Red Dwarf – is it still funny?

A brilliant return to form, or a series too far? David Brown and Tom Cole go head-to-head over the merits of the latest run of the sci-fi sitcom

18493

Red Dwarf returned to our screens last night for a tenth series that attracted 1.5 million viewers. But does it still have the power to make us laugh?

Advertisement

YES – says David Brown

Failures in sitcoms are always funny, be they fly-pitching in Peckham, stuck behind the desk of a Torquay hotel or travelling in the depths of outer space. Thankfully, Red Dwarf writer Doug Naylor has remembered that his two best creations, Arnold Rimmer and Dave Lister, are both chronic losers: the former destined never to pass his astronavigation exams, the latter fated never to get hold of a shopping channel Stirmaster. 

In its last few series, Red Dwarf had admittedly become bloated and sprawling; the 2009 mini-series Back to Earth even threatening to disappear up its own mythology. But this latest episode restored what it was that made the sitcom so successful: namely the bunkroom sparring and the small strategies that these characters employ to make their lonely lives that bit more bearable. 

The American comedian Carol Burnett once said that “comedy is tragedy plus time”. It’s also a very apt description as to why Red Dwarf can still entertain – this is a show where the humour comes from the fact that the last human being alive has a three-million-year wait to get back to Earth. How much more tragic can life get? 

In stripping away the extended, convoluted storytelling of late-era Dwarf, Naylor reminded us why the show’s original central conceit works so well. Last night’s opener felt almost like an undiscovered episode from series three or four, back when the sci-fi tropes (enjoyable as they can be) took second place to the character comedy. 

This was Red Dwarf back to basics rather than Back to Earth: a reunion with old crewmates who were still reliably neurotic and unfulfilled. It was a delight to catch up with them again and felt well and truly like old times.

NO – says Tom Cole

Was last night’s episode of Red Dwarf funny? Well, it certainly made stabs at humour. And if you enjoy catch-phrases and running gags, maybe it worked for you. But as much as I wanted to love Trojan, the new series’ first edition left me as disappointed as a guest at one of Rimmer’s Hammond organ recital nights.

Frankly, I think a lot of the problem stems from the unjust critical mauling meted out to series VII, VIII and Back to Earth for being too “serious” and “dramatic” – for growing up, in other words.

And in an attempt to backtrack and appease those “purist” fans demanding a return to the show’s carefree beginnings, Doug Naylor’s jettisoned all the subtlety of the later series, taking the disappointing step of dumbing things down immeasurably.

I mean, I realise the characters had to be re-introduced, but did they need to be painted with such broad strokes? Lister, in years gone by, had a keen wit and a well-rounded personality; last night he was little more than an oaf with a phone. And sure, Rimmer’s always had something of a penchant for Blyton-esque linguistic archaisms, but a whole protracted scene based around the words “hey-ho, pip and dandy”? Really?

Plus, you know a sitcom’s in trouble when it has to wheel on new characters to get the plot moving, and I thought it was rather telling that one of Rimmer’s oft-discussed brothers played such a central role in Trojan. After so many years without the Red Dwarf crew on TV, it was maddening that so much of their comeback episode’s screen time was taken up by an unknown and entirely humourless character.

It’s said that Red Dwarf X is going to get better after Trojan, and I genuinely hope that it does. But frankly, if the rest of the series is as puerile as last night’s episode, maybe it would’ve been better to have left Red Dwarf in stasis after all…

Advertisement

What do you think?