Barely-Related Set Report: Red Dwarf XI
I was following the show back when the sets were naff. When the models were just painted cornflakes boxes suspended on uneven bits of twine. When the costumes were far too dated, the acting far too obvious, and the writing far too laddish. Back when the characters were underdeveloped, that vampire was in it, and Cryton was just a bald, middle-aged guy projected onto a TV screen.
... Except, the show has never actually been nearly that bad. Even at its least gripping, it has never been close to unwatchable. For the most part, it's actually been rather impressive. Honest.
You see, Red Dwarf has the dubious honour of being often described as a 'cult' programme. Which roughly translated, means that despite the fact a disproportionate social percentile will find it inexplicably effortless to simultaneously comprehend, appreciate, and enjoy the occasional episode, book, or assorted curio, those who orbit the periphery of said fandom (I like to call them, 'Unbelievers') will statistically find it more emotionally demanding to effectively combine those elements into a unified, copacetic viewing experience, or something.
Yes. Some people love it, some don't. You heard it here first. And let's not get into whether or not it's first and foremost a sci-fi comedy, or a comedy sci-fi. Trust me, we'll be here all night. At this point, all that matters is that it's back. Which is, to coin a phrase, ace.
As far as my single remaining taste-bud is concerned, the first thirty-six episodes of this niche, Emmy-award winning pleasantry are for the time-capsule. Inevitably, what I perceive as being such a perpetually-strong initial run has consequently set the bar rather high for all subsequent future endeavors. That (hypocritically) said, the chance to witness an episode being recorded live had long, long, long been on my proto-Bucket List. After all, such barriers tend not to protect that which is behind from what might be ahead - rather, prevent what is behind from getting ahead, at all.
Just to needlessly rankle any fellow Dwarfers who may be reading, this was not in fact the first time I had seen the Small Rouge One up close and personal. In fact, I've seen the show recorded live twice before. The first occasion was a legitimate, ten-thousand-to-one-shot via the Lost In TV ticket selection last year for the Series X opener, Trojan. The second ticket was a gift of sorts (along with a biryani) for a solid week's work, which at one stage involved me pretending to be a vicar. That episode, ironically entitled, The Beginning, happened to book-end Series X. Needless to say, both were a lot of fun to watch being put together, and equally enjoyable to behold when later broadcast.
In fact, during that final installment, if you listen carefully to the Simulant/Harakiri scene, you may just hear a distinctly Midlands-eqsue "Aww..." as one cybernetic character cottons onto his imposing superior's deadly double-meaning. That's me! Which in my mind, makes me practically a guest star. Actually, I wonder if I'm due a repeat fee or two..? I'm not joking, actually.
This time around, with tickets being in such notoriously short supply, I found myself attending as a privileged +1, courtesy of a generous, fellow Dwarfer. So, thanks, you. You know who you are. You cool person, you.
This particular episode, the as-yet-unnamed 'S11.E04' (4/11/15), was filmed at Pinewood, as opposed to the usual (and for a plethora of several multitudes of reasons, much beloved by me) Shepperton Studios.
In the interests of providing a little advance context to this piece, there are a couple of things I should just say before we get waist-high in madras sauce. First, as requested by the production shortly before filming began, there will be no specific plot/character spoilers. And second, as far as the most recent televised series is concerned, I really liked Dear Dave. And yes, I'm comfortable with that. So, with this latter point well in mind, you may wish to invert any likes/dislikes I happen to mention from here on in...
Arriving well ahead of time at Pinewood, we were ushered in groups to the 8960 sq-ft strong TV One studio, only to be greeted by two giant black curtains, and several rows of unforgiving blue plastic seating. Interestingly, even the first episode of Series X had the new sets on display practically from the get-go, so this was quite a change from the norm. Bit more theatrical, you might say.
In addition to feeding the crowd special shoot footage, rough cuts of pre-assembled sequences and the like, evenly spaced in front of us were the usual bank of freestanding flat screen TVs proudly displaying the newly (oldly?) reworked elliptic logo from Series III. Little known fact #2: the veritably prehistoric-style poster seen above (admittedly, sans 'XI') was designed in mind to be showcased at the most recent fan conference in Nottingham, earlier this year. Great minds, eh?
When the giant drapes were finally raised, the as-yet unseen environments were undoubtedly impressive, though for my continuity-driven satisfaction, were still missing their Bibby-worthy red stencils, or similar, over the entryways. A second, new(ish) on-board location boasted some feature-quality hi-tech props (specifically, we were told, one in particular). A revamped iteration of a certain iconic support craft was also present, though out of view. I'm not sure if it was the angles relayed to us live on the monitors, but you'd think the seemingly smaller space would be playing merry hell with Lister's claustrophobia. Or perhaps, that was something he suffered from for just the one episode. Harrumph, harrumph.
In any event, it was nice to see the old girl brought out of quantum-mothballs. And when undoubtedly inter-cut with some purty exterior model and/or CG shots, this will most certainly be something to look forward to around the time of transmission. So yes, some slightly newfangled locales, but with some fun call-backs which I'm sure eager Dwarfies shall enjoy pointing out when the time comes. Didn't happen to see any furry dice, though. For shame.
As we've very much come to expect over the years, the episode itself was an ensemble piece, nicely balanced across the main characters, with Rimmer as a focal point. Craig was particularly on form as the Universe's unlikeliest slobby beacon of Humanity. Delivering a typically carbonated performance alongside his shipmates, he willingly took the time to rally the audience between takes, in the hopes of generating an ever better response. No doubt, a fresh batch of delicately-nuanced Smeg Ups will almost certainly be on the cards, come time for the inevitable DVD release.
But above all, the episode was, truth be told, consistently funny. Within seconds of rolling, the opening visual gag got a deservedly big laugh, and set the tone rather well for the next few hours. The cast appeared to enjoy playing certain scenes more than others, and their individual performances were directly boosted as a result. One such woofer, as ably Gatling-gunned by Robert Llewellyn roughly halfway through the shoot, practically brought the house down - so much so that I seem to recall it drowning out Craig's next line, requiring a retake.
The imaginative plot called for some daring FX that managed to impress even in its roughest, most incomplete form. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if High-Reaching Ambition proves to be this series' raison d'être. The lighting was particularly striking and dimensional. Whilst the bunk-room in Back To Earth made use of its bright walls to bounce light in all directions (functionally doubling it up as a portrait studio,) this newer iteration seems tailor-made to effect an overall greater sense of visual definition. Put it this way - in isolation, I found the shots natively well-balanced, and surprisingly bold. The trick will be seeing how it all works stitched together and graded, I guess. One wonders how a dramatic episode such as say, Quarantine might've looked if using the same camera setup. Is there a difference between something looking cinematic, over say, 'feeling' cinematic? I dunno.
Tonally, there was some interesting/prescient sociopolitical satire that harked back to the show's glory years. One or two salient points from modern day life were effectively woven into both the comedy and plotting, without one much sacrificing the other. One could even argue, at its most engaging, the story briefly came close to taking on the form of a morality play.
Throughout, there were also one or two nice callbacks to previous episodes, which I'm sure fans will enjoy noting down on their JMC clipboards. The studio audience were at certain points, treated to memorable music cues from yesteryear, and even SFX from classic films to help set the mood. Even though it was a long night, the crowd clearly enjoyed themselves from start to finish. I know, because I was one of them. It was all really lovely.
In fact, I don't want to say much more, as I'm likely to give something away, but allow me to close by simply saying that I found the evening quite a bit of fun, and certainly on par (at times, perhaps even a shade more) than my experiences watching both Trojan and The Beginning. And Dear Dave.
... And yes, I'm still comfortable with that.