A Look Back At: Red Dwarf Series VII

One of my favourite series of Red Dwarf is Series VII. I know, I know, it's not a popular opinion amongst the Red Dwarf fan community. But let me plead its case. In case you're not a hardcore Dwarfer, here's a brief rundown of why this opinion is so controversial:

After the cliffhanger ending of Red Dwarf VI, Rob Grant (one half of the writing duo behind Red Dwarf) quit the show. At the same time, Chris Barrie also decided to leave (mainly because he had other work commitments with The Brittas Empire). Despite what would have appeared to have been setbacks that Red Dwarf would not have been able to overcome, Doug Naylor took up the mantle and decided to write Red Dwarf VII solo.

He had to find a way to write out one of the original main characters, write the show out of a tricky cliffhanger, and introduce a female presence, as he eyed up a Red Dwarf movie. It must have seemed like an impossible task!

The series came under fire for a variety of creative choices, namely choosing a more film-like look rather than a studio set up. As such the audience laughter was dubbed as being 'canned', though it actually wasn't. An audience was recorded reacting to each episode, and you can tell by the quite specific reactions to certain moments.

Another reason was the introduction of Kochanski. Ultimately, her addition, coupled with the fact that she replaced Rimmer, caused the classic dynamic of the 'Boys from the Dwarf' to be lost, something people found it almost impossible to forgive.

But here's why I think it's brilliant. Firstly, 'Tikka To Ride'. Whichever way you look at it, this episode is a masterpiece. The gang travel back in time, and inadvertently prevent the assassination of JFK. They then find themselves in a future Dallas where the town is deserted, and a man has been trampled to death in what they assume to be a stampede to escape the city.

The cause is revealed when they find a newspaper that reveals JKF was impeached for his connections to the mafia and the scandal lead to a series of events that destroyed the country!

This culminates in Lister going back in time again, but this time to convince JKF himself to be the man behind the grassy knoll. ('It'll drive the conspiracy theorists nuts but they'll never figure it out!') It's an episode that's hilariously funny yet carries the appropriate amount of weight for the subject matter.

TV bigwigs in the US were concerned about screening it, due to the controversy it could cause. However, when it did finally air, the only complaint was about the scene where it's revealed Kryten (with his guilt chip and behaviour protocols removed) cooked the dead man that they found.

The whole sequence showing the moment that JFK is assassinated, paired with Howard Goodall's fantastic score, is outstanding. It's not funny, there are no jokes, but it remains one of the standout moments of Red Dwarf for me. It's more than just pathos; it feels somehow bigger than Red Dwarf was before, grander.

Series VII also had another moment like this, with the many Rimmer light beam capsules making up the rings of Saturn. Yes, the CGI is dated now, but this was 1997, so the technology was all still a bit Toy Story I.

I think a lot of the drama in this moment comes from the horn section, something that has been associated with Red Dwarf since the original theme tune. It gave that moment a military fanfare feel - these were the moments when Red Dwarf VII tried something incredibly ambitious and succeeded.

This series was an attempt to make the show more Hollywood. At times it did feel more like a glossy American TV series rather than a UK sitcom. It's very much your personal taste as to whether that's a good thing or not.

It's fair to say though that Red Dwarf was always evolving from series II onwards. Characters did come and go (we had one Holly swapped for another and the introduction of Kryten). The pathos and more tender scenes in this series don't have much in common with series IV, V and VI, but they do share more similarity with I and II in that respect.

But it's not all good news. There was criticism of Kochanski not being Lister's 'type', and, although none of the various incarnations of Kochanski had any particular chemistry with him, (despite the minimal screen time), it does seem that, as a couple, they perhaps weren't particularly well suited. However, they shared more chemistry when she returned briefly in final instalment of Back To Earth.

I’ve read criticism that Kochanski’s portrayal was a tiny bit sexist; there were certainly a few jokes about shopping, ponies, and not knowing what 'offside' was that appear a tad dated to modern ears. However, a lot of the sexist attitudes came from the boys themselves rather than any genuine misogyny in the script and was played for laughs. Most of the time it was Kochanski who saved the day. Ultimately, as a character, she was hardly the damsel in distress.

Chloë Annett put in a great performance, and personally I really liked her. She held her own and had a few comedic highlights, particularly her 'pipes' performance. It was mainly her relationship with Kryten that annoyed people.

Kryten's constant jealousy of her was branded ‘annoying’. I thought it made for an entertaining dynamic, but maybe it was a touch overplayed. However, the salad cream debate was a classic, wherein Kryten becomes incensed by Kochanki's insistence that salad cream belongs in the cupboard, when he believes it belongs in the fridge (I’m team Kryten).

'How am I supposed to concentrate on a phasing comet when as soon as my back is turned the salad cream goes warm?'

Of course, the task of writing Rimmer out was huge, but I thought it was brilliantly done. It was neatly tied into a return from Ace Rimmer, in another one of Red Dwarf VII's movie style set pieces involving Ace surfing a crocodile (which I've always assumed was a parody of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Eraser, which came out at roughly the same time and involved Schwarzenegger wrestling a crocodile - but maybe I'm wrong?).

The idea that Rimmer was destined to become 'Ace' in a move that messed with the previously established origins of Rimmer was one I really liked, but I some had problems with this.

This wasn't even the only episode of the season to make such a bold move. ‘Ouroboros' made similar leaps with Lister's character - and if the ‘midichlorians' of Star Wars and the 'Armin Tamzarian' incident of The Simpsons has taught us anything, it's that fans don't appreciate the long established ‘canon’of the series being messed about with.

For me the most impressive thing about this series was how it dealt with Rimmer's departure, as at the time they weren't sure if Chris Barrie would ever return. How many sitcoms and dramas have we seen were an important character is clumsily written out, then in the following episodes is never mentioned or acknowledged again? It's a real bugbear of mine, but that doesn't happen here - a whole episode 'Blue' is devoted to missing Rimmer, culminating in the iconic Arnold Rimmer munchkin song, which I think people always forget was in series VII.

Characters came and went very naturally in this series. Everything felt as if it genuinely happened on the gang's journey, rather than being awkwardly crowbarred in. Lesser writers would have written Rimmer out immediately, and then put Norman Lovett's Holly back in straight away, along with introducing Kochanski. Having extra scenes with Rimmer throughout 'Blue' really helped. It was clever, as was having one episode ('Tikka to Ride') with the original gang before the whole dynamic changed.

All in all, Series VII's story arc was well thought out. It was a series that was all-round artistically pleasing. It was funny too; there were no shortage of the classic Red Dwarf one liners. (The bit where Starbug has about one minute before impact and Cat accidentally reads the baked potato timer always tickles me: 'Can we not leave it in here? It makes us look like we don't know what the hell we're doing!'

But of course it was a very different series. These days it's never repeated and is frequently paired with series VIII as two eras of Red Dwarf that are best forgotten about. It's fair to say that it’s been put into stasis.

When I started watching the series again, I wasn't sure if I'd just been remembering Series VII through rose-coloured glasses, but looking back at it now it's still a favourite of mine, and it doesn't deserve its poor reputation.

So, what do you say? Maybe we should get Red Dwarf VII out of stasis and back on the repeat cycle? (I'm looking at you, Dave!)

Written by Rhianna Evans

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