Every five years, Red Dwarf fansite Ganymede & Titan runs a “best episode” poll, and over the course of their discussion of the poll results they’ve developed the concept of “the bubble”, that being the top 36 entries on the poll results. This is based on the broad consensus in the Red Dwarf fandom that the first six seasons of the show represented its golden age. Some fans outright reject everything that came since; some argue that it went through rougher patches but had a mild return to form later on; a few perhaps feel that the series started going to hell once the melancholic streak of the first two seasons began to fade.
In general, though, the idea is that those first six seasons, with their 36 episodes between them, are the benchmark by which Red Dwarf is measured. In general, in the Ganymede & Titan polls, those six first seasons collectively tend to dominate the bubble; that means that exceptions to this rule are interesting. If an episode from the first six seasons happens to fall out of the bubble, that’s generally a sign of an episode that’s regarded as being unusually lukewarm for the show’s classic period.
By contrast, if anything from after season 6 makes it into the bubble, that can be a sign of an episode punching above its weight and overcoming the affection of the fanbase for the original six seasons. That said, the polls do show signs of recency bias, with more recent material polling reasonably well and then quite often sinking down to a more natural level as the novelty factor wears off, the joy of getting new Red Dwarf material in any form fades, and any shortcomings of the new material becomes more apparent on rewatches.
In this article I will review some 16 episodes of Red Dwarf. Of them, only two of them have ever made it into the bubble – and as of the most recent poll, none of them make it in there.
The Mid-1990s Hiatus
Grant Naylor hadn’t planned on Red Dwarf vanishing from 1993 to 1997. After their 1980s seasons established the show and the early 1990s saw the show going from success to success, they concluded season 6 with a cliffhanger at the BBC’s behest, the plan being for the show to come back sooner rather than later.
However, this was not to be. Several of the show’s principal actors had increasingly packed schedules; Chris Barrie’s other sitcom, The Brittas Empire, was becoming a success in his own right, and Craig Charles was much in demand as a presenter. Things were further derailed when Craig Charles was accused of rape, refused bail for three months, assaulted whilst awaiting trial by a knife-wielding fellow prisoner, and acquitted after the tabloids had a field day raking over his penchant for cocaine and strip clubs which had emerged during the trial. (Acquittals in such things don’t necessarily mean nothing bad happened, especially when – as seemed to be the case here – the investigation had significant shortcomings, but Charles has at least not had any #MeToo-esque accusations come out against him since, even when he slipped back into harder drug use in later years.)
Charles’ ordeal ran from mid-1994 to early 1995, putting the brakes on any reunion, and by the time it was even possible to get the cast back together, other changes had taken place behind the scenes. Whereas Red Dwarf had previously been written by Grant Naylor – a gestalt entity formed of the writing partnership of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor – creative differences had broke out and Rob Grant decided he’d rather explore other projects, leaving “Grant Naylor” extant only as the name of the Red Dwarf production company. It would be Doug Naylor who would be the sole showrunner going forwards, writing or co-writing each and every new script.
Still, Naylor had been there for the first six seasons – he must have known what made them work, right? Whats more, Ed Bye, director of the first four seasons, would be onboard to direct both the seventh and eighth season, to give a further sense of continuity.
These two seasons would also be eight episodes long, the better to rack up the episode count to meet US syndication requirements. Did this rush for quantity result in a dip in quality? Well, let’s see…
Red Dwarf VII
In order to tackle the challenge of writing the show without Rob Grant, Naylor shared the writing duties this time around whilst remaining in a firm supervisory role – some of the episodes he would write solo, whilst on others he would work with co-writers. Apparently, the process here was that the co-writer would do an initial draft and then Naylor would do a second pass on it to bring it into line with the Red Dwarf style, or at least his particular take on it. Other scripts were written by Naylor alone. (For the purpose of this review, if I don’t mention a co-writer in conjunction with an episode, you can assume it’s a Doug Naylor solo number.)
Though this meant that extra hands were involved in the writing process, Naylor retained full control of the final scripts, and so whilst the mixed reception of this season has sometimes been attributed to those outside contributors, ultimately I think Naylor has to take primary responsibility for the overall outcome, for good or ill. And there is good in season seven, despite it also having significant shortcomings.
In fact, the season opened strong – in fact, season opener Tikka To Ride is the episode which sometimes troubles the top 36 in fan polls. It’s tasked with resolving the cliffhanger ending to Out of Time, and does so in more or less the way anyone who was paying attention during the episode would have expected – by stating that by blowng up the time drive Rimmer paradoxed the crew’s future selves out of existence, thereby paradoxing their future selves’ attack on them out of existence, thereby saving everyone. Naylor accomplishes this in a somewhat clunky fashion, with a monologue to camera by Lister explaining it away in a pre-credits sequence, before the main body of the episode offers us a different time travel story.
Production differences are evident early on; the live studio audience and multi-camera setup was gone, a laugh track was added in, and the footage was post-processed to look like film. For space shots, model work was out and CGI was in. Even Kryten’s head has been updated, and residual paradoxes from the time fault have apparently greatly expanded Starbug‘s capacity, allowing for the use of larger sets. All this seems to be part of a concerted effort by Naylor to make the show seem more epic and filmic and less like a rinky-dink low-budget sitcom, which would be in keeping with his long-held ambition of making a Red Dwarf feature film.
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