Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Red Dwarf Series VII Overview

There are a few different ways of looking at Series VII of Red Dwarf. You can think of it as the series that began the show's decline into mediocrity. You can look at it as a series that introduced some now-classic elements to the show. You can look at it as the series that convinced Chris Barrie to not permanently leave. Personally I think Series VII is a mixed bag: a series with a number of funny moments let down by unsuccessful core concepts. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what it is about Series VII that doesn't quite agree with me. I should probably, first of all, point out what I actually don't dislike about the Series. Firstly, I don't actually mind that Rimmer isn't in all of the episodes. That's not to say that I don't think the show would have been better off with him still in it. I do. Nonetheless, I don't actually mind the Lister-Kryten-Cat-Kochanski team. I actually think it works well enough. I also don't have a problem with the introduction of Kochanski. I think she freshens things up a bit, but I'll go into more detail on the character later.

One of my issues with Series VII might be a visual one, with the filmised video and a greater focus on single-camera shooting making the Series feel visually inconsistent. At times I feel Series VII is a little too glossy and shiny; something about it just doesn't look right to me. Whenever I think of Series VII I tend to think of it as something that visually sticks out from virtually everything else. The way it was filmed also means that it lacks the energy and atmosphere that comes from shooting in front of an audience. I don't believe that the show should slavishly have an audience; I think "Back to Earth" is fine without one, for instance. I just think that in this case everything seems a bit hyperreal and odd. In a way the whole of Series VII is a bit like the Rimmer Experience: there's a feeling of being somewhere in the uncanny valley. Obviously I'm also one of those people who prefers model work to CGI, and isn't too keen on the CGI used in Series VII.

Probably the main issue with Series VII, however, is the stories. We get a bizarre time travel story that completely contradicts the previous episode, a daft sendoff for Rimmer that is far too abrupt and simplistic, an incredibly overcomplicated introduction for Kochanski and absurd revelation about Lister, a bottle episode obviously made to save money, the show obsessing over Rimmer despite his departure, a nonsensical episode about Kryten, an episode with an annoying talking virus and a finale with a rushed resolution to the plot of the previous series. Some have described Series VII as "comedy drama", and while I don't think that's entirely justified, it's worth noting that "comedy drama" shows tend to occupy a longer time slot; usually forty-five minutes to an hour. Half an hour works for sitcoms; more plot-heavy comedy-drama writing needs more time.

As with the series to follow, Series VII I think tries to do too much. It's trying to carry on the Starbug-bound narrative of Series VI, write out Rimmer without writing him out too much, introducing a new main character, drive several episodes with a conflict between Kryten and Kochanski, inject some drama into proceedings and resolve the "search for Red Dwarf" narrative. It's odd to think that the show had been off the air for three years for various reasons, yet that elapse of time doesn't seem to have provided the people making the show with an opportunity to really establish what they were trying to do with the revived series. Series VII was the first time that a series of Red Dwarf ran for eight episodes rather than six, supposedly as a means of approaching the golden number 52 which would allow the show to be shown in syndication on American television. The problem is, in my opinion, that the humour couldn't sustain itself across eight episodes, with the effect that a few episodes seem to be pretty lacking in much memorable comedy.

One thing this series tries to do is generate a new conflict, this time between Kochanski and Kryten. At times I think this works, but at times it makes Kryten annoying. I also think it's let down by the fact that Kryten's just being irrationally jealous; Kochanski isn't particularly interested in Lister. It's also not really a conflict between their personalities, because Kochanski isn't given enough eccentricities. If they'd made her more peculiar their disagreements would be funnier and more interesting. I also wish they'd given Cat more to do. We never really get a strong impression of his opinion of Kochanski, for instance. Perhaps too much of this series was written in the belief that the abandoned "Identity Within" episode would be released and therefore the lack of Cat reflects an ultimately unfulfilled expectation that he'd be the focus of a whole episode.

I'm not overly keen on some of the costume choices in this series either. Lister's outfit is okay, but Cat's more uniform ensemble with changes of jacket over that set shiny undergarment thing is a bit visually uninteresting. That odd element of highlighting on the angles of Kryten's head always struck me as a strange choice which seems to emphasise the feeling of artificiality which permeates the series as a result of the other visual decisions. Kochanski's costume is dreadful and they really should have gone with something else; her more combat-oriented getup in Series VIII is much better, but completely underutilised.


How could Series VII have been better within the limits of the practical restrictions in play? These are my thoughts.

1. They should have handled the character changes more carefully. Instead of writing Rimmer out and then writing in Kochanski in the subsequent episode, they should have had some overlap. I'm inclined to argue that Kochanski should have joined the crew in the first episode while Rimmer was still around. Secondly, I think they should have used Chris Barrie's availability more effectively. Instead of writing Rimmer out in the second episode, I think they should have kept him around for as many episodes as they could manage; another one or two at least. If you put together the stuff from "Ouroboros" and "Blue" there's at least room for an episode in which he features fairly prominently and one in which he's in a more supporting role.

This would have had two major impacts. Firstly, it would make Kochanski look less like "Rimmer's replacement", due to a more smooth transition occurring in which one character arrives as another departs. Given that Kochanski probably would have been introduced anyway to make the show more marketable in anticipation of the (ultimately unproduced) film which seemed to be on the cards at the time, this makes sense. Secondly, an overlap of the characters would avoid the awkward situation, which transpires in the series as produced, in which the show keeps reminding us of Rimmer despite his absence, making the viewer simply feel disappointed that he isn't around. While "Blue" is a decent episode which contained some important moments, I think the whole idea of it is a mistake.

2. They should have written in Kochanski differently and with a somewhat different characterisation. While I think the "she's from another universe" aspect is an acceptable method of introducing a long-dead character, the whole way it's established is ludicrously overcomplicated. My opinion is that something like this should have happened: they try to use some sci-fi method to get back to Red Dwarf, but it takes them to an alternative universe version of the ship that is falling apart. Before the ship fatally collapses, they find a stasis booth inside with Kochanski in it, take it and wake her up. Bam. Simple.

In my opinion, the problem with the way Kochanski's story is handled in Series VII is that it clashes with the rest of the setup. In Red Dwarf, the characters are stuck together by circumstances; as Lister points out in "Timeslides", it's like a prison you can't leave. The conflict comes from their clashing personalities. Kochanski, however, comes from a better life that she wants to get back to, which puts her at odds with the other characters due to circumstances, not personality. The idea that she has her own, better versions of the characters that she wants to get back to just make her seem like a visitor, not a new addition to the team. It also makes any romantic subplot to the series seem very out of place given that she has her "own" Lister (a concept that seems to be dropped after this series).

I also think a problem lies in the way that the writing tends to plump for a couple of soft options in the characterisation. Firstly, too often she's written, as the attractive female protagonist in a TV series often is, as the eye-rolling straight man tutting at the absurd behaviour of the eccentric men around her, rather than being particularly eccentric herself. She's just a bit nerdy and a bit posh, almost like a version of Rimmer without the arrogance and failed career. This has the added effect, as pointed out in the Series VII cast commentary, of making it a little difficult to imagine her and Lister ever being a couple, however briefly. They could have played up her desperation to be popular and liked by the others, or given her some other character trait to generate humorous conflict, although without making her just seem annoying. It's hard to imagine what these traits might be, however. What are the flaws of a successful, well-educated, well-presented person likely to be? I'm almost inclined to think that, in order to avoid the character being unlikeable, they could have made her someone who was over-enthusiastic or too inclined to be helpful or positive even when it wasn't necessary or useful, as a result of her desire to be liked. It's worth noting that, in the version of the flashback scene in "Ouroboros" used for Chloƫ Annett's audition for the role (which can be found as an Easter Egg on the Series VII DVD Disc 3), Kochanski actually does have this characteristic, telling a story about an accident with a truck driver whom she later drove around because she didn't want him to resent her. Why didn't this characteristic make it into the show as filmed? Similarly, while I don't have any problem with Chloƫ Annett and think her casting was fine (in fact I think she fits in surprisingly well, and obviously gets along well with the rest of the cast), given that she wasn't from a comedy background I wonder if perhaps the writing and direction needed to take this more into consideration. Non-comedy actors can do comedy, and do it well, under the right circumstances, but I'm not sure Series VII managed this, especially as the return of longtime director Ed Bye might have encouraged a "back to normal" approach which didn't necessarily account for all possible consequences of the changes made to the show.

3. They should have written Rimmer out differently. Bringing back Ace was, for starters, just the show re-hashing something they'd already re-hashed in Series VI. Furthermore, it's just too implausible; in the space of half an hour we're expected to believe that Rimmer is at least good enough to become a replacement to Ace. I realise they thought at the time that Chris Barrie was leaving permanently, although in the long run it turned out he wasn't actually leaving for very long at all. Nonetheless I think they could have written him out in some other way that made it feel more like the character could come back in the future. Of course he did anyway; I just think the way he's written out is too unlikely to work and kind of spoils the point of "Dimension Jump", which emphasised how much people were shaped by small experiences. If Rimmer can simply "become" Ace despite all of his enormous character flaws it just seems pointless. I'm almost inclined to say that they should have come up with some reason for Rimmer to be temporarily offlined (maybe his light bee got damaged or something, I don't know) so that the character could be more easily brought back, rather than trying to rush a meaningful departure for a character whose whole purpose is to be a useless, arrogant bastard (albeit one for whom we can feel a little sympathy at times).

I think Series VII had potential but some unwise writing and design decisions made it a flawed production.

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