This feature contains mild Red Dwarf X spoilers.
In December 2011, I was lucky enough to be at Shepperton Studios to watch the recording of Trojan, the first new episode of Red Dwarf to be filmed in front of a studio audience since 1998. As well as the obvious excitement, there was a sense of apprehension in the air; would the script be funny? Would the cast be up to the job after so long? Put simply: Would it be any good?
On the night, the answer seemed to be a resounding “yes” to all of those questions. And now, nearly a full year later, the finished Red Dwarf X has been and gone, and seems by and large to have been a resounding success; the ratings have been some of Dave’s highest (second only to its previous new Red Dwarf run), and reaction from fans and critics alike has been generally very positive. So where did it all go right?
One of the biggest strengths of Red Dwarf has always been its regular cast members, and any worries that Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn might have been too old to play ‘the boys from the Dwarf’ were quickly blown out of the water. Not only have they slipped back into the characters with ease, but in some cases they’ve taken the characters closer to their roots than when last we saw them, with Robert Llewellyn far less over-the-top as Kryten than the character had become towards the end of the ‘classic’ run. The ‘most improved’ award must go to Danny John-Jules, though, who has given us some stunning Cat moments in this series, from the moose moment in Trojan right through to his extended charades in Dear Dave.
The closing scenes of 2009’s Back to Earth, with Lister finding a new resolve and purpose in life and realising that he’s not just a space bum, were a highlight of those specials, thanks in no small part to Craig Charles’ acting talents; it’s no surprise, then, that Lister had some pretty weighty character moments in Red Dwarf X, most notably in Fathers and Suns, which saw him getting to grips with fatherhood and culminated in the scene involving Lister Sr addressing Lister Jr. Charles has such a firm handle on both roles that for a moment it’s easy to forget they’re two facets of the same character, and with the scene’s twists and turns it’s a true highlight not just of this series, but of Red Dwarf as a whole.
Red Dwarf X was bookended by two major developments for Rimmer, as he has encounters with both his brother and his father. Chris Barrie’s performance in The Beginning, in particular, as Rimmer comes to terms with his heritage and finds the resolve in him to save the day, is again some of the strongest character work he’s done, certainly since the early days of the show. And it’s a real joy to see; hardcore fans know that Rimmer’s previous moment of end-of-series heroism was taken away from him when the ending to Red Dwarf VI suffered a last-minute rewrite, so for him to have an unequivocally courageous and brilliant moment here is a treat.
Character development didn’t come at the expense of jokes, though; there are some truly classic gags in Red Dwarf X. The aforementioned moose scene in Trojan was repeated around the internet for weeks after its debut, and it’s easy to see why; it was a well-constructed joke that relied on the characters rather than wacky situations. And the moose scene was the first of many; from the crew’s discovery of Jesus in 23AD to the loss of Rimmer in a poker game (via, of course, Lister trying to pick up a vending machine in Dear Dave), Red Dwarf X produced its fair share of memorable, quotable and brilliantly funny moments courtesy of writer Doug Naylor and script editor Andrew Ellard, who must surely be commended for their work on this run.
Alongside the jokes, Red Dwarf has always been known for its inventive plots and imaginative ideas, and Red Dwarf X had plenty of each to spare. The quantum rod introduced in Trojan as a means of bringing Rimmer and his brother Howard together is a fine example of this, and was brought back in an even more novel capacity in Entangled, when it caused Kryten and Cat to become quantum-entangled and more aware of coincidences, in a manner not dissimilar to the luck virus discovered in Quarantine.
In a series containing everything from behaviour-predicting computers to flat-pack furniture which sends you back to biblical times if wrongly assembled, the best new concept has to be the ERRA facility, again in Entangled. The concept of a group of scientists dedicated to doing everything the wrong way in order to create genius is pure Douglas Adams, and Kryten’s expositional speech could have easily been read by Peter Jones in a deleted plot from the Hitchhiker’s TV series.
Going as far back as its first episode, which featured Clare Grogan, Mark Williams and Mac McDonald, Red Dwarf has had a long history of talented guest stars, and this year it surpassed itself in terms of its guest cast; stand-outs include Mark Dexter, who brought a suitable blend of smarm and weaselly-ness to the role of Rimmer’s brother Howard, and Rebecca Blackstone, who was wonderfully effective as Red Dwarf’s beautiful but ruthlessly efficient new computer Pree.
But they really saved the best for last; The Beginning not only featured pitch-perfect versions of Young Rimmer and Rimmer Sr, but it also starred both Richard O’Callaghan as Hogey the Roguey, arguably the most fun guest character Red Dwarf has ever had outside of Ace Rimmer and Mr Flibble; and Gary Cady, who managed to make the Dominator simultaneously terrifying and ridiculous – no mean feat.
The guest stars were far from the only reason why The Beginning was the best episode of the series, and easily one of the main contributing factors has to be Bill Pearson’s model work. In an age of CGI, Red Dwarf X’s model shots show just how effective practical shots can look, especially now the show is produced in high-definition; anyone who watched the show on Dave HD or picks up the Blu-Ray will be able to see for themselves how detailed some of these model shots are – the main Red Dwarf model, in particular, is a true thing of beauty.
Indeed, Red Dwarf X is a masterclass in making a show look great on a shoestring budget; the main ship sets are some of the best we’ve had, evoking a classic feel but being something entirely new at the same time. And we’ve had some wonderful ‘guest’ sets, from the Star Trek-style bridge in Trojan to the India set in Lemons, which remains one of the most effective uses of a studio space I’ve seen – having visited Shepperton for a couple of filmings and seen the small amount of space they had to work with for the third set each week, the shots they accomplished on it (including an extended chase sequence) are really very impressive indeed.
And no celebration of Red Dwarf X would be complete without mention of composer Howard Goodall, returning for the first time since Red Dwarf VII. Goodall hasn’t lost his magic touch though, and although his cues are used sparingly across the series, they’ve been there to emphasise all of the show’s key moments, with touches such as a reprisal of the Rimmer Song when Howard dies in Trojan, and a stunning heroic version of the theme at the climax of The Beginning. There was a point where there was no room in the budget for music, and it’s hard to imagine what the series would have been like without it.
It’s rare that a sitcom returns for a full run after such a sizeable period of time off the air; The Likely Lads did it after a seven-year absence, and shows like Blackadder and Absolutely Fabulous have aired special episodes long after the event, but the fact that Red Dwarf has managed to return to life after all this time and recapture even some of its original magic shows what a very special show this is, and hopefully all involved are currently giving each other a much-deserved pat on the back.
Red Dwarf X wasn’t a perfect series, and from what Doug Naylor’s said in the past it so nearly didn’t happen at all; but aren’t we glad it did? The series is three hours of funny, character-based sci-fi comedy that sit comfortably alongside any of their predecessors. And for my part, I know what when the inevitable Red Dwarf XI is commissioned, I’ll be queuing for an audience ticket…
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