A full episode of Red Dwarf has been recorded in front of a studio audience for the 2nd time since 1998. G&T were there again.
This article discusses Red Dwarf X whilst adhering to G&T’s spoiler policy. Please ensure your comments do likewise. You did awfully well last week.
Shepperton Studios. Home of The Omen, Gandhi, Alien, and, erm, The Vicar of Dibley. And most importantly, from 1990, home of popular science fiction comedy series Red Dwarf. Yesterday, as we traversed the pitch black muddy pathway into the studios where many a fan has trod, I idly wondered why a major studio would choose such an entrance to send guests through. I think I’ve worked it out now: it’s the ideal place for a murder or two, if GNP spot anyone who looks like they’ll give out spoilers… or just slags things off.
I did plan to bore you all for paragraphs on end with a potted history of Stage K, where Red Dwarf X is being shot, but I can’t even nail down the year it was built, so fuck that for a lark. (It was in 1969 or 1996, depending on who you believe.) Red Dwarf has generally been shot on Stage G since 1990 (with D and L used for Back To Earth); Stage K is one and three quarters the size of G. (I really hope the guy who was late because he’d gone to Ealing Studios by mistake wasn’t lying.)
Sets were much the same as last week – bunkroom on the right, Science Room/Drive Room in the middle, and two episode-specific sets on the left – one of which looked half-built, and wasn’t for this episode anyway. There were also two corridor sets in a T-junction formation. They are gorgeous – a perfect blend of every kind of set design Dwarf has ever had – with the Drive Room even slightly evoking the one from Series 2, at least for me. One thing that struck me compared to most sitcom sets is how bloody sturdy they looked – something that was put to the test with a derailed action sequence later in the recording…
The actual recording itself was a joy. It ran from around 6:30pm to 9:15pm, which to be honest went by in a flash – whilst I’m of the school which would prefer David Croft’s speed of shooting (45 minute episodes of You Rang M’Lord? wrapped up in an hour and a half, as my favourite fact goes), I’m willing to give Dwarf a bit of slack, with the more complicated shooting requirements and experimental multicamera RED Epic shooting. The time was also helped by a fair amount played in as a prerecord – difficult to gauge exactly how much, but it felt like more than five minutes. It was nice to see some continuity provided by occasionally going from a prerecord into something shot live.
Ray Peacock was an excellent warm-up – warm, funny, never short of things to do, and free of the obvious material that beleaguers most. And then the main attraction – you just can’t get a better cast in front of an audience than Chris, Craig, Robert and Danny. Robert translating some Brummie git in the audience was bloody excellent – these were cast that got involved with the audience, not skulked about in the shadows like so many audience recordings I’ve been to. (Though please – can Dwarf fans STOP asking Danny to do Tongue Tied?) Moreover, the whole recording felt immaculately organised – every reshoot was for an obvious reason, which is definitely not the case for some sitcom recordings I’ve witnessed. It’s probably the most enjoyable studio recording I’ve been to as an experience. Kryten reacting to a clapperboard is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Though speaking of Kryten, I share the concerns last week about the mask. It’s slightly too loose around the mouth, and almost looks *too* expressive. It does look better on the monitors, though.
(The aforementioned Brummie git was not Ian, by the way. He was too busy “rapping”, and offending Ray. Although I’m not sure I’ve seen a more bizarre sight than watching Danny John-Jules say “Ian ‘Ian’ Symes”.)
Unlike last week, the episode was recorded in order – although a couple of bits were missing. The first scene with one character had Chris Barrie (excellently) reading in the lines for Craig to react to, as the guest cast member couldn’t make it on the night (though he did appear in pre-records). The other sequence missing was the main action sequence from the episode, which sounds… rather tricky to do. Lest anyone think this is unusual these days, similar things happened with two IT Crowd recordings I went to – and whilst it’s a shame we didn’t get the whole thing, the missing action sequence at least is understandable, and didn’t hurt things too much. (Although there was one question it raised that I can’t reveal here without giving things away.) Incidentally, there were no ship shots – or even storyboards – in sight.
Speaking of the shooting, the show is in 25p – or yes, “film look”. Now, with certain programmes – the studio sequences in Series 3 and 4 of That Mitchell & Webb Look, for instance – the studio stuff shot in 25p looks bloody awful, with all the worst artefacts of film and video. Thanks to the RED Epic cameras and a talented crew, however, Red Dwarf X looked very good indeed. A bit dark on the monitors, but I’m sure it won’t look like that in the final grade. (I do have reservations about the industry’s move towards 25p as a whole, but this is less specific to Dwarf, so I won’t bang on about that here.)
But enough of all this tot. What did I think of the episode? And the answer… mixed.
There are many individual things to be impressed by. There is a standout scene with Craig which was beautifully clever; to say more would ruin the plot, but it’s safe to say that if last week was Chris Barrie’s episode, then this week definitely belonged to Craig. It’s the perfect scene which would have fitted nicely into place anywhere in the first six series of the run – an excellent conceit, and rooted in character.
Unusually for Dwarf, the show had three plot lines running at once, which were then dragged together at the end – I’d need to watch the final episode before judging whether the climax entirely worked. Unlike the Craig scene above, by far my favourite strand was one which felt very atypical for Dwarf, in both the concept of the joke and its execution – and it led to the first Red Dwarf moment since VI which had me squealing with laughter. I just hope it makes it to the final episode and isn’t sanitised – doing so would ruin it.
Conversely, the other two plots could be viewed two ways – perfect for Red Dwarf, or ideas that rely on mashing together elements from the show’s past too much. I can hear the screams in the comments below already, but to be honest, this wasn’t the main source of my worries with the episode. (Put down your tea, put your best scowl on – I presume this is the bit you’ve been waiting for.)
My real problem was that, like VII, VIII, or Back To Earth, I just didn’t feel a lot of the cast’s interactions. It used to be that you’d put Lister and Rimmer in a room and humour would seemingly magically spring forth. Here, even with an audience to bounce off, I sometimes got the feeling I had especially during those opening scenes in Back To Earth – that the moment-to-moment dialogue and characterisation just didn’t work for me. The first and last scenes in the episode ached of this problem especially, but I felt it throughout the show.
I should stress that judging an entire series based on one person’s reaction to certain scenes in one episode before it’s even been edited together would be foolhardy at best. Nonetheless, in an episode full of things to admire, and one which is certainly more ambitious than most sitcoms made these days, that problem stuck out to me time and time again. (No doubt other people at the recording will be clamouring below to disagree.)
And so, as we left the studio to the strains of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’, was it a Christmas miracle? For me, not quite, despite being – Bodysnatcher aside – probably the best Red Dwarf made since Series VI. It’s quite odd to come out of an episode which features such things as one of my favourite guest cast performances ever, and yet not come out completely elated. But that’s the paradox this recording left in my head; so much to like, and yet moment-to-moment I couldn’t quite get into it.
As I make my way to the next episode recording in January, I’ll be watching myself on that dark, lonely pathway.
TINY TEASER: Taiwan
(VERY) APPROXIMATE SCENE COUNT: 17 (Total so far: 32)
SMEG COUNT: 3 (Total so far: 4)