In 1992, they tried to make a Red Dwarf TV series in America. They made two pilots, neither of which has still ever been broadcast, and Grant and Naylor came home to do horrible things to Red Dwarf's UK incarnation. More fortunately the US pilots have been widely bootlegged and can be found on the internet. Me, I thought they were okay.
The first of the two pilots is a 25-minute remake of the first UK episode, The End
. They've changed around a few bits and brought in Kryten, but the main point of difference is the casting. Robert Llewellyn is surprisingly the best thing in the show by light-years and for some reason funnier than I find him on the UK original. He's so impressive in fact that you'll start wondering why. Most of it I think is simply that he's got better material. He's being used as a character rather than an exposition machine, with Jane Leeves's Holly doing all the heavy lifting on that one. I love the way he's so pleased to have been reading a fire exit sign for three million years, for instance. However I also wonder if it isn't making a slight difference that he's doing his usual Canadian accent in an American context, where it seems more natural.
I quite like Craig Bierko's Lister too. Obviously he's nothing like Craig Charles, being neither a smoker nor a slob, but he's likeable and his performance works even though for some reason he can't say "smeg". Jane Leeves on the other hand blows hot and cold as Holly. She's not fit to polish the boots of Norman Lovett, but she's also clearly a better actress than Hattie Hayridge (i.e. she's an actress). The only problem is that she visibly doesn't have a clue about the show and doesn't know what she's meant to be doing. She's horrible in a few scenes and okay in others.
Those are the three cast members who make it from the first pilot to the second. Of the others, the part of the American Rimmer was offered to Chris Barrie (who wasn't interested) and eventually went first to Chris Eigeman (who won a screenplay-writing award at a film festival in 2007) and then to Anthony Fuscle (who's apparently never appeared in any other film or TV ever). I thought they were fine. Fuscle in particular is clearly a better actor than Chris Barrie, albeit a less distinctive Rimmer, and I rather enjoyed his version of the "when I lost my virginity" discussion from Marooned
. The main problem with Eigeman in the first pilot is the fact that his screen time has been slashed to make room for Kryten and Kochanski, which gives him less of an opportunity to make an impression. A stronger actor would undoubtedly have done more with what's still a perfectly respectable part, but there's nothing horribly wrong with him. He's Rimmer-lite, but that's not the worst crime in the world.
The Cat, on the other hand, is fascinating in how it makes you demonstrates how deceptively clever and good Danny John-Jules really is. The two American Cats are the two biggest names in these pilots for me, apart from Jane Leeves, and both of them crash and burn. It's this kind of failed experiment that really shows you what a feat John-Jules achieved with that one-dimensional cartoon of a role. The first Cat is Hinton Battle, who played Sweet in the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and like John-Jules is a singer and dancer. I think his lines are identical to those of the UK version, but the character he creates is mentally ill and possibly retarded. After that, there was a big rethink of the Cat for the second pilot and they came up with a predatory female hunter who can return from the dead (nine lives) and lives to fuck and kill. The weird thing is that her dialogue about sex and relationships seems to have been lifted almost word-for-word from lines they gave to the male UK Cat, but gender-switched, yet Terry Farrell manages to make them seem creepy and disturbing. There's nothing playful or fun-loving about either of these American Cats. You'd want to have a drink with John-Jules. You wouldn't want to be in the same room as Battle or Farrell, with the latter in particular having presumably been hired for her sex appeal and yet somehow managing to be as alluring as an octogenarian leper's weeping syphilis sores.
I once heard an interesting story from Charles Daniels (a man of wit and wisdom). Terry Farrell was doing a signing and everyone else had brought Star Trek: Deep Space Nine merchandise, but Charlie had something from Red Dwarf. Farrell not only refused to sign it, but closed down the signing and sent everyone away. After seeing her performance here as the Cat, I wonder if it's her fault the series wasn't picked up? She really is that bad.
Apart from that, the first pilot is a passable curate's egg. Mostly okay, but nothing special. It has good jokes, but also some painfully bad bits. Jane Leeves is responsible for some of those, as is whoever thought it would be a good idea at the beginning to have that hologram delivering gags to camera. Kochanski's scenes are horrendous, though. You'll want to hurt things. Her breakup and reconciliation scenes with Lister are painful enough to be worthy of study as the definitive example of how not to do a girlfriend scene, a bit like Disney's Oliver and Company. "I love you." Sod off and catch a flesh-eating disease, you appallingly-written bint. However there are funny bits to make up for this, with Lister being entertaining and Kryten being downright great. The "eat cats on Titan" line is quite a clever tweak, while "beer I'd been feeding him" is funny too. Grant and Naylor have even written the episode a new ending, which they ended up stealing for series 6.
The second pilot is more of a "greatest hits" clip collection, made up of the UK show, the first pilot and some new footage. The new cast shoot all-new scenes and their own versions of scenes from UK episodes. We get clips from the UK show, with no attempt at disguising Charles, Barrie, Hayridge and John-Jules, which is unfortunately more entertaining than the new stuff. There's a framing sequence with Lister and Rimmer, but basically it's a mish-mash of Terrorform
and other random bits and pieces. I enjoyed it, but Terry Farrell is horrible and it's not pretending to be anything other than a "coming attractions" thing.
Overall, I'm not shocked that these didn't go to series and each pilot has one female character who needs shooting, but they're entertaining enough and worth watching if only for the sight of Robert Llewellyn being used properly. They're certainly not abominations or anything like that. I'd say their place in a quality ranking corresponds with their place in a date line, i.e. between seasons 1-5 and 6-8. I quite enjoyed them, actually.