Sunday, August 28, 2016

Red Dwarf Series V Overview

When talking about the "classic" years of Red Dwarf, the "Grant Naylor" era in which both creators were writing for the show, sometimes it's a little hard to think of things to say other than "this is good and I like it". This series is, as I understand it, often considered to be a particularly high point in the show's history, and while I'm not sure I personally have a "special" affection for it, I definitely think it's probably the most consistently strong set of six episodes from Series III to VI. More or less every series (apart perhaps from VIII, I'm afraid to say) added some new memorable thing to the "fabric" of the show, and Series V gave us Mr Flibble and Duayne Dibbley. There's far more to it than that, however, and Series V stands out somewhat from the eras of the show around it.

If one thing in particular strikes me about Series V of Red Dwarf is that it generally feels "darker". The characters appear to be in some kind of mortal peril in all but one episode and the quandaries they deal with typically seem to be of a heavier nature: the meaning of their existence and their inner demons and neuroses. In fact, virtually the entire series is about this in some capacity. It's also noteworthy that the characters spend more time on Starbug or in dark and dingy parts of Red Dwarf itself rather than in the brightly-lit quarters, which are actually only used in the very first episode and are then revamped to serve as the quarantine accommodation and the quarters of the good and evil versions of the crew in later ones.

The characters themselves are a little visually different as well. The addition of a long overcoat to Lister's fur hat gives him an oddly Russian look, while Cat looks more feline than ever with some quite heavy eye makeup. Kryten sports his most "boxy" head in this series, and arguably a more expressive one, but also quite pale compared to other series, contrasting starkly with the dark body. Although the green costume appears briefly in one episode, Rimmer primarily sports a red uniform in this series, which is quite distinctive but further adds, I feel, to the more intense visual scheme of the series, making everything look more darkly warm. Notably, this series would set the scheme of red as being the dominant colour of "soft light" holograms, recurring in Series VI and Rimmer's brief switch to soft light in Series X.

The series also sees some character changes. Something reflected on in "Quarantine" is the fact that Kryten comes across in this series as the "leader" of the group, and they seem to spend more time exploring nearby space and salvaging vessels, which sets up the narratives of three of the episodes. Kryten not only has to deliver reams of exposition but also seems to make many of the major decisions. Cat almost reverts to a Series I style role of hanging around to throw out the occasional one-liner and almost functions at times as "Lister's sidekick", whereas Lister himself takes on a more proactive role, perhaps implicitly instigated by his experiences in "The Inquisitor". It's particularly noteworthy that in "Holoship" it's discussed that he spends most of his time mucking around, playing games and eating curry, but we see very little of that in this series; there's less of the idle time-wasting that seems to preoccupy him in the previous two. Rimmer, who at times seemed to have rather mellowed out in the previous two series (with the exception of "Meltdown", mainly) comes across as more vindictive and unpleasant again in this series. The series is in many respects heavily Rimmer-centric, with the plots of "Holoship", "Terrorform" and "Quarantine" all substantially involving Rimmer in some position separate to the other three protagonists. Watching this it seems no wonder that many viewers, as I understand it, came to see Rimmer, rather than Lister, as the "central character" of the show, and I wonder if this is simply because, as the more psychologically complex character, Grant and Naylor found him more interesting to explore.

Series V is probably also the zenith of the show's self-insight and reflection on the characters, with multiple alternative versions of the characters appearing, most prominently in "Back to Reality". It's also probably the series which crams the most musing and philosophical thought into the nature of being into half-hour sitcom episodes, with plenty of consideration of what makes a worthwhile life in "The Inquisitor" and "Holoship" and the fundamental building blocks of identity in "Terrorform", "Demons & Angels" and "Back to Reality". The plot devices, particularly in "Terrorform" and "Demons & Angels", at times feel a bit "magical", but as this services interesting ideas and effective comedy it doesn't really matter. Series V shows how, at its peak, Red Dwarf could keep doing new and interesting things, and more or less encapsulates the show's combined strengths as both a character-driven sitcom and a contemplative science fiction show.

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