The boys from the Dwarf
2012 has been a year of pleasant surprises.
I didn’t think London 2012 would be a roaring success, but it was – both for the event planners and the athletes themselves.
I didn’t think I’d see our books in Waterstones, but that happened as well.
And lastly, I didn’t expect Red Dwarf – a British space comedy of the 80s and 90s – to relaunch to near-universal acclaim. But it did!
You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a bit of a sci-fi fan. After all, two of our titles are set in space – so I hope you’ll forgive a long, very off-topic blog entry as I review the first episode of the brand new series of Red Dwarf.
For overseas viewers, the show aired in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. It’s named after an enormous spaceship, which becomes lost when all but one of the crew are wiped out in an accident. The lone survivor is Dave Lister, who was frozen in time during the incident and revived three million years later. For most of the show’s run, his main companions are Rimmer, a hologram of his dead supervisor; Cat, a humanoid who evolved from felines; and Kryten, a robot who was salvaged by the crew. The show’s humour emerged largely from the tension between Lister and his dead boss, but also from clever (if sometimes implausible) sci-fi stories about time travel, artificial intelligence, genetically engineered lifeforms, and total immersion video games.
I knew that the show was returning to our screens, of course. That wasn’t a surprise. But Red Dwarf fans have been generally quite critical of the show’s later outings. Even back in 1997 and 1999, the seventh and eighth series of the show were very divisive. One of the show’s co-creators had left, and the remaining showrunner experimented with cast and format changes, resulting in what some fans felt to be shark-jumping. In 2009, the cast reunited for a three part Easter special, which was radically unlike the original show in look and feel. Although each of these outings had their defenders, they also had their detractors. There’s a broad (but not universal) consensus that the show’s heyday ended in 1993. Far from demanding more Dwarf, many fans and well-wishers thought the show actually outstayed its welcome somewhat.
I was never one of those fans (although I enjoyed some outings more than others), so I was really excited by the prospect of a brand new series.
Last week, after much anticipation, Red Dwarf X launched with a brand new 30 minute episode called Trojan. It was great. I’d heard that the first episode would be one of the weakest of the new run, which bodes really well for it. Better yet, it was instantly embraced by casual and hardcore fans as a real return to form, rather than splitting them down the middle (which is what I’d expected it to do).
The grist of the episode is this. The crew of the Dwarf discover the Trojan – a derelict spaceship, once used by the glamorous Super Infinity Fleet. Although it’s no longer spaceworthy, Rimmer discovers something quite exotic, which Kryten explains as follows:
Kryten: Sir, that is a quantum rod, sir. It acts like a magnet, allowing the ship to star jump.
Rimmer: Does it? How?
Kryten: Well quite simply, sir, it draws things formerly connected back together – and as everything is made out of energy, and all energy was present at the Big Bang, then everything is connected – so the rod reconnects things light years apart – allowing the ship to compress spacetime!
Of course, some things in the universe are more closely connected than others. Rimmer’s hamfisted attempts to put the rod back cause his more successful brother, Howard, to be summoned across space and time. This is actually quite handy for Howard because he’s spiralling into a meteor storm. Before rescuing him, Rimmer – consumed by an inferiority complex – decides to pretend that he’s a captain in the Super Infinity Fleet, and that the Trojan is his own ship.
The humour that ensues is classic Dwarf, and the set piece where Rimmer introduces his “crew” – including Kryten Krytinksy, Gerald Hampton and David Listerton-Smythe – would have been right at home in Series V or VI. As well as summoning Howard, the quantum rod seems to have worked some magic with the script, compressing the last twenty years and channeling the humour of the early 90s for our amusement.
Much of the credit must go to the actors. The whole cast – especially Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn, who play the Cat and Kryten respectively – settle right back into their roles, drawing energy from the live studio audience and nailing some long-beloved characters. After the experiments of the late Nineties, and ignoring the visible ageing of the cast, this could have easily aired the year after Series VI ended. For style, quality and humour, it would have been a seamless transition.
In terms of the mythology and timeline of the show, the story is moderately complex, and it isn’t clear exactly where (or rather when) Howard has come from.
A subplot involving one of the show’s chief antagonists, a simulant, strongly suggests that he’s been transported from the distant past. But like his brother, he’s actually a hologram simulation of his own dead self – making him effectively immortal – and shows awareness of things that are presumed not to have existed in his own lifetime. He regards Kryten as quaint, even though the mechanoid was built long after he himself lived and died. In effect, the rod could have snatched him from any time in the last three million years.
The episode isn’t 100% perfect – let’s make no bones about that. There’s a subplot involving an automated shopping channel, which wakes up and starts broadcasting when Red Dwarf comes within range. Although that’s a wonderfully eerie idea – an idea worthy of Hitch Hiker’s Guide, in fact – the way it’s handled doesn’t quite match the tone of Red Dwarf.
In fact, a new viewer could easily miss the core premise of the show: that Lister is the last human alive, having slept for three million years, and that Red Dwarf is lost in a mostly empty universe. As well as the encounter with Howard, Lister loses money betting on a pig race, speaks to various people trying to order a Stirmaster™, and reads out a letter from the Jupiter Mining Corps.
All of these things are actually explained in passing, of course. The bet is with one of the ship’s intelligent vending machines; the people Lister speaks to are robots, who have stirred after presumably millions of years due to the proximity of Red Dwarf; and the letter is generated by the onboard computer, rather than coming from JMC headquarters (the JMC staff, like the rest of humanity, are presumed to be long dead).
But it’s a case of “blink and you’ll miss it” exposition. The episode doesn’t quite have the lonely feel of classic Dwarf. The brevity of the exterior shots, too, attenuates the feeling of being alone in space.
To be fair to Trojan, this continues a trend that began twenty years ago. Originally, the crew never left the ship, and stories emerged entirely from their characters and personal histories (facilitated by one or two space oddities). As time went by, the writers introduced more and more external forces to keep things fresh, including exploratory craft, simulants, derelict spaceships, exotic technology, and “gelfs” (genetically engineered lifeforms). Although Trojan feels busy, it’s a much better fit for classic Dwarf than 1999′s Series VIII, which (in a controversial move) resurrected the whole of the dead crew – making Red Dwarf suddenly a very busy place indeed.
Anyway, I’m getting away from my main point, which is that Trojan works. It’s a really solid opening for what should be an equally solid series, and as a Red Dwarf fan of some twenty years, I’m delighted with it. Well done to everyone involved!