Seventh Heaven

Sure, there were production changes - but what was going on inside the fictional world of Red Dwarf VII?

In many ways, Red Dwarf VII feels like the first season of a new show - something Dwarf always had going on in each new series anyway, but which became especially pronounced here. There was a writing voice that was inevitably not identical, a shooting style that didn't try to be, and a fresh dynamic. The SF-comedy began to lean towards SF-comedy-drama.

Seventh Heaven

For all that 'new show' vibe, though - new characters, different dynamic - what still shines through is an interest in the characters we've come to love. The season is steeped in their history, and in Dwarf lore in general.

Let's start at the beginning. With so many changes on their way in the coming episodes, Tikka to Ride is almost wilful in its desire to be old-school. The cliffhanger of the previous series is dispatched in mere moments - something Dwarf has always done, from Lister's exam result at the end of Balance of Power to his pregnancy in Parallel Universe.

And then what do we have? Chatty scenes of the gang together, Lister's relationship with curry locked down tight in order to relate it to the journey that is to come. The equivalent of, say, the 'Wormdo' discussion in Parallel Universe - establishing aspects of character that will later become key to the main story.

Then, with a prod of the time drive, we're off on a time-travelling adventure, complete with physical set-pieces, character-filled dialogue scenes and a twisty climax. For all the glossy production values, it's more-or-less Dwarf as we've always known it.

Seventh Heaven

More accurately, Series VII made attempts to be Dwarf as we used to know it. With grumblings about the 'monster of the week' format that V and VI had developed, Series VII did everything it could to avoid chucking in a fresh GELF every episode - even going so far as to create episodes that mimicked the stuck-together dynamic of Marooned (Duct Soup) or the psychology-first principals of Confidence & Paranoia (Blue).

There were also on-screen nods to avoiding the conventions of Series VI. The Cat's nasal abilities, constantly dragged out during VI, were poured scorn upon early - his scent analysis of a corpse in Tikka turns out to be 100% wrong. And when Lister dreams of Rimmer in Blue, he's quick to point out that the newly-arrived Kochanski does at least have one redeeming feature over Rimmer - she's yet to quote a single Space Corps Directive.

Seventh Heaven

With the scene set, the departure of Rimmer in Stoke Me a Clipper forced a re-think on just what a comedy series needed to survive. What's needed, of course, is conflict. Rimmer and Lister's mutual antagonism was fuel for, at least, the early series; and with half that relationship missing, new avenues of conflict had to be explored.

So Kochanski's arrival did double duty. Lister gets his girlfriend back, but she's now in love with his parallel version, one who's grown and developed in ways Lister hasn't. And Kryten sees 'his' Lister being taken away from him.

The former was clearly intended to generate some of that classic TV ingredient - Unresolved Sexual Tension. From M*A*S*H to Moonlighting, The X-Files to Lois & Clark, the UST has brought spice to many a show.

In fact, it may be that sense of familiarity that made Red Dwarf play the UST down. Nods were made throughout the series, but perhaps it was the fact that it's such a long-established set-up that drove Doug Naylor to downplay it. By Series VIII, it had all but gone - no more mention of the alternate Lister providing a barrier, just KK's general distaste at being the object of love...or, at least, lust.

Seventh Heaven

Played far more strongly was Kryten's jealousy. And what an original idea - you may have seen UST a thousand times before, but you were never witness to a man's struggle to deal with his robot's jealous streak. Kryten's mothering instincts found a new and interesting angle - but missed hitting its strongest beat with Kochanski's pragmatic response.

Aside from some inspired bitching in Blue, Series VII generally showed Kochanski as irritated by Kryten's attitude, rather than mutually antagonised. A shame, because with only one set of claws out, the battle became one-sided. When Rimmer scratched, Lister scratched back; Kochanski chose to take higher ground. A shame, because this could have been a great new angle.

Still, this whole situation did open Kryten up beyond the exposition-droid he had become. Robert Llewellyn's performance has always been joyous when it comes to attempting human emotions. Kryten shows us a reflection of how bizarre a flesh-and-blood life really is, and his attempts at emotions in VII do the same job as his comments on anatomy in DNA - they show us how weird it is to be human.

Kryten's 'brother', Able, introduced in Beyond a Joke, also expanded the character while simultaneously subverting another Dwarf convention. Ace Rimmer, Hudzen 10, Queeg - repeatedly 'replacements' have arrived for our regular characters. Always more powerful, more capable, than the originals. Able was the opposite - a counterpart who was a positive liability.

Seventh Heaven

Ironically, original drafts of the episode had Able as exactly this type of 'better-than' character - he was far superior to Kryten and invoked his fears of being replaced. But by going against the expected convention in the final script, the episode peels back a new layer on the character. Able is a living cautionary tale - what could have happened to Kryten, given his personality and background, if he didn't have Lister providing both support, and a reason to be. (Able even has the same 'life with a dead crew' origins.)

This is, of course, what Dwarf has done again and again - used SF conventions to expose character. It offers the chance to be wonderfully literal about the paths we might have taken. (Hey, even Friends found this useful - creating a two-part special based in, let's face it, an alternate universe where characters had gone in different directions: Monica still fat, Ross still married to a lesbian...)

Still, despite the familiar themes the storytelling of Series VII is the show at its most unpredictable. Nobody saw Rimmer's exit happening that way. (Ironic, really, as it was hinted at in Emohawk - Polymorph II that old Arnie could become Ace if only he'd drop the neurosis and negativity.)

Seventh Heaven

Nobody expected Kochanski to arrive the way she did, or for Lister's origins to be so fascinating. (Combining the two stories, though, perhaps packed Ouroboros a little too densely. In retrospect, the Ouroboros clue could have taken a full season to climax, in a style similar to the recent Doctor Who's 'Bad Wolf'. It's too good an idea to shoot past in half an hour.)

Nobody expected Kryten to have a brother, or for the fated Rimmer-Lister snog to really happen, or for nanobots to be revealed as the thieves of Red Dwarf. Series VII confounded expectations constantly, and showed rich levels of invention - the defeat of Epideme is top SF storytelling, the home-made AR in Blue utter genius.

So many of these moments, too, are built on the established themes of the show. We've been dealing with futuristic diseases since Series I's mutated pneumonia and Series IV's space mumps. How cool to give a disease intelligence and a voice?

Artificial Reality, meanwhile, had fuelled the top-voted episodes of the last two series - Back to Reality and Gunmen of the Apocalypse. So we see it this time being... well, abused.

Seventh Heaven

Taking cues, as ever, from the current world, AR this time is shown as hackable - Lister's cheats book in Stoke, Kryten importing a tank from one game to another - as well as being just another programming language that any amateur can take a crack at. (The cobbled-coding of The Rimmer Experience being the Dwarf equivalent of home-made games, with basic functions and unimpressive graphics.)

Which, having paid lip-service to episodes one to seven, just leaves Nanarchy to discuss. And what a peculiar episode to end the season with. Compared to Back to Reality or Out of Time it's a far more sedate, more introspective episode. Even compared to most of Series VII it has a remarkable lack of danger. (Even Duct Soup contained the threat of impending death.)

Instead an incompetent crew are left to deal with a single issue - Lister's missing arm. An emotional issue, rather than the threat of a giant squid or alternate killer selves.

It seems to take Cat, Kryten and Kochanski by surprise when Lister is hit so hard by the loss of a limb. Was this really the same guy who once threatened to rip Death's nipples off? Apparently so. And not one of them knows what to do.

Which reveals, on closer inspection, some interesting character work. Each of the three try to cope with the problem in a way that shows their own perspective on the universe.

Kryten's first moves are to sympathise and simply soldier on. (Having 'his' Lister back to be molly-coddled no doubt being part of the appeal.) Kochanski is first and foremost practical - 'where can we get a new arm from?'

Seventh Heaven

Cat, of course, can't say two words without slipping a Cuban heel into his mouth. His perspective is simplicity itself - losing a limb doesn't make an ugly guy any less ugly, Lister should be glad he doesn't look like Cat, they he'd really have lost something.

They are all, it turns out, barking up the wrong tree. As soon as Lister has a distraction (the nanobot/Dwarf problem) and a friendly face who could care less about his body (Holly's wondrous return) he brightens right up. He comes alive as soon as he finds direction and purpose.

Which is, and always has been, one of Red Dwarf's key mission statements. It's not about 'the last guy alive and his whacky pals'. It's about the directionless finding direction.

Rimmer found his, finally, as the character bade the series farewell in Stoke Me a Clipper. Kryten is edging ever closer, as Beyond a Joke showed - he just has that last hurdle of utter servility to leap.

Seventh Heaven

Kochanski... well, her journey is just getting started. What use is a navigation officer to a crew who barely know or care which way is 'up'? (Which, okay, in space is kinda moot, but you get the idea.) The reason she's so wound up? The reason she's trying to catalogue pipe squeaks? She had her direction and she lost it. Now what?

Ironically, even the Cat would have found something approaching his raison d'être if Series VII had gone to plan. Identity Within - the lost episode, shown on the DVD and so very nearly made - dug deep, in its various drafts, into what the Cat is, what he wants, and what he can be. It showed him his direction.

In all possible ways, Series VII was all about finding your path. For characters and creators alike.

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