Set Report: Red Dwarf 2020 Special (11th January 2020)

It was the first new Red Dwarf recording of the decade and the boys got the 2020s off to a roaring start with a really enjoyable – if slightly long –  recording session. As has become customary at these Pinewood shows, the crowd – mostly comprised of people in black t-shirts with long hair – were ushered into a large marquee with inadequate toilet facilities, given wristbands of various colours and told to wait until their number was called.

After about half an hour of waiting, some delightful ushers made an announcement telling us not to take pictures before everyone was marched to the studio in batches to take our seats. As we waited for the action to begin, there was a range of Red Dwarf’s incidental music playing in the background along with a static logo on the audience and crew screens.

Red Dwarf’s usual warm-up man Ian Boldsworth wasn’t able to make it due to life events, so we were introduced to Mark Olver, who did a fantastic job in getting the crowd in the mood for laughing with some hotly contested debates about the best crisps and two-fingered snacks. Unfortunately his tease of the Liverpool score was ruined by a Mr Craig Charles who shouted it out loud for all to here. You really had to be there, but it was quite funny.

Doug was then brought out to greet the fans and he apologised for this recording being moved from December and told us that it was no-one’s fault. But no one was really looking for anyone to blame because, as now we were part of the second recording, we were getting shown a 17-minute edited version of the first 45 minutes of the episode, as well as seeing all new scenes being shot. We’d also get to see a number of VTs throughout the night to fill in all the gaps as well as some very temporary effects shots to get a laugh track for some visual jokes.

The cast were also introduced to rapturous applause and, despite their advancing years, they’re looking pretty fit in person. Costumes all looked more of less familiar and both Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules brought a strong wig game. It was also a great treat to see Norman Lovett introduced with the rest of the cast, and he seemed to be genuinely relishing being back in the red.

So, you want to know about the sets? Well, sure you weirdo. The standard configuration used in Red Dwarf XI, XII (and presumably part one of this special) was standing, more or less, but completely unused. That means there were no scenes shot in the science room, bunk room or Red Dwarf’s corridors. Instead, the four-walled Starbug set had been placed in front of the bunk room with a massively upgraded midsection joined onto the back. It was the closest thing you can imagine to seeing an episode of Red Dwarf VI being recorded, and that’s no bad thing.

The sets and crew for the first night of filming in December.

The staging meant you couldn’t actually see inside Starbug’s cockpit and if you were on the left-hand side of the seating, you basically couldn’t see any of the live action taking place at all, other than Norman being shot against a black screen… but really what more could you want? No one really missed out with all the live action being relayed to the crowds over both TVs in front and large screens above the seating.

The Starbug set isn’t much changed from Series XII but does feature the upgrades from the AA with the new detail on Rimmer’s wall and the emergency phone. New director of photography, Ian Adrian was in charge of the lighting and there was certainly a different look to that of the previous series. While there were some quite distinct dark blues and reds present in Starbug for Series XII, this set-up felt a bit more classic and natural in tone. But of course, you won’t really be able to tell anything until it’s all been graded. Thankfully, Holly’s lighting was warmer more in keeping with the Series II or maybe Series VIII look, which made Norman look more like himself than he did in Series XII’s blue-tinted cameo.

As this is going to be a 90-minute special, you’d expect something a little bit epic and the set-up shown in the extended preview certainly provided something big. This is a story that plays into the Red Dwarf mythology. And with the extended run time, it actually gets to play out an emotional arc. While, it perhaps seems like it’s a Lister-led story, there’s also some really strong material for Rimmer, with what appear to be long-term effects, and there are facets of Cat that haven’t been explored that come right to the fore. Perhaps Kryten is the least well-served of the core four but he still has plenty of material, including at least great moment which references Bobby’s environmentally conscious presenting career.

And as for Norman, it’s fair to say that Holly is an important and vital presence in this story. Of the scenes shot on the night, those featuring Norman towards the end of the record, were perhaps the funniest with some absolutely brilliant lines which generated some of the strongest and sustained laughs of the night.

And in terms of theme, it definitely plays out some of Red Dwarf’s core ideas and harkens back to the big ideas that were explored in the novels in the same way as ‘M-Corp’, with at least one scene echoing a sequence in Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. There’s also some exploration of the Lister and Rimmer relationship, and it’s hard to tell based on an audience recording, but they might actually have achieved pathos without unbalancing the tone. The performances are certainly among the best we’ve seen in the Dave era.

And overall, the boys were on form. They played the first scene in front of the audience without them making a single mistake. For those first five minutes, you almost forgot it was a TV recording as it seemed a bit more like you were watching a play or even one of the VTs. Of course, as the night wore on, a few slip ups were inevitable and Chris brought out his usual Italian routine, as well as a new spin on Kenneth Williams. The number of scenes they got through on the night was immense, and the leads, as well as the three guest actors who were present for the studio record, were as professional as you might expect. As the night wore on, concentration dwindled and even the ever-reliable Craig Charles slipped up but there were next to no actual delays or forgetting of lines despite some complains of gremlins from the first assistant director. We even got to see some of the magic being created with a single line added to a scene to make a joke far stronger, proving that when Doug’s comedy instincts are right, they are really right.

One of the things the recent series have been accused of is mining the past. And this show certainly has a couple of lines that you’ll recognise as well as the return of a still very funny Series V prop. But they just nods and nothing more and nothing hinges on these points. The show itself is very much something which embraces Red Dwarf’s past and considers its legacy but it’s all new. It actually seems crazy that this story hasn’t been explored before now. But it’s definitely something that required a little extra scope and this special certainly gives the plot, and the characters, a bit more time to develop.

The future of Red Dwarf remains a mystery but it seems like it certainly has one. Will there be another series? Or will there be more specials? If this recording was anything to go by, then I would expect more of the same. Recording two series back to back as they did for XI and XII seemed like a tall order, but somehow they pulled it off. But it would be hard to argue that you could take the episodes from both runs and condense them into one very good Series XI. This special looked like it was all good stuff. So if you can compress a year’s worth of the good stuff into one really good episode, then bring it on.