A full episode of Red Dwarf has been recorded in front of a studio audience for the first time since 1998. G&T were there.
This article discusses Red Dwarf X whilst adhering to G&T’s spoiler policy. Please ensure your comments do likewise…
A full episode of Red Dwarf has been recorded in front of a studio audience for the first time since 1998. There’s a whole episode’s worth of Rimmer, Lister, Kryten and Cat dialogue that has only been heard by a handful of Red Dwarf fans. Naturally, G&T were there…
It was a stupendous moment in my own personal history. Having been too young to see any of the original run recorded, at no point between 1999 and now did I ever think that I’d witness a Red Dwarf recording. Even after Series X was announced, I assumed it would be shot in much the same way as Back To Earth, as opposed to the approach for seven of the original eight series. As it turned out, the two styles were combined into a very happy medium.
Before we get on that, I’m duty bound to document that there was a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding the audience entrance to Shepperton Studios. Our tickets featured a big arrow pointing to the main reception, so we headed there in plenty of time for doors opening at 5:30pm. However, we were turned away from the front gate, and told to make a 20 minute detour along the roads than surround the perimeter of the complex. Were it not for the fact we had contact details for people that were already there, there was a good chance we wouldn’t have found the concealed and remote service entrance we needed to go through. There’s clearly been a breakdown in communications somewhere between the production, the security staff at the Studios and audience agency Lost In TV. Hopefully there’ll be some sort of clarification available between now and next Friday.
But never mind this tot. Having arrived, we waited briefly in a holding room before being escorted into Stage K, to be immediately greeted by three-and-a-half sets, along with the likes of Doug Naylor, Charles Armitage and Helen Norman waiting and watching in one of these sets. The first thought: RED. The crew have evidently found a new area of the ship, with dark red walls, a grubby and grungey approach to interior design, and littered with shiny, metallic gadgets. There’s a new bunkroom, a new equivalent to the Drive Room/Science Room and, of course, a bit of corridor. (That’s the “-and-a-half” mentioned earlier; the other set was one build specifically for this episode, and was not part of Red Dwarf. There was also a little set that had been used for a pre-record knocking about at the side of the main stage.)
The sets are incredible. Aesthetically interesting and beautifully detailed, they contrast with past sets by evoking a sense of a rundown, slightly dystopian place to live. At first I was disappointed that the brilliant bunkroom from Back To Earth wasn’t being re-used, but it all makes sense. While Back To Earth was a celebration of Dwarf‘s history, priding itself on faithfully recreating what had gone before, Red Dwarf X seems to be taking the bold approach of taking the spirit of the show and twisting it into a whole new era. This doesn’t feel like a post-script to what’s gone before; it feels like the start of something completely different.
This is also reflected in the costumes, which again put a new spin on the characters instead of slavishly attempting to remain faithful to the past. It’s easiest to do this with The Cat, of course, and Howard Burden has not let us down on that count; a brand new suit, obviously, and even a new hairdo – long, but with a peak at the front, reminiscent of his ever-changing locks in Series III. Rimmer’s new costume is incredible – a blue, hard light version of his III-V togs, which just seems right. Lister’s in leathers, but different ones to the ‘classic’ version. While it’s not quite the same, it took precisely three seconds to get used to, feeling exactly like the sort of thing Lister would wear.
Kryten, on the other hand, looks… a little off. The costume has been slightly altered around the shoulders, which is fine, but the mask is not quite right. It seems a little too loose around Robert’s head, and consequently it flexes and folds in a way it’s never done before. This is a particular problem around the mouth, where it looks unfortunately like Kryten has a cleft palate. In terms of colour and tone, it looked better on the studio monitors than it did in real life, but even after looking at it for four hours or so, I couldn’t quite come to terms with the shape.
Of course, our first glimpse of these costumes came when the main cast were introduced prior to the first scene. First out was Chris Barrie, who gave a brief smile and wave before taking his place on the set. Then came Craig, who did much the same. I was expecting a little more interaction with the audience, and at this point was a little concerned that they’d all be utterly consumed with nerves. Enter John-Jules. In character. Dancing, gliding and squealing. Then enter Llewellyn. In character. Pottering, gurning and funny-walking. If these two had any nerves, they weren’t showing it, perhaps because they were both protected by characterisation that’s so vastly different to themselves.
Of course, it’s been 13 bloody years since they did this; even if they’ve all been in front of audiences in the meantime, they do most of their acting these days on closed sets. Fortunately, Chris and Craig both opened up by the end of the night, unsurprisingly instigated by people cocking up their lines. Chris was the first to relax, with Craig following suit pretty close to the end of the session. This makes sense, as we later found out he’s currently suffering from the flu. I’m happy to report that this doesn’t affect his performance during the takes, as evidenced by the fact that the audience had no idea he was poorly until afterwards. But nevertheless, by the end of the session, Robert had mimed cacking his pants, Craig had done his “starter, main course” nose-picking routine, Chris had impersonated Kenneth Williams, and all four of them had indulged in some of that pretending-to-only-just-notice-the-camera-and-staring-into-it-with-a-puzzled-look business. Heartwarming and soul-pleasing to witness.
The studio warm-up was Tom Price, better known as PC Andy from Torchwood, and worse known as lead character Barry in Andrew Ellard’s I’m Not With Him. He did a difficult job very well, with short stand-up routines, audience chatter, a theme tune singalong, and even a quiz! He seemed genuinely excited to be part of the production, and this helped immensely in keeping the audience happy. Although, for someone who claims to be a huge fan of the show, he did fail to remember the name of Starbug at one point.
Before the recording started, Doug Naylor popped up to welcome the audience and reiterate the spoilers policy. Very interestingly, he said that the reason it was so important was that he had a real fight to persuade Dave to agree to an audience, and that if plots are posted online before broadcast, that could prevent them from having an audience on the next series. On the next series. ON THE NEXT SERIES. As indicated by the new aesthetics, Doug clearly intends Series X to be the start of a new run, rather than one last hurrah. Depending on cast availability, there’s no reason that Red Dwarf can’t run and run.
And so, the recording started. As mentioned earlier, it was a compromise between the largely single-camera approach to Back To Earth and a traditional audience sit-com. The cameras were each recording independently (hence the need for clapperboards and sync-claps), with a temporary vision-mix being done on the hoof, purely for the benefit of the audience monitors. Due to space restrictions, there tended to be only a couple of cameras on each scene, which necessitated multiple passes. They generally started with master wides and two-shots, did a couple of takes of that, then did another couple of run-throughs getting close-ups and reaction shots, and maybe a few minor pick-ups if necessary. This meant that we saw each scene in full at least three times. Which would normally be a problem with an audience sit-com, but they managed to still get laughs on the last takes, mostly courtesy of Robert and Chris’s facial gymnastics in reaction shots.
Interestingly, they recorded an alternate version of one of the scenes; the majority of takes contained a little set-piece between Craig and one of the guest actors, but the final one omitted it and slightly altered the surrounding dialogue. It’s a great insight into the way Doug’s mind works, and his dedication to giving himself as many options as possible in the edit suite.
Another unusual aspect was that the scenes weren’t all shot in order. We got the first ten minutes or so (mostly live stuff with one scene pre-recorded), then Doug came on to explain that they’d be jumping forward to do the last ten minutes, before then coming back to fill in the middle. This was due to a combination of costume changes, camera positioning and set configuration. It was a shame it couldn’t be avoided, because a few things from the end of the episode didn’t quite make sense until we’d seen parts of earlier scenes, consequently the reaction wasn’t quite as good as it could have been, not least because the long, pre-recorded penultimate scene suffered from some sound issues on playback, with two characters’ dialogue becoming almost silent at times. Not ideal, but the jokes were usually good enough to ensure the out-of-sequence scenes were still hugely enjoyable.
It was a compromise, but a small price to pay for the quality of the shots Doug has to choose from in the edit. There was plenty of camera movement – far more than you’d expect from a conventional audience sitcom, with dollies and tracks enabling Doug to utilise his favourite sweeping establishing shots, and to get in amongst the actors during dialogue. It’s shot in progressive scan at 25fps, which in layman’s terms is the one that looks more like Back To Earth than Series VIII. It’s a little odd to combine this look with a laugh track (save for the brief trend in the early-2000s to whack Field Removed Video over everything), but the minor disconnect in styles is a small price to pay for the glorious, rich, textured picture we saw on the monitors. And that’s nothing compared to how it will look on screen after a jolly good grading, and with a native HD broadcast; your senses will be overloaded on first broadcast.
Writing-wise, it’s good. It’s very good. It feels like V mixed with VI, with a chunk of II, which is obviously a very good thing. The episode starts with two two-handed scenes, which both seed the episode’s two main plots, before the third scene brings all the characters together and combines these two plot threads. There are two very strong running gags throughout the episode, one of which resolves halfway through through some great character comedy, and one of which becomes very important to the dramatic denouement of the episode before being paid off with a cracking visual gag in the traditional coda scene. It’s an assured and sophisticated story, with no loose ends and no padding; every scene is important, every joke tells us something about the characters.
There’s a return to what I’d consider the ‘classic’ aspects of each main character. Lister provides a moral heart to a Rimmer-centric story. Kryten has a couple of big speeches that explain complicated concepts in an amusing way. Cat is child-like without being stupid, Rimmer is neurotic without being pathetic, and Kryten is insecure without being whiny. It’s the versions of the characters that fans and casual viewers alike will remember the most, which allows Doug to play off viewer expectations to make his writing more subtle and understated than the last few series. One of the biggest laughs of the night came from Cat simply entering the room at a precisely-timed moment; the mere introduction of Cat to a scene enables the audience to fill in the blanks and anticipate what he’ll do. The characterisation on show here is the best Red Dwarf writing we’ve seen since Series VI.
This is helped immensely by the performance of the main cast. While Chris and particularly Craig were acting their socks off in Back To Earth, I got the impression at times that Robert and Danny hadn’t quite slotted back into their characters. Not a bit of that here. There were a couple of occasions where the Cat stole a scene by turning up right at the end with a solid woofer, and Danny reveled in it. You could tell that the audience feedback helped all four of them to improve their performances, adding extra facial reactions and tweaking their timing to elicit and accomodate the laughter.
It wasn’t all brilliant; at times, one of the main running gags veered into weak observational humour about an aspect of contemporary Britain, which felt a little tired. The thread improved immensely when it became more to do with Lister’s reactions than the initial source. There was one pre-recorded scene that I wasn’t sure about, featurring a guest actor putting in a slightly hammy turn that reminded me of a particular scene in Series VIII. And the main plot itself seemed to take a while to come to a head, and when it did it get going it was over far too soon. It was a Rimmer-centric episode that added a hell of a lot to the character’s back-story, and yet the conclusion felt too rushed to get a full emotional response from Rimmer.
Elsewhere in the story, we were given a new feature of holograms, which despite having not been mentioned before, doesn’t stick out too much because it makes perfect sense for Rimmer. There’s a couple of VTs that are played diegetically onto the monitors on set, very reminiscent of the earliest series. There were two “bicycle jokes” (you know, where a character says that they’re not going to do something and then you see them doing it), and one that looked like it was going to be a bicycle joke before being subverted. And there’s a comedy costume change.
There were three guest actors in the studio: one man, one woman and a female voice-over. All of whom did a good job, particularly the man, who could go down as an iconic one-off character. Can’t really say much about just why his performance was so good without giving away who the character was, but suffice to say he needed to do something very specific, and he did it well. Plus, he got a huge laugh with a precisely-executed swear word. Additionally, there were three other actors on VTs, a man and a woman in one scene, and a man in another. Plus, a bonus voice-over part for Chris Barrie; possibly a temporary thing that will be replaced later, but hopefully not.
There still plenty of things we don’t yet know about this episode, not least the episode title. We were shown a few temporary effects shots as part of the pre-recorded VTs, and the floor manager was at great pains to emphasise that they were only fudged together for the purposes of the audience. Furthermore, we were shown rough storyboards of a model sequence at one point. Worryingly, this featured the pencil-shaped ship, but hopefully that’s only a temporary thing. We’re not even sure whether this will be the first episode to be broadcast, but I’d say it’s very suitable as a re-introduction.
While it’s very hard to tell what the finished episode will be like, based on seeing it as part of a studio audience, I think it’ll be a great start to the new series. It re-establishes the characters we know and love, whilst adding something new. It’s a wibbley-wobbley storyline that only Red Dwarf can do, and most importantly it’s very funny. It’s not perfect, and it perhaps tails off towards the end, but from what we’ve seen, it’s the funniest and most satisfying Dwarf we’ve seen for a very long time. If it’s any indication of the direction that Red Dwarf X will take, we’re going to be a very happy fanbase by this time next year.
TINY TEASER: Gerald Hampton.
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