Hasslein Blog: Revisiting Red Dwarf, Part Six: Shipwrecked and Comatose (Series IX-X)


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Revisiting Red Dwarf, Part Six: Shipwrecked and Comatose (Series IX-X)

Guest blogger Joe Bongiorno wraps up his fun-fun-fun-filled look back at the first ten seasons of Red Dwarf. (View part five here.)

* * *

By Joseph Bongiorno

Back to Earth isn't as offensive as many claim; it's just that everything feels off. The 10 year gap, in which Naylor was trying to get a movie done (and we can debate how that derailed our getting seasons 9, 10, and 11 in that time), really took a toll on the actors who are looking long in the tooth. But then there are the continuity issues, which are too wide a gap to bridge. Why is a Rimmer a hologram? Did the resurrected Rimmer die (again) and become one? This can't be Rimmer from seasons 1-7 because that guy went off and became Ace Rimmer. Why did Kochanski leave? What happened at the end of Series 8? 

It's almost like they're on another TV show.

So my biggest problem with Back to Earth is it feels like we lost valuable stories, the actors look aged, and we've been waiting this long and there's no conclusion to what came before. The Blade Runner take-off is fine, and the reveal at the end works well enough (so too the Russian hologram), and I like that in the end, Lister decides to leave the fantasy of living with Kochanski to go and find the real one…

Except that in Series 10, he's doing nothing of the kind, there are still no answers about Series 8 and the characters have all regressed to their season 1 versions.

Which sucks. Y'know, it's funny when a 20-something guy drools curry and beer all over his clothes. It's not funny a 50-year-old does that. It's funny when a 20-something guy acts like a pompous old man. It's not funny when that guy is a pompous old man.

It's been said that even bad Red Dwarf is better than no Red Dwarf at all, but series 10 proves that maxim untrue, and for my personal canon, it didn't happen.

The Red Dwarf crew, still wondering what happened to Series IX,
now finds out that Series X didn't happen either.

If you've been a fan of Red Dwarf since Series I, you've come to love these characters and the whacky situations they find themselves in. You've also seen them grow. One of the great things about Naylor/Grant's writing (and later Naylor/Alexander) is that despite the fact that this is a comedy series, they took their characters (like the sci-fi aspects) seriously and actually developed them over the course of eight seasons.

Now, the show developed and grew along with them, so that we saw improvements in the special effects and the overall style and look of the show. These writers weren't content to just do the same thing over and over again. Real writers aren't. They need to experiment and challenge themselves and their audiences, and they did, successfully. They also tried and succeeded in maintaining a reasonable continuity within a universe that has parallel and alternate dimensions, time travel and mirror universes. So, the show and its characters grew organically. Lister by Series 8 is not the same man as Lister in Series I. Same is true for Rimmer and Kryten. Only Cat has maintained his characteristic and hilarious superficiality. But in particular the writers spent a lot of time and energy showing the emotional and psychological growth of Rimmer and Lister. And its this kind of writing and attention to detail that's elevated this show above the herd.

The first thing you notice about Series 10 is that nothing resembles itself. I don't care how high-tech the production value is, and it is (everything looks very expensive), Red Dwarf shouldn't look like a completely different ship. Now, I'm not one to usually care about that kind of things, but even their cabins are off. And what's with the logos all over everything? Frankly, all the computer monitors and flashing gadgets and stuff are just distracting more than anything else. I know the production manager died in 2011, so that's certainly a factor, but Naylor should've insisted that the aesthetic match the first eight seasons.

The boys are back in the good 'ol... wait, what ship is this?

Fine, that's a possible nitpick; but I mention it because it's the first thing you notice and because its endemic of the larger problems with this season.

The other thing you'll notice, especially if you watch this series back to back, is how old the actors look (true as well in Back to Earth and this is partly due to the way they style Rimmer's hair to look like an old man).

Now, I know Craig Charles is a smoker, but what is with his suddenly deep Batman voice! This, I think, may have had to do with the sound editing, which gives each of them an unnaturally deep echo (in the documentary, he doesn't sound quite as bad.) But it takes away from the performance because it's not funny when the actor's delivery makes him sound like he's dying of throat cancer.

Oh... hi, Craig. Sorry. No offense, buddy!

All of these gripes are minor and could've been overcome with great scripts, and with the second episode "Father and Suns" I thought they might. But they don't. Here are the serious issues with this season:

1. The whole thrust of Back to Earth is Dave's discovery that Kochanski didn't die after Season 8 and that he'd find her again. In fact, the reason he leaves the simulated reality where he's with her is to do that very thing. So, what is he doing in these six episodes to find her? Absolutely nothing. He's slobbering chutney on himself and on the console, getting drunk, and insulting Rimmer -- all of which is Season 1-2 Lister. We're past this thematically and narrative-wise. This is just dropping the ball in the writing dept, but it's not even the worst aspect of this season...

2. That's reserved for the seeming revelation that this Rimmer is the same one from the early seasons! That decision to jettison the nanobot-resurrected Rimmer of Season 8 offscreen and bring back hologram Rimmer invalidates everything that was established up to and including Season 7, where he overcame his psychological handicaps to become Ace Rimmer. That's just unforgivable in my eyes and pointless since they had the still screwed-up Season 8 Rimmer to work with. And it really has the potential to ruin the whole Red Dwarf experience for me, which is why I say this season and Back to Earth didn't happen.

3. The writing just isn't very good. I know it was very rushed. Naylor should have employed Paul Alexander to help steer the ship in the right way. Craig Charles said this season should've been called "the search for Series 9," and he's got a point. Series 8 had found a way to reestablish the old dynamic of the first three seasons WITHOUT ruining what came before. It wasn't my favorite season, but it was an interesting new start, and it's where they should've continued. Instead, and this is a problem with Back to Earth too, Naylor ignores the fresh start they gave themselves in Season 8 without any rhyme or reason, and then he tries to do another reboot with the Back to Earth and it doesn't work. And instead of being fixed, this mistake is exasperated by Season 10, which also tries to recreate Season 1.

Show of hands: Everyone in agreement?

But that's counterproductive, counterintuitive writing that reveals a lack of faith in your own work. Seasons 1-3 were great. But so were seasons 4-7, which I find were even better. And they could have had the best of both worlds with what they started in season 8.

The fact is you can't go back in time. Those so-called fans who only like the early seasons really need to be ignored. They have the DVDs and can watch them any time. But a good show, which this is, takes the time to GROW and develop, which they DID, and that should be honored. So, stop trying to go back and recreate Season 1 and lets move forward again.

"Trojan": This was partly funny, particularly with the way resentment makes Arnold, Howard and Crawford's faces freeze up. We meet Rimmer's brother, Howard, who reveals he's a failure too. And Naylor gets to vent his annoyance at having to be on hold forever on the phone, something we can all relate to. This isn't a bad episode overall, but there are some flaws, like the fact that Rimmer's older brother looks 20 years younger than him. But a more serious issue is how Kryten is now being used almost solely for technical exposition. It slows down the narrative, isn't funny and ultimately makes Kryten boring, something that was never the case until this season. Kryten always served for exposition, but he was never a pedant, so why are they giving him all these long science speeches? And they do it all season long! Apart from that, the problem with this episode is that tonally it belonged in Series III or IV. Rating C

The spinning beach balls of death!

"Fathers and Suns": Easily the best episode of this season. Pree is great. Craig Charles is also great playing father and son to himself. The ending is a bit daft, but not bad. My problem with the episode is that it would have been better served if Holly (meaning Hattie Hayridge, who is still missed) was the one who saved the day and came up with the paradigm that stopped Pree. And it would've been great in the beginning to have them comparing how smart Pree is compared to Holly, upsetting her, and drawing a parallel to Series II's "Queeg." And then, even after choosing Pree, Holly saves them anyway. B-

Sadly, we Pree-dict that this character will never be seen again.

"Lemons": Naylor's thinly-disguised rant against religion could've been either funny or offensive, but because he writes it like a 15-year-old (which makes me wonder if his son is helping write scripts now) it's mostly irritating and unfunny, and particularly if you have any kind of knowledge of the subjects he's ranting against, or if you don't find Jesus a douche, pacifism sissyish, and the Old Testament misogynistic. The equivalent would be like trying to write hard sci-fi but not having the first clue about science. Or trying to write about China, but basing everything on stereotypes of how some people think China is. That's how this episode comes across, and that's lazy writing. I had a feeling this would be the case when they made fun of Cat for not knowing that Jesus would be 23 years old because the year is 23 AD; see, a basic Google search would've revealed that Jesus was born 2-5 years prior to the AD designation. Then there's the joke that bags weren't around in 23 AD; but that only serves to make Kryten look like an idiot because bags have been around since ancient Egypt and probably earlier. Judas himself -- one of the main jokes of the episode (after bags) -- is shown in the Bible carrying a bag around. So, F- for being unfunny and lazy and not doing a smidgen of research on the subject matter, but also for portraying pacifists as dopey idiots. This was done as well in "Demons and Angels," and I didn't care for it there. Yes, it's a joke, but done twice now it comes across more like an uneducated and false representation of principled non-violence, which doesn't walk with open arms into harm's way like Jesus and the angelic crew of the Red Dwarf do in the latter episode. 

When life gives you lemons, you make an historically
inaccurate episode about Jesus.

"Entangled": Lister loses Starbug and Rimmer in a card-game with GELFs. This is a kind of recycling of ideas from earlier episodes (e.g., "Infinity Crisis"), but isn't as creative or funny. There is the legitimately hilarious quantum-entanglement scenario of Cat and Kryten, but the episode loses points for both the absurd idea that the BEGGS would choke to death (b/c Lister doesn't choke when playing poker) and that there would be a science lab where every scientist is always wrong. Sorry, I'm just not buying that, not even for a comedy as cartoonish as this show sometimes gets ("Pete" from season 8 being the worst offender until now). And how about the fact that in the very next episode Lister is depressed that he's the last member of the human race, but there was a beautiful female specimen of the race onboard their very ship, who, when she accidentally fell out of the airlock, Lister makes a joke! Since when is he so callous that he would be so cavalier? It's as if the writer doesn't know who Lister is or only cared about the punchline (which wasn't funny). F!

How could something so right go so wrong?

"Dear Dave": Another episode that goes nowhere, establishes nothing, does nothing and was clearly designed to save money. First of all, Dave being depressed about the loss of the human race belongs in seasons 1-3. By now, there are not only clear remnants of the human race alive and well, starting with Kochanski, but there's also the entire crew of the resurrected Red Dwarf, many who left with Captain Hollister, and many who stayed on the ship (which clearly did not get destroyed at the end of season 8). So, forget like, oh I don't know, searching for Kochanski, instead Dave is moping around, pining over some old girlfriend we've never before heard of before, who might have born his children... 3 million years ago. WHO CARES ABOUT THIS!?! And in the end, the whole "drama" of this episode didn't matter anyway. Even the "humping vending machine" scene, which is funny, is kind of ripped off from the much better "humping Kryten" scene in "Polymorph." D.

Why did you touch my logo?

Do you see how this season is just irritating me? It's bizarre; I've never had this reaction to Red Dwarf before now! Even Back to Earth didn't aggravate me like this. 

"The Beginning": First off, the first episode of Season I was called "The End." There's no other relation to that first episode, and it's clearly neither an end, nor a beginning. So, unless this is meant to be the final episode (and if so there's no indication of it), why call it this? Moving on, this is an idea that could've been great! But it's not, and that's because it's underdeveloped and ultimately pointless. I know a lot of it was cribbed from the movie, but I can only judge it for it is, and not what it was meant to be. We start off with a friendly simulant who we've never before met, but who everyone onboard knows well. I guess that's the joke of the scene, although it feels like it's tacked on for the sake of the joke. Ok, fine; it leads to the attack of the simulant death ship, which leads to an Empire Strikes Back homage in an asteroid field. Only Rimmer can save them, and this leads to his discovery that his father is, in fact, not his father, allowing him to purge his negative emotions. This is somewhat lessened in impact because of what Howard revealed about being a failure as well, but ok. The big problem with this is that, once again, it's an episode that belonged in Series 4. It's also a big waste because they establish the Death Simulants as a potentially interesting group of villains, and then fifteen minutes later they destroy them, which is a missed opportunity for future storytelling. C.

How dare you! I challenge you to a duel across time and space!

Overall, this was a sad and terrible season that seems to betray the characters and fans (at least those of us who've actually paid attention to the development of the characters) in some vain attempt to recapture the feeling of the first few seasons but with better effects. Yet, all the great special effects can't cover up how hollow these episodes feel.

Even the menus on the DVD/blu-ray are wrong. After 8 seasons of a very clever menu design, we're given a lame "modern" menu that's boring, lacking charm and all the fun bits to it. The documentary is awful too. Instead of having a second documentary for the special effects, which they used to have, they jammed it all into the one documentary which makes it really hard to sit through!

Look, everyone's entitled to an off-period. But maybe the magic's gone. Hopefully Naylor will get his stuff together and conclude Red Dwarf properly because if he doesn't, then Red Dwarf for me will have ended at Series 8.

Like so.

My thoughts for the next series is that it should be arc-driven, focused on the search for Kochanski; it needs to restore the characters to who they were at the end of Season 8, and explain what happened in the interim that led to Kochanski leaving in the first place; it needs to explain what happened to the resurrected Rimmer and how he became hologram Rimmer, and ignore any insinuation that he's the Rimmer from seasons 1-7. They should also bring back Hattie Hayridge as Holly, and go more for the style and mood of Season 7, which allowed for more character-driven, dramatic elements alongside the kind of humor and wild storytelling elements we saw in Seasons 5 and 6. 

Something we haven't seen are overarching villains, so that might prove interesting and different as well, particularly if they're holding Kochanski. It should be epic, and wild, and hysterical and dark and light and sweet, and in the end, Lister and Kochanski should end up with Kryten, both Hollys, Cat, Female Cat, Rimmer and Yvonne McGruder in Fiji to live happily ever after and fulfill "Future Echoes." 

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, Joe turned his fascination to Baum’s Land of Oz, and he created The Royal Timeline of Oz website, a comprehensive chronology of all the Oz and Oz-related stories written since 1899, the X-Files Chronology and A Chronology of Middle-Earth.  

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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