Saturday, 11 April 2009

Red Dwarf - Back to Earth pt I

New Red Dwarf. Finally a chance to give closure to the story, and a happily-ever-after for these beloved characters. A chance to atone for the weak and puerile Series VIII and finish on a high. I have greatly looked forward to this!

Having been a somewhat obsessive fan as a teenager, I grew out of it and hadn't (re-)watched an episode for about ten years until I saw a few recently. Happily, they stood up to the ravages of time, and more pertinently to the mature judgement of adulthood, and of an aspiring writer. Funny, sharp, inventive, showing a great rapport between the actors. Fully deserving of its exalted place in the sit-com pantheon. This was a happy nostalgia trip indeed.

There are two more new episodes to come, tonight and tomorrow, and I really want to like them. I really wanted to like last night's episode too, and I tried hard to view it with realistic expectations. Alas, it fell short even of these.

We weren't given an explanation of how the proir cliffhanger was resolved, why the crew have disappeared, where Kochanski is, or where Holly is. It's like a reset button was pressed and Series VIII didn't happen. Fine by me! No time wasted digging our way out of old holes. The "Nine Years Previously" caption (or whatever it was) hasn't yet been tied up - a whole episode of flashback? I'm sure all this will become clear soon, but why put the caption there at all? It seems a jarring loose end.

The opening scene of dialogue between Lister and Rimmer is a strong one, and a welcome reminder of the tenor of the early series. Sneeze-ironing made me laugh aloud - a promising start indeed. Rimmer, however, quickly became annoying, and acted throughout without realistic motivations - no longer a believable (if objectionable!) character - and he dangled dangerously above the tentacled monster of self-parody.

The plot felt like it was all happening purely to give them a magic bullet to return to Earth. The leviathan (opening scenes of Back to Reality with much less panache?) appeared out of nowhere, did nothing, and then vanished again. There was no narrative tension. Ms Hologram appeared out of nowhere, had a mishandled interaction with Rimmer and an cringingly unoriginal one-character-doesn't-know-another-one-is-listening scene, and hands them the magic bullet (surprised nobody tried to sleep with her - or is this still to come?). I don't mind necessary plot elements being introduced, but they need to stand up on their own - the strings were all too visible. The show depends on our seeing things through Lister's eyes, coloured by his surprisingly-perceptive and human take on events, but he vanished from the script the moment Ms arrives. Lonliness and the hope of a return to Earth have surely been the definitive underlying tensions of Red Dwarf ever since its inception - why do we not see this in Lister now the hopes look like being realised? His reaction is absolutely pivotal! Why do we not see the social impact of a new crew-member into a hugely insular group (this was handled better in Series VII with KK's arrival)? Maybe we will tonight, but even for the first part it was a golden opportunity missed.

Much of the show has a CGI background, and it isn't seamless. I've never liked CGI skutters, and the wrestle-with-tentacles scene was poor. Shoestring special effects are part of - and almost define - Red Dwarf, but shoestring CGI seems almost dishonest. Cunning model shots feel more real, provoke a far more sympathetic response, and have a certain charm which using computers utterly lacks. The Star Wars prequels suffered badly from this too, and their budget was rather larger! Given how the show was financed, this is all forgiveable, but it makes the suspension of disbelief that bit harder.

I know nothing of the practical constraints they may have had, but not filming in front of a live audience was a mistake (though I'm glad they omitted a taped laughter track). The performance as a whole lacked its once-effortless vibrance, and the characters didn't gel together as a 'posse' like they once did - there was no sense of a group of people who were very familiar with each other and had been through so much together. This, sadly, was once a central pillar of the show's deserved success, subtle and intangible though it may be. I can imagine it being very difficult resurrecting a twenty-year-old format and immediately recapturing the old magic, but the dynamic just isn't there. Would a studio audience have helped the actors?

Red Dwarf has never had bullet-proof writing, but the earlier work stood up far better than this. Almost anything can be forgiven if the result is funny, but the aforesaid laugh-out-loud was the only one so far, and this brings the other shortcomings of the scripts into sharper relief.

I've greatly enjoyed reading Robert Llewellyn's twitter feed during the production, and it seems that I am in a minority of those disappointed with the show. I sincerely hope that it is an outstanding critical and financial success, and wish all involved nothing but the best. Given my own total anonymity there is little chance of any of them, or indeed anybody at all, reading these thoughts, which is probably for the best. I also sincerely hope that the next two episodes are an improvement upon this one - I would very much like the Red Dwarf journey to end in a happy place.

This is a writing exercise: take something which I love to bits, and figure out why its good stuff is better than its less good stuff. I still have a lot to learn as a writer, and learning from others' mistakes is as important as learning from their triumphs.


Anonymous said...

Thought-out and complete analysis.

Well done.

Oh, and I read it.

Catherine said...

I reckon that all four of them had forgotten how to play their respective characters in the first ep. Second was better for that. Plot is old and Charlie will tell you at length that it was first thought of by Gilbert in A Sensation Novel.