Sunday, August 21, 2016

Red Dwarf Series VIII Overview

Publishing note: I'm going to give my thoughts on some Red Dwarf in the leadup to Series XI. I'm starting with VIII because it's the one I most recently rewatched and it's also the easiest to criticise. 
I think it's obvious watching Series VIII that by this point, after being on the air almost continually for about a decade, Red Dwarf in its original run had well and truly had its day. That's not to say I'm upset that it's back; quite the reverse. I like "Back to Earth" (although I know many do not) and I like Series X. I think, however, that the show needed a break, and a long one, in order to do a bit of soul-searching. I first saw Series VIII when it was released on DVD in late 2006, and I was excited because it was more Red Dwarf I hadn't seen. While I didn't think it was as funny as previous series, I was willing to give it a pass largely because Rimmer was back and because of how much I fancied Chloë Annett (I was about seventeen at the time). With the benefit of ten years under my belt since then, and having not watched Series VIII in probably eight or nine years, I can still appreciate the return of Rimmer (and I still fancy Chloë Annett) but I can see with the benefit of a little age and somewhat greater maturity that Series VIII, with the exception of one episode and a few jokes scattered here and there elsewhere, is shit.

[Don't get me wrong, by the way; I think the people who made this, cast and crew alike, are all very talented people, and I'm not one of those psychotic Red Dwarf "fans" who loathes Series VIII and refuses to watch it (or, as seems to be the case surprisingly often, has a negative opinion of it despite not having actually seen it). I just think that it's misconceived and most of it doesn't work.]

In Series VIII, Doug Naylor wanted to do a "prison comedy", and that's fine, but it necessitates the knobbling of the premise of the show. The resurrection of the crew of Red Dwarf and the return of Chris Barrie, Norman Lovett and Mac McDonald to the main cast means that there are now far too many main characters for eight thirty-minute episodes. Furthermore, the show's growing ensemble cast is incompatible with Series VIII's aim, which is to refocus on the traditional dynamic between Lister and Rimmer. The series is trying to be too many things at once: an ensemble comedy, a double act, a prison comedy, a sci-fi comedy; the writers can't strike the balance. Danny John-Jules and Chloë Annett have virtually nothing to do a lot of the time (and few jokes) and even Robert Llewellyn, whose Kryten character had become pivotal in previous series, is comparatively sidelined as the show largely becomes "Lister and Rimmer getting up to all sorts of shenanigans".
While this might be seen as a return to form, if one is to ignore how much it makes the rest of the regular cast redundant, in execution it's let down by the fact that virtually all of the conflict between the two characters is eliminated despite the fact that Rimmer is meant to be the "old" Rimmer of the Series I era who was so uptight and frustrated by Lister. In fact, in Series VIII Lister and Rimmer come across more like two good friends who occasionally squabble, rather than the "odd couple in space" whose conflict drove the early series of the show. Chris Barrie and Craig Charles obviously have a terrific rapport, developed over many years working together, but it doesn't gel well with the broader premise of this particular series, which is notionally about using the prison setting to revive the old Lister-Rimmer tension.
Furthermore, while the humour in Red Dwarf always involved a fair amount of the silly and vulgar, in this series it becomes incredibly adolescent and juvenile, featuring more weak puns than ever (such as "lemonade", "post's arrived" and "rock, rock, rock"), as well as relying on a fair amount of really chauvinistic comedy, in which a sexual magnetism virus which makes people irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex is treated for laughs, as women are essentially drugged into having sex with men, and later when the male characters secretly watch women in the showers. There's a particularly horrible line in the deleted scenes, which was mercifully left on the cutting room floor, in which Lister remarks that he was hoping to use the sexual magnetism virus on Kochanski the next time she was drunk. Jesus Christ. While Rimmer might effectively get his comeuppance for using the virus, Lister's treated as being disappointed when it wears off after Kochanski starts making out with him in the lift, and later he uses it to try to get Rimmer raped in prison. Who the hell thought that was the way to characterise our reasonably heroic main protagonist? It's easy to appreciate why the cast, in hindsight, and other commentators, refer to this series as "Men Behaving Badly In Space", especially given that the show's only female protagonist is completely objectified in multiple episodes, and to a far greater extent than she was in Series VII.
The show also descends into ludicrous fanwank territory in this series, with countless references to episodes of prior series, in addition to the unfortunately quite unnecessary return of Norman Lovett and Mac McDonald, who are both reasonably amusing, but clutter up the show. The opening trilogy of episodes is particularly fixated on references to prior stories, not just in terms of wrapping up the ending of Series VII and bringing back old cast members but also seeing the return of the luck virus, the idea of multiple Rimmers and Hollys, references to "Future Echoes" and "Backwards", and of course the revival of Duane Dibbley.
While the cast's performance benefits from being back in front of a studio audience again, it suffers in the writing department, with jokes being few and far between in a number of episodes, particularly "Back in the Red, Part 3" and "Pete, Part 2". It's clear that, after this, the show needed to be rested. In any event, at this point Doug Naylor was apparently fixated on making a Red Dwarf film, an ambition that unsurprisingly turned out to be rather unrealistic. It's not entirely clear to me whether the show would have continued being made if he hadn't been focused on the film project, but while it's possible to imagine that it's a "shame" that the show came to an end because of this unrealistic project and after such a weak final series, I shudder to think what "Series IX" would have been like if it had been made only a year or two after VIII, without the long break which, in my opinion, appears to have given Doug Naylor the time to refocus on what made the show successful and entertaining.

How could Series VIII have been good, besides having more funny jokes? Here are a few suggestions, which admittedly include altering the ending of Series VII as well:
1. It needed to be more of an ensemble production. With five main cast members, each one really ought to have been largely the focus of a single episode, as having episodes focused on a specific character was common in earlier series (although as we know the attitude tended to be "when in doubt, make the episode be about Rimmer"). Note that in earlier series, most characters tend to be defined in terms of their relationship with Lister, but in this most of Lister's one-on-one scenes are with Rimmer, such that it turns into "the Lister and Rimmer show with three supporting characters". I don't think Cat gets any one-on-one scenes with Lister in the entire series.
2. The crew (other than Rimmer) shouldn't have been revived. Remember that in "Psirens", Kryten observes that someone has stolen Red Dwarf, which in "Nanarchy" is revealed to have been his nanobots. This is kind of funny, but if they really wanted to make the show a "prison comedy" they could at least have had Red Dwarf taken over by GELFs or simulants or someone who captured and imprisoned the characters so that the premise didn't have to be so heavily altered.
3. It shouldn't have been a prison comedy. If they continued down the nanobot route, it would have been more refreshing, after two series of Starbugging, to go back to the characters having the run of the ship. Rimmer could have easily been the only crew member revived, or even just resurrected as a hologram again, perhaps because the nanobots thought he was part of the ship or something; this resurrection would have been to everyone else's annoyance. There also would have been the possibility of humorous conflict between Rimmer, who had enjoyed being in "effective command" for years, and Kochanski, who outranked him. The "run of the ship" scenario would also have eliminated another problem with Series VIII, the fact that it becomes cluttered up with recurring characters: Ackerman, Baxter, Kill Crazy and the like. Some of these characters have their amusing moments, particularly Ackerman and Kill Crazy, but they're not needed, especially with the reintroduction of two unnecessary regulars, Holly and Hollister.
In the long run, at least Series VIII wasn't the last Red Dwarf.

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