Easter is all about resurrection (and Mini Eggs) so it’s rather fitting that the crew of the Red Dwarf were back together over the bank holiday weekend to celebrate the comedy series’ 21st birthday.
Bringing back Craig Charles (Lister), Chris Barrie, Cat (Danny John-Jules) and Kryton (Robert Llewellyn) for this three-part special was always going to be a controversial move, and one which has been much debated on the internet by the show’s devoted fanbase.
Perhaps the most likeable thing about Red Dwarf is that is really wants to be liked. It’s a warm-hearted series with a simple odd-couple premise, and though set in outer space millions of years into the future, it deals with basic human issues – love, death, insecurity and disappointment - amongst the giant squids, passive aggressive toasters and alien curry monsters.
The last of eight series’ was made way back in 1999 but Red Dwarf is still hugely popular with sci-fi fans, and sci-fi fans do not love casually. Once word was out that a special was going to be made, the online debate raged - would this three partner do justice to Red Dwarf canon or was the series best left to rest in peace?
As the first episode began, it seemed likely to be the latter. True, the cast didn’t look all that different, apart from having slightly larger heads (particularly Rimmer who could fit not just an H but the entire word Hologram on his forehead these days).
Happily, those fans who stuck it out to the second episode were rewarded. Back to Earth was a three-parter, and lacked the old laughter track. The half hour slices had a slightly different feel to the previous series’, coming over more like a feature film than half hour episodes. While this made the whole thing less tight, it did allow for some more dramatic moments and, if the humour was at times a little ‘Dad-at-a-party’, this was just about compensated for by an ambitious and witty plot, which took viewers on a self-referential, post modern journey back to present day earth where the Red Dwarf crew found that they were, after all, only characters in a comedy TV series. And worse - they were down to their last episode.
This allowed for lots of intelligent (and at time slightly baffling) playfulness with the idea of characters and fiction, life and art and the interplay between these. It also allowed them to pay a visit to Coronation street, pulling up in a ‘Starbug’ car outside the Kabin.
In this way, Red Dwarf: Back to Earth was poking fun at itself almost constantly, a clever tactic – get in there before anyone else can. And so Craig Charles had a dig at his own drug problem, the scene in the sci-fi shop fondly sent up their geeky fanbase and the whole plot played with the viewers’ central concern – that fictional characters burn more brightly when they live less long.
And perhaps this worry was justified. The jokes were simply not as good. No question about that.
But then there was the Lister-Kochanski plot. Throughout Red Dwarf, Kochanski has been the love of Lister’s life, the one that got away - literally, since Lister believes that she was sucked out of an airlock in the (non-existent) Series 9.
Lister’s love for this character has been responsible for some of Red Dwarf’s more wonderful moments – and in a poignant scene (which seemed to be drawn, in part, from the Bedford Falls scene in early Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life) Lister is forced to choose between a perfect but unreal life with his lover and a flawed but real existence without her. Craig Charles does poignancy as well as he does comedy and by the close of the third episode had reduced me to tears, putting me firmly onside for backing a new series of Red Dwarf. Better smeg than dead, after all.
Red Dwarf Back to Earth is repeated on Dave on Wednesday 15 April 9pm – 9.30pm