Sunday, 19 April 2009

Back to Earth

Unless you didn’t notice last weekend was Easter weekend; an opportunity for us all to celebrate the fact that Jesus is dead. I think there’s some more too it that that, I’m not entirely clear on the detail. Given that it was Easter I was expecting the usual dirge of terrible festive TV shows to erupt from my television like raw sewage from a rusty pipe, which was why I was both surprised and somewhat worried when I found out that the BBC has decided to make a three part Red Dwarf Special. For those that don’t know Red Dwarf is a cult comedy show from the 80’s and 90’s which sadly stopped being aired after its 8th series in 1998. It’s really funny and if you haven’t seen any of it yet then I pity you for it, go watch some now. Go on it’ll probably be on Dave, or the internet.

Anyway, I was a little worried that they decided to remake the show because frankly this sort of thing almost never works. Returning to a franchise after is has died a death in order to milk a bit more cash from its withered and useless udders is almost doomed to failure from the start. Not only are they beating a dead horse, they’re digging up the rotting corpse of a long dead horse and beating that. Perhaps the recession has caused the bank of good ideas for comedy shows to go bust.

While I wasn’t expecting much there was a glimmer of hope poking its head above the sludgy sea of cynicism. Maybe, just maybe Doug Naylor would be able to resurrect his brainchild and give the fans of the series another taste of his genius. It has to be noted that Naylor is only half responsible for Red Dwarf; Rob Grant is the other half of the original team, however the Naylor and Grant went their separate ways after series six and the subsequent series were no where near as good as the first ones. I was certainly not hoping for a repeat of the shows original brilliance, but if it could replicate the fun of series seven and eight I would be happy.

While it didn’t quite reach such daunting heights, it was a lot better than I was expecting. It had a fair few good gags and the interplay between the characters was still there despite the 10 year layoff. Inevitably there where some short comings however; firstly it relied far too heavily of self-reference. The very concept made that inevitable I suppose but it feels like poor writing when one has to consistently put a wrecking ball through the fourth wall to get any laughs. While Romantic Irony is generally an underused medium it is best is small doses; too much of it just feels like a copout excuse not to have to make any real jokes.

Another major quibble I had was the fact that it just didn’t feel like an episode of Red Dwarf; their was no laughter track, almost all the sets were CG and the fact that it took place on earth rather than is deep space billions of light years from anywhere made it feel wrong. Ok so the characters were the same and they had the same brilliant chemistry, but it felt like some goofy side project, rather than a continuation of the franchise.

Ever since Rob Grant left there has, inevitably, been a chance of direction to the show. I have no problem with the writers trying to take the show to new places, but it felt like too much a step away from what made the show brilliant; a human, a hologram, a robot and a highly evolved cat alone in deep space with nothing but a senile computer to keep them company. The show really worked like that and the comic styles of the writers was ideally suited to it. Granted they occasionally worked their way into different situations, but this special was a step too far into uncharted territory for the show. Some of the magic was lost on the way into the dark cesspit of the unknown.

The ending bugged me a little; it seemed like they just pulled an old story idea out of a hat, changed a few of the specifics, added a few story elements from other past shows and redressed it to look like originality. Talking lots of old things and gluing them together in a way that has not been done before is not originality. People think that Harry Potter is original, it isn’t. Not one of the ideas is new, it’s just tired old clichés put together in a new way. The storyline for ‘Back to Earth’ (the title for the special if you didn’t know) was not original. It worries me somewhat that Doug Naylor cannot think of one original idea after having 10 years off from the show. Maybe he was trying to induce nostalgia over past brilliance to excuse his lack of an original idea or many good jokes to go with it. In any case he failed.

It wasn’t all bad however. Red Dwarf has always been good at taking snippets from other films and smuggling them into the show. Ok so it’s not original, but the way they do it is fantastic. 2001 A Space Odyssey is a massive inspiration for the show; many of the monsters encountered in the show are inspired by Alien and there is even a sci-fi reimagining of Casablanca knocking around the archive somewhere. The film inspiration for this special was Blade Runner, right down to characters asking their makers for more life and big pyramid shaped building in the middle of London. While perhaps a little thick, the reference felt like good clean red dwarf and fills me with hope that the show may well be reborn. There were hints dropped like bricks off a bridge about a ninth and even a tenth series, so here’s hoping that the crew get back on Red Dwarf and give us another few series of deep space hilarity. You never know, they may even be able to tempt Rob Grant back, pigs may well fly and hell will probably freeze over.

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