The Dwarf and the new season


When I started this blog, I used to do catch-all round ups of TV shows I’d watched recently; but over the last couple of years, it’s tended more towards episode by episode reviews of specific shows. But it occurred to me that, however good it is, there’s not usually enough in each episode of the new Red Dwarf to warrant my usual lengthy musings, and maybe I should use it as an anchor for a periodic return to my older format. So here goes….

This week’s Dwarf, while perhaps not as much fun as the first, was still a successful effort in the show’s ongoing attempt to recapture what made it so loved in the first place. In this, it’s largely succeeded; the cast may look older, but otherwise it feels eerily like a stasis leak back to the early 90s. I’m loving that the new sets have the same chamringly low-budget feel as the original – where once you could identify Ford Granada dashboard panels built into the walls of Starbug, now you can see the backs of old CRT televisions sprayed red protruding from the Dwarf’s inner hull.

This week’s plot concerned Rimmer and Kryten installing a new ship’s computer to replace the much-missed Holly, only to find that it was efficient to the point of (logical) murderousness. Meanwhile, the script dealt amusingly with some recursive concepts that only a sci fi sitcom could do. As established in series 7 episode Ouroboros, Lister is actually his own father, and the episode amusingly showed how this mind-bending paradox might be stretched to accommodate a ‘normal’ father/son relationship.

In keeping with Lister’s personality, this involved him getting drunk and leaving his ‘son’ (ie himself) video messages that he wouldn’t remember from the previous night’s intoxication. Craig Charles’ interactions with his drunken self on the screen were not only funny, but actually felt like they had something to say about the relationship between fathers and sons.

The other recursive subplot (tied neatly into the main plot, as was Lister’s) was Kryten’s attempt to establish, via asking around of the food dispensing machines, whether the term “Chinese whispers” was as racist as Rimmer claimed. Of course, this descended into a game of Chinese whispers itself; as the question was passed around, it became so distorted that eventually the machines, having started with “is Chinese whispers racist?” were asking each other “do Chinese knickers have braces?” All of which was funny, but slightly undermined by Kerry Shale’s astonishingly stereotypical voice acting for ‘Taiwanese Tony’, which sounded like the crudest Asian parody I’d ever heard – and that really is racist.

All of this served to distract attention from the fact that the central plot’s main idea was essentially identical to series 2 episode Queeg, in which Holly’s incompetence triggered his replacement by the Dwarf’s tyrannical backup computer (actually faked by Holly himself). The glamorous jobsworth computer Pree was eventually defeated by a logic trap laid by, surprisingly, Lister – a classic sci fi convention played straight, which seemed to lack the usual clever inversion in Doug Naylor’s scripts.

It was plenty enjoyable still, though it threw Holly’s absence into sharp relief. Yes, his/her role as chief of exposition was largely rendered redundant when Kryten became a regular, and Norman Lovett’s return in series 8 was mostly to deliver a few hit and miss gags that had little point. But Holly did coexist with Kryten for series 3,4 and 5, and the character is missed, by me at least. I’m assuming that neither Lovett nor Hattie Hayridge wanted to return, which is a shame – it’s the one glaring difference from the show’s glory years.

Over the pond, the new US TV season has now started in earnest, bringing back some old favourites and the usual slew of promising newbies whose survival beyond mid-season is perilous in the cutthroat world of the networks.


First back was last year’s critically acclaimed popular hit Homeland. Based on an Israeli show, it was basically a (slightly) more thoughtful version of 24, with which it shares a showrunner in Howard Gordon, in which troubled CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) must determine whether returned POW Sgt Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has actually been turned in captivity to work for Al Qaeda.

A tense but slightly anticlimactic ending showed that indeed he had, but turned back from his attempted suicide bombing of the Vice President by dint of his own conscience, pledging to advance the interests of the Middle East via political means rather than terrorism. Carrie, driven to ECT treatment by her undeclared bipolar disorder, was meanwhile turfed out of the CIA but remembered a crucial bit of evidence just as she went under the electrodes…

As its inspiration, Hatufim, was a one season show, the problem for Homeland’s return was managing to credibly retain its two main characters despite the divergence in their fates. In this, it was only partially successful. Brody, now a Congressman, is on the up politically while Carrie convalesces in the quiet ambience of her dad’s home. But Brody is called back into the service of Abu Nasir with a visit from Palestinian journalist Roya Hammad, and after a bit of conscience-wrestling, is off to CIA chief David Estes’ office to nick a list of potential terror targets.

Carrie is called back into action by Estes (“this is not you getting your job back”), as one of her former informants in Beirut has info about the forthcoming attack, but Carrie is the only one she’ll talk to. Carrie is henceforth sent to Lebanon despite her Ripley-esque qualms, and it’s all back on.

I have to admit, this does strain credulity a fair bit. Carrie is plainly still very unstable; would the CIA, incompetent though it often is, entrust her with a mission of that importance, with that much jeopardy, after it had (justifiably) thrown her to the wolves? It’s presented as a last resort scenario, but still felt like we were straying into the realms of 24-style improbability just to retain a major character.

Brody (whose wife still calls him only by his surname) had a more believable path with his meteoric rise to political success. But another major plot point was his daughter accidentally outing him as a converted Muslim. Again, it strains credulity that, in the current climate, that wouldn’t be all over the papers within minutes.

Still, perhaps it will be in forthcoming episodes. The season premiere felt a little clunky in its need to catch us up on the main characters’ doings, and credibly get them back into action. But I’ve seen the second episode (on UK TV tonight), and with that out of the way, it’s back to unbearably tense set pieces and thrilling action. If you can get past that initial credibility hurdle, I’m pretty sure you’ll start enjoying this as much as the first season.


New to the current crop of US drama is an interesting post-apocalyptic sci fi effort called Revolution. Its central premise is that, fifteen years previously,an unexplained event caused every electrical device on the planet to stop working, with predictable chaos. The drama centres on the dominant militia, the only ones allowed firearms, and the struggle against their totalitarian rule while a mysterious USB stick might just hold the key to getting the power back on.

It’s an interesting premise, played out with Lost-style flashbacks each episode to the immediate aftermath of The Event which explain how the characters came to be in their current situation. Central to the story are the Matheson family, whose father Ben seems to know a lot about The Event; but he’s killed by militia thugs in the opening episode, condemned to appear henceforth only in flashback. With the thugs having kidnapped his son Danny for reasons as yet unknown, his daughter Charlie enlists the help of her long missing uncle Miles in getting her brother back. But Miles has secrets of his own, and they’re to do with the fact that his old US Marine buddy Sebastian is running the militia.

The post-apocalyptic scenario is well-done, with crumbling cityscapes and rusting (current) cars in evidence throughout. Similar shows often eschew such vistas with the (realistic) premise that, after an apocalyptic event, survivors would probably be better off outside of disease-ridden, corpse-strewn, ruined cities. This is not only credible, but keeps the budget nicely low, as you just have to mostly shoot in empty countryside (see the original Survivors for a good example).

But rotting cityscapes still look damned impressive, and Revolution doesn’t skimp on them, however implausible their inclusion may be. It also has well-drawn characters and a lot of thought put into its particular apocalypse (though so far nobody’s mentioned the problem that the human body also runs on electricity).

With post-apocalypse survivalist drama very much in vogue (see also TNT’s post-alien invasion Falling Skies and AMC’s zombie apocalypse The Walking Dead), NBC has thankfully promised that the enjoyable Revolution will run for at least one full season, rather than being cancelled halfway through. As with all shows since Babylon 5, it clearly has an intended long-running story from showrunner Eric Kripke, so let’s hope that it gets to tell it.


Of course the flipside to that is that sometimes shows have a long-running story, reach its conclusion, but the network still want more. A case in point is the show that made Kripke’s name, Supernatural, now back for its eighth season despite the fact that it ran out of story after its fifth.

Supernatural is a sort of blue collar version of The X Files, in which tormented but photogenic brothers Sam and Dean Winchester traverse the US sorting out (ie killing) various monsters derived from classic myth, urban legend, and increasingly, Judeo-Christian lore. Over the first five seasons, this spiralled into a highly enjoyable sub-Milton epic of angels and demons fighting to provoke or avert the apocalypse, which reached a suitably dramatic climax at the end of season 5.

But then it went on. With Kripke having long since departed as showrunner, it’s been patchy since then, with some excellent episodes counterpointed by mediocre or outright rubbish ones, and suffering from the lack of an ongoing story to match the original one. In its place, we’ve had former good guy and renegade angel Castiel trying to set himself up as the new God, and inadvertently releasing Lovecraftian prehistoric beasties the Leviathans onto the world, while Sam struggled with having accidentally left his soul in the pit of Hell.

And now they’re back again, but it’s very much business as usual; we’ve been here before. Dean is back from Purgatory, much to Sam’s lack of surprise; these guys have been killed and resurrected so frequently now that it would be more of a surprise if they stayed dead. At stake is the fate of a ‘Word of God’ tablet showing how to permanently defeat all demons (again). Two episodes in, and the brothers are already enmeshed in a struggle to get it before king of Hell Crowley (the ever-excellent Mark Sheppard) gets his demonic paws on it.

It’s enjoyable enough, and has some tantalising hanging questions; what did happen to Castiel, what’s Sam been up to for the past year, how exactly did Dean get out of Purgatory and why did he bring a vampire with him? But it feels like old ground, as if the show’s now running on autopilot. Perhaps it’s finally time to let the Winchester brothers retire gracefully, or more likely go out  in a blaze of angsty glory.

Red Dwarf: Series 10, Episode 1–Trojan

“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.

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 3–A Town Called Mercy

"“We all carry our prisons with us.  Mine is my past, yours is your morality.”


As the mini-season of Doctor Who ‘standalone movies’ continues, this week we get the first attempt at an actual genre piece – the genre in question being the Western. The show’s tried doing one before, with questionable results in 1965’s The Gunfighters, which gave us this untrammelled musical classic from an offscreen Linda Baron (and, occasionally, Peter Purves):

The Man Who Never Would. Well, almost never.


This episode, however, directly confronts the issue of the Doctor’s morality, and how far he’s prepared to go. We needn’t be too shocked by the gun, which ultimately he declines to use. As with the best stories, he relies on his ingenuity, sending the gunslinger out after decoys to keep the town safe. And when Jex answers his own moral dilemma by blowing himself and his ship to bits, the Doctor’s prepared to see Kahler Tek as a victim as much as a villain, and entrust him with the town’s safekeeping from now on.

If the episode has a notable failing, it’s that it does seem to move quite slowly as a plot. Perhaps that’s due to the complex moral issues being debated by some well-drawn characters, but equally possibly, it’s that Leone influence again. Let’s not forget, Once Upon a Time in the West opens with a whole 15 minute sequence of gunslingers waiting for Charles Bronson’s arrival at a station in which nothing happens – and yet it’s a masterclass in building tension. A Town Called Mercy may not have time in its 45 minute runtime for that kind of operatic grandeur, but it certainly has a more measured pace than last week’s enjoyably frenetic offering.

A pretty good guest cast breathed life into Whithouse’s characteristically thoughtful dialogue (although some of the townsfolk’s American accents seemed a mite shaky). Aside from Browder’s likeable turn as Isaac, the standout was prolific character actor Adrian Scarborough, who imbued the nuanced character of Kahler Jex with pathos and likeability despite his crimes. His description of his people’s afterlife, climbing a rock carrying the souls of all those you’ve wronged, was beautifully written and delivered, giving his ultimate sacrifice a natural tear jerking quality far removed from the show’s frequent contrivance in this area.

Andrew Brooke as the gunslinger was suitably scary while also being sympathetic, not an easy trick to carry off from under all those prosthetics. Mind you, the design was very reminiscent of Red Dwarf’s simulants:


And the idea of a beloved British sci fi show doing a Western also recalled that show’s classic episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse. Not a bad thing necessarily, but difficult to avoid for viewers of my age!

I thought this was an excellent episode, though my love of Westerns probably makes me less than objective here. It had real depth and complexity, while there was enough classic cowboy action to keep kids entertained. There was also some more hinting about Amy and Rory’s life passing by with occasional Doctor-visits, and what may be a developing theme about the Doctor’s morality, something Steven Moffat seems to keep returning to. Overall, another bullseye at making a movie-style episode in a season which so far has been more consistently enjoyable than last year. Next week it’s back to Chris Chibnall on scripting duties, but his effort last week makes me less trepidatious about that than I might once have been…