I think VIII is better than VII. Here’s why.
First of all, however, an admission: in story terms, VII shits on VIII by a mile. It’s hard to deny this. Just take the first three episodes: Tikka, Stoke, and Ouroboros – all great ideas for a story. Tikka is an interesting alterate history/screwed-up timelines story, Stoke is an intriguing and meaningful way of writing a loved character out, and Ouroboros has oodles of Dwarf mythology revealed. Compare this with with a frankly flabby opening three-parter (which admittedly has an intriguing premise), with loads of padding, and which has the feel of a sketch-show at times. And VII has no equivalent of Pete, the story of which can be summed up as “A dinosaur eats some food and shits everywhere”. Cassandra is the best of a bad lot plot-wise – and let’s not pretend that it isn’t just a reheated Future Echoes.
But the problem is – when I sit down to watch the first three eps of VII, I don’t find myself laughing very much. BITR, for all its problems, for all the padding, dodgy plotting, and generally embarassing moments, makes me laugh rather a lot more than Tikka, Stoke, or Ouroboros ever have. And that’s the main reason I watch Red Dwarf – it’s a comedy show, and I sit there demanding to be amused.
But what’s this? I can hear some of you saying (well, shouting) now that the jokes in VIII were terrible. Oh, agreed, some of them are awful. “Yeah, lemonade in a really large scotch” springs to mind. There’s also the problem of over-explaining the joke, which really does destroy a lot of pretty funny gags. For instance:
CAT: Forget red! Let’s go all the way up to brown alert!
KRYTEN: But there’s no such thing as brown alert, sir.
CAT: You won’t be saying that in a minute. And don’t say I didn’t alert you!
RIMMER: And while we’re on the subject, when someone has had a tad too much claret, and has fallen asleep naked on their bunk, people of honour generally don’t take a polaroid of your snoozing todger, draw a moustache, mouth and ears on it, and then pin it up on the bulletin board under ‘missing persons’. They don’t write underneath, “Have you seen this man? Believed to be a French movie star”.
LISTER: As if your todger with a couple of eyes drawn on it would look like a French movie star. Way too good looking.
All of which should have been snipped at either the script or the editing stage. But I’m sorry – there are plenty of funny, well-done jokes as well, and they do outnumber the crap ones by a significant margin.
LISTER: I need some info. If the board of enquiry find us guilty tomorrow, what happens then?
HOLLY: Well, they’ll probably have a pot of tea, a bit of a chat, and go home, I suppose.
HOLLISTER: That is classified information, Karen! Who the hell told you that?
KAREN: The coffee machine on G-deck.
HOLLISTER: That damn coffee machine. I’m gonna bust his ass down to tampon dispenser.
[Crew huddle together]
CAT: Okay, this is what we do. I’ve watched a lot of TV shows and we all huddle together like this and whisper for a while before we answer. It looks like we know what we’re doing!
[They break the huddle]
CAT: We intend to defend ourselves!
[The Dwarfers huddle together again hurriedly]
CAT: You see how good that looked?
Oh, they’re not the best jokes in the world. But they make me laugh. And VIII is not short of jokes that make me laugh. VII, frankly, is, despite a handful of standout moments, such as The Rimmer Experience. (“You’re quite right sir, as usual. How could I have made such an elementary mistake? As usual.” is probably my favourite moment in the last two series, for instance.)
I’ll even stand up for jokes like this:
LISTER: The post’s arrived.
RIMMER: Brilliant; a bit of excitement at last.
[Lister produces a large wooden post.]
LISTER: Good, eh? It’s a beaut.
I can’t imagine a stupider gag than that. It doesn’t even make a huge amount of sense. But it’s so silly… it works. And stupid silliness like that is something sorely missing in VII. Another example – the end of Krytie TV. Kryten, with a strap-on beard, pretending to mop the floor, doing a Jeremy Beadle impression. It shouldn’t work. It especially shouldn’t work in Dwarf. And for a lot of you, it doesn’t work. But I did this: laugh. Robert plays it so well, and it’s just so ludicrous and unexpected and… funny. FUNNY, I tell you. “Whoops! You’ve been Krytered!” And there’s the great flour/flowers joke. And “They’re mine!” and… so on, and so on, and so on. Gags, real, actual, gags.
Now, compared to any episode in the first six series, it comes up rather short. Hey, compared to any number of episodes of any number of comedy series, it comes up rather short. (My televisual viewing over the past two days has consisted of a steady diet of Knowing Me, Knowing You, TV Offal, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, it comes up short.) But compared to VII… compared to long joke-free stretches of claustrophobic tedium… I’ll take the jokes, thanks. I’d prefer clever episodes like Dimension Jump, which combine a superb plot, wonderful characterisation, an interesting SF idea, and plenty of great jokes… but in a crisis situation, I’ll take just the jokes.
Of course, it has to be said that I think VIII has its fair share of embarassing moments. It now seems like a cliche, but it doesn’t stop it being true – the dancing Blue Midgets scene in BITR3 is just rubbish. It fails on every level. It’s not funny, and it doesn’t even look that good. Or the Reservoir Dogs sequence – I mean, why? Just, why? But it doesn’t amount to anything that makes VII better. You’ve got to take the entirety of each series into consideration, and five minutes of embarassingness doesn’t mean much in an eight-part half-hour comedy series. Sadly, great joke-free stretches do. Hello again, VII. Besides, the Kryten/Kochanski stuff is embarassing enough…
But what about characterisation? Admittedly, the character work in VII is again, stronger. Stoke Me A Clipper is widely held up to be one of the best eps in VII – and from a story and character point of view, it’s a textbook example of how to write a much-loved character out of a series. As Paul Alexander says in his Mr. Flibble interview:
“The core thing in Stoke was I wanted to come up with a way of writing Chris out of the series in a kind of a meaningful way, so there’d be a real reason for Rimmer leaving, rather than just the actor wanted to go off and do other things. The fans liked Ace Rimmer and were always asking to see him again, and as this was Chris’s swansong – maybe forever, maybe not, we didn’t know then – this could also be the last ever chance to see Ace Rimmer, so Doug wanted this to be an Ace story as well.”
Fine. Absolutely fine and dandy. But apart from the odd line (“According to the log we’re down to our last 3000 vomit bags – It’ll never be enough”), or odd moment (the blow-up doll, the ejection seat) – the ep doesn’t make me laugh. A Dwarf ep that doesn’t make me laugh. Therefore, it’s failed. I don’t care how well-written the story is. It’s supposed to be a sitcom, isn’t it?
As for Kochanski: it’s been said that she is a far better character in VII. I can’t see that at all. For a start, her main character arc is the awful Kryten/Kochanski/Lister love triangle, which makes me want to claw my eyes out whenever it appears. Kryten being whiny is not funny. Lister being lovestruck is not funny. And Kochanski being haughty is not funny. Beyond that, she’s not given a huge amount to do but whine about being on the ship. Again, not funny. She gets the odd good moment (the ‘rusty gate’ story in Duct Soup makes me laugh, anyway, and I do enjoy “Bastard!”), but overall she’s a waste of space. (Anyone who complains about her being “politically correct” will get a punch in the face, however.)
I honestly think that in VIII they rescue the character – not rescue as in “make her worthwhile” (why didn’t they do her like she is in Last Human?), but simply to “make less annoying”. She gets the odd great line “Because now, like all men, you have absolutely no control over your penis” – works very nicely as eye candy (you can tell me off all you like, but that’s partly the reason she was reintroduced in the first place), and stops being FUCKING ANNOYING. This is an improvement. And Chloë Annett’s acting markedly improves. Which is not a snipe at her – Robert’s acting is pretty dreadful in Marooned, for instance, but he gets it right soon enough. Joining an established team was always going to be tricky. By VIII, I think she pulls it off.
I can hear some of you gnashing your teeth now, however. That VII doesn’t have long joke-free stretches. Well, it certainly has long stretches where I don’t laugh. But, admittedly, I think part of this is about the way the show was shot, as well as the script. There’s a reason why for VIII they took what some thought was a retrograde step, back to recording in front of the audience, and getting rid of the film effect. It’s simply a better way of doing this kind of comedy. There’s the obvious benefit the cast has of performing in front of an audience, and being able to react to them, and heightening their performances – but it’s more than that. Multicamera shooting in front of an audience is a form of TV production that I love, and I feel just isn’t done enough these days. People are obsessed with making a show feel more real, or filmic. Fine for some productions, but Dwarf? At best, it just doesn’t need it. And at worst, it just distances you from the comedy, and so makes the show a lot less amusing.
God knows, I’ve tried to love both series. I really have. I think some people who love both series don’t seem to understand that when I tell them – they seem to think I take some kind of glee in not liking them. But I don’t. But the fact remains, if I want to put the telly on and have a laugh – which is the reason I put Dwarf on – I’m rather more likely to find such things by putting on VIII, than putting on VII. Because despite all its many, many faults, VIII has a sense of fun about it that VII sorely lacks.
When I sit down watching Dwarf, I want to laugh – long, and hard. Pure character stuff, or great plots, or interesting SF ideas, or drama, are all well and good – but mean absolutely nothing to me in the context of Dwarf, if I’m not laughing at the same time. It’s why the first six series are so universally liked (at least, on G&T) – they combine everything into a pleasing whole.
But VII and VIII just don’t – at least, not to me. And so people who put more store on plots are likely to prefer VII, because VIII is so RUBBISH at them. People who like Dwarf more as a sitcom are going to prefer VIII, and find VII largely a waste of time.
I just happen to be in the latter camp, that’s all.