Under Fire

The three most recent series of Red Dwarf have faced a lot of criticism, from fans and newcomers alike. But has this been deserved? Well, in some cases, yes. But not always.

People fear change. After five excellent series that followed much the same premise, except for the introduction of one or two characters and a new set, the leap from Series V to Series VI was immense. Not only was an original character that was with the show from the beginning (or is that The End?), admittedly in different guises, written out of the show, but so was the eponymous ship itself. The action took place on board Starbug, which had only enjoyed a background role in the show prior to the series (although usage had increased with Series V), with a cast of just four characters.

The main reason why these changes took place was that there simply wasn’t enough dialogue for five characters any more. The two that were suffering the most were Holly and The Cat, and Holly was deemed more expendable. If you look at Holly’s role in Series V, it is minimal. She did take part in some amusing and memorable scenes (“Abandon Shop! This is not a daffodil!”), but her presence rarely affected the plot or the mood of the episode. Besides, her role as the knowledgeable character, able to explain any complicated science to the crew and the audience, had been mainly taken over by Kryten, who was a far cry from the anxious, obedient service mechanoid we saw in Series II and III.

The movement to Starbug was precipiated by the fact that Grant Naylor felt the episodes that took place on Starbug during Series V were far more exciting than the Dwarf-bound ones – being stuck on a tiny ship-to-surface vessel is far more dangerous for the crew than being stuck on a huge mining vessel. (This point of view is ironic, given the expanded size of Starbug during VII, along with an apparent increase in supplies. You go from urine re-cyc in Out Of Time, to impressive cocktails in Stoke Me A Clipper.)

Despite these changes, the first episode of the series was not as much of a shock as it should have been. The series was delayed from Spring 1993 to Autumn of that year by some foolish person at the BBC. The eighteen months between Back to Reality and Psirens was the longest gap in the history of the show, but it was plugged by the release of Primordial Soup, the first of three script books. Due to the delay of the screening, Psirens was released in script form before it was shown on television.

But we digress. Aside from the changes in setting and characters, the main objections that fans had with the series was the repeated or re-cycled jokes, such as the Space Corps Directives (“1742? No member of the corps should ever report for duty in a ginger toupee.”), or the Cat’s clothes-related similes (“That’s it; we’re deader than tank tops!”). While it is agreed that these running jokes were put in for easy laughs, the fact is that they are all funny, as well as witty and original. All the jokes work, and they rarely get tiresome. The Space Corps Directives also fit in well with the basic traits of Rimmer’s character – he is tedious and anal, yet totally useless at it.

As well as the running jokes, some people had a problem with the action elements of the show. Series VI has been described as “The Monster Of The Week Show” on more than one occasion, so let’s just deconstruct that for a moment. Only two episodes of Series VI had actual monsters in – Psirens and Emohawk – Polymorph II. This is the same number as in Series V, which is widely regarded as one of the best series of all time. Some people define a sci-fi monster as anyone or anything that has the sole intention to harm or threaten our heroes. Well, only four episodes of Series VI have this sort of monster, as Legion’s main purpose was to make the crew happy, and the future crew in Out of Time only turned violent when the present crew were being uncooperative. This actually less than Series V, which had The Inquisitor, the various beasts on Rimmer’s psy-moon, Dr. Lanstrom, the Low Crew and the Despair Squid.

A lot of people long for the bunkroom scenes that were used a lot in the first two series. The bunkroom was the setting for some great dialogue, much of which is repeated constantly and affectionately by fans all over the world. But the location was not what made these scenes good; it was the writing and the performances. Since the action shifted away from the bunkroom, the excellent dialogue-based humour has taken place in pastures new, and in Series VI the main catalyst for the comedy was the perils faced by the crew in the cockpit. We’ve all heard these gags hundreds of times over the last nine and a half years, but we refuse to believe that any right thinking people can fail to laugh at lines such as:

KRYTEN: Ah, Smug Mode.

RIMMER: Step up to red alert.
KRYTEN: Sir, are you absolutely sure? It does mean changing the bulb.

LISTER: They’ve totally upgraded the whole ship.
CAT: They’ve even got rid of the squeak on the seat tilt control.

RIMMER: We’ve lost it!
[Big explosion in cockpit]
RIMMER: Sorry – I was looking at the wrong panel.

CAT: All in all, a hundred percent successful trip.
KRYTEN: But Sir, we lost Mister Rimmer!
CAT: All in all, a hundred percent successful trip.

LISTER: Someone just erased him from existence.
KRYTEN: Then how come we still remember him?
RIMMER: Remember who?
KRYTEN: I don’t remember.

That’s one instant classic line from a cockpit scene in each episode, and we could easily list five if I needed to. Series VI is the only series that is literally a laugh a minute (indeed, Grant Naylor were inspired by working with Cheers writers in America on Red Dwarf USA, and tried to write with a far higher joke density for VI), and all criticism levelled at it is completely unjust.

Series VII saw many more changes to the structure of the show, but this time they didn’t quite work. Behind the scenes, a rift grew between creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, the reasons for which have never been fully explained. The consequences of this feud are that Rob and Doug have not worked together for nearly ten years, and Rob has not been involved in any Red Dwarf projects since Series VI, apart from his novel Backwards and the second script book Son of Soup. His absence is particularly noticeable on retrospective projects such as Red Dwarf Night and the DVDs, where we only feel as if we are getting one side of the story about the early series.

Another unavoidable change was that Chris Barrie wanted to leave the show. In an interview published in sci-fi magazine Starlog shortly after Series VI was aired, he said “wild horses couldn’t drag me back for another series”. He’d become famous for playing Rimmer and Brittas, and was worried about “being typecast as a prat”, as he put it in fan club magazine Better Than Life in Spring 1997. Still, he went on to better and bigger things, such as A Prince Among Men and a bit part in Tomb Raider. Hmmm…

Apart from Rimmer’s absence, which left a huge hole at the heart of the show, another big problem with Series VII was his replacement, Kochanski (and yes, Doug, she is a replacement, no matter how much you protest otherwise). In this series, the character was severely under-developed, and she had a negative effect on the rest of the cast. Lister concentrated too much on being mature, and as a result became joyless and unfunny. The Cat lost all the development that had taken place over the previous six series and reverted to being a wailing idiot. But worst of all, Kryten, one of the most complex and amusing characters in Series VI, turned into a jealous, moaning, crying, nagging cretin. This is unforgivable.

You cannot blame Chloë Annett for this. She came in to an established team and did the best she could be expected to do, although her crying acting could do with a bit of work. The buck has to stop with the writing, as the characters were made to develop in a negative way.

Other lapses of character were more explicit. The ending to Tikka To Ride for example is just dreadful. Rimmer, Cat and Kryten violently attack Lister, just for suggesting they go for a curry. To us, this smacks of desperation on Doug’s part. If he had thought of a better ending, the characters wouldn’t have to have behaved so unrealistically as this. (Pet theory time: a far better ending to the episode would have been for just Kryten to beat him up – remember, he still has no behaviour protocols. It would have tied up that bit of the plotline nicely.)

Other things that affected the overall feel of the programme included the film effect that was applied to the series. The film effect used is much more complex than the old method of simply removing a field from normal videotape, and as such it doesn’t look too bad. But from an artistic point of view, it just doesn’t feel like Red Dwarf. Combined with the fact that there was no studio audience, the series didn’t feel like a sitcom at all – and we felt removed from the action and jokes.

Also, the model shots went from being physical models, to being a combination of physical models and CGI. Unfortunately, the CGI effects did not look good from a technical point of view. They were vastly inferior to the models used in Series VI, and they look more like a cartoon. Don’t get us wrong, nobody is saying that CGI is inherently a bad thing, but it is when it looks as bad as this. The unrealistic 2-D nature of the animations mean that the viewer really has to stretch his imagination in order to be engrossed in the show, something that never had to happen under Peter Wragg’s regime.

Oddly enough, Peter Wragg did work on Red Dwarf VII – but due to a combination of early model shot shooting, and late script changes, most of his model shot footage was deemed unusable. (Only the chase by the GELF ship on the planet in Ouroboros was used as shot.) It was replaced at the last minute by Chris Veale, who also did the superior (although still awful compared to physical models) Re-Mastered and VIII CGI. In fact, there are a few shots which are higher quality, notably in the title sequence, but most of it is cheap and nasty (worse than some of the 2-D CGI in VI), with an appalling motion blur to try and cover up its deficiencies. Using stock footage from earlier series would have been preferable, even if it meant continuity problems with the revised cockpit window.

Overall, the balance between sci-fi and comedy, which was more or less perfect in Series IV-VI, was tipped firmly towards sci-fi. A lot of the plots were great ideas (Ouroboros, Beyond A Joke, Epideme), but poorly executed, with little scope for humour. We like the idea of Lister being his own father, but the episode spent too long in neutral. The complicated bit was rushed, and incomprehensible on the first few viewings. Similarly, the idea of Kryten encountering another Series 4000 mechanoid, who is utterly different to him in every way, is very interesting – but the episode just didn’t go anywhere. And the concept of an intelligent virus was ruined by it having a bloody annoying voice, and when it comes down to it – simply not having very many good jokes.

On paper, Doug seemed to have addressed all these issues for Series VIII. The series reverted to normal video, and was shot in front of a studio audience. Chris Barrie returned as Rimmer, as did Norman Lovett as Holly. The character of Kochanski was fleshed out much more (ironically, with far less forced character moments as in VII), and the more established characters reverted back to their old, popular selves; at least, superficially. But there was another major change that the fans hadn’t asked for.

The series was set back on Red Dwarf, which had been recreated to be in the state it was before the accident. Furthermore, our crew were arrested and put into a secret prison on board ship. The series was dubbed Porridge in space. Moving the action on to a smaller ship is one thing. Dropping characters and introducing others is understandable. But this latest development was just bizarre. You had a great formula, which never looked like running out of steam, and then the entire premise of the show was changed. The setting of Series VIII was awful.

However, on reading the Red Dwarf VIII Official Script Book, you have to feel sorry for Doug Naylor. He wanted Back in the Red to be an hour long special, when in fact it was split into three parts. He wanted Pete to be just one episode, but budget restraints meant it had to be two parts. He wanted to shoot a final episode, where our heroes regain control of the ship and take it back to Earth, but they simply ran out of budget and couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, you lose a bit of sympathy when you consider that half the budget was wasted on dancing Blue Midgets and unrealistic dinosaurs.

For Series VI, the character of Holly was dropped because there wasn’t enough dialogue to go round five characters. Four was deemed much more suitable. Red Dwarf VIII had six main characters, as well as people like Hollister, Ackerman, Kill Crazy and Baxter who turned up in most of them. As a result, Cat, Kochanski and Holly were reduced to bit roles. This is a great shame. The Cat had been consistently funny previously, but was not given the chance to shine. The new and improved Kochanski was very promising in Cassandra, but hardly featured from then on. And to treat Norman Lovett like that is a disgrace.

The balance between sci-fi and comedy, which had been tilted towards sci-fi in Series VII, went back towards comedy in Series VIII. There were plenty of gags per minute, but for most of the series a plot was totally absent (and most of the gags were toothless). Pete (Part One), for example, consisted entirely of Lister and Rimmer running around getting into mischief. Dennis the Menace in space, if you will.

Like some fans, Doug Naylor thinks that the popularity of the bunkroom scenes in Series I and II were due to the location. That is why a lot of the scenes took place in Lister and Rimmer’s cell. Unfortunately, the jokes used were just puerile, and didn’t display the quite sophisticated humour on show throughout previous series. Jokes such as:

LISTER: God, this is hard!
RIMMER: What are you doing, a crossword?
LISTER: No, join-the-dots.

are troublesome for many reasons – not least of which is that it’s completely out of character of Lister, at this point in the series. He’s grown from someone who didn’t know what an Iguana is to someone who can figure out it’s him in the test-tube in Ouroborous with a series of bizarre clues. The fact that his next line is quite funny (“Ah, it’s a bucket and spade!”) doesn’t negate the problem – Dwarf used to have great characterisation, and great plots, and still managed to have jokes funnier than that. Problems like this are coupled with some awful over-acting, such as Rimmer’s face at the end of Krytie TV – friend-of-the-website Karl Eisenhauer got it absolutely right when he described VIII as a being like a pantomine at times.

Only one episode from Series VIII gets the balance between comedy and sci-fi just right – and that is Cassandra. The plot is gripping, full of twists and turns; the jokes flow well and don’t seem forced; and the characterisation is spot on. In fact, this episode is the only one of the last sixteen that could slot inconspicuously into any series from the Series II-VI peak, if not for the costumes, sets, etc. It’s also the only episode to use the concept of the CANARIES remotely well.

If all of Series VII and VIII got it right in the way Cassandra did, the ratings would have gone through the roof, the press would have adored it and Doug Naylor would be up there with the greatest TV writers of all time. Sadly, Cassandra was a one-off, and most of Series VII and VIII were, it has to be said, rubbish. There are flashes of brilliance in each and every episode, but they simply did not recapture the style and spirit of Red Dwarf’s peak.

Nevertheless, we urge fans to remember the good times. Does Back to Reality become any less funny, just because Duane Dibbley was used badly in Back in the Red? Does the ending to Out of Time become less heart racing, because the resolution in Tikka to Ride was a bit of a cop out? Of course not. Red Dwarf remains a classic programme, even if the last two series did let it down somewhat.

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