Category Archives: Red Dwarf

5 Sci-Fi Shows to watch instead of the New Doctor Who

Since I made the decision to give up on Chibnall’s travesty of a Doctor Who series, I have felt a palpable sense of relief. Sunday evenings are considerably less depressing now. For those of you in the same boat, I thought I’d recommend a few alternate ways for you to experience some good science fiction on TV. So here’s 5 of my favourites, all of which are considerably better value than any more hours with Whittaker’s Doctor will be.

1. Red Dwarf: The UK’s second longest-running Sci-fi series, Red Dwarf is about as far as you can get from Who. Political Correctness is usually mocked rather than adhered to. Comedy takes precedence over drama. The episodes are all around 30-40 minutes long. None of the characters are meant to be role-models, so they often get pushed into greyer territory. Most importantly, the series is meant for adults, not children, so we don’t get all this nauseating kindergarten-morality and dumbed-down explanations shoved in. As for the quality of the series, it is admittedly variable, but there’s some great runs in there (Series 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 are bloody brilliant) and even the more recent series, which can be comparatively weak, occasionally throw up an absolute gem of an episode (Series 8’s ‘Cassandra’, Series 10’s ‘Dear Dave’, Series 12’s ‘Mechocracy). The main cast are all brilliant, featuring Craig Charles (Corrie, Robot Wars) as the slobbish Lister, Chris Barrie (Lara Croft films) as the incompetent elitist Rimmer, Danny John-Jules (of this year’s Strictly) as the Self-Absorbed Cat and Robert Llewellyn (some tech shows on channel 5) as the subservient mechanoid Kryten. The interplay between the four of them is brilliant, and makes even less-funny instalments of the series watchable. The science fiction elements are quite good too, even if done in a knockout way. We get holograms, demented droids, time-travel, virtual reality and a lot of shade being thrown at Star Trek. What more could you want? Available on Netflix and UKTV play.

High Point: Series 6. One episode got a BAFTA nomination, but to be honest, all 6 episodes are comedy gold.

Low Point: Back to Earth. It may have got the series re-commissioned on Dave, but this three part special is short on laughs and high on stupidity.

2. Star Trek: Voyager: If you fancy a more serious alternate to Doctor Who, Star Trek is the obvious option that springs to mind from across the pond. With aliens, space battles, timey-wimey episodes and a MUCH larger budget than Doctor Who, it seems like a natural fit for Whovians. But which one to go for? Trekkies would probably either recommend the Original Series (the one with William Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock) or the Next Generation (with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard). Both have their plus points, as does Deep Space Nine (the third series), but to be honest, they can all be hard to get into, as they’ve either aged a lot or don’t have stellar first series. I’d recommend avoiding Enterprise (the least loved prequel series) or Discovery (Netflix’s appalling spin-off). Personally, i’d go for Voyager. It’s got a more episodic feel to it, which makes it more accessible to casual viewers and people who aren’t all that familiar with Star Trek. It also has arguably the most engaging cast of any of the Star Trek shows. It’s very much an ensemble piece, including Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black) as the formidable Captain Janeway, Robert Beltran as her stalwart but spiritual First Officer, Robert Picardo as the ship’s hologrammatic Doctor (who has a terrible bedside manner), Tim Russ as Tuvok, a Vulcan Security Officer, Roxanne Dawson as the half-Klingon engineer with serious anger issues and Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, a reformed Borg Drone (and arguably the best character in Star Trek) who turns up in Season 4. The show has a unique plot compared to most Star Trek series, as Voyager sees the crew utterly cut off from Star Fleet and any human contact, allowing for more inventive stories and a whole host of recurring alien races, most notably the Borg. The Borg are Star Trek’s answer to Cybermen, but honestly, it uses them far better than Modern Who has used the Cybermen. The Borg are relentless, genuinely scary, and while they do get overused later in Voyager’s run, they never outstay their welcome. The show was made in the late 90’s, so the effects still hold up very well, and while there’s a few bad episodes in the shows seven seasons, most are enjoyable on some level (and crucially, less dull than some of the other Star Trek series). Ultimately, this is probably my favourite Sci-Fi series at the moment. Best of all – its all on Netflix.

High Point: Seasons 4, 5 and 7 are very, very good. There’s so many strong episodes its hard to narrow that down much further.

Low Point: The Early part of Season 2 and the Middle Part of Season 3 are pretty bad, but both series’ eventually recover to finish on highs, so stick with it.

3. Blakes 7: While Red Dwarf is the UK’s second most known Sci-fi show, arguably the second best one is Blakes 7, which ran for four series from 1978-1981. It was created by Terry Nation, the man who created the Daleks for Doctor Who, and reflected the bleak, dark nature of his worldview and stories. Often described as ‘Robin Hood in space’ or ‘the dirty dozen’ in Space, it featured a regular cast of between five and seven rebels fighting against the tyrannical federation, a totalitarian regime that had control over Earth and the majority of human colonies in the milky way. Like Voyager, it works because of the characters, who are all various shades of grey, whether heroes or villains. There’s no boring ‘black and white’ morality here – the majority of rebels are convicted criminals (thieves, hackers, smugglers, murderers) and are somewhat justifiably presented by the federation as terrorists, while the villains are generally complex characters and never just moustache twirling villains. On the rebel side, you have the titular Blake, a fanatical but generally well-meaning leader, Vila, a cowardly thief, Jenna, a no-nonsense smuggler, Cally, a telepathic gunslinger/medic, Gan, a hulking if dim-witted giant and Avon, a thoroughly duplicitous hacker played by the marvellous Paul Darrow, who proved so popular he took over as lead actor for series 3 and 4. The villains include Travis, a ruthless federation officer with a penchant for leather outfits, and Servalan, his female superior, who is notably one of the first ever female villains in sci-fi and radiates power, malevolence and dangerous beauty throughout. There are some similarities to Classic Who and Classic Star Trek, but Blakes 7 is very much its own thing. While aliens play a part in events, its one of those sci-fi shows where humans are very much the real villains. There’s few high-concepts like time-travel, though teleportation and high-speed space travel play a big part. Overall its a gritty, dark thoroughly adult sci-fi show, which is still remembered on account of it having one of the bleakest and most infamous endings of any TV show. You have been warned. (For god’s sake don’t look it up in advance – that would be akin to spoiling the Red Wedding). You can buy the complete box set for around £20, which is pretty damn good for 52, fifty minute episodes.

High Point: Avon might just be the best anti-hero in Science fiction, while Servalan is definitely one of the all-time great female sci-fi villains.

Low Point: The special effects vary between dire and mediocre. Blame the BBC for giving it a shoestring budget.

4. Stranger Things: If you’re after something more modern, the best current sci-fi show I can think of is Stranger Things. I’ve reviewed it before, so I won’t go into as much detail, but Stranger Things is a great episode of how to mix drama, comedy, horror and fantasy into one great Science Fiction show. Set in the 80’s, it feels like a homage to a whole variety of 80’s cult and sci-fi films, including Aliens and many Spielberg films. The direction is universally good, the writing is consistently strong (even if both seasons take 3-4 episodes to properly get going) and the music is absolutely sublime. But the main reason you’ll stick with it is the cast, featuring established greats like Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Dave Harbour and Paul Reiser, but also young stars like Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard. Given how often Star Trek and Doctor Who have been let down by poor child-actors, it’s refreshing to see an adult-oriented show that actually has a really engaging young cast. The sci-fi elements are really great, featuring alternate dimensions and creepy government labs, you’ll have seen it all before, but not as compellingly done as it is here. On Netflix, you’ll probably binge the whole thing in 4 or 5 days.

High Point: Hard to say, but the last three episode of season 1 and episodes 5-9 of season 2 are unmissable television.

Low Point: The first few episodes may not hook you, but there isn’t really a bad one so far. It’s a pretty consistent show to be honest.

5. (Classic) Doctor Who: Slight cheat this, but given how few ‘fans’ have ever really gone back and watched the classic series its a valid option, and given its stories are normally 4-6 part instalments of 25 minutes each, it feels quite different from the Doctor Who you’re probably used to. Given there are 26 series from 1963-1989, featuring 7 very distinct Doctors (most people would plump for Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton as the best, but Jon Pertwee is up there too) you can sate your fix for Doctor Who without bearing with Chibnall’s clusterfuck or re-watching Eccleston-Capaldi for the umpteenth time. While you may struggle with the cheap and lacklustre special effects and some mediocre stories and companions, there’s plenty of great Doctors, great companions (Sarah Jane, The Brigadier, Jamie, Ian and Barbara, K9, Romana – just to name a few) and some stories that are equal to anything the modern series has produced: The Invasion (1969), Inferno (1970), Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Earthshock (1981), The Caves of Androzani (1984) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) are all some of my (and the fanbases) favourites, and are good ones to try out to see if you can handle the classic era. Don’t start with Hartnell and go chronologically – the majority of bad who stories come from either the early 60’s or the mid eighties. I’d recommend you start from Patrick Troughton’s second series (The Tomb of the Cybermen onwards) through to when Peter Davison exits. You’ll find the odd bad episode, but you’ll get some of the best Dalek and Cybermen stories out there, as well as seeing the introductions of Davros, the Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, the Ice Warriors and UNIT, so there’s plenty of things to watch out for. Just don’t expect it to look anywhere near as good as the modern series. It doesn’t. The direction can be quite good though, even if the composers aren’t in Murray Gold’s league. Not all the episodes are easy to find, but many are on dailymotion and most are relatively cheap to buy on dvd.

High Point: Tom Baker’s 2nd (1975), 3rd (1976) and 5th (1978) series are about as good as you can get, but Pertwee’s 1st series (1970), Sylvester McCoy’s last series (1989) and Patrick Troughton’s third series (1969) all feature some great stories and are pretty good throughout.

Low Point: There’s some really bad William Hartnell stories, and Colin Baker’s tenure was very hit-and-miss, but you can’t get worse than McCoy’s first series in 1987. It’s probably the only one worse than the series currently airing. It features four stories, all of which are bad, and Bonnie Langford’s Mel has to be the worst companion in the series 55-year history.

So there you go: my take on some shows disillusioned Whovians might appreciate at the moment. Or you can just go and rewatch Torchwood. Your call!

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Red Dwarf: Season 11 Review

Starring Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules

Since it’s revival in 2009’s somewhat dreadful but still welcome ‘Back to Earth’ special, Red Dwarf hasn’t quite hit the heights of it’s classic run. Series X was an improvement, and was better than Series 1 and 4 (my personal least favourites) but wasn’t close to the highs of series 2-3 and 5-6. Series XI, happily, is another step closer to the show’s glory days.

The jokes are better and the laughs more frequent than last series, and the plotlines more original and imaginative than we’ve got since the original run back in the 90’s. Red Dwarf has always had a feel of a knock-about, comedy version of star trek and that’s never been more true than this series.The visuals are for the most part amazing, even if they’re predictably well short of the budget other British sci-fi shows like Doctor Who get. There are a few problems – some jokes are so obvious or heavy-handed you can see them coming a mile off – and the episodes have a tendency to end rather abruptly (again, very star trek) rather than with a killer final joke. It’s still not Red Dwarf at it’s best – but it was a better run (or at least a more consistent one) than the often maligned Season 8 and about on par with season 7, so it’s about mid-table on my list. It gives me a lot of hope for the future, with season XII due on Dave next year.

The cast could play their roles in their sleep by now, and for once Series XI gives every cast member a chance to shine. The Cat (John-Jules) gets his own episode for the first time in the series’ history in season finale Can of Worms, Officer Rimmer is an episode you feel Chris Barrie has been eagerly anticipating for years, Krysis is a decent Kryten (Llewellyn) focused episode and Lister (Charles) as usual is the primary focus for much of the series, with his interactions with the Cat in Samsara, Can of Worms and Give and Take his highlights. The direction and soundtrack are both up to scratch, and overall it seems a far more polished product than Dave’s previous efforts on the show.

With spoilers, here’s a quick overview of the actual episodes:

Twentica: Twentica is a classic sci-fi time-travel flick as the Dwarfers get transported back to a version of 1920’s America run by rogue droids (who are such a blatant parody of the Borg that Star Trek fans will piss themselves laughing) who have banned all technology. The highlight is probably when the dwarfers stumble across an illicit bar for scientists where attractive women are illegally discussing the nature of the universe with underground professors (in a cutting satire on both alcohol prohibition and prostitution).

Samsara: This is unique as far as Red Dwarf goes: an episode you need to watch twice to fully appreciate: it plays out like one of Doctor Who or Sherlock’s most complex entries as the crew encounter a spaceship using a Karmic drive – which has been reprogrammed to reward bad behaviour and punish do-gooders by a pair of amorous crewmen having an affair (in another first for the series, there are a lot of flashbacks to these two which don’t feature the main cast). You’ll have to watch this to appreciate the best jokes, describing them here wouldn’t do them justice.

Give and Take: A divisive episode, some reviewers loved it, some hated it, I personally think it’s the weakest episode of the series, but there’s still a lot of good moments here – Rimmer being an unexpected badass with a Bazooka (while of course using Kryten as a human shield) and the crew mistaking a snack dispenser for a top of the line medical droid being two of the most memorable.

Officer Rimmer: An act of supreme cowardice which by chance saves a high ranking officer ends up getting Rimmer promoted. The power immediately goes to his head, as he installs Officer-only corridors, lifts and clubs throughout the ship, then bio-prints (using 3D printers) dozens of copies of himself to act as his subordinates. The bio-printing of actual humans is a classic sci-fi idea (and leads to a lot of great jokes about printer jams and misprinted humans with smudged faces). Some of it is familiar ground and the abrupt ending suggests they ran out of time, but its a fun 30 mins nevertheless.

Krysis: Kryten has a mid-life crisis and loses his love of housework, then turns up in a new, Ferrari red suit, prompting the rest of the crew to hold an intervention. The hilarity of Kryten’s new appearance aside, high points of the episode include another droid teaching Kryten and the crew to speak GELF properly (which sounds like a solid two minutes of bizarre choking noises) and the incredibly surreal, Douglas Adams esque sequence where the crew actually have a conversation with the universe itself… only to give it a mid life crisis. Not the best Kryten episode, but still a good one.

Can of Worms: The cat gets his own episode as the series pokes fun at the coolest character on the show’s deep insecurity (because he’s still a virgin) as he at long last meets another member of his species and prepares to finally get his end away. The good natured teasing from Rimmer and Lister is very amusing, while the second half of the episode, where the situation is complicated by the arrival of 9 polymorphs (shapeshifters who drain emotions who previously menaced the crew in seasons 3 and 6) which lead to 3 sets of Listers, Rimmers and Krytens getting into a stand off, is classic dwarf silliness. Somewhat out of place as a season finale compared to last series’ ‘The Beginning’, it’s still a fine end to the series and a decent enough Cat episode.

I’ve not bothered with ratings because they’re all pretty consistent (and it’s hard to rate 30 min shows/comedies anyway) but they’d all get either 3, 3.5 or 4 stars. So a consistent run, if not an amazing one – no episode would get on a top 10 list (which I may do later this week depending on how much interest this review gets).

Overall, not Red Dwarf’s best, but an improvement over the last series and a very consistent run make it well worth your time.

Series Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Next up: Marvel Week kicks off with my review of Luke Cage, hopefully soon followed by Doctor Strange.