Well, that was surprisingly…not terrible.
It might not win me any points in the serious movie critic stakes but way back in the day I was a big fan of Red Dwarf. Round about the end of the 1980s, when the original run of Doctor Who was going through an extended and widely derided death rattle and plush US product such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X Files were yet to wash up on the shores of British programming, there wasn’t a whole lot of TV sci-fi to choose from. There was however a comedy series set on a mining ship three million years in the future which over six series quietly evolved from a zero-budget variation of the classic “two men who can’t stand each other trapped in a room” sit-com scenario (see Steptoe and Son) to a witty and tightly paced vehicle for some really imaginative takes on the sort of ideas about identity that wouldn’t be out of place in a Philip K. Dick story. Characters would come face-to-face with alternate, and frequently deviant, versions of themselves, or be suddenly woken up to the horrible realisation that their whole existence has been a video game. It was in some ways pretty heady stuff for something made by the light entertainment department. In other ways however Red Dwarf qualified easily as a classic sit-com, with its strong character-based humour deriving naturally from the interactions between its small cast of misfits and losers: Lister the slob, Rimmer the officious coward (deceased), the wisecracking narcissist Cat and the fussy and neurotic service-droid Kryten. The fifth series in particular is for me one of the most consistently funny and rewatchable batch of comedies the BBC ever put out, up there with the best of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder (and God knows how many times I rewatched it back in the days before I could entertain myself with DVDs and multi-screen arthouse cinemas).
And then, as any long-running series tends to, it went off the boil. By the mid-90s the Dwarf was a definite cult, with the weight of expectation that implies, and the seventh and eighth series were both disappointments. Part of this is down to personnel changes – co-creator Rob Grant had left, leaving his partner Doug Naylor to recruit other writers to help him with the scripts, and crucially actor Chris Barrie took a sabbatical, leaving four episodes fatally Rimmer-less – but the main factor in the relative failure of these shows is the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided decision to water down Red Dwarf‘s original premise, firstly by tacking towards comedy-drama rather than out-and-out laughs, and then by introducing a resurrected full ship’s crew. In addition to this, the neat and ingenious cod-scientific concepts at the heart of the episodes had been largely replaced by slick but facile digital effects. It all just wasn’t the same, and the series was rested in 1999, with vague talk about a feature film not exactly inspiring hope in the fans that remembered how specious a similar aspiration regarding the future of the never officially cancelled Doctor Who had turned out to be.
Now then. We’re not quite three million years into the future yet but we’re far enough for there to now be myriad digital TV channels looking around for audience-pulling content and no cult series can now be left in peace if there’s any possibility of milking it further. One of the more prominent of these channels is called Dave, and it’s probably best known for endlessly re-running old editions of Top Gear to reasonably healthy effect, in terms of ratings anyway. A while back they also started repeating Red Dwarf, which is in some ways a pretty good fit for the station’s cheerily laddy image, what with the running jokes about lager and curry and personal hygiene and the all-male crew who never encounter women who aren’t either impossible objects of desire or homicidal dominatrixes. Again the ratings were good, so when Dave started to get serious about generating some original programming the Dwarf seemed like a prime candidate for a re-boot, given that the cast and writer were still alive and kicking, and the BBC didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing the show. The first fruit of the revivified franchise emerged in 2009 in the form of a three part special called Red Dwarf: Back To Earth (or IX if we’re keeping count), and although it was a bit cheap and shoddy and got fairly mauled critically it did at least prove that there was still an appetite for this stuff. A full series of six half hour episodes got commissioned and it’s this that’s just finished its run as Red Dwarf X.
The new series has got all the significant players in position, though it’s a shame that Rob Grant didn’t come back as a co-writer. It’s got the same cast, although as the ship computer Holly doesn’t appear neither do either Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, and over twenty years down the line they really don’t look half bad and are as on top of their characters as ever. Danny John-Jules in particular doesn’t look a day older than he did in 1988. The theme music and opening montage are present and correct, as are the Alien-inspired spaceship sets, and while I can’t quite work out how it fits exactly with the continuity of the earlier series that’s not the sort of thing it’s worth losing sleep about.
And you know what? It’s surprisingly not terrible. And you know what else? Unlike series VII and VIII it actually feels like Red Dwarf. Like old old Red Dwarf actually, as in the first couple of series before the sci-fi and action elements started coming to the fore. It’s probably more to do with budgetary limitations than anything else, but this series restores the claustrophobic time-killing feel of yore, with many scenes being basically extended rants or petty arguments about protocol or wistful reminisces or workings out of personal complexes. There is usually a storyline or two but there’s no desperate urgency on the part of either the writer or the characters to get on to the next plot point, and one of the best episodes (Dear Dave) is quite happy not to get started at all and exist solely as a deep space shaggy dog story. And despite the generally relaxed tone there are one or two cleverly worked through faux sci-fi devices that stand comparison to the Dwarf of my youth (the condescending computer that predicts behaviour and adjusts conditions accordingly and the teleporter that’s powered by lemons, for example). I had low expectations but I found myself laughing quite a few times once I’d adjusted to the pace (and the ad-breaks! Sacrilege!) While this is hardly a Universe-bestriding triumph of a resurrection on the scale of 21st Century Doctor Who it’s still very nice to spend some time with. Preferably with some tins of lager and a takeaway. Not terrible is the new cutting-edge, and I’m old enough to be very comfortable with that.