Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Red Dwarf X - Trojan


I’ve been a fan of Red Dwarf ever since I first discovered it playing on YTV in the early 90’s here in Canada. It was a brilliant mix of science fiction, great characters, and absolutely hilarious comedy. The fact that it was a science fiction comedy series when science fiction comedies were extremely rare (they still are) certainly helped make it stand out, but it had much more going for it that made it unique: the last human alive, travelling with a very small band of misfits, three million years away from Earth. I was hooked right away.

The series went through a number of changes through its original eight years. Series I and II had the feel of a standard sitcom that just happened to take place on a spaceship in deep space. While there were many science fiction elements, the focus was very squarely on the relationships between the characters of Lister, Rimmer, and Cat. Series III began making the science fiction elements more overt and upped the slapstick and silliness factors considerably. It also added the android Kryten to the main cast. The next few years kept to much the same pattern, although even so, there were changes, such as the gradual fading out of the computer, Holly, and the complete loss of Red Dwarf itself in Series VI. In general, Series III through VI are the most highly regarded by fans (although I and II certainly have their defenders, too). It is certainly true that some of the best and funniest episodes (like “Gunmen of the Apocalypse”) come from that period, although the same could be said of some of the worst (“Meltdown” comes to mind).

Red Dwarf VII brought with it some major changes. The writing team of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who had been overseeing and co-writing the entire series had broken up. Rob Grant went his own way and the show fell completely under the control of Doug Naylor. There were changes on-screen too, as Chris Barrie wanted to move on from playing Rimmer in order to do other things. So Rimmer was written out of the show and Chloë Annett joined as Kochanski, Lister’s old love interest (previously played by C.P. Grogan). This Kochanski was from an alternate universe where she had survived instead of Lister. Although Series VII is not as highly regarded amongst fans, I’ve always rather liked it. Apart from the cast changes, I don’t find it that different in style to the previous few series, and it’s still very much Red Dwarf at heart.

Series VIII brought more changes, and they were the biggest changes yet. The entire crew of Red Dwarf, including Rimmer, was brought back to life, and the stories now involved a larger cast on a much bigger, fully staffed Red Dwarf. Red Dwarf VIII is easily the least-well regarded series of Red Dwarf as a whole, and for somewhat good reason. Despite that, I do have to give it credit for doing something new. Doug Naylor clearly realized that the show couldn’t stay the same forever without becoming stale, so took a risk and made changes. The risk may not have worked out perfectly, but the show was far from a disaster. It may not have been Red Dwarf at its best, but it had some very good moments and remained reasonably funny, even if not hilarious.

And that was it for Red Dwarf for a good decade or so. Then, a couple years ago, the British digital station, Dave, announced that it had acquired the rights from the BBC and was bringing Red Dwarf back in a new miniseries: Back to Earth. When it aired, there had been a lot of changes again. Gone were the live studio audiences; Back to Earth was filmed like a movie. The old model-work special effects were now entirely computer generated. Most notably, the cast was back to the four core characters of Lister, Rimmer, Cat, and Kryten. Set several years after Red Dwarf VIII (a wise decision given the actors had all aged somewhat), the crew of Red Dwarf was once again dead (although no explanation was given as to what exactly happened to them), Rimmer was dead and a hologram again, and Kochanski had left, apparently dead, but revealed later in the story to have faked her death and left Red Dwarf to get away from Lister.

Back to Earth was not a particularly good example of Red Dwarf. The script was not the best, the comedy was somewhat forced, and the new CG effects just didn’t look like Red Dwarf from before (even though the sets often changed in the original series, there was a certain typical look to them that was abandoned for Back to Earth). On the whole, fans didn’t particularly like Back to Earth, but nonetheless it was a hit on Dave, bringing in high ratings and proving popular enough that Dave decided to bring it back as a full series.

So now we have Red Dwarf X (Back to Earth is retroactively considered Red Dwarf IX). It is very much a return to the basics: the four main characters alone in Red Dwarf, encountering strange and often threatening parts of the universe. The first episode, “Trojan”, feels very much like an episode from Series IV or V. There’s an abundance of silliness, good character work, and laugh-out-loud comedy. There’s even a studio audience again. Most importantly, the episode is a lot of fun, and it makes a great return and re-introduction to Red Dwarf.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Trojan” has a pretty straight-forward storyline. It’s a fairly simple tale of Rimmer meeting the hologram of one of his brothers and having to deal with the jealousy and resentment he’s always had towards his brothers, only to find out that Howard has always had just as much resentment and jealousy towards Rimmer. Even though the episode is focused on Rimmer, there actually isn’t that much development of Rimmer as a character. For that matter, there’s not much development of any of the characters. They’re all noticeably older than they used to be and more mature, though not really any wiser. While in some circumstances, this might bother me, it works exceedingly well here. This episode needs to re-introduce the show not just to its fans, but also to people who either haven’t seen the original in a long time (it’s been thirteen years since Red Dwarf VIII) or never saw the original at all. As such, it needs to establish the base characters before it can develop them, and it does that very well. The core personality of each of the main characters comes across very clearly. These are very much the same people (if a little older) from the original series. Further development (and I am quite confident that there will be further development) can come in later episodes. “Trojan” also doesn’t waste time on backstories or explaining why they’re alone in outer space and how Lister ended up being the last human alive, and so some new viewers may be left a little confused by that. However, the backstories are pretty much irrelevant to the events of the episode, and I think most new viewers will come to understand the characters well enough that they won’t really care that the backstories aren’t immediately apparent.

Although there’s not a lot of character development, there is some development of Rimmer, mainly through introducing us to one of his brothers (previously only mentioned) and allowing us to see the dynamic between them. I like how similar to the two brothers turn out to be, both in character and appearance. Mark Dexter is a good choice to play Howard Rimmer, as he bears a strong physical resemblance to Chris Barrie. He does look somewhat younger than Barrie, which is perhaps a bit odd as Howard is supposed to be the older brother. However, there is a possible clue to that in the story. In describing what happened to his ship, Howard says that they were attacked “two days ago” and all the crew were killed. Considering it’s three million years in the future and all of humanity is dead, it seems unlikely that there was a fully crewed Earth ship running about just two days ago. Perhaps the ship was actually attacked three million years ago, and Sim Crawford only turned Howard’s hologram back on two days ago, making him think only two days have passed. As such, he also hasn’t aged as much as his brother, who has been running as a hologram continuously for a decade or more (it is interesting that holograms can age). Of course, this is all wild conjecture on my part, and it’s entirely possible I’m reading way too much into one little line. However, it would explain the age disparity. Then again, maybe Arnold Rimmer’s brother is just naturally younger looking.

While “Trojan” may not spend a whole lot of time on character development, it does spend a lot of time ramping up the comedy, essential to hooking in an audience, both old and new audiences alike. Like any comedy, not every joke works, but most do, and much of this episode is utterly side-splittingly hilarious. The pay-off of the moose joke, in particular, had me in stitches both times I watched it. Indeed, I’d say this one episode had more laugh-aloud moments than all three episodes of Back to Earth combined, possibly more than most of Red Dwarf VIII. What’s best is that the comedy isn’t at the expense of the characters, but rather driven by the characters. While it’s unlikely that any real person would ever spend hours on hold just to order a silly item seen on a shopping channel and later to make a complaint about being on hold so long, I can believe that Lister would, especially a Lister who’s spent a couple decades alone with no one but a hologram, a cat, and an android to talk to.

There are also some good nods to Red Dwarf continuity (which, admittedly, is a bit of a mess at times), done in a way that introduces a new audience to the setting without confusing them. The inclusion of Sim Crawford is a good example of this. The presence of simulants in the setting and what they are is wonderfully handled when Howard asks Arnold why he has Kryten, a mechanoid, when he could get a simulant, like Crawford. I love the description of the “underprivileged” and finding Kryten as a burnt-out wreck on a junk heap. “And you rebuilt him,” Howard says, “gave him something to live for.” “No,” Arnold replies, “we just hosed him down and gave him a hat.”

While Back to Earth dispensed with the studio audience and was filmed like a movie, Red Dwarf X has returned to the studio, something that I think is both beneficial, but also a touch detrimental. Honestly, I’ve never been fond of the sitcom-style of filming in front of audiences. I find the laughter usually quite distracting, especially when it’s just recorded laughter played over something that is decidedly not funny (luckily, Red Dwarf has never been guilty of this; even Series VII, which was filmed first and then played before a live audience, never resorted to fake laughter). So when I heard that Back to Earth wasn’t going to have the audience, I was initially happy and looking forward to that, only to be a little surprised that I actually ended up missing it. I was doubly surprised to find the laughter in “Trojan” somewhat comforting. It’s like I’m so used to hearing people laughing during Red Dwarf that I now expect it and it just isn’t Red Dwarf without it. That said, the audience in this episode is quite rambunctious, and at times a little overpowering. I suspect this has to do with the fact that the audience is made up of diehard fans, who, upon hearing that Red Dwarf was coming back, rushed out to secure tickets to the recordings. It will be interesting to see if the very loud laughter continues over the rest of the series or if they find a way of toning it down a bit more in post-production.

Another thing that makes Red Dwarf X feel very much like Red Dwarf of old is its return to using models for the special effects. It’s unusual these days for science fiction shows to use model effects when computer effects are generally cheaper and more reliable. However, the effects in “Trojan” hold up very well against the most advanced CG effects seen in other shows. The Red Dwarf ship, in particular, looks very good. The one shot of Starbug is a little less successful, but still decent. The model effects also evoke a nostalgic feeling. They look like Red Dwarf, whereas the CG effects in Back to Earth simply didn’t.

Overall, I enjoyed “Trojan” immensely. It is hilarious and fun. It may not be the best Red Dwarf episode ever, but it’s a great return for the show after such a long break, and I can’t wait to see the remaining episodes of the series. Red Dwarf is well and truly back!

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