Fans of both science fiction and comedy are notoriously difficult to please – soap operas or reality shows rarely jump the shark (perhaps the sole exception being the Dynasty spin-off The Colbys, which ended with a bizarre UFO cliffhanger) – so mix both humour and sci-fi is asking for trouble. Somehow Red Dwarf has survived this; although since 1988, the crew of the small rouge one have hit both peaks and troughs of popularity and criticism.
The set up is simple: The last human Dave Lister – a slob – is stuck millions years in the future, on a spaceship on his own. It doesn’t sound a hoot – but it most certainly is, when you throw into the mix a hologram of Lister’s worst enemy, a descendant of his pet cat who walks around dressed like Prince and screeches like James Brown on helium, and a fussy robot who Lister has gradually taught to break his programming. Originally broadcast on BBC Two until 1999, when the show ended on record ratings (although admittedly, not exactly its finest episodes), UKTV’s irreverent TV channel Dave resurrected the show less than a million years later in 2009. Since then, the show has moved very much back to its basic sitcom roots (which by the end of its original run, the show had somewhat strayed from, with three-part epics, a large cast, cinematic visuals and no live audience), with in my opinion some of the best episodes the show has had been since its early Nineties heyday.
So now, almost three decades after the show started, we find ourselves in Series XII, and little has changed – and that’s for the good. The premiere episode of this new run, Cured is a straightforward tale of the crew finding clones of the most infamous characters in history – so say “Hello” to Hitler, Stalin, Messalina and Vlad The Impaler (or at least in some science fiction plot flange, their descendants) – all being suspiciously nice…
This episode is funny, looked amazing and for once gives Cat more to do than simply not get things right, or talk about his clothes – although there is still something missing. There are great concepts going on, the odd very good joke – but also the odd not-as-good one. Lister jams with Hitler (“It’s because I’m Hitler, isn’t it” – never has a line evoked such pathos and laughs); while Cat expects Messalina to want to seduce him, but finds he is not that irresistible after all. It’s a shame Kyten and Rimmer aren’t really found anything plot-worthy to do, other than falling victim to the story’s real villain.
The third act of the show has a very dark feel, similar to that of the evergreen Series V, and its nice pay-off, with Cat’s newly discovered “poker face” saving the day, surprises in a good way. Plus the entire look of the show is superb – from the launching of Starburg, to the space station itself – though the lasting image of this story is not the Hitler Selfie, but Kryten’s head stuck on the end of a mop.
If this is the show not at its height, it’s only because it’s set the standard so high. And to be fair, writing this show can’t be easy. After twenty years of running the show on his own, the last three series have indicated that co-creator Doug Naylor has finally worked out where all pieces go and what makes the show funny. The show could rest on its laurels with its thirty year anniversary imminent, but instead, you have episodes such as this, where Naylor is not afraid to experiment with the format of the show, but avoids any unnecessary major reboots. (His clumsy attempts at making changes when he took over as the job as sole writer when co-creator Rob Grant left back in 1997 are still controversial amongst dwarfers today.)
In a era of ubiquitous quirky science fiction and fantasy shows, Red Dwarf still manages to shock, surprise and smeggin’ well amuse. Long may it continue.