TV Discussion

Red Dwarf USA – Pilot Error!

Every year, of the dozens of pilot episodes that are made for TV, some don’t get picked up, while others are changed significantly or even remade when they become a full series. Our new series Pilot Error! takes a look at some of them, including the ones that got away.

“I started out with absolutely nothing. And I couldn’t hang onto it.”

Comedy doesn’t always translate, and it’s not simply in terms of language: different cultures will have different styles, so what may work well on one side of the Atlantic won’t necessarily travel well. While some British sitcoms have been successes when adapted to suit American audiences, there have been far more failures.

For every The Office (which ran for nine seasons in the States), there’s a Coupling (canned after just four episodes had been aired); The Vicar Of Dibley ended up as The Minister Of Divine, which never got beyond a pilot with Kirstie Alley. A total of three attempts were made at transferring Fawlty Towers across the pond – Chateau Snavely; Amanda’s; and Payne – with all of them being particularly awful, in their own inimitable manners. At the moment, a gender-swapped version of Peep Show is under development, with all the earlier tries – including a pilot with The Big Bang Theory‘s Johnny Galecki – having fallen flat.

With Red Dwarf riding a major wave of popularity in the UK during the early to mid-1990s, it seemed inevitable that the Hollywood execs would soon be sniffing around. Step forward Linwood Boomer: latterly known for creating Malcolm In The Middle, he put together a pilot script for a Stateside version of Red Dwarf in 1992, working with Universal Studios to produce it, with the intention of getting it picked up by NBC as an ongoing series. The pilot was based upon the plot of the first episode of Red Dwarf, ‘The End’, but with the tweak of including Kryten as a series regular right from the start.

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Although not officially involved in any of the writing process, the original creators of the UK version – Rob Grant & Doug Naylor – flew to Hollywood once they’d completed work on Series V, and both of them were considerably less than pleased with what Boomer had put to paper. The two men – despite being exhausted from the gruelling production schedule of the fifth season – put together an alternative draft of the script overnight, which was met with a resounding thumbs-up from the cast, but it ended up not being used for the most part, with the filmed version being much closer to what Boomer had initially penned.

Originally, none of the original British cast were planned to be used in the reboot, but Robert Llewellyn was approached to play Kryten; however, this decision ended up causing some tension amongst the others (probably could have done with a Tension Sheet), as they’d been kept out of the loop and didn’t even know that an American version was happening. A fellow Brit was cast as Holly – Jane Leeves, who’d been a member of ‘Hill’s Angels’ on The Benny Hill Show, and later vanished into utter obscurity by appearing as Daphne in the little-known sitcom Frasier. No, me neither.

The new Lister was Craig Bierko, who was later offered the role of Chandler Bing in Friends, but he passed on the part, which then went to Matthew Perry. Filling the part of Rimmer was Chris Eigeman, who gained attention in the mid-90s for being the face of Pacific Bell in a series of TV ads. Rounding out the cast as Cat was the actor, singer and dancer Hinton Battle, who originated the role of the Scarecrow in the stage version of The Wiz. The pilot episode was filmed at a Universal-owned TV studio, which may have partly been to blame for it not being picked up, as there were three other pilots filmed wholly in-house at NBC which went to full series, so it may have been partly political, or down to contracts and rights.

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The pilot ended up not testing well, which led to Grant & Naylor being approached to take a far more hands-on role, and try to fix the project by taking another stab at it. The main drawback was that there was a very minuscule budget available, so they wouldn’t be able to do another full pilot; what they ended up putting together was more of a ‘sizzle reel’, with scenes from the British Red Dwarf being remounted, and interspersed with edited clips from the first pilot, as well as Red Dwarf V, to show the series’ potential if it was picked up by the network.

Another complicating factor was that not all of the original pilot cast were available for the new promo video, so efforts were made to try and get both Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules on board for it, only for Barrie to be advised by agents not to sign up (for fear of committing to a multi-year contract), and John-Jules to be busy doing Carmen Jones. Anthony Fuscle came in as Rimmer, and Terry Farrell (later of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was cast as Cat, switching the character from a male to a female. However, this move led to Craig Charles dubbing the US remake as ‘White Dwarf’, due to the lack of representation for POC in the remount.

As it turned out, the promo didn’t get the series commissioned, and the project was effectively dead in the water, with Grant & Naylor cutting their losses and focusing on Red Dwarf VI instead. In a way, it’s a pity that Red Dwarf USA didn’t get the go-ahead, as there’s nothing irredeemably awful in either pilot; it would certainly have been a very different series than the original, but the 35-or-so minutes that we have do show some promise, and it could easily have been something of a hit in the States if handled right.

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Craig Bierko’s Lister is rather rugged and hunky compared to Charles’ version, but he’s charismatic and endearing, so he’s a very charming, likeable character, and it’s easy to take to him; no, he’s not the Space Bum that we’re used to, but it feels like he doesn’t need to be, and that’s totally fine. As far as the others are concerned, Kryten manages to fit it surprisingly well, given that he didn’t turn up in ‘The End’, and it’s great to see Robert Llewellyn doing what he does so well – he fits in perfectly with the rest of the ensemble, and it’s easy to forget that he’s usually seen working with an entirely different cast.

Hinton Battle and Terry Farrell both give us their all as Cat – Battle is far closer to Danny John-Jules’ original take, whereas Farrell’s version is a slinky, sexy warrior who’s ready to rip off people’s heads and then spit down their necks. Jane Leeves also delivers as Holly (and thankfully doesn’t try to do a godawful Mancunian accent. No, we haven’t forgotten Daphne Moon.). The only weak spot in both pilots comes in the form of Rimmer – neither Eigeman nor Fuscle get anywhere close to nailing the part, and it shows just how good Chris Barrie is in the role, meaning it’s a more onerous task for anyone to try and follow his performance.

There are two different versions of the first pilot in circulation, with the earlier – and far less familiar – edit featuring some very nice character moments missing from the more widely-known finished product, and it feels far more Red Dwarf as a result. There are also several genuine ‘laugh out loud’ new jokes in the first pilot, from Kryten’s disembodied head having spent three million years reading the ‘Fire Exit’ sign mounted above the door of the ship’s repair workshop, to Lister’s perfectly timed reaction to the relevation of how long he was in Stasis by realising that his Baseball cards must be worth a fortune now.

Is it the Red Dwarf we know and love? No. But, then again, with the British cast most recently being seen on TV hawking the AA, maybe we don’t need to treat the original version like some unassailable sacred cow. Red Dwarf USA is a decent stab at doing a Transatlantic take on the series, and certainly isn’t as bad as some pilots (or even finished shows) where the same feat has been attempted before. It may be cold outside, but with Red Dwarf USA, there’s some kind of atmosphere.

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