Friday, 5 October 2012

Television - Red Dwarf X 'Trojan' review

Red Dwarf X Trojan review Chris Barrie Craig Charles Robert Llewellyn Danny John Jules

I'm one of those rare Red Dwarf fans who likes almost all of it. Not just the classic seasons one through six, but seven and eight as well. I thought Chloƫ Annett's Kochanski was a nice addition to the cast, bringing some fresh dynamics to the group in Rimmer's temporary absence. The last two seasons might not have been as effortlessly silly as the six preceding ones, occasionally veering too far into soap opera territory - a possible consequence of Doug Naylor, often considered 'the plot guy', taking full control of the show following the departure of Rob Grant, aka 'the joke guy' - but had their fair share of classic Dwarf moments nevertheless.

'Back To Earth', the 2009 revival, was the first time the show really fell flat in my eyes. The gags were leaden, the comedic energy drained by the absence of an audience (live or recorded) and the meandering, reference-heavy plot given too much precedence over the humour. It received record ratings for its new channel Dave though, leading to the commissioning of a full series. With 'Back To Earth' still an open wound, I can't say my anticipation levels were high. (I'd have gone to red alert, but for being too lazy to change the bulb). To my considerable relief, while 'Trojan' is far from a classic and still shows signs of the stiffness which plagued the 2009 mini-series, it was competent enough to avoid further smegging up the legacy of this once great show.
  
It started badly, with an inexplicable joke about pig racing falling flat and a conversation about Swedish moose feeling deeply contrived, as though the writers didn't want to lose the idea but couldn't find a way of sliding it naturally into the episode so just stuck it in haphazardly. Things improved once Kryten and Rimmer made their first appearance, with Rimmer again trying and failing to pass his astronavigation exam. The gag wasn't the strongest, and 'hey ho, pip and dandy' doesn't quite have the same dorky ridiculousness as 'toodle pipski' or any of Rimmer's other hopeless catchphrases, but Chris Barrie's wonderfully expressive face made the most of the character's inability to disguise his fury upon reading yet another rejection letter.

On balance, the episode's Rimmer-related material was pretty strong, while anything involving Lister struggled to get going. The subplot about the Dwarf entering the catchment area for a droid shopping channel relied on some pretty hoary jokes - Lister and the Cat initially remarking on how stupid anyone paying for the advertised junk must be, before calling up to buy one for themselves and getting caught in an automated calling system loop - and wouldn't have felt out of place on a series as insipid as My Family. Dwarf is a great sitcom in its own right, but its sci-fi trappings give it identity. Consequently, plots which feel like they've been ripped out of the genre handbook feel even less inspiring when coming from a show which has previously offered up 'Future Echoes', 'Better Than Life', 'Polymorph', 'Marooned', or any of the other stories which could not have been told on any other series.

Sibling rivalry isn't an unfamiliar basis for sitcom storylines either, but the bitterness Rimmer feels towards the rest of his family is so intense and defines him so completely - as much to use it as an excuse for his failings as because of any real childhood suffering - that it was brave to base the opening episode of the first full season since 1999 around such relatively arcane character details. For the most part it paid off, with Howard Rimmer proving the show can still use the word 'twat' like no other and delivering a delightfully typical Red Dwarf line with 'Your brain is smaller than the salad section at a Scottish supermarket'. The twist, that Howard was as much of a charlatan as his brother, was terrific, tweaking the series' history to explain how Arnold Rimmer turned out the way he did. Turns out other members of his family were just as duplicitous and deserving of that 'Judas' middle name as him, and his final words to Howard showed, in typical Dwarf fashion, that he hasn't learnt anything from his brother's sacrifice.

The episode steadily improved as it went on, and even the contrived moose joke got a terrific pay-off in the middle act. I have no idea why a question about Swedish drivers would be a lynchpin of an astronavigation exam, or what it has to do with lateral thinking as much as '70s Scandinavian road habit trivia (Naylor definitely could have come up with something more appropriate if he'd tried, as there was no particular reason the joke needed to involve a moose, other than for the pleasure of saying the word 'moose'), but Rimmer's continual frustration as everyone knew the answer to the question but him was cleverly built up to make him look increasingly foolish, culminating in the Cat, of all people, knowing the answer before the question was had even been asked. The scene won't rank among the series' best, but showed signs of old rhythms settling into place.

That's true of the episode in general, which was a vast improvement over 'Back To Earth' despite only producing a handful of genuine laughs. ('We just hosed him down and gave him a hat' was another). The cast were mostly on good form, although clearly a little out of practice and lacking the naturalism which made their earlier performances so much fun. Lister and Kryten were particularly hamstrung by being required to play their emotional states very broadly, and while Rob Llewellyn's knack for physical comedy just about pulled it off, mugging is definitely not Craig Charles' forte. 'Trojan' easily cleared the low bar set by 'Back To Earth', enough not to disappoint despite proving a distinctly lesser episode by the standards of the show's illustrious history. Dave's decision to air the fourth season episode 'Camille' immediately afterwards showed the enormous gulf between the two eras in terms of wit and subversiveness, but if this season can keep a steady rate of improvement, there's no reason for Red Dwarf X to not eventually reach the acceptable standards of seasons seven or eight.

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