This article discusses Red Dwarf XI & XII whilst adhering to G&T’s spoiler policy. Please ensure your comments do likewise…
The final episode of Red Dwarf XI has been recorded in front of a studio audience, for the first time ever. G&T were there. Wary of the fact that not being able to give too much away could make these reports a bit repetitive, we were planning on using this week’s as an opportunity to wrap up any little details that had not yet been covered, only touching briefly on the specifics of this episode. But having seen it, I think we’d be doing a disservice to the efforts of the cast and crew if we didn’t give it our full attention. This then is more of a spoiler-free review of undoubtedly the finest episode of Red Dwarf that I’ve ever had the honour of witnessing first hand.
A large chunk of the action takes place on Starbug, and given that UKTV CEO Darren Childs doesn’t share the studio audience’s willingness to comply with Doug’s wishes, this gives us our first opportunity to talk about it in any great depth. That photo really doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s most definitely a small set, but it never feels that cramped on camera, thanks to the angles and lenses used. And while the lighting certainly has a blue tint, it’s absolutely nowhere near that extreme whenever they go for a take. The photo quite literally fails to show Starbug in its best light, but at least it gives us a good look at the panels and instruments that combine with classic-style monitor animations to give the set a reassuringly familiar vibe that feels more and more like home each time you see it.
More on impressive sets later, but first a quick note on lighting. The cinematography of this series, in and of itself, is simply beautiful; comfortably the most striking and creative since the show’s return. Bold choices are being made, which can unfortunately seem a little jarring at first glance. While Starbug’s blue is a lot more subtle on camera than it is in the picture, it does take some getting used to, and the palette for Red Dwarf itself uses much colder hues than ever before. But even without the usual caveat that unprocessed rushes can bare little resemblance to an online edit, why shouldn’t a new series of Red Dwarf look different to previous series of Red Dwarf? Innovation is the difference between a nostalgia trip and ongoing creative endeavour. It’s up to the individual viewer as to whether they like the new way of doing things; for me, I was a little taken aback at first, but the more I see, the more I’m on board.
And speaking of changes between series, we have a correction to make. We previously reported that the production was using the same RED cameras as the rest of the Dave era, but thanks to this Instagram post from Ed Moore, and a quick glance last night, we now realise that they are in fact from the similar-looking Arri Alexa range. Whilst still offering a larger resolution than your standard 1080p HD requires, the Alexa gives you a much smaller pixel count than the RED, but this in turn gives you a much more conventional and manageable workflow. In my semi-informed opinion, it seems a much more suitable choice for a big multi-camera set-up such as this.
The resolution and picture quality still give Doug plenty of wriggle room to tweak his shots in the edit (and to crop out some of the many obvious boom mic infractions), but perhaps not as dramatically as in his previous directorial efforts. We’ve mentioned previously that Doug seems to be more decisive in his shot choices this time round, and while the change in cameras might provide a partial explanation for this, there was plenty of other evidence of Doug’s ever-increasing confidence and ability as a director. Focus pulls seem to be the flavour of the series, creating a dynamism that would otherwise be difficult on a set that size. From what we could see on the monitors, the cameras seem to track and move less often than in Back To Earth and X, but the sense of movement within the frame is not lost.
In this particular episode, the most notable example of this movement was provided by a huge swathe of background artists, who were directed and rehearsed to perfection. Each time action was called, they instantly snapped into their routines to produce dynamic and complex crowd scenes, similar to the kind of thing we’ve seen in Lemons and Back To Earth (Part Three), but much more polished. These scenes played out on a (relatively) big guest set, which completely replaced the science room on the left hand side of the stage. A hugely impressive effort from all departments, even without taking the ridiculously small turnaround time into account.
But even that set-up paled in comparison to the even more impressive effort we saw on pre-recorded VT. It’s the one that Doug was tweeting about earlier in the week, and it more than lived up to the hype. Without giving too much away, it’s one of those sets where it’s hard to comprehend that it was built from scratch in a studio. So detailed, so captivating, and so immersive. Red Dwarf has always been capable of achieving incredible results on a sitcom budget, but this takes it to another level. I’ve seen high-profile dramas from the likes of the BBC and HBO that employ a similar aesthetic, and Red Dwarf‘s effort is genuinely on a par with those.
In the past, I’ve worried that Doug was overstretching himself by taking on sole responsibility for both writing and directing, particularly in light of the, ahem, “difficulties” detailed in We’re Smegged, and with the mammoth task of turning around two full series back-to-back. I figured that (with the obvious exception) nobody in the world can write Red Dwarf like Doug, but there are plenty of brilliant sitcom directors around, so if push came to shove, I’d rather Doug concentrated on the scripts. But with Baby Cow on board to share the burden of production, I take that back – on the evidence of this episode, neither the writing or the direction have been compromised by Doug’s workload, and he’s mastering both trades.
For you see this episode, as well as being incredibly well produced, is also incredibly funny. It’s very gag-heavy, sometimes in the form of Series VI style pacey quips, sometimes with the character humour that’s been the show’s bread and butter whenever it’s on form, but also with styles of humour that are rarely seen on Red Dwarf. There are puns, nerdy science jokes, a little bit of absurdism, and even a meta-textual running gag that casually leans on the fourth wall. Not all of these styles will be for everyone, but the quality is consistently good throughout.
It’s another ensemble piece, both in terms of the plotting and the distribution of woofers, with each regular character getting at least one moment in the spotlight to get a huge laugh. The cast were on good form, albeit after a somewhat shaky start. Robert has alluded to some last-minute changes, and there seemed to be some confusion over the order of events in some of the opening sequences. This led to a lot of mistakes, and a slightly tense atmosphere, until Chris requested a short break in order for him to nail his dialogue.
This seemed to do the trick, and as soon as that scene was out of the way, they all seemed a lot more relaxed and confident. They seemed to be really enjoying themselves and having fun – entertaining the audience after a fluff, the occasional bit of corpsing, and reveling in the opportunity to interact with a wide range of guest actors. Oh yes, the guest actors. I’m struggling to think of an individual episode that contains such a diverse, sizable and consistently brilliant supporting cast as this – The Beginning comes closest in recent years, but again, this is something else.
Two names in particular will stand out when the cast list is announced. One of them has joined a select band of actors that includes David Ross, Tony Slattery, Tony Hawks, Rupert Bates and Richard O’Callaghan. The other is simply a phenomenal bit of casting. I am so, so happy that this person is in Red Dwarf. It’s not necessarily a household name, but if you consider yourself a fan of British comedy, your first reaction will be one of amazement that they managed to get him or her on board, before realising that actually, it’s ridiculous that they’ve never been in it before.
[INTERJECTION. I can’t emphasise this enough. Anyone who wasn’t at the recording is free to speculate as to the identities of these actors, but if you were there, please please please do not confirm or deny ANY guesses. Don’t narrow it down. Just don’t get involved in that bit of the discussion. How awesome would it be if these two actors in particular were kept as a surprise?]
And their performance does not disappoint. It’s rare that you see a guest star who’s as comfortable in front of a studio audience as the regulars, but this person is a real pro. When doing pick ups at the end of a scene, they knew that a particular line of theirs was already in the can, so they changed it every time, simply for the amusement of the audience, the rest of the cast and hopefully viewers of the DVD. And with the actual script, every line oozes with carefully considered inflection and rhythm. An all time classic guest performance.
There were a couple of other guest stars that also stood out, and in any other episode would probably have been the best thing about it. Neither of them were names or faces that I recognised, but there’ll be no forgetting them once this is broadcast. One of them didn’t have a great number of lines, but delivered each of them to perfection, and also got a brilliant laugh for completely breaking a prop during a take. The other gave a tour de force of a performance, with a huge amount of complicated and intricate dialogue, all of which was very funny indeed.
Look, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I’m still buzzing from the excitement of being there. Yes, I’m desperately willing this series to be good, because I’m so emotionally invested in Red Dwarf. Yes, I’m vaguely aware that people who work on the show might be reading this. Take this all with a pinch of salt if you want to – it might be wise to put this report to the back of your mind, try not to build this episode up too much, and just wait and see how you react on broadcast. But I’m telling you, this is a bloody good one.
It’s not perfect. There are (in its unedited form at least) some Series X style issues with the pacing of the plot. It seems to take its sweet time in setting the situation up – not to the extent of Trojan, but there is a slight sense of imbalance. More worryingly, the ending seemed extremely rushed, to the extent that both the audience and (the utterly outstanding) warm-up man Ray Peacock assumed that there was more to come, until the theme tune starting playing and the crew started de-rigging. There were some gaps for model shots, so presumably the finished episode will make a lot more sense from a plot resolution point of view, but comedically it could have done with a little more punch. UPDATE: Really? That explains everything.
But seriously. I don’t say this lightly. This looks like almost certain to be the best episode of the Dave era so far. In fact, if we assume that nothing goes dramatically wrong in the edit, this could be the best episode since 1993. And in fact, if enough people react in the same way I did, it might even get into the Top 20 next time we do a big “favourite episode” survey.
And so, with six episodes in the can, there’s six incredibly positive set reports. Naturally, this was always going to be likely, but at least we’ve not heard of any weird things like episodes being recorded entirely out of sequence (Trojan), episodes being abandoned before the denouement (Entangled), or episodes simply not having been written in time (Dear Dave). Consistency seems to be the byword for Series XI – I’ve spoken to a few people who have been to more than one episode, and while they have their favourites, they’ve all said that even their least favourite one has been a damn fine episode.
Six damn fine episodes of Red Dwarf in a row, for the first time in over two decades. Can they make it twelve? While we hope the cast and crew enjoy their well-deserved Christmas break, roll on Friday 29th January 2016…
TINY TEASER: Resistance Bunnies
APPROXIMATE SCENE COUNT: 15 (Series total: 94-114)
APPROXIMATE SMEG COUNT: 1 (Series total: 9 or 10)