Red Dwarf was recently bought back for a full series, this time on Dave rather than the BBC. Dave have made reports that they are keen to expand their channel by doing more ‘original’ shows, that is programmes broadcast on Dave first rather than just being a channel which shows repeats. In a way though, Dave is a good channel for a new Red Dwarf series, as there is a nostalgia factor in Red Dwarf, which ended it’s run on the BBC 13 years ago in 1999. They have also made use of the pun of renaming the channel ‘Dave Lister’ occasionally.
The first showing of ‘new’ Red Dwarf on Dave was the series of specials Back To Earth in 2009. Many fans disliked it. For me, I didn’t think it was that bad, but it had a lot of padding and came off as a long Comic Relief/Children In Need sketch at times, not least the whole business of Lister meeting his real life actor Craig Charles on the set of Coronation Street. But it had a few moments (1). The scene where Lister is reunited with (a hallucination of) Kochanski were very nicely played, understated and moving in their own way. As a reunion special after ten years away and as a test run for a potential new series Back To Earth showed there was enough promise still there.
The version of Red Dwarf as seen on Dave resembles series 6 more than any other series. The crew are Lister, Cat, Kryten and a hologrammatic Rimmer. Holly is offline, and Kochanski is no longer a regular, and she is back to being mainly a memory to motivate Lister. It’s not quite a retcon of series 7 and 8, but it seems they are going back to the formula of series 6, which was a very popular series, and reversing some of the changes made in the last two series, which were shall we say somewhat less popular. They saw many big changes behind the scenes. Rob Grant decided to end the writing partnership with Doug Naylor, meaning Doug Naylor would be carrying on the series alone. It was also a time which saw Doug Naylor hoping to make a Red Dwarf movie one day, which may explain alterations made to try to appeal to American investors into a potential movie, such as in series 7 making it into more of a ‘serious’ sci-fi adventure series and promoting Kochanski, the attractive female love interest, to the main cast. Then there was Chris Barrie leaving, but returning in series 8 after they had given Rimmer a big exit storyline. Series 8 focused more on comedy, but it altered one of the basic premises of the series, that Lister was the last human, by resurrecting the entire crew of Red Dwarf, including a new living Rimmer. Whether these changes were good or bad isn’t so much the issue , it’s that a lot of the fans thought they weren’t, and hindsight isn’t kind to them as the proposed movie ended up stuck in development hell , and let’s face it, over a decade on it is almost certainly never going to happen. There isn’t even much explanation given for what happened between series 8 and Back To Earth. Not even a big too-fast-to-read Star Wars style prologue like the beginning of series 3. In fact, they make a running joke in the final episode about not answering the cliffhanger in series 8. It is implied that the Rimmer in the crew now is the original Rimmer, he is in hologram form whoever he is, but nothing is said as to what happened to the resurrected Rimmer, or indeed any of the resurrected crew. Lister certainly considers himself the last human alive, but then Kochanski is said to be still alive and out there in space somewhere, but as she is from a parallel universe maybe he isn’t counting her… you know, perhaps it’s best not to get too bogged down in these continuity issues. Red Dwarf always had a fairly loose continuity after all. I personally believe Red Dwarf always worked better as a sitcom than as a sci-fi saga. So how does this series deliver on laughs? Well… pretty good.
It follows the series 6 formula of in-jokes for fans and recurring themes. Good use is made of the traits and quirks of the characters, such as Rimmer’s devotion to pointless bureaucracy and Cat getting some punchy one-liners.
There is a lot of recycling going on though. It comes off as a kind of like a veteran band doing the greatest hits tour. Back To Earth was a reworking of the basic plot of Back To Reality from series 5. In this series Trojan was a bit like Beyond A Joke in series 7 but with Rimmer instead of Kryten. In Fathers And Suns, Pree the logical computer has echoes of other episodes, a computer which is able to accurately predict the future (Cassandra, series 8) and Holly being replaced by a more efficient computer which proves dire for the crew (Queeg, series 2). Pree herself was fairly similar to Holly after her IQ was increased in White Hole, series 4, even saying some lines that were nods to that episode. Dear Dave revolved around the crew receiving an old post pod and reacting what they are sent, like Better Than Life in series 2. Entangled saw Lister gambling away Starbug and Rimmer to a species very similar to the Kinitawowi from Emohawk: Polymorph II in series 6. But then you do wonder if this is simply a case of giving fans what they like with so many shout outs to the classic series, indeed it closes with an episode titled The Beginning, and obvious reference to the very first episode The End, and even quotes the last line (“the slime’s coming home”).
This is also not to say that the series doesn’t show any new developments at all. One alteration was the vending machines are given colourful designs, comedy accents and distinct personalities. They even contribute to subplots in a couple of episodes. We see a bit more of Rimmer’s family. It turns out Rimmer’s brother Howard at least was just as unsuccessful, and like Rimmer was just a chicken soup vending machine repair man who lied to his family about his accomplishments. We also find out that Mr. Rimmer Senior was Arnold’s lecturer in college, and had no problem whatsoever with putting his son down in front of the rest of the class or using him as a guinea pig for a sociological experiment. This leads to the revelation that Rimmer’s dad wasn’t biologically his dad (2), his father was in fact the gardener employed by the family. So there’s another one to the list of men Rimmer’s mother had an affair with. This revelation proves to be a good thing for Rimmer, meaning he no longer fears the shadow of his disapproving father, and comes up with a plan to beat some Simulants using a molecular destabiliser and turning their own torpedoes against them.
My favourite episode was Fathers And Suns. In fact, the highlight of Red Dwarf X for me turned out to be something referencing a part of the series which I had always disliked; Lister being his own father. It was both a little ridiculous and squicky even for this show, and a little too sentimental with the whole “with this, the human race can never be extinct” thing. But this time, they managed to get some laughs and have fun with it. Lister makes a tradition of writing a Father’s Day card to himself, then getting so drunk so he can’t remember what he did so he has a card to read every Father’s Day. This time he records a video as a father telling his son, i.e himself, fatherly disappointment and berating him for being an underachieving slacker before setting him some challenges to improve himself. Of course Lister knows himself very well and has anticipated that he will not bother with the challenges and try to skip ahead, so he took the liberty of ejecting his own guitar into space as punishment. That they managed to get such a funny sequence from it is good. I also think Rebecca Blackstone as Pree was a brilliant guest star, managing to make the character funny, sinister and oddly likeable at the same time (3).
My least favourite was Lemons. It didn’t really feel like a Red Dwarf episode, most of it being set in Earth in 23 AD. The crew meet Jesus, but it turns out he isn’t THE Jesus. It’s clear that they were, perhaps wisely, wary of representing a religious figure. Even then there are a couple of good lines, such as referring to the part of Jesus’s life not mentioned in the Bible as him being “on his gap year” and “club 18-30 The Holy Version”.
Red Dwarf X is one of the funniest series of Red Dwarf in ages. It seems like Doug Naylor has chosen to play to established strengths and that it is a series “for the fans” with many references to the classic series, and as a whole it is a return to form. The cast fit back in their roles well, especially Craig Charles. It may still not be up there with the best, but it is good to have it back, and it has proved to be a big ratings success for Dave, so hopefully they’ll decide to make another series.
1) I LOVED CarBug in Back To Earth. Confession time; when I was a kid I used to like to pretend our family car was like Starbug leaving home like the crew leaving Red Dwarf.
2) Bit of Red Dwarf geek trivia; other people Mrs. Rimmer had an affair with include Porky Roebuck’s father and Rimmer’s Uncle Frank; and Uncle Frank was apparently the biological father of all Rimmer’s brothers.
3) I wouldn’t have minded (a slightly less hellbent on destroying the crew version of) Pree as a regular, to be honest. I miss Holly, I think Red Dwarf really benefits from having a ship’s computer character. Even though it’s extremely unlikely, as both female Holly in series 5 and male Holly in series 8 were increasingly marginalised in favour of the more active crew, I would have liked both Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge back, as I really liked how they worked together in Parallel Universe.