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Red Dwarf
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5 Season Four (1991)

The middle seasons of Red Dwarf were governed by the deterioration in Chris Barrie and Craig Charles' off-screen relationship. With the atmosphere so bad between them, up to and including season six, the programme was reworked as an ensemble show to make rehearsals more bearable for all concerned. Suddenly the pace and drive of the series becomes shifted in a direction it arguably wasn't designed to go: no longer is it the story of two men who can't get along, but the story of the "Red Dwarf posse", and a propensity for gags per minute over characterisation. To this stage the characters informed the jokes... from this stage on the jokes increasingly inform the characters. The inexplicably popular Dimension Jump is just a cartoon, the exaggerated hobbies of Rimmer making him hard to take as a real person, and thus rendering him into some two-dimensional comic grotesque, more Gordon Brittas than the man we'd watched for two years straight. There are weak episodes and average episodes in the run, and, for the first time, the series sets about retconning its own history. Red Dwarf wasn't a series that was afraid to contradict its own past for the sake of a laugh, as the superb Marooned had done the previous year. But here it became a conscious attempt, with the show being geared more towards the continuity of the worthwhile novels than its own onscreen backstory. An extra thousand crew members are added to the roster in the season's finest half hour, Justice, while Lister now claims to have dated Kochanski, despite them only having exchanged scant words before this point. Even more confusingly, Lister identifies himself as a "23rd century boy"... despite season two's Statis Leak having shown him to have come from the 21st century... and season seven, confusingly, the 22nd. On the subject of trivia, then Craig Charles' habit of calling colleagues "man" reaches its zenith, with a dozen uses of the term in one of the better season four episodes, White Hole.

4 Season Five (1992)

For its fifth season Red Dwarf made the decision to move more towards a dramatic take on the series. No longer was the programme satisfied with being a studio-bound traditional sitcom, it wanted to explore a more perilled environment, and greater chunks of the series were shown to the studio audience as pre-filmed inserts, rather than performed live. The decision to take things into a new direction could be refreshing, even if it often makes the presence of audience laughter feel out of place, the low point being a laugh at three strawberries (Demons and Angels). As with a lot of Red Dwarf seasons it's hit and miss, and is largely pulled up so high by the excellent (if perhaps a little overrated) Back To Reality. This said, other episodes stand up well on the twentieth anniversary of the season, such as Holoship, which seemed underwhelming on its initial airing. Much of the success of the season was informed by the belief of all involved that it would be the last season, with the growing fame of the cast causing them to be busy with other projects. It was perhaps unfortunate that the programme eventually got recommissioned just the following year, and that what was thought of as possibly the final episode became not even, inexplicably, the halfway mark of the series.

3 Season Three (1989)

It seems odd to suggest that the series had already peaked just one year into its lifespan. Season two was commissioned before season one even aired, so they both got broadcast in the same year. Then in 1989 changes were made... Kryten got brought back into the show as a regular character (uncertainly played by Robert Llewellyn in his first episodes), reputedly to make it easier to write, which does seem to be missing the point. Then out goes the sombre, doom-laden titles, and in comes as a fast-paced, Americanised "clips" title sequence, one eye seemingly on US sales, even in the content. The writers had more of a hand in things here, and were proud of how much better the show looked as a result... but it doesn't matter how slick the show looks, it's the scripts that count. The most popular episodes were always Polymorph and Backwards, but the former seems shamefully crowdpleasing today, and the latter is a tedious one-joke affair. It's the less celebrated episodes that stand up better, such as the typical two-hander of Marooned, or the quirky Timeslides. Lister travelling back into the past to plead with himself to avoid his own future is oddly poignant, one of the last times we get to focus on the central loneliness of the show's premise before it all gets caught up in being fast-paced, shallower, and obsessed with endless gags about curry. Season three gives us genetically engineered lifeforms, which are aliens by any other name, and kits out the crew as the leather-bound "Red Dwarf Posse", complete with bazookoids. It's just one small step from here to a series that sells catchphrases on t-shirts, gets laughs from special effects and believes in gags-per-minute above characterisation. Red Dwarf was a series about the last man in existence dealing with the prospect of his own insanity... in the 90s it became a series about comedy wigs and the guest star of the week, the most overpopulated, Godless, alien-free universe going. That's not to say that what followed wasn't frequently funny and engaging, even occasionally great... just that in making Red Dwarf what they wanted it to be, the creators suddenly lost what they had.

2 Season One (1988)

Ranked higher than you may have expected, season one has some tentative first steps, and doesn't always hit the mark when it comes to comedy. However, the way in which it does score is pure charm. It's nice to go back and remember how much cuter and more lovable the character of the Cat was, for example, almost innocent in manner, and a far more original character than he later became. And while the weak first episode forces the Lister-Rimmer dynamic, episodes like Balance Of Power explore it far more effectively. Speaking of Balance Of Power, that episode ends with the audience and Lister wincing as Rimmer steals a look at Kochanski's holographic breast. Fastforward eleven years and a different audience is whooping and cheering as Lister regrets he couldn't take advantage of Kochanski sexually while she was under the influence of an induced virus, or applauding as he watches her naked without her knowledge for three hours. It's the sense of charm and integrity that season one possesses, coupled with the rich ideas, a programme borne out of the alternative comedy movement that would later sadly get drawn into Men Behaving Badly in space. Almost presented as an arc season with a developing narrative (the final two episodes form part of the same story) it was one of the most strikingly unique shows on television. The fact that this was a sitcom with a SF setting, very obviously shot cheaply in a BBC studio, is one of the show's strengths, not its weakness. There are better written seasons of Red Dwarf, slicker seasons of Red Dwarf, and certainly far funnier seasons of Red Dwarf. But very few have come close to emulating the feel of season one, or of capturing its sense of tragedy beneath the surface.

1 Season Two (1988)

The peak of the series, and containing the greatest half hour it ever made in Thanks For The Memory. Never has Rimmer seemed so realistic a character, rather than a two-dimensional foil for laughs, and never has he been so sympathetic and ultimately doomed. Although the first two seasons are quite cheaply made and shot on monotonously grey sets, there's a sense of realism that informs the comedy, the jokes arriving through the characters naturally, and mixed in with earned pathos. Other episodes are almost as good, including Rimmer dealing with the death of his father and his own destructive subconscious in Better Than Life, or the reflective Statis Leak, made at a time when the series did pure SF without taking it so seriously. Most notably, the events of the first two seasons largely take place "between the cracks", as it were, with stories stretching over several hours, and often revolving around "nighttime". Bedtime scenes are common, and the programme doesn't, as with later seasons, frequently involve conflict from outside the ship. Rather than life, Red Dwarf in '88 depicts the bits in between, and not for nothing was an early episode named as an allusion to Waiting For Godot. Of course, such a concept would be difficult to sustain, and so it wasn't long before it got into travelling off-ship and a comedy robot. If there's one complaint it's that the opening and closing episodes are, undeniably, incredibly broad and playing to the gallery, Danny John-Jules even getting to break the fourth wall in the finale, Parallel Universe. Yet if season two comes in and goes out with easy laughs, focus on the riches of what comes between... it's the best the series ever was.

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