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The Debate: Series VIII's Setting

First published 21st July 2003.

It's very rare that we disagree about things, but when we do it tends to be interesting. When we realise that we have opposing views about the setting of Series VIII, we decided to thrash out this article in an IRC session. You can read the full log of that session here. Below is the coherent version of the argument, with Ian in normal text, and John in italics.

Hello, and welcome to a first for G&T - a huge great argument. I'm Ian Symes.

And I'm John 'Ian, you're fucking cunting wrong' Hoare.

Well, quite. The bone of contention for this normally happy, loving couple is this: the setting of Series VIII. I think it was rubbish. I fail to see the logic in taking a group of characters from an original, exciting premise, and dumping them somewhere else - somewhere where their movements are restricted, and the possibilities for interesting situations limited.

Wheras I think that the setting for VIII was a great idea, and could (and to some extent did - according to a lot of fans) have revitalised the series, giving it new opportunities for stories, characterisation, and jokes. The main problem with it comes in its execution.

Screengrab of The Data Doctor
The Data Doctor. We could have done with a lot more stuff like this...

This is simply not the case. The lack of potential for exciting stories is epitomised by the invention of the CANARIES (Contrived And Needlessly Asinine Reason for Inmates to Explore Space), in the very first episode after the setting had been established. The CANARIES were essentially a device which enabled the crew to poke about in derelicts and such like - exactly the premise for the previous two series. Had Series VIII's prison setting provided a sufficient range of possibilities, this wouldn't have been necessary.

Well, first let's examine the possibilities that have come up through the use of the new setting. Back in the Red would have been a great episode had it been in it's original one-hour version, and it could never have been done without the change is scenario, obviously. And Only The Good... is the same; the cliffhanger lets it down somewhat, and there are some weak parts in the second half of the episode, but the basic storyline is rather good, and a lot of it relies on this setting.

As for the other episodes, the one that relies least on the changes is perhaps Cassandra - but so much of the good stuff in that episode, such as Knot and Kill Crazy, simply would not have been there without the new setting of the series. Just because the main thrust of that episode could have been done without the prison scenario, it doesn't neccesarily mean that it was wrong to introduce it, as it adds a new, and amusing, flavour to the series.

I notice you haven't mentioned Pete (Part One) - an episode in which nothing at all happens. It's piss-poor, plot-wise, and that is entirely the fault of the new scenario. Okay, you could say the same about some of Series I, but there were always interesting concepts happening in the early days. Besides, the moderately sci-fi-free approach to the first series was deemed totally wrong, by everyone involved. Why then did they feel to ditch the idea-based process from Series III-VII, and make a series that had nothing at all to do with sci-fi?

Screengrab of The Dibbley Family. Weak.
...and a lot less stuff like this.

Pete (Part One) is dodgy plot-wise, but that's not the fault of the new scenario - it's the fault of Doug Naylor and Paul Alexander for coming up with an awful idea for an episode, and not saving it through particuarly good writing. Nothing more to it than that. The same applies to the rest of your argument. Yes, I absolutely agree with all of it. But none of it is to do with the new setting for the series. It's to do with the new style of writing and sense of direction of the series - which, as I've said, I agree was not very good. Going back to Red Dwarf, resurrecting the crew, and being thrown in prison was a good idea, badly executed. Simple as that.

The bad ideas in some episodes are down to the setting. If they'd have kept the concept of being alone in a hostile, godless universe, they'd be out meeting new individuals every week. The concept was never in any danger of running out of steam, whereas Series VIII did so within a few episodes. Again, you'll probably argue that this isn't the fault of the new setting, merely my fondness for the old one. So, piss off.

No, I'll argue that it's because of the new direction of the humour and plotlines, which I think weren't right for the show. It doesn't mean the setting itself was piss-poor. However, I do agree with you about one thing - the old setting was marvellous, and magical. Seeing the crew locked up, and not free to do what they want, in a lot of ways isn't going to be as much fun. But I think that the interaction with new characters could have overcome this - indeed, Hollister is fantastic, and I'm really looking forward to him in the movie. It's just a pity that the potential wasn't realised.

But, the characters were no longer strong enough to cope with the changes in environment. I think we agree that VII fucked up the expert characterisation of previous series, so a lot of the work had to be started from scratch in VIII. Indeed, there was a new Rimmer, with none of the character building that took place in the previous three million years. Therefore, although the poor characterisation wasn't the fault of the setting, somebody should have spotted that shifting the characters somewhere else wouldn't work, as they were no longer established in the audience's mind.

I'm not quite sure I agree with this. Strong characters are strong characters, wherever they are - they should cope with the new setting easily. I think the characterisation problems in VIII again boil down simply to dodgy writing. As for the Rimmer problem - I agree. And yet, part of me respects the way they brought him back - it's clever. (Although admittedly inconsistant, what with Kochanski, and old Lister, and all - presumably Holly sorted that out between the nanobots.) I mean - what would the alternative be - Rimmer failing as being Ace, and returning to his useless self? That would have been awful.

Yes, it would have been. But we're straying from the topic somewhat. You mentioned earlier that you thought the new setting could have lead to a plethora of new jokes. This is true, but what sort of jokes? The jokes in previous series stemmed from the situations - they were clever, original and above all funny. Now, I don't want to start slagging off the jokes of VIII, as they are beside the point, but what sort of jokes could there have been from this setting? Generic ones, that's what. That's not what Red Dwarf's about.

Indeed, the setting of VIII does encourage this kind of generic jokes. But it didn't have to - Cassandra is without doubt the best episode of VIII, and it manages plenty of the unique SF jokes that Red Dwarf excels at - and manages slightly generic, but funny jokes involving Kill Crazy and Hollister. Let's face it, if all the episodes in VIII had been like Cassandra, we wouldn't be complaining, even if it isn't as good as peak period Dwarf.

Combined screengrab of Series I and VIII.
"The two lowest guys on the ship" - an alternate setting for VIII?

I'm beginning to wonder whether there is a problem with the setting of VIII - and perhaps the problem is the prison part. Everything else works fine, but perhaps the prision part is slightly limiting. Doug has gone on record as saying that he often thinks it would have been better to have had a series or two of Dwarf before they killed off the crew, as the setting of "the two lowest guys on the ship" has a lot of potential. This potential could have been realised in VIII, without the prision stuff. Although, no doubt the prison stuff helps the budget enormously - we don't feel we're missing anything by not seeing bits of Red Dwarf that are fully crewed.

I concur. The glimpses we see of pre-accident Dwarf are great (The End, Balance of Power, Stasis Leak), so a series based on those would have been good. It would have mixed the good bits about VIII, such as having decent recurring characters, with the ability of 'our' crew to not be restricted in their movements.

Absolutely. I agree. However - there is one issue we haven't addressed, and this wouldn't be fixed with the slightly different scenario we have suggested. In VIII (and, oddly VII - although nobody ever mentions this!) - Lister is not the last human being alive any more. Many people feel this wrecks the whole point of the series. I don't - by this point in the programme, it really doesn't matter any more. There are more interesting, and pertinent things about the series. What do you think? By later series, the fact that Lister is the last human being alive adds a bit of flavour to the series, but not much more. Not as much as the new situation on VIII could have added.

I agree with you. Lister being the last human alive ceased to matter as soon as the emphasis of the programme shifted more from character-based to action-based. From Series V onwards, it was a group of individuals fighting danger, it didn't matter that one of those people was the last known survivor of his race. There are some who refuse to acknowledge anything being any good in VII and VIII, simply because there are other humans in it. I say to them: "was the fact that Lister was the last guy alive really the reason you liked other series?" The answer is invariably a sheepish 'no'.

Indeed. People like Red Dwarf because of the good characters, good situations - and good jokes. If a series delivers them, then it's a good series.

To sum up, having reached a fair compromise: the prison setting of Series VIII had its fair share of problems, but these were mainly to do with poor execution. However, a change to a scenario with more potential for interesting ideas would have been preferable.


Cup of tea?

Yeah, go on. Got any biscuits?