Considering it was BBC2's biggest ever hit (a record it still holds to this day), it always felt bizarre that sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf vanished after eight series. Ostensibly this was so co-creator Doug Naylor could prep a movie reboot with the TV cast, and it's one of comedy's greatest tragedies that Naylor's desire to turn Red Dwarf into a big-budget film was partly the reason it lost its way. The "filmic" Series VII with no live studio audience, the reintroduction of love-interest Kristine Kochanski (any movie will need to secure the female demographic, right?), the return of the ship's incinerated crew in Series VIII (to be exterminated again on the big screen?), the god-awful "remastered" episodes with the eponymous spaceship becoming a shiny crimson dildo... almost every mistake Red Dwarf made was out of a weird delusion that shake-ups were needed to transition things to the silver screen.
Like many fans (I was an avid viewer from Series I who perhaps coined the term "Dwarfer" with a letter printed in the official magazine), I dislike almost everything after Series VI—and actually remember having issues with that series' conceptual changes, too. In 2009, digital channel Dave raised the idea of a 21st anniversary special with the cast introducing classic clips in character, and the idea snowballed into the three-part TV special "Back to Earth"—a show I reviewed negatively for its scarcity of laughs, weak plotting, a ridiculous Blade Runner homage underpinning it, and stupid recycling of the twist-ending from classic episode "Back to Reality". At the time, many people attacked me in the comments for dating to speak ill of their favourite show's overdue revival, but history appears to have proven me correct in my belief "BTE" was a humourless muddle. Still, those specials were very successful (a high of 4 million, which is astonishing for a niche digital channel like Dave), so they commissioned a brand new six-part series last year, which began last night with the episode "Trojan".
I'm just glad Doug Naylor's inability to produce a Red Dwarf movie has resulted in him realising it was a foolish idea. This show may have a concept worthy of the big-screen, but the show is a studio-based multi-camera sitcom, not an action-comedy spectacle. Series X has wisely taken things back to basics by reproducing the classic era's format (studio sets, live audience, practical model effects, the four leading men, no Kochanski, no ridiculous scenes like the excruciating Blue Midget dance). It's just a shame co-creator Rob Grant can't be enticed back (he split from writing partner Naylor after Series VI), because the loss of the gestalt entity "Grant Naylor" is ultimately the reason Red Dwarf lost its way. It always felt like Naylor had the big ideas and the knack for creative plotting, but Grant brought the jokes and helped keep things grounded. As history proves, the show ballooned in ambition without Grant around, to the detriment of the comedy.
Anyway, enough preamble; was "Trojan" any good? It was okay. It's a definite plus the show's returned to its sitcom roots, with welcome updates and changes (the interior colour scheme of Red Dwarf justifies its name at last; the ship has gained a Starbug-style cockpit). It just felt more comfortable to watch, although the quality of the script wasn't much above those from Series VIII, with only a few moments provoking genuine laughter—chief amongst them a piece of moose trivia spoiling Rimmer's (Chris Barrie) plan to look intellectual with a tough astronavigation exam question. Cat (Danny John-Jules) also got some nice lines poking fun at Rimmer, and it possibly helps that he's the cast member who appears to have aged the least. And yes, I'm including Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) in that statement, given the presence of wrinkles around his rubbery eyes and lips. Was this an intentional nod to the cast mostly being in their fifties now, or just a bad make-up job? My guess is the latter.
The story itself had some merit, as the crew answered an SOS and rescued Rimmer's officer brother Howard (Mark Dexter) and his simulant companion Sim Crawford (Susan Earl). Given the fact Rimmer's highflying brethren have been mentioned but never seen properly on the show, I was intrigued to see how their sibling rivalry would play out—with Rimmer opting to fake equal rank, before the twist that Howard's also been lying about his credentials all this time, too. I'm just not sure I approve of the idea the Rimmer brothers are all most likely losers, because it strikes me as far more interesting to keep Rimmer as the runt of an elite litter. Still, Howard was a character I could easily accept as a snootier version of Rimmer (while that pretence lasted), although it's a pity the two brothers just didn't have nearly enough screentime together.
A subplot about Lister (Craig Charles) becoming obsessed with getting a "Stirmaster" gadget from a shopping channel only existed for the running gag of him being put on hold for hours, and the whole idea didn't withstand much scrutiny. Three million light years from Earth and there's still a working shopping channel phone line for customers to call?
I guess what pulled "Trojan" through its rough patches was the cumulative relief that the characters felt like they'd never been away—and you can tell Charles' acting has improved thanks to his days on Coronation Street. Barrie looks the most haggard of the foursome (which makes less sense for a hologram than any of the others), but not to a degree that made it strange to watch. The fact these misfits are still hanging out, grumbling over petty things and getting on each other's nerves, probably has an even more tragic edge the older they get—in a good way.
Overall, it's nice to have Red Dwarf back on our screens, from the perspective of someone who found it a formative comedy of the '90s, but I have a feeling Series X isn't going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything pre-Series VI. The show's time has passed, its flame has dimmed, and now it's just an odd echo of itself that amuses those who still have affection for the characters and remember its former greatness. But I'll take that over the utter smeg that was Series VII to IX.