Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Red Dwarf Series VI Overview

Like all of the series from the "Grant Naylor" era of Red Dwarf, Series VI is good. The shift to Starbug and the over-arching premise of the pursuit of Red Dwarf is interesting and it makes some very inventive uses of the various sci-fi concepts it deploys. It trims away any chaff by focusing purely on the four most major characters, and more or less gives each of them something to do, treating them like a team who are capable of cooperating while still rubbing against each other. In many respects it's a natural evolution of Series V in that regard. Nonetheless, I'm inclined to say that Series VI might be the weakest series of those "classic" years, not in terms of specific episodes, which overall are quite strong, but in terms of some of the composition across the board.

One aspect I noticed about this series upon rewatch is that a huge amount of the humour derives from the characters making silly similes and comparisons, to the point where it goes from the characters taking the piss out of each other to simply seeming to be in non-stop joke-cracking mode even when they otherwise seem to be taking a situation very seriously. The problem is not the making of jokes, obviously: Red Dwarf is, after all, a sitcom. The problem, rather, I would argue, is that the situations in which the characters find themselves are often so non-comedic and intense that the comedy doesn't fit well.

Something feels rather repetitive about elements of Series VI. Two episodes ("Psirens" and "Emohawk") both conclude with the Dwarfers chasing a GELF around Starbug's engine deck in their climaxes. A simulant ship and its crew are used in two episodes, "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" and "Rimmerworld", although to be fair they are consciously linked. "Gunmen" also features the characters inhabiting an illusion through a video game, as already occurred in "Better Than Life", and "Rimmerworld" has Rimmer in a world made hostile by his own worst traits, as in "Terrorform", and failing to get along with duplicates of himself, which already happened in "Me2". Furthermore, "Emohawk" is a kind of triple sequel, featuring a return of Series III's polymorph, Series IV's Ace Rimmer and Series V's Duane Dibbley – a character who had only appeared in the show four episodes previously. "Gunmen", depicting Kryten's subconscious struggle against a computer virus with metaphorical representations of death, peace, existence and the like, also evokes "Terrorform". The most creative and original episodes are almost certainly "Legion" and "Out of Time", which to a degree once again feature the characters failing to get along with alternative versions of themselves. Thus, while Series VI appears more fresh by exchanging Red Dwarf for Starbug and featuring an overarching plot, in some ways it's a victory lap for the show to rehash well-worn and previously successful narratives and plot conceits in a different setting.

Series VI appropriately feels dirty and grimy. Lister and Rimmer are both afforded rather unflattering outfits, Craig Charles being costumed in a pair of stained long johns as his primary costume rather than the shirt and trousers he sports in the previous few series, with Chris Barrie in a size-adding padded jacket which is very different to the svelte red Series V costume. It suits the more action-oriented narratives, admittedly, for which his rather formal-looking Series III to V uniform appears increasingly out of place, but it also seems to add a few pounds to him undeservedly; this is made worse in Series VII. The Cat's costuming is now largely based around changes of jacket with a single all-purpose undergarment, while Kryten goes back to being a bit more colourful.

It's worth noting that this series also sees some changes to characterisation. The Cat is now presented as the main pilot, with feline intuition and implausible nasal powers enhancing his abilities. Lister, by contrast, seems to regress a bit, with the scripts playing up his delusions about his musical talent and treating Kryten like a servant when previously he'd encouraged him to be independent. Rimmer is presented as more of a self-conscious and active coward, although the series' setting is used to emphasise his interest in militaristic order and discipline.

To expand on the point I made in the second paragraph, an issue with Series VI that I noticed in the latest rewatch is that much of the comedy becomes formulaic, perhaps as a result of behind-the-scenes pressure to get scripts written on time. I also understand that Grant and Naylor, after watching a lot of American TV while attempting to get the failed American Red Dwarf off the ground, became interested in a sort of gags-per-minute approach in which the characters spit out a new joke every other sentence. Thus the scripts tend to deliver a combination of the following:

1. An "old cat saying".

2. Cat declaring "we're deader than" some outmoded item of clothing.

3. Rimmer misquoting a Space Corps directive or similar regulation.

4. A joke about the shape of Kryten's head.

5. Lots of silly comparisons and similes, very much in the Blackadder mould.

I have to admit that even from the point of view of a Red Dwarf die hard like myself, these become a bit tiresome after a while. This, combined with the increased action and some excellent effects work, gives the show an even more intense feeling than Series V, and as a logical development of where the show had been going since Series IV if not earlier. Some consider VI to be the last "good" Red Dwarf, but I'm almost inclined to argue that, Rob Grant or no Rob Grant, it's actually the start of "less good" Red Dwarf, mostly due to structural issues with the narratives of several of the episodes, which I'll discuss in the individual articles, and limited characterisation.

Just as each of the four Dwarfers has a spot in Starbug's cockpit now, so do they have a clear role. Kryten delivers exposition and is used to make cooking and cleaning jokes; Rimmer makes snide remarks; Lister makes silly comparisons; Cat is stupid. They're meant to seem more like a team, but the relative lack of interpersonal conflict in more or less every episode except "Rimmerworld" possibly leaves something to be desired. Furthermore, most if not all of the episodes feature interesting ideas which aren't usually given the attention they might warrant due to the hectic pace of plot developments in the stories. Thus, while Series VI still has the "feel" of the "Grant Naylor" era in general, it also feels like the show struggling in a way that many commentators generally attest purely to Series VII onwards.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.