Red Dwarf is like that uncle who used to make you laugh to the point of pant-wetting when you were a child. You hailed him as a comedy genius, and constantly recited his routines to all who would listen, and to all who refused to listen, too. His visits brought light and laughter into your life, and you anticipated them with levels of excitement usually only reserved for Christmas.
Years passed. You got older. Your uncle’s visits became less and less frequent. One day, completely out of the blue, when you were busy doing something excruciatingly banal and thoroughly adult, probably putting up a shelf or something, there was a knock at the door. ‘It’s your uncle!’ came the cry. You ran to the door, almost injuring yourself in the process. ‘He’s back!’ you cried, grabbing the door handle and yanking it open… ‘My hilarious uncle!’… and there he was, standing in-front of you, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with a light-up neon bowtie spinning around on his collar. He pulled his face into a gurn, and then brought his face a few short inches from yours. “BOOOOOOBIIIIIEEEEESSSSS!” he screamed, before loping off and around your house like a maniac, occasionally farting as he went. You later found him slumped in an armchair, staring out of the window.
A little part of you died that day.
After he left, you had a good, hard think about it. Maybe he was never funny; maybe you only thought he was funny because you were a kid and, well, everything’s funny when you’re a kid. Someone saying ‘socks’ is funny when you’re a kid. You prepared to jettison every fond memory of his visits and the laughter they brought; a time to put away childish things, and all that. But then you dug out some old home movies; watched him at work in his prime. And he was funny. God, he was funny, just as funny as you always remembered him being. So what the hell happened to him? Did he have a full mental breakdown?
You later hear that he was checked into a sanatorium, possibly never to re-emerge.
But he came back, your well-loved wonky uncle, like you always hoped he would, and you felt eager and hopeful again, despite all evidence pointing to more pain, disappointment and heartache on your part. And do you know what? He was better. He wasn’t quite the uncle you remembered, but neither was he the goofy, slavering imbecile who’d cast a worryingly unfunny shadow across your soul and doorstep. He kept coming back after that, each time stronger, more coherent, funnier. Last week, a near miraculous thing happened. Your uncle, despite his age and the trauma he’s been through, was almost – not entirely, but very, very, very nearly almost – indistinguishable from the man you remembered.
What I’m trying to say, as I wrestle with this rather tortured and over-long analogy about a mentally-ill uncle, is that the opening episode of Red Dwarf’s twelfth season, Cured, in which the boys from the Dwarf encounter the frozen figures of Hitler and Stalin in a disused moon-base, was something of a relief and a delight. The cast seemed to be back in the full swing of their characters, there weren’t too many laboured puns or clichés, the sci-fi premise behind the episode was interesting without over-shadowing the jokes, and the episode made me laugh out very loud a hearty handful of times. Sure, some of the sequences in Cured – particularly the threat montage and the overlong guitar jam – felt a little rushed and perhaps fell a little flat, but overall I don’t think the episode would’ve felt out of place in the show’s fourth of fifth seasons. Red Dwarf may never recapture the thrill of its heyday, but each time it returns it builds a stronger and stronger case for its continued existence.
I’ve been boldly watching Star Trek since I was a teenager: I started by gorging myself on cassettes of the Next Generation lent to me by a friend, which led me to seek out the seminal exploits of Kirk and Spock. Later, I fell in love with the rag-tag, war-torn crew of Deep Space 9. Janeway was next, whose adventures I really rather enjoyed, give or take a few Kes’s and de-evolved lizard people along the way and … next there was… em, you know, Enterprise… and stuff. It was… well. I guess Captain Archer’s dog was sort of okay?
Maybe it’s an inevitable consequence of getting older and becoming less passionate in general, but when news broke of Star Trek Discovery’s imminent arrival I never found myself getting particularly excited. When the trailer was released, and it seemed to suggest that Discovery would be another Star-Trek-for-People-Who-Don’t-Like-Star-Trek generic space romp in the vein of the recent ‘reboot’ movies, even less so.
But, expectations be damned, it’s bloody good.
It’s different, of course: bigger, slicker, grittier and glossier, but every Trek series – whilst remaining true to the central Roddenberryian vision and ethos – has been drastically different from those preceding it, and always a product of the time in which it was made. Star Trek is about the future of humanity, sure, but that future is always given shape and voice by contemporary concerns. Discovery is about tough choices, moral relativism, a clash of cultures and the ethics of war. Shades of grey abound. In fact, there are enough shades of grey in Discovery’s opening few episodes to make Captain Picard’s hot tea and the entire canon of Deep Space 9 seem positively technicoloured in comparison. That’s one inevitable consequence, I suppose, of making your lead character a mutineer and a war criminal who’s sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of the first episode.
Sonequa Martin-Green is terrific as the aforementioned mutineer, former Starfleet officer and Vulcan-raised orphan Michael Burnham. The Walking Dead never really afforded Martin-Green the opportunity to showcase her full range and talents; here she’s mesmerising, compelling, tackling with aplomb the tricky task of playing someone who’s both human and Vulcan, and all at once both more and less than either.
Having Burnham front and centre allows Star Trek to do something it’s never done before: have a captain who’s something of an asshole. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) may be the Doctor Who Number 6 of Star Trek, but Burnham ‘aint no Peri. (Incidentally, though it places me in a minority, I really like Colin Baker as the Doctor, so my comparison isn’t intended as an insult to Jason Isaacs or his character).
Discovery also gets top marks for its reinvention/retconning of the Klingons. Like this new incarnation of Star Trek itself, its Klingons share a through-line with the past, but are for all intents and purposes shiny and new. They look more like Cenobites than the 80s/90s-era Klingons we’ve come to accept as the official standard of the species. And they’re other-worldly, and eerie, and menacing, and interesting, something they haven’t been for a long time. Throughout the life-span of The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 the Klingons – with their stiffness, pomposity, laddish bragging and love of drinking – came to possess all the terror and nuance of an obnoxious drunk uncle at a party to celebrate grandma and grandpa’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. My apologies to uncles, who appear to be getting something of a rough ride today.
If Star Trek Discovery isn’t Star Trekky enough for you, then you can always seek out The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi doesn’t-really-know-what-it-is-edy. Despite the show’s mind-bending ideas, improved CGI and novel blend of sci-fi tropes and dick jokes it looks and feels exactly like early-90s Star Trek – which of course is no accident, given that the show’s creator and captain Seth MacFarlane is a life-long fan of the show, and forged his vision for The Orville through collaboration and consultation with such heavy-hitting Trek luminaries as Rick Berman and Jonathan Frakes.
And do you know what? I like it. It combines two of my favourite things: nostalgia and puerility. I’m still not convinced about Seth MacFarlane’s ability to carry a live-action show, but his Captain Mercer is growing on me with every episode, and the characters of Bortus (Peter Macon) and Isaac (Mark Jackson) have already proven themselves to be deep wells of dramatic and comedic possiblity. Keep making it so, Seth.
You can read a piece I wrote about Red Dwarf series X and XI for the lovely people at Den of Geek here.