Season 11 of Red Dwarf! Good grief. It's been a scant 28 years since the show began its roller-coaster ride from "great" to "great" to "not as good as it was" to "what the hell?" to "they've invented new kinds of unspeakable". With hindsight, the failed attempts to make the show in America were where it all started going wrong. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but that was the point in time where the showrunners started thinking all the wrong things were important. Now, though, they've ditched all that. They're going old school. Their mission statement is to be old-fashioned Red Dwarf, from the days when it used to be good. To quote the official website: "With big laughs and dazzling effects, Red Dwarf XI recaptures the show's golden age."
I approve, obviously. I love Red Dwarf, but the later 20th century seasons were misguided. This is another season of good, enjoyable episodes with almost all the actors they've had since the beginning. That still amazes me (although I wish they hadn't offended Norman Lovett). However I get the slight sense that the show's in denial. Once again they've chosen a model for what they want the show to be, which doesn't have any room for emotional depth or acknowledging that any time has passed since... oooh, maybe Season 3 or 4. They still think that an episode like 'Twentica' will be a good introductory episode, rather than the worst of the season and something you'd want to bury in the middle of the run.
Thus, for instance, the characters are pretty flat and static and there's no attempt at the slightly deeper emotional material that the show's occasionally done, e.g. Series I or Back to Earth. Cat being rude to Rimmer's face will always be funny, for instance, but it's almost defiantly photocopied from our early memories of the show. The only character who feels as if there's anything more to him than one-liners is Rimmer, whose self-serving callousness is capable of making him borderline evil. I liked this. Every so often, on very rare occasions, everyone's favourite pathetic weasel will get a moment of being sinister.
I don't think this is helped by Doug Naylor directing these episodes himself. They look glossy, but in a way that I don't like and he has a problem with endings. 'Officer Rimmer' ends on a macho Arnie one-liner that almost ruins an otherwise excellent episode. Admittedly that's more script than direction, but 'Krysis' and 'Can of Worms' both throw away perfectly good punchlines (from Kryten and Cat respectively) by not giving the key line the breathing space it deserves.
The thing I particularly regret, though, is that they've basically abandoned Red Dwarf itself. Oh, the ship's still there, unlike Seasons VI-VII, but not a single episode is set entirely there. They're always going off to investigate space stations, GELFs, mechanoids and so on. Partly as a result of that, I didn't get any sense of Red Dwarf as a place in its own right. Its sets look indistinguishable from those of Starbug or any other random spaceship. Oh, the designs haven't changed if you study them, but they'll have Dramatic Blue SF Lighting rather than... well, looking red. They look good. All the sets look good. The production team has done marvels on what I presume is still not a particularly lavish budget. However this just makes it look like any other modern SF show.
I miss Season I. I miss the original premise of a lonely slob trapped in that gigantic, spooky space hulk we saw in the first two seasons' opening credits. Yes, I realise we've moved way beyond that and it would be silly to force the show back to that empty universe, but even so I'd have preferred the Dwarf itself to have a more tangible presence. (With hindsight, I have a feeling that Season X might have been more like that, with a budget-enforced "back to basics" approach that's since been partly ditched for this more expensive Season XI. I'd need a rewatch to decide whether that's true or not, though.)
The worst episode of the six, although you can see how a certain kind of mindset might think it was a good season opener. It's a history-changing adventure set in a comedy version of Prohibition-era America where droids from the future have banned technology. The ideas are fine and there are some good jokes, but there's too much plot for a half-hour episode and this has created plot holes. Here's the most obvious example:
The resistance have built a machine that will destroy the droids and save the world. The authorities are looking for this, unsurprisingly, and gunning down people in the street just on suspicion. One person they shoot is actually carrying this thing. Do the cops search the body? Do they watch the area to see who approaches it? No, they just go away and let the Dwarfers have an undisturbed conversation with the dying guy in which he gives them the machine and instructions on who it should be delivered to. (You could fix this by supposing that the police were eavesdropping in order to follow our heroes to the rebels' hideout, but that would make our heroes incredibly stupid in a way that the show could have used for another joke.)
Similarly the episode lurches into things with no introduction at all. It's a perfectly watchable story and I did laugh, but it's a mess. (I also note incidentally that there's no sign of our heroes having put back history as it was, which is pretty startling if you consider the impact that these events must have had on 20th century history.)
Much quieter and more dialogue-driven, which means it's much better. A significant amount of the episode is just Cat and Lister trapped in a room, which is great. The karma drive is an idea that the show's used before (which they acknowledge), but it's been given a surprising new twist and I liked the unobtrusively clever way that the episode's been built around it.
The only problem is, yes, the ending. There's a Moffaty elegance to the way that the karma drive explains the hidden mystery of the Lister-Rimmer Mine-opoly game at the beginning, after which everything interlocks like a jigsaw. However the episode only takes you halfway to that realisation and stops on what feels like an undercooked punchline.
64. GIVE AND TAKE
Another clever Moffaty plot that folds back deliciously upon itself (and hence unusually gives the episode a great ending), but unfortunately there's a dirty great unsatisfying plot hole. Where do the kidneys come from? The causality doesn't work.
Admittedly after we'd finished watching, Tomoko thought I was being silly in criticising the plot holes in a Red Dwarf episode, but personally I'd argue that comedy is funnier if you've got a solid non-comedic framework for the rest of the story. Apart from that, though, the episode's a stonker. There's a cruel edge to the comedy to remind us that the Dwarfers aren't just fluffy lovable scamps. Cat and Rimmer are complete and utter bastards, each in his own eyebrow-raising way. Mind you, Lister and even Kryten shouldn't necessarily be trusted too far either.
It's also got some bold design work, e.g. the mad scientist robot who looks like a deep sea fish. Even his space station looks cool. The 1950s-style Robbie the Robot is a fun idea too, although in practice I think it needed to look cheaper.
65. OFFICER RIMMER
The title put me off this, for some reason. I was wrong. The episode's brilliant. In fact it would have easily been the best story of the season if it hadn't been for its distastefully poor ending. It's great because it's built around a character-based idea rather than an SF concept. Rimmer gets to be an officer. He now outranks everyone. With great power comes great responsibility! Will he abuse it? Heh heh.
That said, though, I'm about to contradict myself. One minor thing I'm enjoying with this season is that it's doing lots of science and fairly hard SF, so here for instance we have a futuristic twist on 3D printers. (There's a scary story they don't even consider telling here about how a 3D-printed person feels about their artificially shortened lifespan.) Then Lister having sold the rights to himself is an even bigger idea, tossed out casually as if the show's got ideas to burn. That could have been an episode.
We also get one of those Evil Rimmer moments. Admittedly it's not as flat-out villainous as pushing a woman under a car in 'Back to Earth', but it's still alarming.
Kryten gets a mid-life crisis. I approve of this episode. It's another character-based idea and it's funny. It's even aiming at some degree of emotional depth, which is admirable even if Kryten (like Cat) is a character who's inherently resistant to that kind of material. Llewellyn's characterisation of him has always been enjoyable, but I don't think angst really works with him. Lister and Rimmer are better-suited to such material. (CAVEAT: mileage might vary and I've seen one reviewer for who this episode really hit home.)
This also has the nearest Red Dwarf's yet come to Douglas Adams, but ultimately taken in this show's own unique direction. It's a good 'un.
67. CAN OF WORMS
It's a "Cat's virginity" episode. It's also borrowing from 'Identity Within', a Series VII story that didn't happen for budgetary reasons but got reconstructed anyway as a DVD extra. I like it and I approve of the idea of a Cat-centric episode, but unfortunately the female Cat we see here is annoying. It took me a while to realise because I love Cat and everything this lady says and does is quoting things Cat's said in other episodes, but I'd still been praying she wouldn't join the crew. Fortunately she's not in the episode much.
I'm reminded of the American Red Dwarf pilots and the way they showed that Danny John-Jules's performance might look simple and easy to imitate, but in fact everyone but him who's tried to play the Cat has crashed and burned.
After finishing these six episodes, I checked the closing credits to see if they'd forgotten to employ a script editor. (They hadn't forgotten. They also had a "script secretary" and a "script supervisor".) I was surprised. They're good episodes, don't get me wrong, but you'd expect anything above a spellchecker to catch the plot holes in 'Twentica' and 'Give and Take' and the ending of 'Officer Rimmer'. Well, in 'Twentica' it's arguably just taking the piss. I don't remember anything that sloppy in earlier years, even the bad ones.
However the important thing is that even with those hiccups, the show's entertaining and imaginative. It's been good throughout the 21st century, actually. I've enjoyed all the Dave material, despite a few specific objections. Soon it'll be twenty years since the last BBC series. Here's to Red Dwarf XII!