Better dead than smeg

Sunday, 4 February 2007 — 6:23pm | Television

Red Dwarf and I have a very long history together. I’m not completely sure it’s my favourite television series of all time, but it’s in the top two (the Diana Rigg seasons of The Avengers being the other candidate).

Briefly, for those of you not in the know: it’s a British comedy in space, and it’s smegging fantastic.

I discovered it during the four-year lull between Series VI and VII, when we were all left with a rather explosive time-twisting cliffhanger. It was the subject of my very first website, which I never properly finished. (Don’t bother looking; it doesn’t exist anymore, but do know that it was created back in the era when website “design” didn’t exist as a proper discipline and frames, hit counters and embedded MIDI files were cool.) This was before Rob Grant and Doug Naylor split up, Chris Barrie left the show, and Naylor decided to go ahead with VII anyway. I bought Grant’s Backwards in hardcover when it first came out. In the sixth grade, I was Rimmer’s “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” alter-ego, Dangerous Dan McGrew (no relation to the Robert Service poem), for Hallowe’en.

I caught the entirety of Series VII and all of VIII (minus the last episode) exactly once, when they first appeared in North America by way of PBS pledge drive marathons. And I never saw them again… foreboding ellipses… until now.

I received the DVDs of Series V to VIII this Christmas, and I’ve now watched every episode, including the reconstructed lost episode featuring the Cat, “Identity Within.” And here we arrive at the point of this post: I think VII and VIII are worth a brief revisit.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing that you are already halfway familiar with the show; if you’re not, go watch it and come back. Consequently, you are also probably aware that Series VII (and to a lesser extent, VIII) have a particularly nasty reputation. Think of the backlash against The Godfather, Part III or the Star Wars prequels, and sprinkle liberally. The argument goes like this: after six seasons of brilliance, the show set standards for itself, and didn’t meet them.

Now, I won’t be one to argue that VII and VIII are on the same level as the first two eras of the show (I-II and III-VI). But they certainly aren’t as bad as everybody who hasn’t blocked them out of their mind remembers.

What surprised me most about Series VII was that the elements that worked were not what I thought they were. First impressions, way back when, was that the Rimmer-centric episodes – “Stoke Me a Clipper” and “Blue” – were the highlights of VII, and virtually everything else was dispensable (i.e. Chloe Annett as Kochanski, a blubbering jealous Kryten, the filmlike lighting and colour-balancing, the crappy CG where model shots used to be).

The second time through, almost a decade later, I’ve come to realize that Chloe Annett was a damn good if underplayed addition to the series, and I can’t believe anybody seriously prefers Clare Grogan’s bit parts as the Kochanski character in Series I and II. The dynamic between her and the blubbering jealous Kryten holds the fort remarkably well for five-and-a-half Rimmer-less episodes as far as character work goes. The film effect worked for me, and I don’t buy the argument that sitcoms inherently have to look cheap and stagy; if they’d stuck to that way of thinking, we’d never have progressed to the sci-fi adventure look and feel of Series III onwards. The crappy CG… okay, it’s still terrible, but I had a lot more sympathy for it after watching the documentaries and discovering that the model work became unaffordable, and their graphics house was a Chris Veale one-man show.

“Stoke Me a Clipper” is still one of the best episodes of the series, but not as great as I remembered. This might have been because after sitting through Series VI’s “Emohawk: Polymorph II” (and wondering why I never before realized just how outright bad it is; it’s easily one of the worst episodes from I to VI), I began wishing that they’d just leave alter-ego characters like Ace Rimmer and Duane Dibbley alone. Not a bad exit for Chris Barrie, but I’m sure we all wish he’d never left. Sure, pre-disaster Rimmer was resurrected for Series VIII, but that didn’t rescue six years of character development tossed out the window.

Speaking of disasters, I didn’t expect that “Blue” would come off as the worst episode of the series. Everybody remembers it fondly for the Rimmer Experience, which is classic, but as for the other twenty-five minutes of the episode, the less said the better. I couldn’t help but think it was a jarring error in the script every time the Cat actually used the name “Rimmer” instead of, say, “goalpost head.” Then again, “worst” might be a bit harsh: “Beyond a Joke” is terrific for its first half – there’s nothing quite like Kryten driving a World War II tank into Jane Austen World – but the rest of it is a wash.

But it’s not like Red Dwarf never had bad episodes before. The problem is that Series VII didn’t deliver any especially excellent ones. Instead, it consisted of several middling episodes with excellent moments (and from time to time, some fairly inert moments). It felt like a bigger kick in the pants when it had four years of expectations to live up to.

On a final note about VII: judging solely by the DVD feature where Chris Barrie reads an early draft of the script over storyboards, “Identity Within” could have been the great episode of the series, were the time, budget and Chris Barrie available to develop it properly. I’m not a fan of the big furry GELFs that we see in “Emohawk,” “Ouroburos,” “Beyond a Joke” and Doug Naylor’s novel Last Human, and there would have been more of them here, but that’s a small price to pay for a solid episode where the Cat finally gets the spotlight.

Series VIII – now that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

I did remember it to be an improvement on VII, and for the most part, I’m still holding to that. “Back in the Red” was originally intended to be two episodes instead of three, and it shows – there’s some extraneous matter I could do without, like the Blue Midget dance and the horrid Reservoir Dibbleys bit at the end of Part II – but those were really minor blemishes on what was otherwise a strong return to form, heavy on both story and comedy.

Series VIII also had, in “Cassandra,” what VII didn’t: a thoroughly balanced episode that I’d be tempted to place in my top ten. It found room for a classic causality-bending story and great character work, and proved that Rimmer’s return to the show need not displace Kochanski.

If there’s one problem that’s specific to VIII, it’s not the revival of the crew – it’s that the half-hour format only really has room for four characters. The Hattie Hayridge iteration of Holly got short shrift throughout most of Series III to V before disappearing entirely. VIII had to contend with six central characters, and while it disguised it well at first thanks to the length of “Back in the Red” and the tight writing of “Cassandra,” it begins to show. Sure, Norman Lovett shows up every now and then and does his Norman Lovett thing, but Kochanski doesn’t get to do much – a real shame, because I think by the end of Series VII, she’d taken up a position in the class hierarchy that we hadn’t seen before, and it showed promise.

And “Pete” was just bad.

As for the ending to “Only the Good…” – which I saw for the first time a few days ago – what I don’t understand is why they threw away a far superior ending that was scripted, filmed, and placed in the Deleted Scenes section of the DVD. Instead, we have a cliffhanger that will probably never be given a proper resolution.

To be quite honest, I think Red Dwarf is over for good. The official word is that any continuation of the television show has been on hold for years now because the feature film is only a studio’s big fat cheque away from happening. But it’s not getting any more marketable with age. Furthermore, whatever film gets made is going to be a standalone adaptation of the Red Dwarf story, not a continuation of the television series – and while this is in many ways the right decision, it’s not so good for giving the fans a sense of closure.

Should Naylor do a Series IX or a one-off concluding episode, it’s encouraging that the quality of affordable CG effects work has finally caught up to the ambition of the show, and the cast (judging by the DVD interviews) isn’t too, too old to revisit the characters. To keep things in perspective, though, it has been almost a decade. In fact, Red Dwarf turns twenty next year. I don’t have my fingers crossed that anything will happen.

Then again, there’s no point in doing a Series IX if the quality of the writing isn’t going to be up to scratch. But there would be quite a real point to making it if it meant the show could go out with a bang.

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