For me, the Red Dwarf canon ended on November 11th 1993 with the words “To Be Continued…” scrawled across flaming remains of a recently exploded Starbug 1. Since then, it has been one crushing disappointment after another. I knew right after the first episode of Red Dwarf VII that things had changed. It had been less than four years years since the last series, but this was the first new Red Dwarf I had ever been excited about (series 6 ended when I was about 9 years old), but there was something missing.
Then series 8 was announced and I prayed for a return to form, only to be let down again. Back To Earth surfaced a few years later and though it was somewhat better, to my lowered expectations at least, it was still far away from the glory days. So, it was no surprise that upon hearing the news of a new series, I was ambivalent, to say the least. Then the release day came closer and the reviews of the first episode started appearing in the papers. They spoke of a “return to form” and of “going back to the old days”, they spoke of a new dawn for all those broken-hearted Dwarfers. Even those who didn’t like the show originally found something positive to say. Surely they couldn’t all be wrong. Right?
Well, time and age had made me cynical. We lived in a post 9/11 world where the ravages of terrorism, so long the domain of Western governments or restricted to faraway lands, had been turned upon us. Now nothing was certain. There were stories across all news networks of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. All were fabrications based on dodgy dossiers, misinformation and outright lies. Yet the unquestioning press ate it all up, when even the most cursory of examinations showed all these tales to be patently false. All they had to do, was to do their job. If they were so blatantly wrong about something so massive, how could they possibly be trusted to evaluate the quality of a mere TV show? So, I went into the show with no expectations, my heart hardened from too many broken promises. It was only then did I discover the truth, the truth I will now share with you.
To be honest, it wasn’t that bad.
True, it wasn’t great, certainly not a patch on the glory days of series I-VI, but it was the best series since the departure of co-creator Rob Grant. The show still misses him, desperately. This is not to suggest that he was the driving force behind the show’s brilliance or that the show would be better if he were to write it alone, for having seen some of his subsequent work, I doubt that very much. But as a pairing he and Doug Naylor worked perfectly. They created a foil for each other to bounce ideas off, to refine ideas, to trim them back to the best bits and to shoot down the rubbish ideas. Without that, there is just one man and his ego. We’ve all got a favourite band of old which have split up to pursue their own musical interests with disastrous results. This is the same.
The series was awash with recycled plots, stupid set-ups and worse gags than the result of being locked in Lister’s sock basket. If there was one episode in serious need of proper script editing, this was it. For example, the first episode contained a joke about Swedish drivers and moose, which referenced several times in the first 15 minutes. It was drawn out, as if he couldn’t think of enough material to fill the episode otherwise. Defenders might argue “but it was funny” and to a point they are correct. But when you have to sacrifice any sense of coherence and common sense to get to the punch line, then it’s just not worth it. Personally, I find it difficult to laugh with a sour taste in my mouth. Then there is episode two with the “this obviously isn’t racist because we say it is racist and are therefore being ironic” subplot about whether the phrase Chinese whispers is racist or not, with predictable results. This is not the Red Dwarf I know and love. Prolonged pieces of observational humour shoe-horned in about being kept on hold, the problems of predictive technology (where you can literally imagine Grant staring at the incorrect word on his phone and thinking to himself “that would be a funny Red Dwarf moment”), IKEA, and health and safety legislation.
Then there are the recycled plot lines. Rimmer’s light bee crashes because of years of built-up resentment in episode 1 is exactly the same as Kryten’s head exploding (series VII, episode, “Beyond A Joke”). The insane computer applying the letter of the law in episode 2 brings back memories of Queeg (series II, episode 5, “Queeg”). The gross out humour, though funny in episode 3, brings back memories of the opening of Polymorph, whilst assembling the rejuvenation machine is like reassembling Kryten (series V, episode 3, “Terrorform”). Episode 4 has coincidence instead of luck and episode 5 has mechanical humping, again a reference to Polymorph. Then there are the expansions on the older jokes, which by defining and solidifying them, take away from their magic. Sometimes hinting at something is funnier than actually showing it. Expanding on the Lister as his own father bit, on the Judas name bit, a not-so-funny twist on the Kryten’s groinal attachment bit. All of these feel as if they were rejected from earlier episodes and that this series has been put together from the leftover scraps from previous series.
This is without mentioning all the various plot holes. For example, Jesus being able to understand modern-day English writing when anyone who’s ever read Shakespeare knows how difficult it is to understand something 600 years old, let alone a thousand years old. As for that, why would the device not only take them back in time, but transport them millions of light years through space? There is also the running out of anaesthetic. How would they use enough of it for 1,000 or so people, but have toilet roll to waste? And don’t get me started on that coincidence nonsense…
I also have particular distain for Rimmer’s brother not being a captain in the Space Corps, which goes against everything that makes Rimmer who he is. And all for a gag that wasn’t particularly funny to begin with.
Even though I have been unrelentingly bitter about the whole thing so far, there are some redeeming features. There were quite a lot of good jokes and the humour certainly did seem a bit more old school. In particular, The Cat was more like The Cat, and Kryten, who had been stripped of every last visage of self-respect and realistic character development, seem more like his old self, not whining in the most horrendous fashion every five seconds. I particularly enjoyed a lot of the quips, with “slower than the speed of dark” being a personal favourite.
It is also worth pointing out that this is Red Dwarf X. Before this, it was Back to Earth and before that it was Red Dwarf VIII, but that it was explicitly pointed out that Back to Earth is not and should not be considered to be Red Dwarf IX. There is essentially a missing series, which one would presume, would resolve the situation found at the end of series XIII where the ship is disintegrating. It might also shed a bit more light on why Kochanski left and how hologram Rimmer returned and if he, or indeed if any of the crew are the original characters from previous series, or just a close approximation in a parallel universe. Also, where is Holly? But these are questions for hardcore Dwarfers and needn’t play too heavily on the minds of the casual viewer.
I mention this now, because by the end of the final episode, none of these things had been resolved and in fact, more questions were raised. For example, Rimmer died during the drive plate radiation leak, yet it is suggested that he (accidently, or otherwise) rescued everyone at the end of series 8, which leaves open the possibility that he as Ace Rimmer rescued them. But then that simply raises more questions.
It is worth taking a moment to speak specifically of episode 6. Out of a largely uneven series with a fair number of weak jokes and weaker plot points, this was no exception in either regard. Yet, it was by far the best episode of the series. By far. I laughed a lot and felt that they finally got the feel of the show right, even if the set was too clean-looking. It was like a rejected episode of series VI, which is no bad thing. In fact, it makes it the best episode for 19 years.
Before the episode, I was convinced the entire series had enough good jokes for one great episode, by the end of the episode, they had enough for one-and-a-half episodes. It left me nostalgic and wanting more. It restored in me a sense of faith for the future. Yes, the world is still a dangerous place, fraught with uncertainties and pitfalls. And yes, we are still a way away from the heights of classic Red Dwarf, but by god if we can make it this far in such uncertain times then perhaps in the future we can make it all the way. Victory is by no means certain and defeat is all but guaranteed, but as long as there is hope, there is a reason to go on. So I say, bring it on. Let’s see boys fly on for another series.