With series X edging ever closer, speculation is obviously rife as to what to expect. Look around internet forums discussing the subject and you’ll often find people listing the things that they are hoping for this series. The most common of these is a desire to see a return of the bunk scenes. When the new series was originally announced, Den of Geek ran an article in which the writer raised this hope in a list of ten things they’d like to see.
The bunkroom scenes of Series 1 and 2 were fantastically written and epitomised the premise of the entire programme: two people marooned in space together who can’t stand each other.
Those scenes really fleshed out the characters of Lister and Rimmer and helped us to see them as more rounded people. Also, they were absolutely hilarious and were a good way of doing a sci-fi sitcom on a low budget.
When they were brought back for Series 8, they were arguably the best part of what was a somewhat mediocre series. It would be a real treat to see them back again.
Is this a correct assessment though? Would bringing the series largely back to the confines of bunk scenes be the key to unlocking comedy gold? When thinking about the iconic elements of Red Dwarf, it’s not long before the bunk room comes to mind. The reasons for this are two fold; the set design that was very recognisable right from the first episode and the scenes that took place in them. For some, so integral to the format of the show are they that they will tell you the series went downhill after series II. This is a great oversimplification, not only of the shows dynamic but also of comedy writing and characterisation. To understand why and just what part they play in the show, we have to break this down into several parts.
First of all, let’s address the issue of fleshing out the characters. Unquestionably, the Den Of Geek article is correct that in the early series, the bunkroom scenes were often used to make the characters open up to each other. This starts right from the off with Lister outlining his plans for his future in Fiji to Rimmer. We understand his hopes and dreams and by Rimmer’s reaction we learn something of his character too. Yet surely this is only to be expected in the first series of a show? No program would work if we weren’t given scenes that allow the characters to either open up or to play off of each other as without them we would feel removed from the characters. However, while this provides us with a base of knowledge about the characters, there is no reason that the series should be presently confined to presenting scenes in this context rather than expanding upon what has gone before.
This brings us on to another point, which is that the setting of the scenes is entirely irrelevant to their content, and in these cases the context is what is important. Sitcoms largely draw their comedy from the way the characters react to the confines of their situation. In the case of a program like Porridge, these boundaries are clear as they relate to location, and we can instantly recognise the need for the smallest of victories and one upmanship, which become an essential part of life, helping to get the characters through the days. Other shows may have more of an open world, but the confines still exist. Take a show like Only Fools and Horses, which allows the characters to travel relatively far and wide. They are still trapped however; trapped by their ambitions to do better which can never quite be achieved. Red Dwarfs confines are a combination of these factors. The boundaries are wide and allow the crew to travel to other worlds, but they know that they have no one else as the only either people that they encounter mean them harm, or in the case of something like Holoship, joining them will have some negative effect. This might be more bearable if not for the particular group of characters. Lister and Rimmer have never been able to see eye to eye, the Cat is self-obsessed and Kryten is primarily concerned with subservience, all of which escalates the isolation to a degree where we see Lister essentially suffering from depression in Timeslides.
Fundamentally, these constraints mean that these scenes could be set anywhere and still have the same impact. It’s worth remembering that even in the heyday of the bunk scenes, Series II had already started to move away from the bunkroom and into other locations like observation dome. Rob and Doug’s reasoning here is well known; by moving to a totally different part of the ship they could have a place where scenes with more pathos could take place. Scenes that were heavily character based, such as Rimmer finding out about the death of his father, still take place in the bunkroom but are not confined to it. It’s surely no coincidence that this coincided with the greater expansion into guest sets that came with series II, not to mention the slightly larger budget that allowed for this.
While we can say fairly safely that the location is not the issue here, the matter that is really being referred to is that these types of dialogue heavy, character based scenes appeared less and less as each series went by. This leads us to perhaps the greater issue to address; did the style of comedy change fundamentally after series II? It has often been said that the reason for the slow phasing out of the bunk scenes was tensions among the cast that led to an uncomfortable atmosphere, but in reality they didn’t disappear. Instead, they morphed into drive room and cockpit scenes, touches of which had already existed in both series I and II. As such, their expansion is a natural choice, providing a way to minimalise the tensions between the actors simply by having more scenes where the cast worked as an ensemble.
Furthermore, a move to group scenes is entirely logical with the changes made to the cast between series II and III. Part of the reason for Kryten’s original introduction was that Rob and Doug felt they needed an outside influence to help drive the plot; otherwise the series would become stuck in something of a similar rhythm. His introduction, along with a desire to integrate the Cat into the crew further and make him less aloof, changes the dynamic of the show, and arguably for the better. It’s certainly questionable that the series would ever have run for as long as it has without it. This in no way means that the style of comedy also changed, but it does mean that the characters had some development over time. In shows with a slightly more surreal air like Father Ted, you can return the status quo at the end of each episode and leave it be, but with a show like Red Dwarf it would be odd for the experiences not to have an effect upon the characters, especially in cases such as Rimmer’s departure in Series VII.
It is also worth pointing out that even in the novels a similar change occurs. If we look to the first two red dwarf novels, both Rob and Doug were clearly looking to something on a larger scale, and even in the first novel, by the time Kryten appears bunk scenes of a typical nature start to disappear. Marooned section aside, Better than Life is even further removed from that kind of set up, and has a far greater selection of event pieces rather than small character pieces. The show itself still continues to present episodes that are examination of character, but the manner it is done is expands into a variety of different avenues over time. This is often done in the third person, with the idea of the psyche made real. Teraform, Demons and Angels, Dimension Jump, Rimmerworld; all deal with the psyche in an overt manner. This is mirrored in the novels, with the psyche being largely examined by the way the crew experience Better Than Life. This was of course also done in series II, but the novel takes it to much greater extremes, especially for Rimmer and the Freudian implications that he had married and slept with his mother. In many ways, the novels provide us with a glimpse into how the writers might have envisaged a story before the restraints of making them for television were applied, and the fact that they expand beyond the bunk scenes more than the show does shows that they did not see them to be essential.
Does this mean that the style of comedy changed? I would argue not. In the main, we are dealing with more group scenes than two handers, but fundamentally the type of humour in the show remains the same. ‘Yes, Minister’ didn’t have the biting satire that made it so popular harmed by promoting Jim Hacker to PM for ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, it merely shifted the confines slightly while still keeping Hacker as confined in the intricacies of politics as it had done before. Even with a shift of confines though, we are still occasionally presented with scenes that are at their heart fundamentally bunk scenes. While it is often overlooked, Duct Soup very clearly harks back to this sort of set up, especially in Lister explaining when he first developed claustrophobia. Whether it is particularly enjoyed by fans or not, it doesn’t change the fact that it effectively presents what could have been a bunk scene within the context of the later series.
This brings us to Series VIII and Back To Earth. While the Den of Geek article praises the bunk scenes of series VII, many fans were critical of them, saying that they didn’t feel right. This argument has also been levelled at the opening scene of Back To Earth, with suggestion that the idea of Lister winding Rimmer up in the manner he does doesn’t seem to fit. Crucially, I would argue that a lot of this once again comes down to the evolution of the characters. The Lister of the later series is not quite the same Lister that in grew mould in a mug to annoy Rimmer. This is why the deleted Jammy Dodger scene from Back To Earth works, as it fits with where the characters are at this point in time, and doesn’t try to trade on the bunk scenes of the past as it could perhaps be argued that the Series VIIIs ones did.
So, to conclude, are people wrong to want to see a return to bunk scenes? No, not as such. They can still be written well and present us with something interesting, but they need not be restricted to that setting or a two hander set up. If you, as many would like, try to recreate this and the specifically particular type of antagonism between the characters, you end up going against how they have developed over the course of each series, and this can actually be to the detriment of the show. The bunk scenes will always remain part of the show, but they do not account for the whole, and a series of episodes like Marooned would not provide the show with the variety that has kept it running for so long. Many fan favourites like Back To Reality are thoroughly divorced from what is considered to be a traditional bunk scene, and their popularity is a good indicator of how essential they are to a successful episode of Red Dwarf. What makes these episodes so special is not the setting or how many characters they feature, but how good the writing is, and on the basis of what we saw at the Series X recordings, this is something that these shows will deliver.