Chris BarrieDanny John-JulesCraig CharlesNicholas Ball
Red Dwarf (series 4)
Medium: TV, series
Date: 1991
Writer: Rob Grant, Doug Naylor
Director: Ed Bye, Paul Jackson
Keywords: SF, dinosaurs, comedy, alternate universe
Country: UK
Actor: Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Hattie Hayridge, Robert Llewellyn, Pauline Bailey, Nicholas Ball, Rupert Bates, Hetty Baynes, Roger Blake, Michael Burrell, Francesca Folan, Martin Friend, Simon Gaffney, Kalli Greenwood, Kenneth Hadley, Tony Hawks, Jack Klaff, Clayton Mark, Forbes Masson, Judy Pascoe, Suzanne Rhatigan, Richard Ridings, David Ross, James Smilie, Stephen Tiller
Format: 6 half-hour episodes: Camille, DNA, Justice, White Hole, Dimension Jump, Meltdown
Series: << Red Dwarf >>
Website category: SF
Review date: 8 October 2009
It's a strong show, but also a frustrating one. There's some great stuff in here, the best of which ranks among my all-time favourite memories of Red Dwarf. However it's also where the show begins losing it. I'm not just talking about Waxworld, believe it or not. That's a shockingly poor one, yes, but by the law of averages you'll always get a few of those. I actually object more to the likes of White Hole, which is a much better episode but it shows that Grant and Naylor have stopped believing in the show's basic premise. I'll discuss that point in more detail later on, but the key factor is that Red Dwarf is no longer even pretending to be the show it was.
For starters, Lister's no longer the main character. This is clearly now an ensemble show, of which the character most useful to the writers is, believe it or not, Kryten. It's possible that even Grant and Naylor were unaware of that stealth change, but it's true. Is an info-dump required? Does the plot need a character to do something clever or high-tech? Kryten's your man! He's also the most conflicted character on the ship, with his guilt trips and compulsion to obey even ridiculous orders, while it could even be argued that he's taken over Lister's position as "The Nice One". His presence also pushes Holly even further into the background, although that's probably a good thing since we're talking about Hattie Hayridge here.
The continuity's being rewritten in earnest too, getting more in line with (of all things) the novels. Of course given all the time travel shenanigans we've seen, it would seem likely that in the case of Red Dwarf, "rewriting the past" is a more literal term than usual in television. Apparently Lister and Kochanski had now been having a relationship until Kochanski dumped him, which is an idea that first appeared in Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. Grant and Naylor apparently thought it was unrealistic for Lister to be obsessed with a girl he'd never gone out with, although I'd like to see them dumped millions of years into the future into a universe where the human race no longer exists and see how they fare psychologically. That's only one of this year's continuity changes, by the way, with Justice rewriting the facts on how everyone died in that radiation leak on Red Dwarf in the first place and how many people had been on board at the time (1,169 instead of the previously stated 169).
An even bigger change though is the kind of stories being told. Remember how the least successful Season 3 stories were the ones that most resembled Seasons 1 and 2? That's been addressed. The Red Dwarf universe seems almost crowded these days, with shapeshifting pleasure GELFs, killer simulants in cryo-sleep, still-active prison stations with their own Justice fields, a planet of droids built of wax and an infinite number of parallel universes. There's also starting to be something of a tendency for episodes to be three episodes compressed into one. This makes for an impressive turnover of big ideas, but it can get frustrating when one idea in an episode deserves thirty minutes (or more) to itself, but instead is getting blasted through in ten minutes. I'm in awe of the energy and invention of this approach, but I also don't think it ever entirely works. DNA, Justice and White Hole all try it and fail, although Justice comes the nearest to succeeding.
For some reason, I'd been getting this confused with the similar but Rimmer-centric opening to Season 5, Holoship. Fortunately I was wrong. This one's much better. It's the one where Kryten meets a pleasure GELF who appears to everyone as the object of their deepest desires. I loved this episode. Lister teaching Kryten to lie is wonderful, the character work is strong and the Cat gag slays me. Oddly enough, both Robert Llewellyn and Craig Charles were playing opposite actresses as Camille with whom they happened to be involved at the time, with Judy Pascoe later going from being Llewellyn's girlfriend to his wife. I didn't think she was a very convincing mechanoid, mind you, but clunkiness is entirely appropriate for a romance involving Kryten. Great start to the year and a good kick-off for the characters.
20. DNA
This is one of those "three in one" episodes, which hurts the middle section. Kryten turning into a human is a fascinating idea that could have been explored in much more detail, yet in the actual episode Kryten decides absurdly quickly that his lifelong ambition isn't going to work and asks to be changed back. There's still a goofy finale to fit in with Robo-Lister vs. Judge Mortis, you see. In fairness I quite liked that finale, but it's clearly less interesting than the character-based material earlier with Kryten's identity issues. There are some meaty themes and parallels being given the brush-off here... plastic surgery, self-image and all the frustratingly undeveloped arguments that Lister's putting forth. Plus of course it's funny. Kryten and Lister's penis discussion had me laughing out loud, while the wine bar confession is a classic too.
Overall, I do like the episode. If nothing else, there's a lovely post-modernist discussion between Lister and Rimmer on exploring an alien spacecraft. "Let's split up." "Why should we split up?" "We'll do the search quicker." "What's the hurry? Have you some major luncheon appointment you need to rush off to?"
We learn here that Lister comes from the 23rd century, by the way.
I remembered this as one of my all-time favourites and it's certainly true that when it's good, it's great. Parts 2 and 3 kick arse. The trial of Arnold Judas Rimmer is up there with Rowan Atkinson's in Blackadder Goes Forth for making me laugh until it hurts, but I also love the stuff with the killer simulant, the Justice field and so on. Red Dwarf can't go wrong when it comes to psychos, it seems. Lister gets some priceless material ("define criminal activity") and his final speech is much more interesting than it's being made to look by that banana skin punchline.
Unfortunately the first 5-10 minutes don't really work for me. It's telling, not showing. Lister wakes up in bed and we basically get a five-minute info-dump of Kryten telling him the plot. This gets us off on the wrong foot and I didn't really feel the episode was working until we reached the Justice station. When we do, though... wow.
The story's even doing that thing you'll occasionally get in Red Dwarf of developing its themes more deeply than you'd expect from a show like this. Note Lister's complaint towards the beginning that "there's no justice" because there might be a girl in that cryo-pod and he's got space mumps head. There's also some surprisingly interesting direction in the "simulant on the loose" scenes. My favourite episode of the season. I award the title reluctantly, thanks to those first 5-10 minutes, but the good stuff is just too good to miss.
The toaster isn't funny! Annoying characters can often be funny for the audience, but sometimes they simply annoy us too. This is one of those.
This is also the episode that convinced me that Grant and Naylor had stopped taking their basic premise seriously. The middle story of this episode involves Holly shutting down and all power being lost on Red Dwarf. Nothing works. You could do an entire season based on this, with the crew being forced to increasingly desperate survivalist measures until by the end it's Lord of the Flies time. They'd end up living in the equivalent of caves, using high-tech equipment as clubs and swords. This is a wonderful idea... but in practice what we get is Lister and Cat using an exercise bike to generate power and taking turns to cycle all night while the other sleeps under a electric blanket. This is not a scenario I can believe in. It makes Star Trek: Voyager look like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
Apart from that, it's all good.
Kryten as a battering ram is funny and the discussion afterwards is good as well, although I'd have liked it to have more weight. Hattie Hayridge is okay. However best of all is the "pool with planets" finale, which is a beautiful use of the characters and a strong ending for the episode. Kryten's punchline is just the cherry on the cake.
To my surprise, I liked this one. I remembered it as being vaguely annoying and indeed it was... but only for the silly opening scenes in Ace Rimmer's reality. Once we're back with the regular regulars, it turns into a very nice episode indeed. It's refreshingly old school in the way it's basically just the gang bumming around together and doing nothing more than try to stab Rimmer in the back and go fishing. In its own quiet way, that fishing trip is some of their best material of the season. From that point on, we're enjoying a nicely written episode that's about the cast for once and is actually making a character point with Ace Rimmer.
The dimension jump makes no sense at all, mind you. For starters, why are the regulars playing Ace Rimmer's friends and colleagues in the alternate reality? Craig Charles I can understand, but John-Jules, Llewellyn and Hayridge? Nevertheless somehow it works, probably because the whole thing is so camp and silly. Then there's the fact that Ace Rimmer seems to have jumped not only across the dimensions but forward millions of years to some unthinkably distant point in space to find his alter ego. I can only assume that there's some kind of extra-dimensional force pulling him towards his parallel equivalents, if only since if there weren't, it's hard to believe he'd be able to go on to find thousands of other Rimmers (as the closing credits inform us).
Apparently this is Chris Barrie's favourite episode. No surprise there. It's also worth mentioning that he does a surprisingly good job as Ace, given how poor he'd been in certain other episodes that had demanded acting (e.g. the Lister bodyswap one).
This is an episode with a valuable lesson for us all. Everyone should be forced by law to experience its revelations and learn the truth... viz. that putting a right-on anti-war message in your story isn't enough to stop it being tiresome rubbish. No matter how bad the later seasons might get, at least we'll know they're not Meltdown.
That said, there's some good material here and there for the regulars, such as Holly's funny line of the season ("you do have a small physical presence"). The final scene also isn't as bad as it's being made to look by the preceding thirty minutes. I admire the conviction with which it delivers its message. Apparently the regulars all talk on the DVD commentary track about their love for this episode and say it's full of classic scenes, although I can't say I ever felt excited about having to watch Chris Barrie's Dirty Dozen sergeant-major impersonations.
The problem is Waxworld. It's a bunch of offensively dull celebrity impersonators in a horrible, drab location. The whole thing's painful to watch, especially since Grant and Naylor seem to think it'll be funny to have Elvis talking like Elvis or Pythagorus wibbling on about triangles. It's Talkie Toaster level humour all over again. Tony Hawks pops up again as Caligula, but even he can't save it. As with the similarly cheapazoid Better Than Life (the season 2 episode, not the novel), there's even a radio scene that we don't see, but merely get narrated to us. This time it's Lister looking out of a cell window. It's rubbish, yet it's also better than having to look at the celebrity lookalikes.
Apparently this hadn't been planned as the season finale, but it got delayed because of the Gulf War. That explains much. Grant and Naylor had hitherto always been good at giving their seasons a strong finale, after all. As with Dimension Jump, I found myself liking more of this episode than I'd expected, but in this case that's merely bringing it up from one out of ten to about a three.
Oh, and the fake dinosaurs are apparently stock footage from a 1967 Japanese tokusatsu kaiju film.
Overall, a strong but occasionally scary year for Red Dwarf. When it's good, it's very good indeed. If you'd asked me before I started this rewatch, I'd have probably guessed that this was my favourite season. It's officially shaken off the chains of Season 1 and evolved into a different show, which I can respect even if I'm still fonder of the original formula. You can see the start of the slippery slope, but that's Red Dwarf for you. With a few strategically placed caveats about the occasional episode, I'd still recommend it as strong and imaginative, both as SF and as comedy. How many shows in their fourth year can say that their chief fault is an excess of energy and ideas?