“The early series of RD, which Craig Charles said was Steptoe and Son in Space, were the best because of the claustrophobia, the hatred, etc.” – Peter Thomas, uk.media.tv.misc
“…the isolation and loneliness was 90% of what made early Red Dwarf what it was, and I just didn’t want to watch anymore.” – anonymous, Jump The Shark
“I would really like to see the isolation back in the series. The whole point of the show was that these weirdos were the last alive in a vacant universe and now that they have all their time taken up fighting weird creatures even though it’s funny it’s not the same.” – Charles Daniels, alt.tv.red-dwarf
“Alone. Aaarrgh!” – Lister, Balance of Power
It’s an interesting thing. Dwarf fandom splits into several factions: those who think the series never lost it, those that think it lost it with Series VIII, those that think it lost it with VII, those that think it lost it with VI, those that think it lost it with VII but then vastly improved with VIII… and then, there’s that strange clan that thinks the show lost it after the first two series, or at a pinch, the third. It’s something I’ve never understood. How could you like Waiting For God, and not Meltdown? How could you adore The End, and not think Quarantine was amazing?
There are many answers given, when I ask. But perhaps the most common is some kind of variation on those cited above: by IV, the essential loneliness and isolation inherent in the series had been lost. And I always mull over the argument, before coming back with “yeah, but that’s a shit reason”.
There’s no denying that the first couple of series especially does indeed have this sense. The original premise was indeed four characters stuck on spaceship; although it’s pertinent to remember that the real reason the first series is more like Steptoe and less like a SF show is because of BBC bosses, rather than Rob and Doug’s wishes. Nonetheless, even the title sequence emphasises the feel of the show: pulling back from Lister, to show the great expanse of the ship, and then: the great expanse of the universe.
You all know the score: there’s plenty of examples that emphasise the loneliness of the crew’s situation: the flashback disco in Balance of Power, and, of course, the genuinely classic observation dome scene between Lister and Rimmer in Better Than Life:
RIMMER: I knew he was dead. I mean they’re all dead, aren’t they? Just getting that letter makes it seem like it happened yesterday.
The entirety of that scene, which Dave Golder of SFX had the cheek to call “dull”, is one of the best scenes in Dwarf history. Yes, it’s moving. Yes, the loneliness and isolation adds to the scene immesurably. And yes – the thing that makes it truly great is the JOKES.
LISTER: Shhh… Rimmer’s Dad’s died!
CAT: I’d prefer chicken!
Come Series III, and the classic title sequence is gone, to be replaced with fast-paced rock music and a quick-edited montage. The music is fantastic, and an instant classic – the montage is not as good as the previous visuals; after all, no matter how well it’s done, a montage title sequence is a montage title sequence, and simply not original enough to be worth a huge amount. Although it almost swings it with the perfectly timed to the music groin-bashing Lister gets.
The essence of isolation and loneliness is still explicit in Series III, though; in Marooned, and especially Timeslides:
LISTER: I’m sick of you and your silly green suits, I’m sick of your stupid flared nostrils. I’m sick of the way you always smile when you’re being insulted.
(Shot of RIMMER smiling, nostrils flared.)
LISTER: I’m sick of the Cat. I’m sick of Holly. I’m sick of you. I’m sick of me. And as for Kryten… I’m sick of him. I’m sick of this ship, sick of this life. I’m just sick of it.
RIMMER: (Sitting down next to LISTER) …You’re unhappy, aren’t you?
LISTER: Joining the Space Corps – that’s when it all went wrong. If I didn’t join up things could really have worked out for me.
Now, what makes this sequence great? Is it Lister sitting there whinging? No, it’s Rimmer’s reaction to it. In other words: a couple of good jokes.
Don’t get me wrong; yes, of course, quite a lot of the episode is about Lister’s loneliness. And yes, it’s very interesting from a characterisation point of view. It might even be your favourite episode for that reason. But does all this really make the earlier episodes so much greater than the later ones?
Come Series IV, and the loneliness and isolation aspects are placed firmly in the background. It doesn’t mean it’s not still there – there is the odd reference – but more importantly, the groundwork has been placed. We know they’re lonely. We’ve had all that. Now it’s time to do something different. Monsters! Anti-war preaching! And, of course greater exploration into the tortured mind of Rimmer. The show had to move on, and if I could choose between more of the same, or Dwarf opening out to find new things to do, then it would certainly be the latter. And find new things to do it did; I certainly find Rimmer stuff in Dimension Jump, Holoship etc more interesting than the whole alone-in-space aspect. If there is perhaps one criticism, it’s that VI, fantastic though it is (and certainly one of my favourite series), perhaps lost a few too many character-based scenes in place of the action; but it’s a small price to pay for some of the wonderful stuff VI produced. And in my opinion, the last great series of Dwarf produced.
The one time it features again as a major plot point is in Blue; even then, of course, it’s specifically loneliness about Rimmer, rather than the general melancholiness from before. And, like most of the characterisation in VII, it all feels slightly forced – as though it’s far too consciously being concentrated on. As I’ve said before, Series V concentrated on SF, and in doing so, revealed the characters far more. Which is exactly what SF does.
So, what makes Blue possibly the best episode in VII (yes, beyond the overrated Stoke Me A Clipper)? You’ve guessed it…
CAT: Oh – sorry! I was reading the baked potato timer by mistake! Will people not leave that in here? It just makes us look like we don’t know what the hell we’re doing!
KRYTEN Sorry, sir! Wrong disk – that was my German language course; an extract from Hitler’s Nuremburg speech. Definitely hypnotic, but not quite in the right way…
RIMMER EXPERIENCE KRYTEN: You’re quite right, sir, as usual. How could I have made such an elementary mistake? As usual.
As for VIII, well, we’ve had that argument. It really isn’t the fact that they’re not alone any more that’s the problem; it’s the unevenness of the, you’ve guessed it, plots, characterisation and jokes.
I was going end with a rant; but it would be pointless. Telling people how to enjoy their comedy series, or why they should or shouldn’t be laughing at a paticular joke is rather silly, after all. But I will say this: this response to Dwarf puzzles me beyond belief. The show’s strength was never that Lister felt a bit bored. It adds a certain flavour to the show, perhaps, but nothing more than that – and the loss of it is more than cancelled out by the fantastic storylines, characterisations, and jokes in later series. When I think of all my favourite bits of Dwarf, it’s stuff like:
RIMMER: It’s not easy to look into that mirror every night and see a guy nobody likes.
CAT: How d’you think we feel? We have to look at it all day.
COP smiles. Stay on his smile as we hear six shots. The COP drops down, dead, revealing KRYTEN standing behind him, holding a smoking gun.
Cut to: Starbug rear. They all stand in the same positions as they were in the car park.
KRYTEN: I killed him.
RIMMER: I… couldn’t buy it, then?
LEGION: Not really. I need it to turn the lights on and off.
It’s not Lister sat moping at a table.