwarf – in the words of its very own big-gloved, white-masked Inquisitor – ‘justify itself’? Could it argue its way out of oblivion’s reach on the strength of series X and XI alone? And should we be looking ahead to the prospect of more Red Dwarf beyond the periphery of its impending twelfth series with a sense of hope… or horror? Fondness or fear?

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Open arms… or open airlock?

The End…

Red Dwarf entered my life when I was a young boy, when the show too was in its relative infancy. I remember how large the arrival of each new series would loom in my consciousness from the moment the first trailers landed on TV, to the very second I heard those first powerful, cascading chords of the show’s opening titles; how groups of us would gather in the playground the day after an episode had aired to share impressions and catchphrases, and to dissect and recite long sequences of dialogue. I was especially proud of committing Rimmer’s ‘Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation into Society’ to memory, even if at that point I had no idea what a clitoris was (my partner might opine that I still don’t). 

Around about the time that Series 1 Volume 1 of Red Dwarf was released on VHS (£10.99 for three episodes, fact fans) I was travelling down to Dover with my family; off to catch a ferry to France to spend a fortnight uncomfortably co-existing in a giant resentment-magnification device (or ‘tent’, if you will). I locked eyes on the tape’s rectangular splendour while shuffling around a motorway service station somewhere near the Scottish border, and loudly proclaimed my intention to possess it. I didn’t care that for the next two weeks we would have no access to TV or video players; that in essence I’d be purchasing a tiny, Red Dwarf-themed brick. As far as I was concerned that tape was all that did exist, had existed, or ever would exist of those three sacred episodes. I couldn’t let it fall into heathen hands.

Mum said if I wanted the tape so badly I’d have to set aside enough spending money to buy it on the return trip. For two weeks I lent substance to the stereotype of my Scottish nationality by practising extreme miserliness. My thoughts – and wallet – rejected the merry insouciance of France, and instead settled upon a grubby deep-space mining vessel, by way of an even grubbier British service station.

The journey back to – and through – Blighty felt, rather appositely, like a crawl into the unending bleakness of deep space, without the mercy of a stint in stasis to blot out the monotony. Those of you who have only ever known six billion TV channels and a comforting, country-wide blanket of internet will never know the pain of existing in a world without catch-up TV, YouTube, Amazon or Netflix, but neither will you know the bliss of finally getting to see a show you love after an almost interminable wait.

One touch of the play button on the VHS, and everything in my teenage universe was complete (no, I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, why do you ask?).

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Well… get out of this one, smeghead

The usual suspects return...

Before I’m forced to recuse myself from this quasi-trial to determine Red Dwarf’s worthiness, I would like to state clearly for the record that despite my deep and long-held affection for the show – almost certainly inextricably linked to my childhood – I’m not some deluded zealot with rose-tinted spectacles soldered to his face. I’m painfully aware that the latter half of Red Dwarf‘s existence – from Rimmer’s daring time-machine-shooting paradox in Out Of Time onwards – has been marked, and arguably beset, by changes to the show’s personnel in-front of and behind the camera; changes to how it’s written and produced (most notably the departure of co-writer and co-creator Rob Grant); changes to the tone and direction; and of course a channel change from BBC to Dave. The show has also had to contend with the advancing ages of its showrunner, cast and core audience.

While Red Dwarf has always been in flux – going from a quiet character-driven piece about two men forced to co-exist at the end of humanity, to a character-driven ensemble piece, to an effects-heavy, idea-driven but still very character-oriented ensemble show – it hasn’t always evolved into welcome forms. Series VII suffered both from the decision to forgo a live studio-audience and the semi-departure of Chris Barrie. Barrie’s replacement on the crew, actress Chloe Annett, who played Lister’s life-long love-interest Kochanski in place of original actress Claire Grogan, always turned in a fine performance, but for whatever reason she never seemed to gel with the rest of the ensemble. Mind you, in Kochanski’s defence, not many elements gelled particularly well that year. Series VIII wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it did drag Red Dwarf into the realms of crude slapstick, earning it the (arguably well-deserved) unofficial fan tag-line of ‘Chuckle Brothers in Space’. Back To Earth was, quite frankly, laughterless drudgery, a riff on season five’s Back To Reality that brought us an excruciating visit to Coronation Street, and a clever but ultimately hollow and pointless tribute to Blade Runner.

A graph illustrating the decline in quality during this period of Red Dwarf’s history would resemble a javelin quickly and inexorably rushing towards the earth, almost vertical at the point of impact. In the wilderness years that followed Back To Earth I considered the highly apposite words of wisdom offered by Fred Gwynne in Pet Sematary: ‘Sometimes dead is better’. Would it be better for Red Dwarf to die with ‘Back to Earth’ its awful epitaph, I wondered, rather than have it come back as something much, much worse? 

Ten out of ten?

Looking back, Series X’s biggest problem wasn’t too much change – as might have been expected after such a long hiatus – but not enough change. Though it was obvious that the show’s stars were hurtling towards their twilight years through the wormhole of late middle-age, there was nothing in the show’s narrative to signify or riff on this development. If anything, while the actors had aged in the intervening years between season 8 and ‘Red Dwarf: The Dave Generation’, the characters had not merely regressed to where they’d been in the show’s earlier seasons, but had devolved into proto-characters composed almost entirely of archetype and caricature (with a few notable, mostly-Rimmer-shaped, exceptions). There are definitely signs of Doug Naylor’s middle-age in the mix of X, most definitely in the very funny – but oddly quaint – running gag about Lister’s frustration at enduring almost an entire episode on hold to a QVC-style shopping channel.

Mercifully, though, series X was good. Not earth-shatteringly brilliant, admittedly, but good. Certainly good enough. Shards of it were even great. By and large, even the most cynical of fans would have to concede that series X a vast improvement on series VII, VIII and Back To Earth.

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The best, most consistent episodes of series X are those that bookend the series, Trojan and The Beginning. Both are solid additions to the show’s canon, each expanding upon a different chunk of the show’s lore, and Rimmer’s character, in a fun and novel way. That being said, in many of the series’ episodes Chris Barrie’s portrayal of Rimmer is a little jarring; almost like he’d forgotten how to play him. The Cat, however, is as good as he’s ever been, finally fixed after a few series condemned of being condemned to play a two-dimensional imbecile.

The episodes in the middle of series X’s run are something of a mixed-bag, with cringe-worthy gags, dead air and sub-Mrs-Browns-Boys tomfoolery: the ill-judged Chinese whispers gag; Lister humping a vending machine in defiance of all known laws of physics; and the long countdown to the disengagement of Lister’s ball-exploding machine, to list but a few weak moments. Thankfully, in amongst the untapped potential and missed opportunities lies a wealth of intriguing and engaging ideas, nourishing nuggets of nostalgia and a generous smattering of smart, laugh-out loud sequences and running gags: most notably Lister’s ‘dad’ chiding him for his lack of ambition; ‘Jesus’ becoming a Dwarfer; Cat and Kryten’s quantum entanglement; and, of course, the moose gag.

Turn it up to eleven

Series X, then, left me cautiously optimistic about the possibility of an eleventh series. Even still, when XI was eventually announced I found myself becoming increasingly apprehensive about the prospects of its success. In a way, there was even more at stake than there had been prior to X. Red Dwarf had proved it could work again, but now it had to prove that it could work time and again. Arguably, though – and I know with certainty that you’ll argue the point fervently, you incorrigible mass debaters – series XI was a significant improvement on its immediate predecessor, and a welcome return to form.

Let’s deal with the less stellar elements first, because series XI is far from perfect. Most of the episodes end far too abruptly, as though the last five minutes has been cut by accident. The Cat-centric episode, Can Of Worms, despite some nifty FX, is probably among the weakest episodes of the entire series to date. The show’s characters, whilst displaying a smidgeon more nuance than they did in series X, are still far from the ‘real’, rounded people we met in old-time classics like Thanks For The Memory, Marooned, Body Swap, Camille and Holoship.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with series XI, and I suppose a lot of the later series too, is that Naylor and his team occasionally embrace scenarios and punch-lines that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 1970s vaudeville revue. Most of the simile-based one-liners that have become a staple of the show (pops at the Scottish diet; references to FIFA corruption; many of the Cat’s bouts of incredulity) fall flat, or worse:  squander the goodwill built up by a perfectly good preceding joke. Case in point: in the episode Give And Take Rimmer has first dibs on picking a crewmate to buddy up with on a potentially dangerous recon mission; he points at each of the team in turn. Kryten: ‘Not you.’ Cat: ‘Not you.’ Lister: (sighs) ‘Why is there nobody good here?’ It’s funny, and Chris Barrie sells the line well. There’s no need for a follow-up gag, but out it comes anyway: ‘There’s less choice here than an Amish barbers.’

But with series XI Doug Naylor has come closer than in a decade or more to replicating the feel and fun of the show’s heyday. The bunk scenes between Lister and Rimmer feel intimate and natural again, and are far funnier for it. Indeed, many parts of series XI have the feel of lost episodes from series I and II. The ideas and concepts woven through the stories – a futuristic take on prohibition set in the past in which science itself is outlawed; a depressed universe; crew-members who can be printed into existence; time-bending hostage negotiations – are gloriously rich, zany, and inventive. 

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The episode Officer Rimmer is a real highlight of series XI. While it may recycle the oft-used multiple-Rimmer schtick for approximately the billionth time, its blend of barmy ideas and engaging, character-driven comedy (always nice to see some of that return to the mix) combines to create a modern-Dwarf classic that I’ve no doubt will feature in more than a few fans’ top ten lists. The medical-themed romp Give And Take, with its 1950s throwback robots and madcap misunderstandings, had me laughing out loud so hard that my own kidneys were in danger of popping.

So, yes, series XI – niggles over similes aside – is also very, very funny. Which is a reasonably important quality for a comedy show to possess, I suppose. And one that forgives many sins.

The Beginning…

My verdict is in, and it’s a tentatively extended thumbs up.

While Red Dwarf may never fully be able to recapture its glory days as a benchmark BBC sitcom, its most recent outings prove that it’s still a funny, relevant and entertaining show, and a long way off from over-staying, or out-living, its welcome. Red Dwarf isn’t just ready to come back. It’s ready to become a real fixture in the schedules again, instead of popping up every few years like a ghoul’s hand through a grave. It’s ready to come back for a twelfth series. And a thirteenth. And a fourteenth, and a fifteenth if Doug and the gang’s still got it in them. That makes old ‘me’ and teenage ‘me’ both very happy.

If I’ve been overly-critical of the show at points throughout this article it’s only because of how much affection I hold, and have always held, and will always hold for the show. I want it to endure. I want its legacy to be ensured. I want to keep feeling like I did when I pressed play on that VHS player all those many years ago. I want my kids to feel the same way. I want them to be quoting lines and whole scenes of it to their pals at school. I want to lie, ship-wrecked and comatose, drinking fresh mango juice, eating smoked kippers for breakfast, naturally.

Welcome back, crimson short one. I hope that there’s plenty of life – and love – left in the old Dwarf yet.

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Read Dwarf XII starts on Thursday the 12th of October at 9pm on Dave.