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.