Airdate: That, my friend, will never happen.
Synopsis: Ah, a seemingly typical day on the Mining Ship Red Dwarf. Android Kryten (played by Robert Llewellyn, what a familiar name) is new to the ship, and tries to make the most of his new assignment. Low-ranked technician Dave Lister (Craig Bierko, best known for The Long Kiss Goodnight) is slobbing around, like always. All he wants to do is get back to Earth, date the unattainable Christine Kochanski, and avoid Captain Tao’s command of “no pets”. His boss, the still lowly Arnold Rimmer (Chris Eigeman, The Last Days of Disco) wants to take his engineering exam to finally control people other than Lister and two “advanced shoeboxes”.
Things go south for Lister when Tao learns from the security tapes that there is a pet on board. Lister’s pet Frankenstein is exposed, Kryten blows up trying to hide the fact, and Lister is given a choice; surrender the cat and receive a reprimand, or go into stasis for 18 months, forfeit all 18 months worth of wages, and face the possibility of criminal charges when back at Earth. He chooses the latter… and winds up three million years in the future. What happened? Well, a drive plate blew, and the entire crew (save Lister, his cat, and Kryten’s head) were fatally poisoned; Holly (played by Jane Leeves from Fraiser) had to keep Lister in stasis until the radiation was minuscule enough to live in. Ergo, three million years. (“My baseball cards must be worth a fortune!”)
Not to worry, though; Rimmer is brought back as a hologram, and Lister’s cat was pregnant. Three million years later, and the Cat species has become human-like… although one remains (played by dancer Hinton Battle).
Review: Yes, it happened. There was an attempt to make an Americanised version of Red Dwarf by the NBC network, produced after Series V wrapped up. And, as you would expect, it’s pretty damn subpar.
I mean, it’s not a total write off; Robert Llewellyn does a damn good job, like always, as well as Jane Leeves. That, and the humor is not as dire as what the internet would have you believe.
Nothing else, though, really fits.
Really, the reason for this pilot’s failure? The casting and the characters. As I mentioned, Llewellyn and Leeves do fantastically, and Battle is pretty damn good himself as the Cat. However, Bierko and Eigeman just. Don’t. Work.
Let’s take a look at Dave Lister and Arnold Rimmer. In the original version, Lister is played by Craig Charles. Charles portrays him as what he is; a lower class bum with no ambition. Charles plays his role to the hilt; slobbish dress, slobbish mannerisms, slobbish everything. (The Scouse accent didn’t hurt). It fits because that’s the show’s premise; instead of the somewhat charismatic heroes from other sci-fi shows (Kirk, Luke Skywalker, and Adama), we get a slob in our leading role. Instead of the refined, cultured Picard, we get lowly Scouser Lister. That, and Craig Charles emotes. His reaction when he realizes that he’s alone and that Kochanski is dead is that of quiet heartbreak through the entire minute before Rimsie shows up. (“Oh, hey! She was part of me plan… it was me plan. I planned it… So everyone’s dead? I’m on me own? It’s just me?). He’s perfect for the role.
Bierko’s Lister is just costumed clean enough to not really match. He looks like a well-maintained, relatively decent-looking man, albeit an everyman. Granted, he’s no Picard, but what made the original Lister so fantastic was that Lister was such a slob. This guy’s Lister is just a bit too dry. That, and he has a little bit of trouble emoting. When he mourns Kochanski, he does so in a somber, stoic manner. (“This wasn’t the plan. The farm was the plan.”) When it comes to realizing he’s truly alone, he yells at the top of his lungs. (“I’M GONNA GO NUTS HERE ALL BY MYSELF!”) Ultimately, there’s not a lot of energy here.
Arnold Rimmer, meanwhile, is played by Chris Barrie as an ambitious, yet tragically incompetent, egoist with few redeeming qualities. Barrie plays his character to the nth degree; it’s perfect! Eigeman’s Rimmer is nothing; he’s a bland character. Most of his annoying tendencies are told instead of shown. Thus, Eigeman has little to work with. He’s just a typically mildly annoying worker.
That’s the problem; the characters are distilled to dry, typical sitcom characters, leaving little in the way of character comedy, which was what made the original Red Dwarf so fantastic!
Character dynamic is also tragically impacted because of this. The dynamic between the original Lister and Rimmer was fuelled a little by the British class system. Lister and Rimmer are on the lower class of society; both are working class vending machine repairmen. However, Rimmer wants to climb the class ladder (despite being inhibited with his own personality failures), while Lister is perfectly content with being resigned to a lowly technician for eternity. While not as important, Lister wanted to date Kochanski, yet was prohibited due to class differences; this was presented as tragicomic, because the original Kochanski felt like she was a cool girl to go out with.
The US version dries the characters up so much that none of them are interesting. Lister and Rimmer now come off as typical workmates, and Kochanski and Lister now seem like a typical sitcom couple full of Unresolved Sexual Tension.
The lack of character also led to more of the humor being plot-based. By plot-based, I mean your typical American sitcom humor. This I didn’t mind: I watch a good amount of American comedy, and I appreciate it’s appeal. Still, the positives of the humor were dried out by the large, large amounts of poorly-done exposition. Exposition is a necessary evil; it’s a pilot episode. Even “The End” had some exposition. However, the way it was presented in the UK version was through the characters and their traits. Here, it’s just spouted at us.
That’s the problem in a nutshell; the American script lacked the charm and development of the original show, and what we were left with is just bland.
Production values also weren’t great, either. Granted, the original 6 series of Red Dwarf didn’t have the best production values, but not only were they still pretty damn good, whatever weaknesses were in the effects and music could be excused a bit; it was 80s BBC! Here, you’re talking about NBC: it was the highest-rated network in the late 80s/early 90s! (Granted, their budget must’ve gone to Seinfeld, but still!) Yet, they not only used paintings to set up the Red Dwarf (which reminds me; why does Red Dwarf here have a mall and a football stadium in a mining ship), but they also reused special effects from the UK version. Again, this episode never made it to air, so I’ll give it that they were subbing in some special effects until the pilot was given clearance. That, and the quality of the episode posted online is subpar (it’s transferred from a VHS). Still, why cut corners?
Also, Howard Goddall’s score in the original was simply fantastic. Even the slow-moving first two series had an entertaining, well-constructed soundtrack. Here, everything is bland and lifeless. The theme song is one of the most boring theme songs ever made.
They also tried to mash some plot elements from other series (some of which were not even close to conception, let alone production, yet) and episodes into the first episode. There’s the time drive from Series VI, the fall of the cat race from “Waiting for God”, the introduction of Kochanski from Series VII, Kryten’s intro from Series III, etc.
It’s not the worst American adaptation of all time, let alone the worst sitcom. (Coupling and Emeril are the winners, respectively). But, it’s just so bland!
Obviously, in the end, Red Dwarf USA never made it. The original does air on some PBS stations, such as Dallas’s KERA and Washington WETA UK subchannel; look out for Series X on your local PBS station this summer.
Favorite Scene: Kryten’s reaction to being told what to do is to have his head explode. Three million years on, and Kryten’s head is still waiting to be repaired. His reaction? “Well, I’ve been reading that fire exit sign over there!”
Least Favorite Scene: I’m too bored to pick.
Score: 4. I gave it some leeway because, well, it’s a pilot.