Free agents

Remember when me and Ian wrote articles together? Ah, those were the days. One of the more interesting ones was The Debate: Series VIII’s Setting; and it’s been preying on my mind recently. And the bit that especially intrigues me is the following.

However, I do agree with you about one thing – the old setting was marvellous, and magical. Seeing the crew locked up, and not free to do what they want, in a lot of ways isn’t going to be as much fun. But I think that the interaction with new characters could have overcome this – indeed, Hollister is fantastic, and I’m really looking forward to him in the movie. It’s just a pity that the potential wasn’t realised.

The question is: how important is the whole ‘free agent’ thing to the success of a series? And by a ‘free agent’, I mean: the characters being free to do whatever they like – not having to follow orders, or being constrained at every turn.

The End starts off with a rigid military command structure – indeed, the first person we see apart from Rimmer and Lister is their superior, Todhunter – and next person we see after that is Captain Hollister. Doug has gone on record as saying that he sometimes wishes they’d done a series or two before the crew got wiped out. Now, I’m not saying it couldn’t work – indeed, I agree it would have been very interesting – but it would obviously have made the show a markedly different series at that point. And a series, I would argue, in which it would be difficult to tackle the kind of science fiction concepts that the show explored even in the first series. Indeed, in the very next episode, Future Echoes, they have an adventure that would never happen if they were under the thumb of Hollister. It’s the same with Me2. Already, the two best episodes of the first series have disappeared!

So, for the first seven series, the Dwarfers are indeed free agents – free to do whatever they like. Of course, come VI they have an overriding mission – to find Red Dwarf – but they still answer to nobody but themselves. But come VIII, the gang get locked in prison. This is a fine setting for character stuff – see Porridge – but the problem was letting the Dwarfers continue to have the kind of SF adventures that we were used to. To do this, a reason has to be found in order to let them out. In TJ’s VIII reviews, he informs us that CANARIES stands for Contrived And Needlessly Asinine Reason for Inmates to Explore Space – and whilst I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, it’s hard to disagree with his essential point. The device is purely a way of getting the crew out there again so they can do certain types of stories. The fact that the gang are put on parole for no particularly good reason in Only The Good… only confirms the suspicion that the setting for Series VIII was not exactly perfect.

Now, I really don’t wish to turn this into a huge general VIII debate – we’ve done that to death. You know I don’t like a lot of VIII. I know a lot of people do. That’s fine. To be clear, though – my major problems with the series are with other factors, not the setting. I’m certainly not arguing that the setting caused what I see as the really big problems with the series. But I would argue that you can see the concept of the series creaking slightly here and there, in a way that you couldn’t for the previous seven series. And more importantly, I would also argue that the series lost something – something that it wasn’t able to regain in other areas.

It’s interesting the reaction that the original ending to VIII on the DVD – everyone else has left the ship, and the series returns to the status quo – the Dwarfers, on Red Dwarf, answering to nobody. This point is emphasised by Rimmer’s salute to Hollister – our characters are in charge again. A lot of people I’ve talked to love that ending – and so do I. And the reason I love it is because it’s the Dwarfers having fun again – and the Dwarfers taking control. Ironically, it’s reminicent of the end of Rob Grant’s Backwards – after the struggle the Dwarfers have been through, we’re safe – back on board the Dwarf. And the characters are free to have fun again – even if that fun happens to be running away from another genetic mutant.

Looking at the concept in terms of other programmes gives us further insight. It’s interesting that the new series of Doctor Who trades hugely on the fact that The Doctor and his companion are free agents. The whole emphasis of RTD’s incarnation is “travelling in time and space and doing what you like is fun!” This was emphasised to the point of annoyance to some people in the second series (although I never really minded it, and it was a plot point leading up to the finale anyway). But the idea that they are free to do whatever they like is key to the whole feeling Russell is trying to evoke – a fun series for Saturday night.

In the original concept of Futurama, Planet Express was originally going to be a subsidiary of Momcorp. You can see why this was changed – a lot of the joy in Futurama is that the characters can fuck about and do what they want. Having Mom breathing down your neck every episode is not conducive to fun. Sure, technically, the gang all work under the Professor – and him giving them a parcel to deliver is an easy way to kick off a story – but it’s not a device which is limiting, and he isn’t a scary authority figure that the gang have to obey if they don’t want to.

Of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation manages to have it both ways. They can go off an explore where they like – but if an Admiral gives them an order, then by crikey they have to go and do it. This is pretty much the perfect setup – the characters can go off and do what they like – “explore space” being their main woolly mission – but if its in the interests of the story, the characters can be forced to do Starfleet’s – or rather, the creator’s – bidding. .The best of both worlds, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Or, for a non-science fiction example, let’s look as a couple of programmes we cover here on G&T. In Brittas, sure, the other characters have to answer to Gordon – but the main premise of the show revolves around Brittas himself. And outside interference of any major kind from the council is pretty rare in the series; indeed, it’s mainly used for series finales, where Councillor Drugget finally manages to get rid of him at the end of Series 4. For the rest of the time, Brittas is usually left alone to carry out his usual madcap schemes. Or take Maid Marian – the whole point of the series is that they’re freedom fighters. With the emphasis in free. They haven’t got anyone telling them what to do, as Marian herself keeps banging on about. Neither series would have been as much fun if they’d had authority figures bearing down on them at every turn, telling them what to do.

I’m certainly not arguing that all series should let their characters be free to do what they want; often the whole point of a series – even a comedy series – is the restrictions characters are put under. But what I am saying is that how free to let your characters be is a very important consideration when setting up a series – and the more restricted your characters are, the less likely you would want to be in their shoes – and the less fun the series can sometimes be as a result. Part of the reason people love Futurama, or more conventionally Trek, is because people want to be in the series – to be part of that world. Red Dwarf is similar – it manages to make being lost in the far reaches of space with no way to get home an attractive proposition. And the feeling that a series can go anywhere and do anything is more exciting and fun than your characters being under the thumb.

If fun is what you’re aiming for in a show – and Red Dwarf is certainly aiming for that – then often, the freer your characters are, the better.

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28 Responses to Free agents

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  1. I guess there’s two ways of looking at this.
    I agree there’s a huge change in circumstance when the crew are banged up, but I think half the fun is the way that they can shaft the system.
    Despite supposingly being under orders, the Canary missions tend to break down into everyone doing their own thing, characters like Kill Crazy have their own agenda as do Mssrs, Rimmer and Lister.
    Rimmer for the large part appears to be a model prisoner, but Lister knows how to use the prisoner network for his own use, and just drags Rimmer along.
    They may well be locked up but there’s still the freedom of spirit, had we got Ser IX, escape-freedom could have been part of it all.
    Maybe, they have always been trapped anyway, they may well have been free to move about but it could be argued that the whole
    concept of Dwarf was about escape.
    Rimmer wanted to escape his useless existence, whilst Lister strived to escape space and fulfil his dream…
    I suppose, I’m trying to say, in many ways they have never been free…

  2. How about make it so that series IX shows that series VIII was a hullucination or some sort of BTL but the programme was busted?

  3. G&T Admin

    Oh, absolutely agreed that the Dwarfers were always metaphorically trapped – and even physically trapped in some senses. But this is true for pretty much every sitcom.

    I do think there’s a distinction to be made in the sense I’m making in the article, though. There is a very different feeling evoked by a series where the characters have the free run of the ship – however trapped they are in deep space – compared to a series where Lister and Rimmer are working under Todhunter – or a series where they’re put in prison. The “free run of the ship” scenario is the more immediately *fun* one to explore, and has the most potential. That’s not to say that the others couldn’t work – just that how free you make your characters is an important consideration.

  4. Yes, sorry, I realised you were talking about the freedom of movement and the taking of orders etc and it’s a good point that nearly all sitcoms are about escaping the rut…
    Personally, I’m glad Doug chose to change direction with VIII as I felt another series of chasing round space and strange encounters might have got a bit stale yet I can understand people wanting more of the same.
    There are obvious plus points in having Lister and Rimmer stuck together again but you also have so many options of story lines when you have more ‘cast’ to play with. Like I say, had Dwarf continued, I would have liked to have seen them out of prison again. It’s an interesting one.

  5. You can’t criticise series VIII for this. Maybe slag it off for the poor writing or bad decisions made regarding the production, but not the setting. You have to applaud Doug for going for a different setting and finally doing the series he’d thought about with the crew still alive. You can see that Doug was obviously going to place the ‘boys from the Dwarf’ back in the driving seat for the next series.

  6. You have to applaud Doug for going for a different setting

    What if he’d decided to set the whole thing in a run-down launderette in Bolton?

    I mean, by all means, applaud him for the setting if you feel it was the right setting – but don’t applaud him for it just because it was different, because different isn’t always good…

    finally doing the series he?d thought about with the crew still alive.

    I’ve not read his intro to the VIII scriptbook or anything like that, so perhaps there’s something I’ve missed; but was it always a long-term goal of Doug’s to bring back the entire Dwarf crew one day…?

  7. G&T Admin

    You can?t criticise series VIII for this. Maybe slag it off for the poor writing or bad decisions made regarding the production, but not the setting.

    I said this in the article, though!

    I agree that the setting isn’t the *major* problem with VIII. All I’m saying is that it didn’t help, and then used that as a springboard to examine the issue in a more general sense.

  8. >What if he?d decided to set the whole thing in a run-down launderette in Bolton?

    In fairness to Sycorax, she (he?) did address this: he did the series he always wanted to do with the crew still alive. It wasn’t (necessarily) a change for the sake of change…it was a change he made for the sake of fulfilling artistic vision.

    And I do think that does deserve a certain amount of accolade. Not nearly enough to outweigh the flaws or even to justify them. But if he was being true to his vision, well, yeah, I think that’s a positive thing he’s done as an artist.

    Which isn’t to say I’m defending VIII here. Even though I like it. Because I know that’s been done to death. But there’s a huge difference between the long-desired change he made and the quick-I-need-an-idea change he could have made instead.

  9. I can almost see Doug making a list of what makes Dwarf tick and playing out scenarios in his mind….

    Hmmm, Lister and Rimmer head to heads, but how do I get them alone together, Ah, a prison cell!!

  10. >how do I get them alone together, Ah, a prison cell!!

    Which, in itself, wasn’t such a bad decision. It just wasn’t excuted nearly as well as it should have been. The idea of series VIII doesn’t bother me. It has its flaws, many of them, and I acknowledge them…but the prison cell really isn’t a bad mechanism at its core.

  11. Now that is some good structural analysis of a television show, right there.

    And, like many people around here, I don’t have quite so much of a problem with the setting of Series VIII, as such. It could’ve been great. No, a good bit of what I have a problem with is what they did to all the characters over the last two series. Remember, for instance, how Lister, who used to not know what an iguana is, became clever enough to outwit the Inquisitor and help get the other Dwarfers out of any number of scrapes? But in VIII, he’s suddenly too stupid to finish a join-the-dots picture of a bucket and spade. Now that plain irritates me, that does.

    Yeah, I know I obsess on character a bit, but it’s what I’m good at. It’s harder for me to look at a show like Red Dwarf in terms of structure than it is to examine it in terms of the character growth it highlights.

  12. G&T Admin

    I mainly mention the CANARIES and the parole business in the article more as side issue, really. *But* – I do wonder what VIII would have been like if they’d just concentrated on the prison stuff, rather than the whole CANARIES business. Perhaps it would have felt more satisfying. The CANARIES feels slightly bolted on as a concept, in order to do certain types of stories – maybe if you’re going to do a prison series, then *do* a prison series.

  13. I like how you always capitalise “CANARIES”, as if the acronym is actually true ;-)

  14. I should mention that I really enjoyed this essay, not least because it got my mind working down a particular avenue of logic in response…but I haven’t been able to express it satisfactorily yet. That’s no fault of yours, of course…I just wish I could get my response essay going.

  15. I like how you always capitalise ?CANARIES?, as if the acronym is actually true ;-)

    If you look though, acronyms don’t get every letter capitalised these days, just abbreviations (the difference is that an acronym “Canaries” would be pronounced the same as the birds, whereas “CANARIES” would be pronounced see-ay-en-ay-arr-eye-ee-es). Easiest sci-fi-related example is the Tardis, which used to be written as “TARDIS” but never is these days.

  16. > Easiest sci-fi-related example is the Tardis, which used to be written as ?TARDIS? but never is these days.

    It’s a good point. Yet I stubbornly still write TARDIS. And, for that matter, GELF.

    Not CANARIES, though. Because it’s still not an acronym. :-p

  17. G&T Admin

    It is if you believe Rimmer.

    Obviously you’re not supposed to, but it is a funny joke.

  18. Anyone who writes “Tardis” instead of “TARDIS” am an big fool. And that goes for any acronym. That’s the whole point of them. And the ones that you would pronounce by spelling out the letters (because they don’t make words) aren’t acronyms at all, of course – it’s only an acronym if it makes a word. “IBM” or “NTS” aren’t acronyms, they’re initialisations.

    But yes, my point was that Canaries wasn’t intended as an acronym, but John writes it as such because his mind has been WARPED by those reviews ;-)

  19. To all acronymphobes out there, have respect, write TARDIS.

    Thank you.

  20. No, NERDY!!!!!11!!!ShiftKey1Failure!1!!!!!

    …Says the girl with her own Red Dwarf weblog.

    …at which she has been a veritable updatin’ machine, by the way.

  21. > Obviously you?re not supposed to, but it is a funny joke.

    What? Are you talking about the one Rimmer provides? It’s fucking contrived, that’s all. It’s what happens when you take any word and force an acronym out of it. It’s an attempt to recreate what happens in Polymorph, but fails because the acronym of that one was a surprise, and the words forming the acronym weren’t a fucking weak sentence.

  22. G&T Admin

    It’s hardly the best joke in the world, and obviously nowhere near the level of the Polymorph one, but it gets a laugh out of me. I find the rhythm of it funny.

  23. I think we can put that down more to Chris Barrie’s gurning capacities than the script itself, to be perfectly fair.

  24. How about make it so that series IX shows that series VIII was a hullucination or some sort of BTL but the programme was busted?

    Wouldn’t that be like what they did with Dallas when they totally screwed them selfs over and lost more or less all their viewers?

  25. In fairness, it’s hard to tell online–one of the shortcomings of an exclusively text-based form of communication such as this.

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