For the first time in my life, I’m sitting down and writing a review for a brand new episode of Red Dwarf. Three years ago we all watched Back to Earth, the first new Red Dwarf in 10 years, but soon after Series X was properly announced it was clear that it would be more of a true continuation of the show. A full 6 part series of 30 minute episodes is a much, much bigger prospect than a mini-series that was essentially one special anniversary show, and so it feels much more important and a much better indicator of what Doug and the cast and crew can really do with the show.
It turns out, in my own humble opinion, they can still do Red Dwarf real good. Real good indeed.
Doug’s pre-publicity interviews are very telling of who he’s trying to target with this series, and those are people who consider III to VI Red Dwarf‘s peak (i.e. a lot of people). The primarily ship based setting, gag-centric scripts and the return of the studio audience are all things brought back in series VIII to attempt to win back these same fans. Trojan feels like an episode that is trying exactly the same thing, only this time it’s worked for me. It’s certainly not free of flaws, but it’s made me laugh, the plot has grabbed my imagination and the cast’s performances are memorable. The good significantly out-weighs the bad. For me, Red Dwarf is back.
Now, the details. As seems logical, let’s start with the first thing we see: the opening titles. They are, as fully expected, a collection of action and slapstick oriented clips, set to the rock version of the theme tune. No surprises here. It all hangs together quite well, although it could perhaps have done with being a little tighter, such as the final explosion and Blue Midget fly-by which probably goes on for about a second longer than it had to, giving the whole thing a bit of a saggy feeling at the end – compare it to the brief, violent explosion at the end of the series VI titles and you’ll see what I mean. There are other model shots included in here, too, and while they’ll be talked about in more depth once they show up in an episode, I’ll say now that they look stunning. Red Dwarf’s hull apparently being attacked by a fleet of ships, a strange vessel blowing the shit out of some asteroids, and Blue Midget flying along to a backdrop of two massive planets: these are huge, visually stunning shots. We’ve definitely got a tonne of model based treats to look forward to in the next five weeks.
The final ‘Red Dwarf X’ title card is very nice, too, with a subtle but effective drop shadow on the logo (as well as all the other on screen captions). However, the real font-based icing on the graphics cake is the episode caption, which is beautifully rendered in the familiar red, Eurostile font. This is the first indication of various callbacks in the production to the Red Dwarf of old, but this is more than something stuck in there to please fans, it’s simply the most striking and appealing way of displaying Red Dwarf’s on-screen credits, and it looks beautiful.
As we get into the episode we’re greeted with the series’ first proper model shot: Red Dwarf trundling through space. It’s absolutely lovely, obviously. We’ve already seen how nice this model looks, but to see as part of a proper episode was thrilling. The shot itself could’ve probably benefited from lasting a little longer, but this is an episode that has a lot of cram in so we’re thrown into the action a little earlier than I expected, when I was just wanted to soak in the opening shot. This is less of a problem as the episode goes on, though, and all the important shots get the time on screen they deserve.
The opening few scenes have come in for a fair bit of flak, and it’s easy to see why. They’ve got a difficult job to do and don’t always do it very well. While the first Cat and Lister scenes economically set up two different running jokes, they do perhaps make the world seem a little too busy. The concept of the All-Droid Shopping Channel is one I’m perfectly comfortable with (the idea of an automated space station like this endlessly floating through space broadcasting to almost no-one is actually quite bleak and appealing, and the performances of the All Droid presenters are very good), but I think the addition of the pig racing is unnecessary. In all likelihood it’s just meant to be an internal video that Lister has decided to liven up with some gambling, but it still makes everything feel a bit too busy and lessens the impact of the shopping channel’s appearance, because it’s presented as being a live broadcast and, unlike the shopping channel, isn’t given any real reason for its existence. It’s also not a particularly funny way to open the first episode of the series, either, but once we get to the discussion of the moose based traffic accidents the scene picks up very quickly and I especially enjoyed the Cat’s increased exasperation with the concept and being offended on the moose’s behalf.
Rimmer and Kryten’s introduction is a much stronger scene and is probably where the episode starts to get properly into gear (and considering this was the first scene shot for the whole series, that’s quite impressive). For the whole episode, the only character that we’re properly re-introduced to is Rimmer, and this is done very neatly and will hopefully leave new viewers in no doubt as to the core aspects of his personality. His continued failure to pass the Astro-Navigation exam is one of the oldest pieces of Rimmer characterisation and it’s very neatly slotted in here to set up the plot, but also reminds the viewer of his past failures. His newfound positive attitude, and subsequent breakdown when he gets his results, makes it very clear he’s deeply bitter and resentful about his failures. Just for good measure, this is also a very funny scene, with Rimmer’s self delusion in his new positive thinking resulting in some nice lines, with “Ah, and here’s the clever part, I *expect* to fail” being a particular highlight.
While it’s a shame the rest of the characters didn’t get a similar re-introduction (something Psirens did so well) I think choosing to forgo a shorter and more general re-introduction of everyone is validated by the choice to concentrate so heavily on Rimmer, especially since his core character traits are so interesting and a good source of comedy. Rimmer’s introduction continues into the first scene involving all the Dwarfers, when they’re exploring the newly salvaged SS Trojan, with a nice recap of his history with his apparently more successful brothers, which finally results in his first resentment attack as he realises what he could’ve had if only he wasn’t so useless.
The resentment attack itself is a concept that’s proved to be problematic for some, and I can kind of see why. For continuity reasons, it’s weird that something as big as this is only just being introduced, but on that score I’ve long since accepted that, if needed, you can treat each new series as a fairly clean continuity slate (especially when you’re dealing with technical things like the behaviour of holograms) so this wasn’t something that stood out as a big problem for me. I think it’s a good, solid idea and a neat way to address Rimmer’s neuroses, although he does play it a little too broadly (and this then informs Howard and Sim Crawford’s own performances) when, considering how dangerous it’s supposed to be, it should’ve been something that was played straighter. However, the effects applied to the attacks do rescue it a bit, showing the light bee glitches and dropping frames make the attacks feel a bit more violent and serious.
The Trojan bridge is our first look at a guest set and it’s really very nice indeed. It might possibly be a *little* too sparse, but it gives the impression of a clean, corporate Space Corps vessel well and the teleporters are a nice, interactive part of the set. There’s a lot of smart use of sets in this series, and despite there only being two standing sets for Red Dwarf itself, the inclusion of inter-connecting corridors (which is something they do with the Trojan set, too) help the space feel much bigger.
Interestingly, the crew use Starbug to shuttle too and from the Trojan. While the movement of Starbug in flight seems a little off (although I think this is an adjustment we just need to get used to since they’re no longer using wires for the craft), the shots themselves mainly look bloody excellent. What’s interesting about this is Bill Pearson (who was responsible for the re-mounted model shoot after the first was described by Doug Naylor as “disastrous”) implied in his interview in Thursday’s DwarfCast that he did not work with the Starbug model. If what we’re assuming is correct, that means these Starbug shots are salvaged from the first shoot. If this is true, they look much, much better than I expected and if we’re yet to see the main body of Bill’s work, then I’m very excited about what is still to come. Hopefully the whole situation with the two model shoots will be clarified in We’re Smegged so we can have a clearer idea of exactly what we’re seeing in each episode.
The episode is made for me by its middle section, from the point where Rimmer and Kryten discover Howard, right through to the scene in which he arrives. While the arrival of Howard could seem a little rushed (I know during the recording I was a little perplexed with the details) I think in retrospect the episode does a great job of quickly explaining the quantum rod and its uses before it immediately impacts the plot. Unlike, say, the bloody mirror universe machine in Only The Good…, the quantum rod is a plot device that also serves a believable purpose within the universe (using a similar concept to the star drive of the Nova 5 in Infinity), and the crucial detail of it compressing space and time to allow for quick travel is important to the believability of what happens next. As soon as Rimmer starts pissing about with the rod, you know something is going to happen and then the reveal of Howard has room to be enjoyed without it being undermined by not making any sense.
There’s a lovely moment at the end of this scene that I think sums up my general feeling about this series (or at the very least this episode) feeling like VIII but done right, and that’s Kryten’s memory wipe. Just as I was thinking we were entering dodgy ground (I almost expected the Data Doctor to show up), there’s a lovely bit of physical comedy as Kryten looks around confused, and just walks away, punctuating the whole scene perfectly. The performances in general in this episode are a curious mix, because they’re all clearly still derived from the much broader, physical performances of VIII but those flashes never usually overstay their welcome and are usually finished off with a good, solid laugh.
Speaking of good, solid laughs the payoff to the moose gag is probably my favourite moment in the whole episode, but once again it’s something that starts off on slightly dodgy ground. When Rimmer first poses the moose question to Lister the audience instantly know what’s about to happen and I think Lister hams up the moment too much, which slows down the scene and gives the impression the joke is going to be milked too far. However, what follows is a perfectly paced scene (all done in one take, which itself was the first take of the night) escalating the gag with Kryten barely breaking stride as he comes in, answers, and walks out the back door. By the time the Cat enters, the audience knows exactly what is going to happen, and if you can make an audience give that sort of reaction to a character simply walking into the room you know you’ve done something right. When Cat interrupts with “was he Swedish” it provokes a full on round of applause, and that’s because it’s been properly *earned*, not only with the slow build up in the scene, but the brilliant detail of the Cat interrupting Rimmer much, much earlier than the audience expects. Not only is the Cat apparently smarter than Rimmer anticipated, but he also surprises the audience which just pushes the whole thing over the top.
By far the standout model shot in the episode was the reveal of Red Dwarf towing the Trojan, as part of the ruse the crew set up for Howard’s arrival. The Trojan model is simple but beautiful and is treated to a lovely closeup here which, considering the issue of the RED cameras picking up too much detail on some models, it stands up to very well. What is really odd about this shot, though, is that an audience laugh is pasted over the reveal of the towing, which felt unnatural and awkward. I understand the technical reasons behind sweetening laughs and moving them around in the edit, but I think adding them to a model shot just feels too odd to justify. It’s small point, though, and the slow-mo reveal of the crew togged up in the Trojan uniforms is lovely.
There’s a good amount of comedy wrung out of the crew pretending to be this elite force of space adventurers, even if the concept felt a little tired at times, but Rimmer’s inability to resist the temptation to undermine Kryten is excellent (even though he should be doing everything he can to talk him up) and “nope, we hosed him down and gave him a hat” and Kryten’s reaction is a brilliant gag that breaks up a slightly unoriginal set-up nicely. The Cat is also very strong in this scene, being deployed at opportune moments to get the big laughs, usually in situations where he’s too slow to fully grasp what’s actually going on.
So, let’s finally talk about Howard, shall we? Mark Dexter gives a great performance, and he’s clearly done his homework on Chris Barrie and his portrayal of Rimmer. He perfectly conveys the family connection while at the same time making Howard his own character. He’s more confident and more smarmy, presumably because he’s spent his life knowing he’s not the only brother who’s a failure, whereas Rimmer has always thought all three of his brothers were leagues ahead of him. Among all his bravado and pomp, we start to get the impression that Howard is more dim witted than he’s letting on and that the crew’s pathetic attempt to trick him is actually working. The gig should’ve surely been up when Lister pretends to be a Touch-T but he’s entirely taken in by the thought that Rimmer and Listerton-Smythe are, in reality, his superiors and his dopey reaction to having his mind read is a beautifully played and funny moment, but it also gives us our first indication that he’s not quite what he seems. It’s no massive surprise when he finally confesses, not only because of the subtle characteristics that we’ve seen showing through his broader exterior, but because he’s also dealing with the added shock that the brother he always thought was inept is actually a captain, and all of a sudden he’s the only failure in the family.
In general, I really think the plot hold together very well, but if there’s a point where it fails, it’s the ending. When everything else feels nicely set up and explained, Sim Crawford being revealed as the killer of Howard’s crew feels too tacked on and convenient, because we’ve not been given any indications that this might be the case due to the fact that all the time since their arrival has been spent on Howard. If you look a little closer, though, Crawford’s talk of wiping out humans and instigating a simulant uprising is something that, possibly deliberately, ties in with the overall mythos of the show quite well. Howard and Crawford are from three million years in the past, and Crawford’s ploy could well be taken as a indication of the general simulant uprising that leads to the type of murderous monsters we meet in Justice, The Inquisitor, Gunmen of the Apocalypse and Beyond a Joke. In the context of the episode it feels rushed and under-explained, but I do like how her motivations seems to fit so neatly into what we already know. That, along with Howard’s brief mention of thinking Rimmer had “gone down with” Red Dwarf show nice, subtle references to the show’s history without any overt and needless callbacks.
All things considered, Lister’s call centre subplot is definitely the weakest part of this episode. The odd moment aside, at this point it’s not brought enough solid laughs (Kryten’s tantrum excepted) and here it’s involved in a fairly bizarre resolution. In the end, Lister is overtly responsible for Howard’s death (and could easily have caused the death of anyone else, including himself) by making a dive for the phone, consumed with the madness that being on hold for so long has driven him to. It doesn’t feel like a good enough plot to justify how much of Lister’s time it has monopolised in the episode, and in the end it’s purely used to engineer Howard’s overly convenient death, all the while having Lister act dangerously out of character. The final reveal of using Crawford as a makeshift stirmaster falls a bit flat, too, and seems slightly mean-spirited (although, simulants *are* cunts, so fuck it) but the letter from the onboard JMC computer is a great punchline for the whole episode, as is the familiar trope of Lister, Kryten and the Cat gathering round to mock Rimmer for the final joke, something that happens more than once in Series V especially. The added interactivity with the on-board computer is another nice world building touch, too, effectively replacing Holly.
I think I’ve got a little carried away with the details so far, so let’s finish off with a few general feelings. The plot does have its issues, and it’s certainly too top heavy, leaving the arrival of Howard far too late, but as evidenced by the previous paragraphs of my hackneyed musings, it’s a plot that’s really captured my imagination. There are loads of details to theorise on and everything seems to fit very comfortably in the show’s universe. Making such a big change to Rimmer’s relationship with Howard is a bold move, but I think it’s one that works very well, I just wish we’d had more time to see the two interact.
The acting of the Big Four, in the main, was very strong. Chris is pretty much exactly as he was in BtE, but here he has much better lines to deal with. Craig’s performance has taken on a lot more energy and, if I was being picky, is probably the weakest of the four. However, I’m pretty sure this is down to his limited material and if my memory serves me correctly, he’ll be flying high next week. Danny is easily the best of the lot, not only because Doug has started to use him much more as a disruptive and punchline oriented character, but because his timing is absolutely impeccable. It’s not easy to be the character who’s interrupting, or trying to steal a scene, but he nails it every single time, especially in the aforementioned moose scene. Robert is also much improved from previous years, but he’s the only one that looked like he was having trouble getting some of his lines out confidently (although it’s only a very occasional occurrence), which can give some scenes a bit of an under-rehearsed feel, but when you consider the problems he’s had this year with the mask and comfort it’s a minor miracle he can still put in such a great and expressive performance.
The announcement that the new series would be once again scored by Howard Goodall was a huge, huge thing and, along with the model shots and return of the audience, one of the big reasons why this episode felt so comfortably like Red Dwarf. Even though there was only one true piece of original music, it lifted the whole final confrontation scene beyond what it would’ve been with mere library music. More musical treats came in the shape of three beautifully re-imagined pieces of classic music, the best of which being the very subtle inclusion of a sad version of the Munchin Song over Howard’s death scene. He may not have the resources he’s previously enjoyed, but Howard as one man and his synth is clearly still a wonderful thing, and even if we mainly get re-recorded and re-imagined versions of his previous work that will be more than enough.
It may not be possible to summarise this messy collection of varied and probably contradicting opinions, but just in case it’s not clear, I loved Trojan, warts and all. The whole episode was infused with a great sense of fun and silliness, and that intoxicating atmosphere helps carry the show through various bumps and iffy moments. It’s not perfect, and it’s not even Red Dwarf at its best, but it’s left me with an overwhelming warm and fuzzy feeling. That’s far more than I could ever ask for from a show that, over the years, has already given so much. Doug, Chris, Craig, Robert and Danny clearly have a tonne left to give, and I’m taking every fucking last bit.
TINY TEASER: Gerald Hampton – this was the Cat’s nom de ruse aboard the Trojan. It is funny.
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 24
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 2