Last year, I wrote this little piece on audience sitcom and ambition. About how too much audience sitcom these days doesn’t look much further in terms of setting than a house, or office; and how much more it could be with a bit of imagination.
That article was based on an old set of emails I wrote, a long time ago – but I must admit, when I finally got round to writing it, I knew Red Dwarf X was coming, and I knew it would be shot in front of an audience. I wanted the show to prove that audience sitcom could still move beyond french windows and a sofa – and I wanted to write a follow-up piece pointing out exactly what I was driving at.
A gorgeous looking studio set, lit perfectly to look like location? Loads of extras? Shot (mostly) in front of an audience, not just played in as inserts? Some digital mattes, even? Yeah, I think they managed it. You didn’t have to specifically have to set it in India, though, guys. That was just an example.
Why am I starting with this? Simply because one of the reasons I fell in love with Red Dwarf is its blend of audience sitcom and SF. There are loads of great sitcoms, and there are loads of great SF shows – but very few which combine the two, and even less which combine them successfully. Watching Red Dwarf at its best, and you feel like television can do anything – and in comparison, how unimaginative and locked into genre most telly actually is. It’s no coincidence that my least favourite episodes of the show are the ones which stray furthest from its heart as an audience sitcom.
Soapboxes aside, it’s all very well to make the point that audience sitcom is too often the victim of a limited imagination, and that magical things can happen when you think beyond the obvious. It means nothing if the rest of the show is no good. Does Lemons deliver on the promise?
The comparisons with Tikka To Ride are obvious. Our crew go back in time, meet a famous historical figure, fuck things up, get things fixed, and indulge in a bit of cannibalism along the way. This may be considered foolhardy – especially as Tikka is widely considered to be one of the best episodes of VII. Yet for me, Lemons – from the opening scene onwards – feels by far the more successful show. Ironically, even whilst Tikka clearly tries to tip the tone of Red Dwarf more to towards drama, elements like the camera not being able to cope with Lister’s time explanation make the show feel… stupider. Lemons, for all its COMEDY NONSENSE, rarely feels like the show’s own universe is being undermined.
An even better example of the episode’s strengths is the aforementioned cannibilism. Whilst it be may be a rather unfortunate echo of Tikka given the similarity of the rest of the episode, it actually works far better here. In Tikka, the time drive breaks for no reason, the crew indulge in a bit of accidental cannibalism for one scene, the time drive magically fixes itself, and off we go. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks. In Lemons, we get the setup in the opening scene – and twenty minutes later, when the audience has entirely forgotten, we get the glorious revelation. (As ever, Cat in this series is an absolute joy, capturing something that I didn’t think either Doug or Danny were still capable of.)
Still, if that’s an example of Lemons doing the seeding of jokes right, there’s also a glaring example of doing it wrong, too: Shakespeare’s expressions. Like the cannibalism stuff, we get the setup: but here, the pay-off nowhere near justifies it. So we get a couple of mentions of the expressions later on and Rimmer looks annoyed – big deal. Either the setup needed to be vastly reduced to a few lines to match the pay-off, or the pay-off needed to be far larger. As it is, it just feels like a detour which goes nowhere.
Nevertheless, Lemons is a show with plenty of standout jokes and moments. The “So what did everyone else do?” / “They dropped things, sir” exchange is extremely silly, and thus my favourite. Rimmer’s pride in holding what he believes to be Jesus’s penis is marvellous, but secondary to the wonderment of how organically the show has managed to engineer this completely ludicrous scene without it feeling forced. Also, I hugely enjoy the line “That’s breaking the Tenth Commandment, that is!”, as a deliberate piece of painfully obvious dialogue. (Indira Joshi is particularly excellent in this scene – not as flashy as some guest cast we’ve had this series, but absolutely fantastic in an understated way.)
Whilst we’re on the subject of key moments, the “Jesus!” / “Yes?” exchange – sadly spoilt by last week’s trailer – was heavily altered in the edit; originally, there were three name confusions before the Dwarfers finally twigged. This was an excellent alteration; it stops the joke being hammered into the ground VIII-style. Also excellent is the shot which (without drawing too much attention to itself) clearly echoes The Last Supper, which – possibly unintentionally – actually draws a parallel between the medium of paintings, and… erm, audience sitcom. When da Vinci staged the painting, he deliberately has all participants along one side of the table, so we can see them all properly. That’s also exactly what you need to do when shooting in front of an audience with a three-walled set!
The final revelation that the Dwarfers have got the wrong Jesus disappointed me during the recording; it felt like an enormous copout. I still feel echoes of that; the operating table scene is far less amusing on re-watch once you know the truth of his identity, and I can’t shake the feeling the show lost its nerve. Calling Jesus a knob is funnier when you’re actually calling Jesus a knob. Still, maybe it’s worth it for the final gag – and Jesus Of Caesarea’s rant against the Ten Commandments (quite possibly the best bit of the episode) means the show just about retains enough of its bite.
And yet, with all the episode’s positive aspects, the show still has one big problem: the ghost of past glories. The crazy golf tournament in the Medilab immediately conjours up the dinner sequence in Polymorph; the line “We need something unimportant and meaningless. Listy, you’re up!” reminds you of “Listy, the mic’s all yours!”, amongst many other moments – to name but two. Echoes of dialogue, echoes of plot ideas; at one point do things cross over from being the essence of Red Dwarf, which I have praised earlier, to being just that bit too familiar? The line is ludicrously fuzzy: but I can’t help but feel the show crosses it a few too many times. (One of the reasons I liked the Chinese Whispers stuff last week is that it was the show doing something new.) Maybe I’d find it more forgivable if the jokes were as strong the second, third, or fifth time round: but these often really do feel like echoes – the same idea, the same joke, but just not as good.
Despite my quibbles, Lemons is by far my favourite episode of Red Dwarf X yet. Trojan‘s phone plot derailed the whole episode for me; Fathers and Suns was better, but perhaps ultimately unsuccessful with combining the three plotlines, and also had too many flat moments. Lemons is more classic in terms of its structure: it does one story, does it well, and builds to a climax which is actually clear and makes sense. This episode felt more like Red Dwarf to me than any show since 1993, Bodysnatcher aside. Even little moments like Kryten’s chuckle after “He hath risen!” make the show feel more… Dwarfy.
In today’s multichannel, internet-distracted television landscape, an odd thing is happening. As budgets shrink, an awful lot of television looks worse today than 20 years ago. I have my reservations about shooting in 25p, but it’s undeniable that this series has absolutely bags of production value. It – almost – makes it understandable how people could think the show would be impossible to shoot with an audience present. For that reason alone, Series X is impossible to dismiss.
Lemons is the first time it’s gone from something impossible for me to dismiss, to something I actively enjoyed. That has to be worth something. Not because I offer any great analysis… but just because I’m usually a miserable little cunt.
TINY TEASER: Kidney Stone – FAKE JESUS HAD ONE FORCED UP HIS WILLY HOLE
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 25 – or 24 on the iTunes version (Total so far: 72)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 3 – two uttered in unison (Total so far: 8)