That was really good. No, seriously. It's old school Red Dwarf, going back to basics with enough dedication to make you wonder if Doug Naylor had been kidnapped by aliens. Seasons 6-8 had gone so off the rails that it feels impossible that the show could be its old self again, but that's what we have here.
To prove that everything's basically all right, the biggest miscalculation here is the lack of a laughter track. To see the suffocating slow death that can come from not having any audience laughter, watch the alternate version of Tikka to Ride
on the series 7 DVD. We're talking here about a decision so horrible that it's on a Red Dwarf director's cut. The prosecution rests. Admittedly I can see how even normal people might erroneously think it was right for Back to Earth, given that our heroes supposedly step out of the fiction into the real world, but no. Sorry, guys. Impressively even without a laugh track the first two episodes are still quite funny anyway, but they clearly suffer from being more comedy-based. The third episode comes off best because it's the most serious and not so dependent on laughs, but underneath that I had more problems with it and find it a flawed (if still enjoyable) conclusion to what's basically a rather good three-parter.
How has Doug Naylor gone back to basics? Let me count the ways...
1. Lister's the main character again. It's been too long! As far as I'm concerned, he's always been the core of the show and the further they pulled away from him, the less I liked it.
2. They've abandoned all that nonsense about a more heroic Rimmer (even in the rebooted original of season 8
) and reverted so energetically that they've overshot. This Rimmer's actually evil, which I really liked. More, please.
3. Skutters! Unfortunately there's no Holly, but I suppose there wasn't room in the script for him.
4. They've gone back to the original "lonely losers trapped on Red Dwarf" set-up. If nothing else, I'm delighted not to be on Starbug. What's startling though is that this is a Red Dwarf rendered with production values that make the show look impressive, as opposed to expensive but shit. (Season 7
, I'm looking at you.) This evokes the first year's existential horror in a way we've never seen, except in the series 1-2 title sequence. This Red Dwarf is cavernous, with non-stop visual reminders of its size and loneliness. It's almost too much. Occasionally the echoes got to me. I've been complaining ever since series 4 about the show not believing in its own premise, but here for the first time it's being rubbed in your face by the visuals on screen. This is disconcerting, but obviously I approve. Once more the show's all about the characters and how they interact with each other, whether it's Lister thinking up childish ways to be annoying or Rimmer nearly getting everyone killed through being so self-obsessed.
Unfortunately I don't believe it. Twenty years ago I did, but now there's been too much water under the bridge. Doug Naylor doesn't strike me as a writer who really cares about anything beyond his current episode, as we'd previously seen in... well, everything. Lister (season 1
) was alone in an empty universe with no other humans. Lister (season 8
) could go to an infinite number of parallel universes and time travel at will, had rewritten his own history to turn himself into a paradox and was living in a crowded universe of GELFs, simulants, holoships, etc. There were Space Corps patrols and the galaxy contained territories (e.g. GELF space). Admittedly this was a load of crap, but you certainly couldn't say Lister was lonely. I can't pretend that I'm particularly eager to see Doug Naylor's attempt at exploring this multiverse he unthinkingly created, but a writer who gave a toss could perhaps do something with it. It's clearly broken and possibly irreparable, but it's at least distinctive. Maybe if done properly, Red Dwarf might have evolved into something a bit Farscape-shaped, perhaps.
Here though, we've lurched back to the season 1
set-up without a word of explanation, for no reason beyond "that's what the writer wants this week". Kochanski supposedly died and stayed dead! That feels like a plot hole for a start. Actions had consequences? Where'd that come from all of a sudden?
My third criticism also concerns Naylor's rewrites of reality. As I've already alluded to, the plot of Back to Earth involves Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and the Cat entering the real world and meeting the show's creators. Lister meets Craig Charles on the set of Coronation Street. Now in fairness this could have been a fourth-wall nightmare of self-referential wank that made even Red Dwarf's last few seasons look good. Surprisingly, it wasn't. It's pretty good television (apart from the two children who can't act), but there's also something rather pathetic about the version of reality that's being peddled. Apparently here Red Dwarf continued for two more series and the ninth was the best ever. Ho ho ho. Presumably Naylor thinks he didn't lose it and end up visibly floundering, then. Children talk to Lister on the bus in dialogue that sounds like a quote from the writers' guidelines and/or the DVDs' back cover blurb. Then finally you've got the meeting with their creator, who says he ended the show because he'd got tired of writing it. "I grew weary of you." Uh-huh. No reference to the repeated failed attempts to get a movie off the ground, or the BBC in 2007 rejecting proposals for another series? This is material that could have been interesting and brave, but only by being more honest.
Ironically the real world feels more of a cheat than the year 3 million. The most ridiculous bit is that that nobody seems to react to the Dwarfers as if they're the actors who played them. That fan in the shop even says this kind of thing has happened before, calling it a "Dimension Skid". Does this version of reality has Luke Skywalker having a beer with Captain Kirk, then? The children are cringeworthy, that make-up guy is a one-dimensional ethnic stereotype and there's a fantasy sequence where the Dwarfers all get shot repeatedly despite having previously been assigned a single engraved bullet. Tracking down an actor is shown to be more convoluted than simply getting his name from the back of the DVD and then looking him up in Spotlight. Oh, and I was particularly disappointed in the "Lister meets Craig Charles" scene, which is doing nothing clever at all with an idea that could have practically become its own episode.
Apparently they're trying to riff off Blade Runner. Um.
However that said, these stupidities somehow didn't dent episode 2 for me and only inflicted minor wounds on episode 3. "Sorry to interrupt the Warhammer, mate." Lister's toilet story made me laugh, as did Kryten, Cat and Rimmer pretending to be from the north. I enjoyed the scene with the salesman in the TV shop ("very small penis") and I even love little touches like that Coronation Street dude's deadpan reaction to seeing Lister. The show's having fun and playing with its situation in a way that's enjoyable to see. There would have been a million ways of making this unwatchable and with hindsight it's gobsmacking that we avoided every one of them. I normally hate this kind of idea (e.g. the end of Blazing Saddles), but I really liked Back to Earth.
Of all the great stuff here, the biggest surprise is that the cast have learned to act over the last twenty years. Craig Charles in particular is outstanding. Who'd have thought that Lister emoting would be the story's strongest scenes? I'm really interested now to see what the upcoming series does with him and I'd be downright excited if Doug Naylor weren't in charge. There's been no attempt to hide the characters' ages, but I like that too. John-Jules looks the same as ever, though. They even get to be badass, with Lister being a hard fucker with a knife and the Cat being so cool in his gun-toting moment that they've put it in the title sequence. Rimmer is slime again and I couldn't be happier. "Can't; too scared; can't." Chloe Annett still has her magic power of becoming unrecognisable to me when given a new haircut, though.
Fundamentally, this feels to me like Red Dwarf should. It's not trying to be Star Trek, but is instead proud to be scuzzy ("he irons sneezes") and has funny one-liners. "He means tentacle." "I hope so." It gets the characters more right than they've been in a long, long time... and when it comes to the performances, they'd never even approached what we have here. Lister gets a proper emotional arc and, frankly, blew me away. On the downside Kryten's parallel universe theorising at the end makes me want to throw kittens off railway bridges, but that's my personal prejudices.
They got it right, basically. Bring back Norman Lovett and there's a real chance that the show could actually improve on its early years. There's something I never expected to say.