Classic TV: Red Dwarf VIII (1999)

Sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf returned for its eighth season in 1999. Not always content just to leave things as they are, co-creator Doug Naylor oversaw another major overhaul for this series, Red Dwarf's last on the BBC.

After the single camera experiment of the previous series, Red Dwarf VIII sees the show return to the traditional sitcom format of multiple camera studio filming with a live audience. This series sees Lister (Craig Charles), Cat (Danny John-Jules), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) and Kochanski (Chloë Annett) all return. But it also sees the unexpected return - without much fanfare - of Chris Barrie as Rimmer. Barrie had apparently enjoyed making Red Dwarf VII so much that he was persuaded to come back for a full series.

Something else returning this time is the mining ship Red Dwarf itself, along with its entire crew - the ship having been recreated and the crew brought back to life by the nanobots used to restore Lister's arm at the end of the last series. So the Rimmer character in Red Dwarf VIII is actually a different one, a recreation of the pre-hologram version from the very first episode of Red Dwarf. Theoretically, that means that this Rimmer has undergone none of his character development of the last seven series. 

Rimmer, Kochanski, Kryten, Lister and Cat in The Canaries
Definitely not a singing group: Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Kochanski (Chloë Annett), Kryten
 (Robert Llewellyn), Lister (Craig Charles) and Cat (Danny John-Jules) join The Canaries

Also returning is Norman Lovett, the original version of the ship's computer Holly, and Mac McDonald as the ship's Captain, who is now given a prominent supporting role. As she was part of the original crew, there should also now be two Kristine Kochanskis on the ship, which there don't appear to be.

This new set up, and the miraculous abilities of the nanobots, make this a hard premise to accept. A universe where even the dead can be resurrected has enormous implications that the series doesn't care to explore. And the audience can only wonder why these extraordinary nanobots were previously only being used to keep Kryten - by his own account, a simple sanitary droid - in working order, when they could be used to end death itself. 

This series also reveals that Red Dwarf was not only a mining ship but also a prison ship, an unlikely combination never mentioned before. This is so that the main characters can be jailed - initially for stealing the shuttle craft Starbug - and Red Dwarf can turn into a prison comedy. 

Unsurprisingly, these changes aren't entirely successful and the mixture of elements in this series seems random. As a result, Red Dwarf VIII feels quite different from the rest of the series, even the very first episode with the original crew that this one supposedly resurrects.

The eighth series starts with "Back in the Red", an awkwardly structured three parter, heavy on flashbacks. This story shows Lister, Cat, Kryten and Kochanski on trial for supposedly stealing Starbug, and their attempts to escape from imprisonment on Red Dwarf. They manage to get out of jail, using a vial of a "luck virus" salvaged from Starbug, steal a shuttle and go in search of the nanobots. But their escape seems to take place suspiciously easily. 

This story also sees Rimmer using inside information from Lister on the ship and its crew to impress the Captain. Later on, he borrows a "sexual magnetism" virus and uses it during dinner with the other officers - somewhat improbably - having an unfortunate effect on the female crew members present. 

Geraldine McEwan as Cassandra in Red Dwarf
She knows, you know: Geraldine McEwan as Cassandra

In what is probably this season's best episode, "Cassandra", Lister signs them all up for a group of military expendables, "The Canaries", in the mistaken belief that this is actually an a cappella singing group. 

The Canaries are sent to investigate a deserted ship where they find Cassandra (Geraldine McEwan), a computer who can predict the future. That includes the prediction that Rimmer will soon be killed by Lister, when he is caught making love to Kochanski. Understandably, she takes this prediction very badly, although Rimmer is more enthusiastic. 

The script has a lot of fun with the potentials of this situation, particularly Cassandra's foreknowledge of everything that the others will say and do, even if the resolution to this story doesn't make a lot of sense. 

In "Krytie TV", Kryten's lack of male genitalia sees him re-designated as a female prisoner. A nefarious change to his programming then sees him filming pranks on Lister and broadcasting sell-out movie nights live from the womens' showers. 

In the two-part story "Pete", another Canaries mission sees the team get hold of a "time wand" that can put people and objects into different time periods. They accidentally zap Pete, another inmate's pet sparrow, back millions of years until it devolves into a tyrannosaurus rex - if you can accept the evolutionary "science" behind that one. 

In the final episode, "Only the Good ...", the Dwarfers are on the verge of a successful escape, before finding a metal-eating virus destroying the ship. In their attempt to save the day, Rimmer enters a parallel dimension to look for an antidote. There he finds that he is now, finally, the captain of Red Dwarf. As was by now the custom, the eighth season ended on a cliffhanger, with Rimmer separated from the others and having to literally outwit the Grim Reaper (by kicking him in the groin, obviously).

Bald Rimmer and Lister in Red Dwarf VIII
"That's another fine mess you've gotten me into." Rimmer and Lister after another plan has gone wrong

Red Dwarf VIII is noticeably broader and cruder than the earlier series but, ironically, not really as funny. The change in the style of the series' humour, and a new premise that is so dramatically different from its predecessors, means that it no longer feels quite like Red Dwarf. The nature of the ship itself is also now confused - is it a mining ship or a prison? - and this series stumbles by trying to do several things at once, none of which mesh. 

Bringing back Red Dwarf itself and using it as a prison manages the rare trick of making this series simultaneously less plausible than its predecessors and also less interesting, the prison setting dramatically limiting the story possibilities available.

Even for a comedy, the practicalities of the new set up stretch credibility. Not just the resurrection of the ship and its crew and the revelation that it's actually a prison ship, but the fact that the inmates are given guns and sent on military missions. How are they kept as prisoners when they are all so heavily armed?

While Kochanski is housed in the womens' wing, she is still able to hang around with the men as and when the plot demands. Luckily, the male prisoners all seem to be friendly and gentlemanly and Kochanski is never under any threat, despite the mens' enthusiasm for Kryten's videos of the women showering. In fact, the only character the prisoners take any sexual interest in is Rimmer, when he is using the sexual magnetism virus. 

This version of Rimmer is a little more sympathetic than we've seen before, more subdued and less self-loathing. Going first into the parallel dimension (as the plot of the last episode requires) is something that the old Rimmer would surely never have done, he was far too much of a coward and self-preservationist. This seems particularly strange, given that this is a resurrection of the earlier Rimmer, without any of the character growth that had taken place in the more recent seasons.

Mac McDonald as Captain Hollister
Mac McDonald as Captain Hollister

Red Dwarf VIII also brings back Norman Lovett as Holly, something that Red Dwarf would do on and off to please the fans. But, given that the series now has Kryten to provide the explanations and exposition, Holly had already been made redundant. He is even more redundant now, as the characters no longer even have their own space ship or shuttle craft, leaving Lovett's role as pure fan service.

The series now has its biggest ever cast of characters with a shipload of prisoners and crew. Few make any real impression though, the principal exception being Mac McDonald, who is now one of the major supporting characters and often has more to do than some of the Red Dwarf regulars.

This series also features both Chris Barrie as Rimmer and his intended replacement Chloë Annett as Kochanski - although the writers still have no idea what to do with their only significant female character. Writing this series they probably realised what a dull character she is and so Chloë Annett is given even less to do than before.

Red Dwarf went on hiatus for a decade after this eighth series, mainly because a feature film version was constantly in the offing, but never quite getting off the launch pad. By the time that Doug Naylor had come to the conclusion that a film wasn't going to happen, the BBC had lost interest in a new series. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Red Dwarf did eventually return - a whole decade later. In 2009 the series was picked up by the digital comedy channel Dave. After an uncertain beginning with a very meta three-part special, "Back to Earth", Red Dwarf settled into its new home unexpectedly successfully, delivering multiple new series and a two-part special "The Promised Land" in 2020.

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