Sunday, May 03, 2009

Back to Red Dwarf

(spoilage factor: about the same as a blob of curry on Lister's T-shirt)

Sometimes the dead should be left to lie in peace (even if they're just piles of irradiated dust on the deck). Red Dwarf ended well with its season 8 cliffhanger. Sure, as a fan of the show, there was a part of me that wanted more, but not if it couldn't meet or exceed the level set by the finale. When I heard the boys from "the short rouge one" were coming back for a three-parter, I was hopeful. Not full of unrealistic expectations, mind you, but hopeful they'd at least be giving fans something to remind us why we loved the show so much in the first place, even with all its faults. What we've been given this year, was Red Dwarf: Back to Earth. And it was so weak, I'm surprised they made it out of Lister & Rimmer's crew quarters, never mind back to Earth.

Red Dwarf may have been consistently, deliberately ridiculous over its eight years, but at least it had a kind of logic to it - both within episodes and from season to season. That's not to say there weren't potholes in the sense of the plots or how seasons played out or related to each other from time to time, and yes, occasionally there was a bit of confusion, but by and large, as a viewer, you know what was going on and were able to follow the episodes without too much of a sense of being lost.

Not so with this latest edition. The confusion sets in right away. Where series 8 left us with Lister, Kryten, Cat and Kochanski in a parallel universe, the revived crew having evacuated, and Red Dwarf falling apart around Rimmer's holographic ears as he fled from Death, this newest installment begins nine years later, aboard the Red Dwarf with just the boys - no Kochanski, Holly or crew. We find out fairly early on that Kochanski is dead (or so Lister has been led to believe), and eventually that Holly is non-functional, but there's no illumination about why the rest of crew isn't aboard, or more importantly, how Red Dwarf was saved from destruction.

I've since done a little hunting around the net and found a short sequence posted to Youtube that seems to have been shot some time ago showing how the series 8 cliffhanger was resolved. It's even funny. Problem is, I can't recall this being broadcasted here in North America when PBS originally ran series 8. Now, maybe I just missed it after the credits, or maybe it's a DVD extra or something, I'm not sure, but I tend to have a very good memory for stuff like this, especially when it comes to the finale of a series I've enjoyed. At any rate, the result was that for a good chunk of the first part of Back to Earth, I was stuck in "what the hell happened?" mode.

But that's just the first particle in the blast wave from the overloading fusion reactor, milado. It gets worse. The basic premise of the plot is more or less a rehash of the episode "Better Than Life", or, more precisely, the Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life. An encounter with a giant, offensively empathic squid leaves the crew unconscious and, unaware of their current state, sharing a group dream where the hologram of the ship's sexy science officer appears (even though Red Dwarf can only generate one at a time - a question they ask but one which isn't resolved) and invents a device to create a wormhole back to Earth. The boys are sucked through and find themselves in 21st century England. Moreover, they discover their entire existence is really a TV show called Red Dwarf. After a few shinanegans involving their quest to meet their maker that are lifted directly from Blade Runner, they eventually discover that it's all just a dream and they have to want to wake up. Along the way, Lister discovers Kochanski didn't die, but got fed up with him and left the ship, and Kryten lied to spare his feelings. Eventually, they wake up and return to their usual routine, with Lister hopeful that he'll find Kochanski some day. Substitute weird alien emotisquid with a hyper-addictive brain-interface video game, and change some of the plot points, and you've got the basic premise behind "Better Than Life" - asleep in a fake reality where it's hard to get out (due to temptation for perfection if it's a good fake world, or due to one's inability to overcome one's own inner demons if it's a bad world). The problem is, if I wanted to see "Better Than Life" again, I'd rewatch the episode or re-read the very well-done novel. Beyond that, the whole "our life is a TV show/book/computer simulation/dream/story" idea is pretty old hat, as is the stepping-into-or-out-of the TV world notion, and thus more or less uninteresting. Back to Earth couldn't make this chestnut anywhere interesting or funny enough to get over that hump.

The episodes were also lacking a crucial element: Holly. Right from the start, the Red Dwarf's AI was as important a character as the other four were, and Norman Lovett's dry smirk always added enough to push any scene over the top. While Hattie Haybridge was certainly no Lovett when filling in for the role during the mediocre middle series', she was still able to do a capable job as the group's clueless guide. Without Holly, you lose that sense of the little man in the closet frantically pushing buttons and leaning into the mic to shout "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" as he tries to convince the others that there's order in their universe and he's got some idea of how it works. Without Holly, there's no captain at the helm. With Holly, the ship may be running in circles, but at least it's running. Without him, the ship, and the show, feel strangely adrift.

But the micro-season's worst crime, however, was that for the most part it was not funny. Yes, admittedly, the takeoffs on the Blade Runner photo enhancement scene and the "I just do eyes" (or in this case, noses) scene were worth a chuckle, but the rest fell utterly flat. Craig Charles did a good job with Lister's dramatic moments of despair and reflection, but didn't make me laugh. The only time that Rimmer felt like Rimmer was when he pushed the science officer's hard-light hologram in front of a car. Otherwise, he could have been any other non-descript character with an H pasted to his forehead. And it felt like Danny John-Jules' timing was off in his performance of Cat throughout all three episodes. Red Dwarf's humour ranged from vicious sarcasm to slapstick and sometimes (through Holly) a dash of dry wit, and admittedly some episodes or seasons weren't as funny as others, but by and large there was always something to make you keep watching. With the series 8 cliffhanger, it finished on a true, hysterical high note. Arnold Judas Rimmer kicking Death in the nuts and fleeing for his hologramatic unlife into the depths of a doomed ship was a scream, it was a brilliant way to end any show, and, more importantly, it distilled the entire concept behind Red Dwarf (and, let's face it, much of the human experience) into one very potent shot: less than perfect - in fact, less than average - little guys stuck in a hostile world that's doing its best to screw them, using any chance they've got and playing any trick they can to squeeze out one last moment of life, even if there really isn't any point. If you're going to follow a funny and profound ending like that, you'd better make sure that what you're serving is comic genius, and Back to Earth wasn't. It was just a pile of seen it before, tried to hard or not really trying, off timing and just plain not funny.

I have to wonder if it would have been different if Rob Grant would have been involved, rather than it being a Doug Naylor solo effort, but I'm not sure if it's possible or fair to go down that road. Ultimately, this was Naylor's gamble and it didn't pay off for the audience.

There were any number of ways Red Dwarf could have been rebooted. I'm just sorry the option that was chosen was such a smeg-up.

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