Red Dwarf has reinvented itself so many times at this point it's getting a little difficult to list them all. We moved from the grimy, Waiting for Godot In Space set up of the first two seasons, to the ultra-slick science fiction of the next four years.
On the way the show set up and took down it's own future continuity over and over again (Lister has kids, that are born disappear between seasons! Lister and Kochanski end up marrying! Eventually!) and moved most of it's characters further and further from their original definitions.
Lister became more hero than hobo, Kryten was turned into a needy, blubbering nursemaid and Rimmer was written out in a way which not only made him heroic, but possibly the most heroic person in all of human history. It all got a bit much, and with a confused story arc about the Red Dwarf being stolen, the (unwelcome to many) addition of Chloe Annett as Kochanski and the disastrous meta-fictionality of Back to Earth, the show looked not only like it was spent but that it had long outstayed it's welcome.
Earlier in the year, I saw that notion proved wrong.
I was lucky enough to get a ticket not only to a night's filming of the show, but also the last night of filming on the season finale. So, in a sweaty aircraft hangar less than a mile away from the vehicles used in Prometheus, I and the rest of the audience settled in to find out if this was a return to form for the Boys from the Dwarf, or yet another dead cat bounce in a long, ignominious line of them.
It wasn't a dead cat bounce.
1. The Original Line Up Is Back
I was one of the, admittedly few, people who really liked Chloe Annett and her Jolly Hockeysticks take on Kochanski. However, it can't be denied that the show's dynamic was horribly thrown off by her arrival and Rimmer's departure. The upside to this was that the show became exponentially less insular and blokish.
The downside was that nothing ever actually changed; Kochanski was endlessly competent, professional and slightly mad. Lister was in love with her, after a fashion, the Cat was an idiot and Kryten was a needy maid. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That's definitively not the case with season 10. Lister, Rimmer, The Cat and Kryten are all not only back but look like they want to be. Chris Barrie in particular has dropped a huge amount of weight and his focus and energy have clearly benefited from it. Likewise, Craig Charles is playing Lister as a little older and more cautious rather than wiser, whilst Danny John Jules' Cat is the epitome of cool with pompadour hair piled on top.
However, the most welcome return to form is Robert Llewellyn's as Kryten. The cast were all greeted with enthusiasm as they came out at the start of the night but Llewellyn was greeted with some thing closer to adoration. Laboring under the extremely uncomfortable Kryten prosthetics, he was constantly warm, funny, cheerfully filthy and in a very shrewd move, used by the Floor Manager to explain to the audience just what was going on between the scenes we saw in full.
It was a fiercely clever move that kept the audience informed and entertained and it showed a level of engagement with the viewers that seems new and is extremely welcome. The entire cast were on top form, but Llewellyn walked away with the night.
2.They've Remembered How To Be Funny
The break apears to have done both the writer, Doug Naylor, and cast the world of good, as the script was joke heavy without feeling unwieldy. The jokes were pretty consistent, a good meaty punchline landing every 45 to 5o seconds, but they never once felt forced. Crucially, they also came from the characters rather than being thrown at them in the faint hope they'd stick.
The comedy felt remarkably unforced and genuine as a result, walking a fine line between the absurdity of the premise and the endearingly rubbish nature of the main characters. It all felt comfortable, and grounded and, most importantly, got us laughing.
3. Back in Red
The gleaming white officer's quarters and the cramped confines of Starbug are gone, replaced by a very familiar pair of crappy bunk beds in a very familiar, very grimy part of the ship. It's not the same set, but the quarters Lister and Rimmer occupy these days are clearly near their original digs: industrial, cramped and looking for all the world like a sleeping hole on a ship where mining is top priority and comfort comes way down the list. There's a clear callback to the earlier seasons here and the set designers have outdone themselves creating a world which is functional, grubby, fantastic and plausible all at once.
The really interesting thing about the sets was that they were connected, with what amounted to essentially four small, open-faced booths in a line, facing the audience.
On the far right was Lister and Rimmer's quarters, with a generic slice of multi-purpose Red Dwarf corridor connected to it by an open doorway. Next to that was the flight deck for a spaceship (which, interestingly, they made clear was not Starbug and didn't seem to be Blue Midget either and to the far left was the bridge of the Simulant battlecruiser that provided this episode's villain.
The sets themselves ranged from high-tech arrays of equipment to little more than a table and some carefully placed light fittings but each one worked and each one clearly had been designed to create maximum impact for as little cost as possible. Which brings us to…
4. Back at Ikea
Red Dwarf is one of those shows that seems to suffer the more money is thrown at it. The glossy officer's quarters and CGI special effects of later seasons were impressive at the time but were too often used to mask weak scripts, spectacle trumping character. Series X is a clear move away from that with the Red Dwarf corridor sets dressed with futuristic looking bulkheads that are in fact IKEA cutlery holders spray painted red. This sort of low tech approach was present throughout the set design and suggests that, whist there's clearly money in the budget for the show, it's not being wasted on window dressing.
5. It's Secretly A Drama
Red Dwarf has always excelled when it has remembered to hide a scream behind each joke. The show's central premise is impossibly dark and whilst they've rowed back from that in recent years, the twin horrors of being the last human left in the universe and being surrounded by the same people for years on end are very much front and center here.
The season X finale plays with this, neatly subverting the central relationships in the show and staying true to them at the same time, creating a closed thematic loop that later seasons can still play with. Even better, this is an episode focused absolutely on the Lister/Rimmer relationship and the end result is dramatically satisfying as well as extremely funny.
6. Tom Price, Hero of the Hour
This isn't really a reason you'll enjoy the show, more a reason I enjoyed the recording.
The unsung hero of the night was Tom Price, aka PC Andy from Torchwood. Tom is also a very funny stand up comedian and he was on hand throughout the over four hours of recording to keep the crowd entertained. Price has tremendous comic timing and the sort of mischievous approach that gets the audience on-side straight away. Whether holding an impromptu singalong of the theme tune or successfully interrogating one audience member's girlfriend for embarrassing secrets, he was never less than very funny and a clear part of the overall process.
Like wth Llewellyn, the Floor Manager used Price to keep us informed and engaged, and, again, it made you feel like part of the process rather than a static observer.
Overall, this session convinced me that Red Dwarf has been completely re-energized, and the relaxed nature of the filming spoke to that even further. They made a point of reading through scenes that had already been shot so we could get a clear hold on the plot and this level of consideration and professionalism, plus the sight of Robert Llewellyn in full Kryten gear with his reading glasses jammed on over the mask, was genuinely hilarious.
Red Dwarf looks set to have finally made a triumphant return and I can't wait for Thursday to see the start of the season. The boys from the Dwarf are officially back.