Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reviewing Rex the Runt


I got a bit obsessed with this off-the-wall claymation series the first time around, which was during that impressionable early teenage period when I couldn't just enjoy things passively. I even wrote a tragically incomplete episode guide on Amiga Wordworth that no one but myself would read. How far I have come.

Would it still hold up now I'm an adult, and not so easily won over by plasticine animals rebelliously spouting mild swear words in a teatime slot? Would the second series they apparently made that I never knew about be just as entertaining without the nostalgia to back it up? Obviously not, but is it alright?


Holiday in Vince (1x01) ****


This first self-contained episode has everything that won my heart back in 1998: silly characters in boring domestic situations, inexplicable quirky character traits (like Bad Bob's big gun), sporadic inserts of live action footage (most notably keyhole surgery of some anonymous person's insides), the blurred line between some of these dogs actually being dogs or people who just look like dogs, similarly their occasional admissions that they're made of plasticine, spontaneous impossible inventions (the shrinking ray is the first of many such gadgets), a flagrant disregard for the notion of scale even within the same shot and mind-warping psychedelia as they venture inside Vince's mind.

I'm going to enjoy this. Mostly for the nostalgia, admittedly, but that's the case a lot of the time.
"You probably don't know this, but you can reach most parts of Vince's body through his ear" - Bad Bob

Adventures on Telly, Part I (1x02) ***


Following the formula of the Star Trek film series, a stand-alone psychedelic voyage is followed up by a classic trilogy of adventures. I won't pursue this comparison any more as it will inevitably fall down.

The call to adventure occurs when Bad Bob accidentally shoots the TV with the gun he irresponsibly carries around all the time and the gang are tasked with having entertaining adventures until The Bloke That Runs Telly can fix the mess they've made and get normal programming back on air.

Amusingly, the entire episode is spent preparing for this epic adventure in the most tedious ways possible, as they shower, eat - at one point their food becomes self-aware, but it's only a momentary distraction - and head to the bank for finance, having apparently traded in their people carrier for a roller skate. It's only at this point that their TV adventures start to approach exciting territory, thanks to Bad Bob's gun frightening their bank manager Mr. Formal (voiced by Bob Holness - did I forget to mention this series is full of 1990s celebrity cameos? Even plasticine personality Wallace is in it).

Incidentally, the characters are now portrayed as real-size claymation figures in the human world. I don't expect this to be adhered to with any sort of consistency.
"You've knackered it" - Wendy

Adventures on Telly, Part II (1x03) ****


The money stolen last time is wasted spectacularly in the first minute, making that episode even more of a waste of time. This is the worst excuse for a 'trilogy' ever, I love it.

To regenerate their finances, Rex and co. visit the reckless Dr. Dogg (Paul Merton) to be subjected to experimental drugs. For some reason he lives in a scary castle on a hill, I'm pretty sure he reverts to a standard medical practice in subsequent episodes. The models for Rex and the gang also look noticeably different and more primitive in this sequence, suggesting this is one they made earlier or that the whole sequence was culled from an earlier short. The way these disjointed plots are pieced together, they could get away with pretty much anything.

With ten quid in hand, they arbitrarily decide to head to the North Pole and drill into the centre of the Earth to find out what's inside... after having a wee first. This scene has no bearing on the plot, but it's another aspect I adored about this series when I was thirteen. If these plots sound like they're made up on the fly, bear in mind the weeks of painstaking work they take to animate - someone must have noticed.
"I'm going to give you some tablets and you might die. But there's money in it for you if you don't" - Dr. Dogg

Adventures on Telly, Part III (1x04) ***


Even when I watched this as a kid, brought up on surreal humour and aware I was watching a plasticine show that didn't make much sense to start with, I was bothered by the concept of the shrunken Earth. Why are these four dogs apparently the only survivors? Or has the rest of the population deflated too? How can they breathe in space? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?

Fortunately, after a few genuinely depressing minutes spent aimlessly drifting through the cosmos they pull into a service station and we get something resembling a plot with wacky space characters voiced by 90s comedians, so my brain can have a rest. Eddie Izzard voices an unpleasant slime creature that warns them about a nearby black hole, Kathy Burke is a universe-weary janitor responsible for clearing up mess inside the black hole and Simon Day is an irritable taxi driver who's conveniently able to return them home before any of this happened. This is as anticlimactic as a Star Trek: Voyager two-parter.
"Be warned, my little scrotums, there be danger and doom the way you're hea'in" - Melting Blob Man (according to the credits)

Bob's International Hiccup Centre (1x05) ***


The welcome return of more down-to-earth stand-alone plots (like that three-parter was a consistent narrative or something!), this is also the first episode since the first one to focus on the plight of a particular character, in this case Bad Bob who's lost his comedy mojo but finds his calling providing an effective cure for hiccups - until he becomes as corrupt as Dr. Dogg.

They put in surprising effort for five-second cutaways and the innuendo is getting more risque by the day, to the delight of young viewers. Dr. Dogg is actually giving the finger in that picture, right?
"Bloody capitalist scum!" - Dr. Dogg

Easter Island (1x06) ****


One of the more memorable episodes, it's back to outer space as Rex is duped by nefarious aliens into being their trophy and nearly forced to mate with an unpleasant space dog thing until he's inexplicably rescued by a tin can Bad Bob has turned into a makeshift helicopter. Physicists stay clear.

This might be my favourite episode. The island scenery and sunsets look pretty, the concept of Easter Island ancient aliens blew my mind as a kid and they really push the adult content. I was stunned to hear Eddie Izzard's character shouting "shut up, you bastards!" in the post-Star Trek teatime slot back in 1998 (this was the year we went crazy for South Park; though they do censor Rex's "where the f*** have you been?"), and it's brilliant that a plasticine dog has a history of alcoholism. Kudos also has to go to a UFO towing a caravan, come on.
"They're creepy - and they're aliens" - Wendy

Too Many Dogs (1x07) ****


Another episode that seemed more groundbreaking when I hadn't seen anywhere near as much science fiction, this is still a fun time travel romp, and you should be able to get through it with your mind intact if you survived that one where they fly around on the deflated Earth.

There's more miraculous inventing for the purposes of plot as Bad Bob "modifies" their tin can helicopter into a Gobackintimeatron, ironing out its teething problems with a good whack to turn it into a Gobackfurtherintimeatron that's nevertheless restricted to significant points in history. I don't know how he knows any of this when it's only just been invented.

There are Bill & Ted/Red Dwarf shenanigans as time-travelling duplicates show up and predictably don't get along (apart from the Bobs. The Vinces don't really count), and I enjoyed the characters' (and presumably the writers') complete lack of effort in resolving various plot mysteries.
"Just can't be bothered" - Bad Bob

The Trials of Wendy (1x08) **


Wendy's turn for an episode now, and as usual when the slightly undefined female character in a show written by men gets her own story, it isn't very good.

Put on trial (yes, it's a trial episode too) for shooting Vince, Wendy is exonerated thanks to the general incompetence of the prosecution and the undeniable evidence that Vince is made out of plasticine and capable of instantaneous regeneration anyway. But her newfound celebrity goes to her head and causes her to lose touch with her roots and the people who are important... so it's the same as that Bad Bob story basically.
"Meat: big, knobbly chunks of it. All moist, glistening and smelly - but in a good way" - Wendy

Stinky's Search for a Star (1x09) ***


The gang faces financial trouble thanks to scary bills and Rex's penchant for needlessly expensive organic shopping. Bob sells his body, in one of several risque jokes many children won't get but their parents can enjoy, but fortune shines on the untalented dogs with the arrival of a talent contest - the cash prize for which will almost cover their whopping £10 debt!

They steal musical instruments (why not just steal £10 then? Shh!) and get to the finals by fluke, but are thwarted by some rubbish rabbits with nice arses. According to one of the characters, I mean. There's nothing funny about me.

Their money problems are then resolved by a convenient deus ex machina, because as mentally ill as this show can be, they at least feel a duty to end things properly sometimes.
"Come on into the kitchen of love / And make a happiness cake" - Rexy Music

Under the Duvet (1x10) ***


One of their more psychedelic episodes (what were they smoking!!!!!!!!), Rex, Wendy and Bad Bob get lost in a jungle inside their own bed where they're chased by groceries and Rex is almost raped by a female Pepe Le Pew figure. Meanwhile, Vince demonstrates he's the only one with any true sense of romance by dating and marrying a vacuum cleaner who subsequently bears his child. Zany!

Want to place bets on whether these significant life events will ever be alluded to again or if things will be completely back to normal by next episode? Put your money away, it's the second one.
"I was having a sexy dream... about biscuits?" - Wendy

Johnny Saveloy's Undoing (1x11) ***


Even without the unintended controversy bestowed on every TV episode from the 1970s to 2012 that featured a parody of the imitable Jimmy Savile, this is one of the series' darker episodes.

Bob Monkhouse guests stars as Johnny Saveloy, a sausage mash-up of Savile and various other presenters of that ilk. There are a few lines you could knowingly take out of context as subtle references to the age-old rumours if you like (Saveloy's ode to his beloved being "so cute, so young, so tender"), and you might find it especially satisfying when he meets his demise at the clumsy hands of Bad Bob, who I guess is a murderer now.

Stanley Unwin also features as Rex's accountant, doing his "hilarious" nonsense words that people like my dad found quite funny in the 70s. Oh, and there's also an actual plot in there somewhere concerning a brainwashing cult and soul-stealing. Events have sort of usurped that.
"How did we get so old and skint? Other cartoon dogs never seem to age" - Rex

The City Shrinkers (1x12) *****


This is fantastic, the perfect blend of the dogs' humdrum domestic lives with their penchant for incredibly sinister and weird activities. Combining unlikely technologies from previous episodes, the gang hatch a wicked plan to use their tin can time machine to find out the weekend's lottery numbers, which scores them the record jackpot of... Birmingham? Unfortunately, before this typographical error can be rectified, the megalomaniacal dogs have already shrunk the Midlands city down to a convenient size for the mantelpiece, and proceed to go on a shrinking spree of various European hotspots.

If you're desperately trying to view this sweary nightmarish series as a kid's show, it actually covers a lot of significant topics - from the corrupting influence of power and wealth (that's in every episode, to be fair) to responsible pet ownership, wildlife incarceration, waste management and other environmental issues. You might also learn a few mild curses.

While it may not have the highest body count of any episode - we never found out what happened to the other six billion people on the Earth back when they burst it - that episode didn't feature the claymation dogs looming over cityscapes of screaming inhabitants. They don't even go back in time to stop it all happening this time, but at least Rex gets a well-deserved biff for his trouble.
"That'll learn ya!" - Postman

Carbonara (1x13) ****


If you've been enjoying the dingy, nightmarish tone of the last few episodes, you'll be pleased to see they're going out on an equally disturbing note as the protagonist is accidentally minced and has to avoid being eaten by his spaghetti-obsessed friend. How many other shows can you think of where this happens?

There's another memorable guest performance from Arthur Smith as the grimy Arthur Dustcart and Paul Merton reprises his role as Dr. Dogg for a final scene of not giving a shit. Bob feels guilt at having minced his mate, but soon comes around to the prospect of exploiting Rex's freakish fate for fame and fortune, while Wendy's had enough and goes round to her sister's place to get pissed.
"This is the first time I've asked a girl out and she hasn't thrown up... oh" - Arthur Dustcart

Mouse in Me Kitchen (2x01) **


I found it more upsetting than I should that Rex's voice is now being done by someone else. He's not as good. Some of the other characters feel a bit off compared to the last series too, especially Vince who now takes a more active role in the plot like he's a normal character or something. This might have something to do with the fact that the writing team has completely changed.

Today's domestic crisis is the presence of a stubborn mouse in the kitchen who refuses to leave and terrorises anyone who tries heading in for a snack. There are some menacing pigeons outside too, presumably because Aardman wanted to make use of some re-purposed background models from Chicken Run.

This is nowhere near as wacky as the series I loved as an adolescent, it's tediously normal for the most part. At least it still has the same flippant attitude to death.
"What do you want? Money? Food? Wendy?" - Rex

Wendy's Hot Date (2x02) **


Another dull episode with no paranormal activity whatsoever, though I like that they're sticking with the unclear distinction between dogs that act like people and dogs that act like dogs.

Wendy is on heat and drawing the affections of every male around, apart from her disinterested housemates of course. She eventually chooses to pursue a bland, stammering Hugh Grant type (the sort of joke I'd expect of an American series), voiced by Jonathan Ross who probably expected something a bit sillier and funnier when he agreed to the part.

Bob's acting out of character now too. Why's he helping Arthur Dustcart smarten up to win Wendy's heart? Why does he care about any of these people? He doesn't even wear the gun any more. Vince is shown courting a lobster too, so I guess things didn't work out with the vacuum cleaner after all.
"Slight discomfort around the unmentionables, but I'm sure they'll stretch" - Arthur Dustcart

Patio (2x03) ***


This one's a bit more promising, in that it features invisible insects exacting their revenge on the dogs for their dismissive treatment over the years and also has some tangential stuff going on like Rex psychoanalysing himself to the chagrin of Dr. Dogg. There's quite a funny fake advert for a hardware shop promoting price cuts on dangerous, unpredictable household appliances too, that was better than the actual story.

It's comforting to see that the characters are still open to extreme possibilities as they believe it's the house itself that's committing suicide, rather than it being carried by a horde of ants. If this had been a first series episode, that would have actually been the case.
"Maybe we've got a poltergeist, Bob. We could get it... circumcised?" - Wendy

A Crap Day Out (2x04) ****


Finally, an episode that recaptures the spirit of the first series. It has weird space aliens, exotic, nightmarish locations and odd obsessions, and even makes fun of the series' tendency for convenient plot resolutions. They've managed to avoid time travel thus far, that must have taken restraint.

The gang are torn between heading to the beach or the garden centre, but Rex and Bad Bob's combined mass means they win the argument. They soon come to regret it though, as Gordon's Garden Centre (great advertising campaign by the way) proves impossible to navigate and to escape.

There are creative character designs, surprising events (Battlestar Galactica's "one year later..." doesn't seem such a shocker now) and the characters are spot on. I can believe Bad Bob is the type who could be coerced into choosing the Magnifi-Shed over his friends.
"Everyone on my planet is called Gordon, except John. But we call him Gordon to avoid confusion" - Gordon

Slim Bob (2x05) ***


Bad Bob feels worthless again, this time due to his weight. Ignoring Rex's advice to modify his diet and lifestyle and get some exercise, Bob goes straight to Dr. Dogg's scary laboratory for a sequence of body altering procedures that I guess work as a satire of plastic (plasticine) surgery obsession and addiction, but are mostly just amusing.

Bob's suitably deluded, Dr. Dogg's endearingly twisted and despite coming to a mutually accepting resolution, they close with a reckless anti-weight loss song that recommends letting it pile on because exercise is a drag. Wallace and Gromit presumably had more responsible messages to convey.
"I suppose he's not a bad size for his breed... whatever that is" - Wendy

Private Wendy (2x06) ***


'The gang joins the army - with hilarious consequences!' I can imagine this premise being culled from a bin of token plot outlines over the likes of 'the gang goes underwater,' 'the gang visits a haunted house' and 'Rex is turned into mince-meat and Vince tries to eat him.' Oh hang on, they did that one.

It's better than it could have been, partly thanks to Vince going off on a typically care-free tangent and igniting all-out nuclear war. Wendy's actually good in this one, from her existential moaning to being unfazed by poor sanitary conditions. Well, she has lived in that house for however many years... and supposedly spent four years in an alien prison recently, though weirdly that significant life event seems to have been forgotten about.

Bad Bob's up to his old tricks inventing science fiction gadgets for the purpose of minor plot points again, though I suppose the invisibility ray also saved them some of that painstaking animating time.
"Why not join the army? It's a good career, it's great fun and your chances of dying horribly are smaller than you think!" - Advert

Rocket Raymond (2x07) **


Yeah, nice try, but it takes more than space flights and slightly unpleasant plasticine aliens to win me over. Contrary to what I might have suggested in these superficial reviews.

The formerly mentioned show-within-a-show Rocket Raymond is the focus of the episode, as Bad Bob very kindly (uncharacteristically kindly?) makes Rex his own functional rocket pack as a birthday present. The real Rocket Raymond shows up near the end and is a real dick, but I wouldn't be surprised if he features again, considering his obvious physical similarity to Rex and a line about Rex not having a father during a revealing childhood flashback.

Or maybe these hints won't go anywhere and there won't be any kind of continuity, like happened to Vince's vacuum cleaner baby.
"Oh no, not again" - Astronaut #2

The Plasticene Gene (2x08) ***


Clearly not having learned from any of his friends' mistakes, Rex visits the incompetent and borderline evil quack Dr. Dogg to sort out some funny hair growth and returns with one ear too few. This ear proceeds to change sides throughout the episode, which I can only presume is a deliberate glitch by these tireless animators to wind up people like me.

When the gang demands the ear be returned, they find out it's part of a larger project involving genetic experiments. Some more things happen and we end up with a planet overrun by Vince clones, an apocalypse that doubtless won't have any impact on future instalments. If it really bothers you, just imagine they use the time machine behind-the-scenes to sort out all these problems and restore the status quo. You know they're made of plasticine, right?
"We could sue him for medical négligées" - Wendy

Wendy's New Hairdo (2x09) ***


It came as a surprise that these episodes could actually be funny. I guess I'd forgotten. This one crosses a couple of new boundaries as the characters ingest Wendy's Nobel-nominated truth serum (all the characters are inventors now), the major one being implied attraction between Rex and Bad Bob.

As a child/teenager I made a long-running comic about time-travelling birds that seems to borrow frequently from Rex the Runt, which is understandable as I was slightly obsessed with it at the time. But just as often the influence/plagiarism went the other way, and this homoerotic undercurrent is another example (as was characters getting turned into mince meat, which I wrote first and was largely identical down to the cannibalism).

This either means I was brought up on the same shows those guys were watching in the late 80s and 90s or they really do have the mentality of a 13-year-old boy. Not necessarily a criticism - I can never enjoy writing as much now as back in those innocent times.
"You've never had any hair, and your tits are the same size as your eyes" - Bad Bob

Wayne the Zebra (2x10) ***


Another very funny episode, largely thanks to a prominent role being granted to a rubbish wooden zebra (voiced by Bobby Ball) who fills in during Rex's holiday and is one of the most memorable supporting characters from the series, which is saying something when we've had paedophile sausages and alien plant pot warlords. The character's deliberate awfulness even extends to the zebra prop itself, which is conspicuously different in close-up and wide shots. They didn't even try and they want us to notice.

The plot itself is fittingly ridiculous, once again making the exact nature of these characters extremely unclear as they stage an amateur play that constitutes this week's episode in whatever series they think they're making.
"A blood-curdling thriller... starring a rapping zebra?" - Rex

The Art of Cooking (2x11) **


A lame Masterchef parody is excused by actually having Lloyd Grossman in it, or at least a plasticine dog with his voice. Rex's latest never-seen-before-or-again hobby is cookery, but sadly his inedible creations are only useful as modern art.

Bad Bob's back to his old mean, selfish self in this one, admittedly under the influence of Arthur Dustcart again, and there are a couple of new characters in the form of Valerie Boner the Gallery Owner and cocky scoundrel Mr. Shady, who aren't as good as their names are.
"Pollocks" - Vince

Bob Joins a Gang (2x12) **


Self-explanatory. Basing every episode around a character's latest rebellious fad has shades of late Simpsons about it.
"You've got just two minutes to sketch the church - and no rubbing out!" - Ace

Hole in the Garden (2x13) ***


The final episode is at least a memorable one, as the characters go on a mini world tour, the brevity of which is dictated by running time rather than budget. They can make exotic landscapes and characters no problem, and this final instalment introduces a neat head-spinning dingo (it claims to be a dingo anyway) and an endearingly rubbish Godzilla 'n' foe.

Rex accidentally drills a hole through the Earth, again, but it doesn't deflate this time. How do you like them flagrant disregard for any kind of continuities! This was a slightly disappointing second series overall, but the first series is still a pretty special thing that I'm glad they made when they did.
"Trousers" - Vince

Pilots: How Dinosaurs Became Extinct, Dreams & North by North Pole **


Through the in-depth research of reading a Wikipedia page and searching on YouTube, I found out that the inferior animated sequence from episode three was indeed from a rough pilot. The third pilot in fact, made five years after two less substantial ones in an extremely long gestation process.

They're not as good as the later episodes, mainly because they're only a few minutes long and the hectic zaniness isn't balanced by humdrum domesticity. Apart from Rex and Wendy starting out as a couple, the characters were already established back in 1991. Richard Goleszowski was going to get his way, even if he had to wear down BBC execs for seven years before they finally gave him a slot.
"And this is Vince, the inbred" - Rex

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