Red Dwarf
Series 8

Starring: Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, ChloŽ Annett and Norman Lovett
RRP: £22.99 / £25.99 (Limited edition with Corgi skutter toy)
Certificate: 12
Available 27 March 2006

The crew of
Starbug find that Kryten's nanobots have not only recreated the long-lost mining ship Red Dwarf but have also resurrected its original crew, including that smeg-head Rimmer. Unfortunately, none of the resurrected crew believes their explanation for piloting a Starbug craft without authorisation, so it looks as though Lister and his buddies will have to face two years in the holding area known as the Tank...

Fandom is divided over the merits of Red Dwarf's eighth and (to date) final series. The recreation of the mining vessel's entire crew - including Captain Hollister (Mac McDonald), Chen (Paul Bradley) and Selby (David Gillespie), but not Petersen, presumably because Mark Williams was busy working on The Fast Show - was not to everybody's taste. However, I believe that this series is an improvement on Series 7 and that the production team got a number of important things right.

Most crucially, the studio audience is back. As the actors themselves acknowledge in the commentaries and documentaries on both this DVD and the previous one, having live laughter to react to can make a big difference to the performance in terms of gauging which jokes work the best and, on a more basic level, knowing how long a gap should be left in the dialogue in order to "milk" the comic potential. Such factors contribute to Rimmer's (Chris Barrie) hilarious elongated salutes throughout this series.

Which brings us to the second important development: the return of Rimmer. Doug Naylor doesn't simply write Rimmer back into the series. That in itself might not have worked, because (as I indicated in my review of Series 7) Rimmer had grown beyond the cowardly, self-centred smeg-head that he once was. By resurrecting the pre-hologram version of Rimmer, Naylor ingeniously resets the character to his old self, uttering lines that could have been written for Series 1 or 2. These gems include: "You really think you can buy me with promises of power and glory? You really think... okay, I'll do it," and: "Like German tourists, the stupid are everywhere," both from Back in the Red - Part 1.

The resurrection of the old Rimmer allows the return of a third ingredient: bunk scenes with Rimmer and Lister (Craig Charles), the likes of which we hadn't seen in several years. Long talky bits like these make this show more of a sitcom than the comedy-drama approach of the previous series.

However, the programme doesn't entirely return to its original format. It's more like a hybrid of the sitcom-style early shows and the action-based later ones. The look of the series and its effects are still distinctly glossy, particularly during the crash-landing sequence and the Cat's (Danny John-Jules) Blue Midget dance in the three-part Back in the Red, and the dinosaur scenes of the two-part Pete.

It's also nice to see the skutters again. (I would add that Norman Lovett makes intermittent but very funny appearances as Holly, but he was written in at the end of Series 7, so his presence isn't really an innovation of Series 8.)

My favourite episodes for good all-round laughs are Cassandra and Krytie TV, followed by Back in the Red for its truly surprising plot developments. Back in 1999, when these episodes first aired, I assumed that the resurrection of the crew was a temporary measure for the sole purpose of bringing back Rimmer. The closing scenes of Part 3 lure the viewer into just such an assumption. If nothing else, Back in the Red (which can be viewed as separate episodes or as a feature-length "Xtended" version) proves that Red Dwarf could work as a movie.

The two-episode Pete (which can also be viewed in one-hour format) is less successful. Lacking in structure, it plays like a series of incidents rather than a cohesive plot. This is partly the result of the story having started out as a single episode, which over-ran and then had new scenes added to it (including routines that were originally recorded for Cassandra) to bulk it out to a two-parter. In fact, the eponymous Pete has relatively little to do with the first episode, so perhaps this story shouldn't have been called Pete at all. A more coherent linking theme is Captain Hollister's increasing exasperation at Rimmer and Lister's antics, which gradually drive him, like Inspector Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther movies, round the bend. Therefore, a more suitable title for this two-parter might have been Hollister's Hell.

The final episode, Only the Good... is let down by last-minute cuts and rewrites. We spend insufficient time in the mirror universe that Rimmer explores, while the ending (which is actually the production team's third attempt to conclude the episode) owes too much to the climax of the Series 6 episode Out of Time (with Rimmer running down the collapsing corridors of a devastated ship) and takes a surreal turn that would have seemed less out of place in an episode of The Brittas Empire.

The original ending to this episode, together with other scenes that would have lent greater clarity to the narrative, are included among more than an hour's worth of deleted and alternative scenes. These also include a wealth of funny stuff, sadly cut for time, from other episodes, most notably Cassandra.

Additional features include smeg-ups, raw effects footage, storyboards, galleries (which are painfully slow to navigate), a four-minute Children in Need sketch featuring a bizarre crew complement that includes Kochanski (ChloŽ Annett) and a holographic Rimmer, and the Red Dwarf episode of the always wonderful Comedy Connections. The customary Dave Hollins sketch is a classic - it's the one that saw the first use of writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor's NorWEB Federation idea, which would later be recycled as an April Fool's joke played on Lister by Holly in Series 1's Me2.

The audio commentaries are an improvement on those for Series 7, which made for rather disconcerting listening. However, with so many people (Charles, Barrie, John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Annett, Lovett and McDonald) all chipping in with their thoughts, few of them get a chance to develop their observations before they are interrupted by one of the other speakers.

As usual, the best feature of all is the making-of documentary, in this instance the 88-minute The Tank. It is from this enlightening production that I gleaned my information about Pete starting out as a single episode and the alternate endings of Only the Good... It is also revealed that Back in the Red was originally intended to be a one-hour special. The documentary ends with Naylor considering the future of Red Dwarf and the possibility that, if the movie doesn't emerge from production hell pretty sharpish, the show might return to TV, either as a number of specials or as a full series.

I reckon it should. After all, abandoning the prospect of a movie did Doctor Who no harm at all. I also believe that what the programme really needs is a longer episode format, similar to that of later series of Only Fools and Horses. More recent episodes of Red Dwarf have often been too packed with ideas to be done full justice in a mere 30 minutes, and Series 8 is no exception. Imagine a 45-minute Cassandra, with all its deleted scenes reinstated. Picture a leaner, more focused 45-minute version of Pete. Envisage a longer and more comprehensible Only the Good..., with more time spent in the mirror universe.

Series 8 is not Red Dwarf at its best, but it does show that there's life in the old Dwarf yet.

Richard McGinlay

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