“While you sleep, we’re probably saving the universe.” – Space Corps slogan
“While you sleep, we’re probably shaving off your pubes and gluing them to your head.” – Dave Lister
Ten years ago, I would never have expected to see new series of Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Dallas. Yet they all came back, and were actually rather good. Now, after 2009’s misfire ‘special’ Back to Earth, Red Dwarf too is back for its first proper series since 1999. And like the others, it’s also actually rather good.
If you’re my age, you probably have a nostalgia for the early to mid-90s, when Red Dwarf really hit its peak originally. Series 1 and 2, both in 1988, were pretty good, but it was with series 3, 4 and 5 that it really got the formula right – a perfect synthesis of high concept sci fi and traditional sitcom. When series co-creator Rob Grant left, leaving Doug Naylor to go it alone, it went a bit too far down the ‘sci fi’ route at the expense of the comedy, with ambitious, over complicated multi-part stories.
The nadir of that trend was perfectly encapsulated in the 2009 comeback Back to Earth, which was little more than a self-referential, self-indulgent rerun of classic series 5 episode Back to Reality. Back to Earth was three times as long and about a tenth as good; there were a few good gags and character moments, but it really had little to offer beyond a redundant restaging of Blade Runner and some post modern fourth wall breaking. It didn’t help that there were no actual sets (all CG), and no studio audience for the cast to bounce off.
So for this new series, it’s gone back to basics. Single episode stories, told in half an hour, with no complex continuity and a decent balance of comedy and sci fi. Let’s be honest, the comedy in Red Dwarf was never what you’d call cutting edge or groundbreaking – stick those characters in a 1950s army base and you’d basically have Sgt Bilko. But traditional though it was, the comedy worked because it had well-crafted characters, some good gags and perfectly timed performances from a cast who had genuine chemistry.
And now they’re back. Noticeably older, yet still very much the same people. Lister is still a “semi-literate space bum” who’s smarter than he lets on, Rimmer is still “a sad weasel of a man”, Kryten is still a neurotic mess, and the Cat is still shallow, superficial and comically dumb. There’s a comforting familiarity about this that Back to Earth never seemed to quite capture. True, Kryten now has a beer gut (impressive for a mechanoid), and Lister is noticeably pudgier, but it’s the old guys behaving in the old ways.
Still not groundbreaking stuff, but genuinely funny – if you’re looking for groundbreaking, look somewhere else. Half the fun of the comedy is in its sheer inevitability; you just know Rimmer’s well-crafted air of sanguinity (“hey ho, pip and dandy”) won’t last as soon as he sees he’s failed his astro-nav exam again. The fun is in seeing how long it takes for him to crumble and how Chris Barrie’s face will contort when he does. Sure enough, it hit with perfect timing, and Barrie’s face was an utter picture.
Elsewhere, running gags involving the high incidence of moose-related car accidents in 70s Sweden or the agony of being endlessly on hold with an inane shopping channel were delivered with exquisite timing both on the part of the cast and the director (Doug Naylor back at the helm again). Having a studio audience has really helped here. It was notable that the old series 7, the only one until Back to Earth without an audience, never sparked properly in humour terms either.
The plot, such as it was, was fitted in between various sketch-like comic exchanges, just as it ever was. It involved the crew salvaging another space derelict that turned out to be a super duper Space Corps ship just like the ones Rimmer’s loathsomely successful brothers commanded. Then lo and behold, who should turn up but Rimmer’s brother Howard, also a hologram, leaving Arnie J no option but to pretend to be Captain of the Space Corps ship.
As a result, we got some of the digs at the style of Star Trek pomposity Red Dwarf has always delighted in puncturing. The crew wear “snug, elasticated jumpsuits”, the control board has a “green glowing thing”, the captain’s chair has “a whole 40 buttons”, and turning right is signified by everyone aboard leaning in the same direction.
But as ever, the humour was counterpointed with the real pathos that comes from having genuinely likeable characters. As Rimmer discovered that his brother wasn’t a Space Corps captain after all, but a lowly vending machine repairman just like him, it threw his character into sharp relief. He may be a “cancerous polyp on the anus of humanity”, but you understand why and even (reluctantly) care about him.
There were plenty of callouts to the past to please the fanboys; references to Petersen (originally played by Mark Williams) and Kochanski (thankfully not here) were present and correct. Howard Goodall’s title music was unchanged, and his incidental score even included a repeat of the Rimmer Munchkin Song melody in Arnold’s last scene with his brother.
This episode felt like a throwback to 1993, when the show as at its best. Fanboys might be annoyed at the lack of resolution to previous plot points; how did the Dwarf escape the corrosive virus at the end of series 8, what happened to the rest of the resurrected crew, why is Rimmer now dead and a hologram again, whatever happened to Kochanski? But Red Dwarf, much like Doctor Who, has never been afraid to junk established continuity for the sake of a good (and funny) story. I don’t care that the boys from the Dwarf are older, or that they’re doing the same things they always did. It’s just good to have them back, and back on form.