Sunday, 21 October 2012

Red Dwarf: Present From The Future

This month, after a 13 year absence, Red Dwarf returned to our TV screens. And to the surprise of many, myself included, it wasn't awful. In fact, with its focus on irrelevant conversations between characters and little action, it felt like an attempt to return to the inconsequential style of the first couple of series, with the writing put to the forefront.

After the decline since series VII in 1997, it seemed unlikely that it would return to its peak. That is probably still the case, but the not unsuccessful return has made me think about my relation to the programme and a possible theory I came up with some time ago; in retrospect was Red Dwarf a better Sci-Fi show than it was a comedy?

Red Dwarf holds a special place in my heart but I’m not really a hardcore fan. My first memories are of watching it in my bedroom, probably when I was around ten. A 9pm bedtime was never argued when Red Dwarf was on; I would go to my room and put the TV on at the end of my bed, on the lowest possible volume. The opening bars of music would stir and Holly's face would flash across the screen: “This is an SOS distress call from mining ship Red Dwarf. The crew are dead, killed my a radiation leak…" But I had to keep the volume down, because sometimes they said “smeg” which sounded like it was surely a very naughty word. I kept half an eye on the frame of my door, watching for the landing light flickering on, so I could turn it off and feign sleep if my parents came upstairs.

A friend at junior school - fat nicky - was a compulsive liar and once claimed that, as he was known as being the naughtiest boy in England, the producers of the show had approached him in need of a 'brand new swear word'. After some thought, he had supplied them with aforementioned 'smeg'. He also claimed his Dad could do non-handed wheelies round corners.

But there was an anarchic quality to this gang of space bums eating curry, dressing messily and somehow scraping through that stood in contrast to the shiny worlds of Star Wars, and especially Star Trek. In a similar way to Bottom, it felt rebellious to be watching it even though I'm pretty sure most of the time I can't have had much idea what was happening.

Periodic viewing continued, but it was only when I went to University and received series 1-7 on VHS to keep me occupied that I approached it all with fresh eyes.

The early series are incredibly character based, with even the most outlandish scenarios being used to reflect the needs and neuroses of the characters. It's a pleasure to discover details of their lives; reveals about the Cat race, Dave being God, Rimmer's general madness. I felt this style reached a peak with the episode Marooned (Series III) which was for the most part a two hander between Lister and Rimmer. It was great, detailed writing and revelled in its own creativity.

Later series developed into a more trad-sci-fi 'monster of the week' format, which felt like the writing team stretching their fan-boy muscles. It was around this time the comedy developed into a more catchphrase based manner or was bypassed (intentionally) for action. Repeated gags (especially in Series VI) and self referencing became more apparent, as well as the simile based gags the show became mired in, i.e. "He's got more hair than... That thing's uglier than..." The kind of thing Blackadder did really well, but was more hit and miss here.

Upon reassessing these aging VHS, the humour did feel less dynamic and anarchic than I remembered – especially in the earlier series still finding their feet, but the Sci-Fi remained tight, and not simply the homage / pastiche it had seemed like to my younger eyes.

The universe of Red Dwarf plays by some interesting rules. The basic conceit; that Lister is the last human alive is fascinating in itself and earlier episodes deal with his loneliness and the pointlessness of his existence. The concept of Holly bringing back Rimmer in hologramatic form, in order to keep Lister sane is a fantastic sitcom premise. The sense of isolation is immense; there are no aliens in the Red Dwarf universe; just human created entities, usually genetic abnormalities or cyborg based lifeforms. As Lister has been in suspended animation for millions of years, all they ever come across are the derelicts of human civilisation which seem futuristic to us, but are centuries old in the Red Dwarf universe, adding a strange pathos to the series.

For me, this universe was severely altered from Series VII onwards. Up until then, a distinct journey from clueless bums to almost heroes, especially in Series VI closer Out Of Time gave the whole thing a lovely sense of dramatic progression rare in sitcoms keen to hit the reset button after every 27 minute episode. Each of the characters had flaws carefully defined over the series and they grew to some extent (Kryten learns to lie and be more human, Cat becomes Starbug’s pilot with a keen nose and even Rimmer saves the day in Out Of Time).

It’s not that the gags weren't sharp, but it was the depth of this universe and the relationships on this 'gang' that was often overlooked. Rimmer, so proud and self important on the outside, secretly blames himself for the deaths of the Red Dwarf crew (Justice). But then also causes a Genocide (Meltdown) and tries to kill a better version of himself (Dimension Jump, all Series IV). The various xenomorphs and parallel Red Dwarfs, as well as the augmented reality games show different sides of all the characters, albeit in humorous caricature. It's nothing groundbreaking, but was inventive use of the Science Fiction within the Sitcom template. The Inquisitor (Series V) was one of the purest Sci-Fi / Action Red Dwarf episodes and that kind of plotting, ambition and mythologising are what makes any Sitcom stand out. Just churning out the ‘gags’ leaves you with Series 23 of My Family and the like.

The stylistic changes for series VII and VIII were not the real issue for me. The former was an attempt at a more cinematic approach, which given my previous comments wasn't a bad idea, though with funding for an actual feature film later falling through it was the closest they would come. Series VIII was a confusing mix of early series character work (Lister and Rimmer in their cell) and Monster of The Week Sci-Fi (The Canaries Missions) but ultimately suffered from poor writing.

The reason it fell flat emotionally was its abandonment of the universe it had created. The joke at the end of series VI was that they had a time machine but were still millions of years from Earth. So it was useless. By the Series VII they were happily returning back to earth to collect poppadoms (Tikka To Ride) or leave a baby Lister in a cardboard box (Ouroboros). Though the vision of them future-selves presumably halts them from messing with time too much are we to believe they instead happily stay on Starbug, living out their miserable lives in deepspace? And talking of Starbug, what was once a good narrative move - move from the maddeningly endless space of Red Dwarf to the tight, paranoic and feeble restriction of Starbug was turned on its head when we find out it has 'miles of airducts'. What?

If the concept of returning to Earth was demolished in Series VII, the other key idea: Lister being the last human was pissed all over for Series VIII. In a twist that made NO SENSE, the entire Red Dwarf crew was resurrected by nanobots (what from?) and the whole point of the show was removed. As I recall, no attempt was made to explain the crew's reaction to being dead, then alive, and it being three million years later. And Rimmer was alive again. What memories did he have? Surely he had no memory of being a hologram?

One of the most depressing televisual moments of my life was watching Red Dwarf. I was on holiday with my parents in Wales and I'd been allowed to take three friends. We had our own little cottage, with kitchen and lounge etc. One night I was playing giant chess with my friend and we wrapped it up extra quick to make sure we caught the Red Dwarf episode (yes, I was even cooler back then). We all sat in silence for the whole thing (It was Series VIII, Pete Part 2 I think). It was the end for me.

It wasn't the CGI dinosaur, it was the terrible, lazy, unfocussed writing. Yes, I am one of those terrible people who look for the logic in everything (i.e. a nerd) and the changes sucked the heart out of the programme. I'm not mental; I didn't tune in each week to see if 'the guys made it home'. But the care and creativity of the writing is what made Red Dwarf unique. Messing with the formula spoilt it for me. The experimentation of Series VII was passable but Series VIII was, frankly, unforgivable and a terrible miss-step.

Back To Earth, funnily enough, was largely absent on laughs but was a full on Sci-Fi homage to Doug Naylor's favourite genre staples. The depth and passion of the writers and performers had long since departed the only saving grace being another attempt to at least try something different, even if it failed.

The classic run of Series I - VI perfectly balanced Sitcom and Sci-Fi, and it is telling (and impressive) it took place over a very short and sharp 5 years. The laughs don't always hit in the same way but the layers of care put into the setting and characters means it stands the test of time. That those elements have been since absent is down to many factors; Rob Grant leaving the writing team, actor commitments, experimentation with form, an increasing preference for CGI (urgh) over content. But mainly I now feel it was an overwhelming need to take the series somewhere new. That unresolved desire for a feature film damaged the series for nigh on two decades.

That dream now seems to have been thankfully left behind. With Series X, one thing does at least seem to be clear. Both writer and performers are having fun again. I hear the closing episode does return to cover some earlier ground and help tie the news series to the older ones. But for once, a long absence has helped; the thought that these guys have been surviving on Red Dwarf all these years offers up potential for fresh storylines. They might not be the anarchic bunch I recall from my youth, nor the adventuring chancers of their mid '90s fame; in fact judging by Rimmer’s receder and Kryton's enhanced frame, their days of wildness may be over (the new episodes seem to involve a lot of sitting down). But that doesn't mean it's over. I'm not overly bothered and am content for it to be steady. But there is a niggle at the back of my mind, thinking this could be the start of a serious second wind. I hope so, but if not, I am just glad it finally came home.

Dean Freeman

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