Twenty VIII

Happy 20th birthday to Back in the Red et al...

15 February, 2019

We're well aware that every time we celebrate a landmark anniversary of Red Dwarf or one of its series, we're making those fans who were around for them at the time - not to mention the people who made it - feel terrifyingly old. So we're sorry about that. And we're especially sorry to have to point out to you that the last series of Red Dwarf to have been made in the twentieth century is hitting its twentieth anniversary over the next week - on 18th February, to be precise.

Twenty VIII

But we're still going to celebrate it, because that's what we do!

Two years previously, Series VII had seen Red Dwarf go through its biggest ever set of changes, both in front of and behind the camera. The end of the series left us with a new crew lineup - with Chris Barrie's Rimmer departing and Chloë Annett's Kochanski arriving over the course of the eight episodes - but also one almighty cliffhanger, with the apparent return of a nanobot-revived Red Dwarf ship and crew.

Series VIII had to pick up on that cliffhanger, but also to fold into its setup one further very important change to the crew: as Chris Barrie, having decided to leave the show prior to Series VII but then having enjoyed the making of his four-episode stint so much, made the decision to return to the fold. Reversing the events of Stoke Me A Clipper, however, would have done that story and its emotional closure a disservice - so Doug Naylor combined the "original crew revived" setup with the opportunity to bring back a pre-accident, pre-de-smeggified version of Rimmer. This, of course, was in addition to getting a third full series out of Norman Lovett's Holly, following a triumphant single-episode return at the end of Series VII.

The four-walled, no-audience approach to Series VII, meanwhile, had given us some of the best-looking Red Dwarf ever made - but everyone involved would happily admit that this had come at the expense of capturing the unique atmosphere that the show's live audience recordings were famous for. So for Series VIII, it was back to traditional sets, and an audience who had eagerly snapped up tickets at a faster rate than ever before.

Twenty VIII

Reviving the original crew - enabling the return of classic characters such as Mac McDonald's Hollister as well as the creation of new ones - immediately gave the series fresh comedic potential. But it also created the problem of just how to keep the classic Red Dwarf dynamic in place in such a bustling environment.

Hence the creation of the prison setting, with the previously-unheard-of "Tank" floor providing the basis for most of the series' action. Here, it was possible to put Lister and Rimmer back in a classic bunkroom scenario, in front of a live audience, for extended sequences; while still also having the potential for the wider space exploration stories that had become Red Dwarf's later-series bread-and-butter by way of the "Canaries" concept.

Twenty VIII

With a greatly-expanded onscreen crew, it's no surprise that there were once again some heavy-hitters in the cast. Aside from welcome returns for old faces (and voices) Norman, Mac, Tony Slattery, Paul Bradley and David Gillespie, there was a stellar guest star in the shape of the late Geraldine McEwan as the titular Cassandra. But it was in identifying future stars that the Red Dwarf casting department really did their best work - with Jake Wood (Kill Crazy), Graham McTavish (Ackerman) and even Holly Earls (Young Kochanski) going on to mainstream success in the years that followed.

That said, if there was ever a time when Red Dwarf could be described as "mainstream" rather than "cult", then the time in which it was getting record-breaking viewing figures on BBC2 - a cool eight million all in for the first part of Back in the Red - is surely it. Though the series also had the unusual quirk of being the first not to have all its episodes shown on the same day of the week, with Only the Good... bumped due to a sporting event, it landed amid one of the biggest waves of publicity the show had ever seen.

There was a special Children in Need insert scene filmed, which had to put Chris Barrie in his Series VI-VII costume to avoid spoiling the circumstances of Rimmer's return. And for the first time ever, an entire book was devoted to a single series - with the Red Dwarf VIII script book, a lavish hardcover that included extensive notes on each episode's writing and production from Doug Naylor, proving one of the standout additions to any fan's bookshelf.

Those notes revealed, among other things, that Series VIII had originally been planned to take a very different shape from the one that ended up onscreen. The originally-intended closing episode, Earth, became something of a holy grail for fans in the years that followed. With Series VIII having instead ended on a hastily-assembled cliffhanger, and no sign of a new series in the years that followed due to the development of the then-planned movie, the desire to find out more about how the story was going to end only grew.

Twenty VIII

But if Earth had happened, it would arguably have given Red Dwarf the final endpoint that we never want it to actually reach. Instead, leaving Series VIII open-ended - as maddening to some as that "kneeing Death in the groin" cliffhanger may have been to try and mentally resolve - is what enabled the show to return a decade later and pick up where it left of, in spirit if not directly in plot terms. And for open-ended series closers to become the norm, always leaving the hope of future adventures alive.

Nobody could have predicted the form that Red Dwarf would eventually go on to take when it returned in the twenty-first century. But two decades ago, it left the twentieth in rude health indeed.

Happy 20th Birthday, Red Dwarf VIII!

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