Hasslein Blog: Revisiting Red Dwarf, Part One: It's Cold Outside (Series I)


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Revisiting Red Dwarf, Part One: It's Cold Outside (Series I)

Guest blogger Joe Bongiorno recently re-watched the first ten seasons of Red Dwarf and offered his perspective on each season as a whole, as well as each episode in particular. His insights are fascinating, and you may be surprised by some of his observations. Take it away, smeghead...

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By Joseph Bongiorno

After getting a copy of Paul Giachetti's two phenomenal Red Dwarf Encyclopedias, published by Hasslein Books, and being blown away by the quality, writing and level of detail he incorporates into these books, I was motivated to watch a show that I'd adored, but hadn't seen in years. In fact, I was first introduced to the show by writer/publisher Rich Handley and Paul, so I was in the company of experts even back then. For this round, I would be watching it with a good friend who'd never seen the show before, and that was a bonus! I had seen Series (which in the U.S. would be called "seasons," but we'll go with the proper British designation) 1-8 and Back to Earth, but forgot most of the latter two. Series 10 would be the first time I'd be seeing it and I was looking forward to that.

I had had major issues with the first episode when I saw it the first few times. I find it overly long and a little dull, with too many punchlines that ended with references to British pop-culture that had no meaning to me—a self-professed anglophile) here in the U.S. I also found the washed out grey on grey color palette is conducive to the general feeling of boredom that the episode gives me. Now, I owned but never saw the remastered versions, and had been duly warned about them, but I wanted to see if they could improve things.

In my opinion, they did.

Unlike many fans for whom the CGI effects in the remastered versions were anathema, the replacement of bad practical effects with bad CGI didn't bother me; in fact, it barely registered at all. The effects have never interested me, and I find that part of the humor comes from how silly things sometimes look. At the same time, I understand creator Doug Naylor's frustration with the effects and his desire to make the show look a bit more believable. One of the things that's brilliant about Red Dwarf is the fact that, despite being a comedy, the writing and production were things the creators really cared about. And it shows in the development of the characters and storylines, as well as the increasing attempts to improve the look of the show. This is what made Red Dwarf so much better than other sitcoms of its time that didn't have that kind of passion and drive behind it. Red Dwarf wasn't empty or formulaic.

The biggest improvement for the first episode was the editing; getting rid of long speeches that were unfunny and went nowhere; removing some of the "British jokes for British people," and just a general tightening of the story suddenly gave it a life and vigor and urgency that it never had in its broadcast version. This was my fourth viewing of this episode, two prior times were attempts to get others to watch this show (which ended in failure due to their impression of the first episode), but the first time I actually liked it! Bravo remastered version!

The first three series are generally considered by a vocal faction of the fan-base to be the best, greatest, funniest, etc., with some fans going so far as to claim they're the only good series. All of that is nonsense to be ignored by anyone willing to take the ride aboard the Dwarf. The first three series are hilarious, but they suffer from not having the budget to pull off many of the higher concepts they were interested in. So, smartly the writers stuck to humor based more around character bits. This limitation would be overcome in later series, as the popularity of the show would allow for a bit more money (though never a lot) to be spent on it.

I'm not going into the plot synopses, otherwise we'd have a book as large as Paul's (well, at least one of Paul's), and you can find plot synopses on this website to help you remember the basic storyline.

"Future Echoes": It's fascinating that the second episode of the first season telegraphs the final fate of Lister, having twins with Kochanski, and its set up in a way that keeps the viewer interested throughout. The writing and directing are all top-notch here, as are the actors who have to be precise with their timing. It's pretty unusual for so successful an episode so early in a series.

"Balance of Power" holds interest, and is cute, but it's the weakest episode of the first season.

"Confidence and Paranoia": This is a fantastic exploration of the psychology of Lister, which establishes that although the show is a comedy, and very funny, it's centered on very human issues and emotions. There's also an early appearance by Craig Ferguson.

"Me2": The thematic equivalent of "Confidence and Paranoia," in that it explores the psychology of Rimmer, and which begins to show that character in a different light. For the first time, the audience starts to see what's gone into the development of this annoying, pedantic personality

It's ultimately the duality present in the two episodes that sets the seed for their redemption. This is obviously an Odd Couple story that happens to be set in space. That dynamic is wonderful, and other characters will come to help shape and challenge and redefine them, but it works too because it has an organic movement to it. Like Lister, the characters don't stay in stasis for very long, and their growth pains are hysterical to watch.

It would be easy to just continue recycling these characters as they first appear in Season 1, but as any thinking person knows, that could get very boring very fast. "Confidence and Paranoia" and "Me2," which are Series I episodes, demonstrate right out of the gate that this show isn't just going to be just a sci-fi sitcom, but a character-driven sci-fi comedy that has a bit more to say about the human condition than one might at first think.

The one dropped ball in this series is easily "Waiting for God," (a play on "Waiting for Godot") which just falls flat, particularly towards the end, which reveals that a priest cat is another remaining member of the Cat species. Weak writing, poor direction, and the wrong choice of actor hamper what could've been an interesting and funny episode.

In general Cat gets a short shrift on the show, but it's because he's funnier as a two-dimensional character. His very premise is absurd, but it's Danny John Jules' over-the-top performance that makes him a joy to watch every time. Naylor and Grant find ways to keep him interesting, but it doesn't need much; every time he spins and screeches in and out of the room I'm laughing. 

Read part two.

A New York native, Joe Bongiorno began his writing career as a journalist and medical editor, and soon began contributing stories to Star Wars Gamer magazine and Hyperspace.  After creating the Star Wars Expanded Universe Timeline (www.starwarstimeline.net), Joe’s fascination turned to Baum’s Land of Oz, and he created The Royal Timeline of Oz website (www.oztimeline.net), a comprehensive chronology of all the Oz and Oz-related stories written since 1899, the X-Files Chronology (www.xfilestimeline.net) and A Chronology of Middle-Earth (http://timelineuniverse.net/MiddleEarth/AChronologyofMiddleEarth.htm)  

For several years he served as reviews editor for The Baum Bugle before turning his attention to a different kind of Oz, the upcoming eight-part series Black Sabbath: The Illustrated Lyrics.  Joe returned to Baum’s Oz again, creating a publishing company called The Royal Publisher of Oz, which has released several new books, including Paul Dana’s The Law of Oz and Other Stories and The Magic Umbrella of Oz, Karyl Carlson and Eric Gjovaag’s Queen Ann in Oz, and Sam Sackett’s Adolf Hitler in Oz.  

Joe has recently contributed essays for Sequart Books and is currently at work on stories for the official Star Wars blog.  He lives on Long Island where he collects fantasy books from the 19th and 20th centuries, serves as an animal, environmental and human-rights activist, and caters to a demanding pack of two dogs and five cats.

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