It's like the first season, but mostly in the sense of being less dissimilar to it than is any other Red Dwarf season. This is the last year before the big Season 3
overhaul, with new sets, new regular cast members and a new opening title sequence. Admittedly this is also the year that introduced Kryten, but he's being played by David Ross instead of Robert Llewellyn and he's only a guest character in one episode. It's arguably as significant to point out that this season contains our first look at Hattie Hayridge. Meanwhile we've still got the funereal opening theme (yay) and Holly is male (again yay, although it's odd to see his face without any filter effects).
All that said, it's also very different. What's changed this year is that they've either lost focus or expanded their horizons, depending on how you view it. The claustrophobic minimalism of season one was distinctive, but it was also a restrictive format to write for. This year our heroes are regularly getting out of the ship. We have Blue Midget, although don't get too used to her. Next year will bring Starbug. However even ignoring things like their celebration of Rimmer's death day on an asteroid, three of these six episodes have our heroes meeting people. I'm talking about real people here, not just the computer-generated VR folks in Better Than Life. That never happened in the first series. There was a time travel episode, yes, but those were only visions while this is an actual door into the past.
There's more SF, or at least it feels that way. This isn't all good. Yes, it allows Grant and Naylor to play with parallel universes and so on, but this year's weaker episodes are the ones which get a little too wrapped up in their ideas. Thanks for the Memory and Stasis Leak are basically SF detective stories, with our heroes trying to figure out what's going on, and personally I didn't feel they had as much to offer on a rewatch. Once you've seen the twist, there's not much left. Even Better Than Life went downhill for me once they'd entered the game, although there we're also being hindered by production factors.
However the season has good twists too. Grant and Naylor have discovered the art of the ending, with every episode ending on some kind of revelation. Kryten's is based in character rather than plot while Better Than Life's is of course so predictable as to barely count as such, but I'm in awe of Queeg's twist ending. It's an appalling cheat. It shouldn't work in a million years. Nevertheless somehow the show not only gets away with it but turns it into the perfect cap to the best episode of the season. One thing I'm starting to notice with Red Dwarf is how every so often they'll put more into an episode than you'd expect. They'll have actual themes to explore, or else they'll be tackling SF ideas that might on the face of it seem ambitious for a thirty-minute BBC2 sitcom about space layabouts.
Stars Tony Slattery as an android, although you'll only know that from the closing credits. This one's strong and one of my favourites. It's a scream to see the Red Dwarf lads deal with the possibility of meeting girls, with Rimmer in particular making himself look an even bigger idiot than usual by asking Lister to talk him up as a ladykiller. My only problem with the episode is that I wasn't wild about David Ross's Kryten. He's good enough for what the episode's asking of him, but I think he's struggling to act through the prosthetics. The poor chap is dressed up as a spark plug, after all. His big realisation in particular feels undersold, although I liked his Marlon Brando impersonation at the end.
There's a minor difference between his and Llewellyn's make-up jobs, by the way. Ross's lips haven't been painted to match the rest of his face. It's surprisingly distracting, actually.
8. BETTER THAN LIFE
Characterisation for the skutters! I love that. All the early stuff on the ship is wonderful, with the material about Rimmer's dad being at once funny, touching and an acid antidote to sappy American bollocks. However the episode goes downhill once we've entered the game, despite the wonderful plot twist of Rimmer's diseased brain. The problem is the budget. We should be looking at Hawaii or the Mediterranean, but it's clearly been shot on a deserted beach in Skegness in February or something. They were probably shovelling the snow aside between shots. There's even a scene where the episode turns into a radio play, with Rimmer telling us about a tarantula crawling up his leg while the camera stays grimly locked on to his face. It's supposed to look Better Than Life, but it's not even Better Than Bournemouth.
I seem to remember that this episode got expanded into an entire spin-off novel. Quite good, I think, too.
9. THANKS FOR THE MEMORY
I'm not so wild about this one. Again I love the character scenes, such as for instance Rimmer's drunken speech and the idea behind Lister's birthday present. I'm always happy when the show's just spinning its wheels with the two leads. However the Phil K. Dick mindfuck detective story played better on first viewing twenty years ago, with this rewatch giving me the odd impression that the episode wasn't so much ending as tying up loose ends. We're simply watching all the pieces come together and there's an intellectual satisfaction in that, but it's not very interesting dramatically.
10. STASIS LEAK
My least favourite of the year, although only by a hair's breadth and I remember really liking it on original transmission. You can tell it's a strong year if this is the weakest episode. It's an episode where all the ingredients look great, but somehow it doesn't come together. Lister's emotional turning points don't have the weight they should have had, for a start. He decides to commit suicide for the sake of love in this one, yet it doesn't register properly since he comes out with it in a scene that's more about Rimmer being even more of a knob than usual. We've also got enough time-twisting and multiple versions of the regulars that the concluding scene is effectively taking the piss out of its own complexity.
However I appreciate the mere fact that they brought back Kochanski, Petersen and Captain Hollister. Apart from Kochanski, you'll have to wait until Season 8
to see any of them again. Red Dwarf's stronger for me when it hasn't forgotten its roots. I'll be surprised if we ever get a resolution of that "five years in the future" storyline, though.
On the other hand, this is my favourite of the year. Oddly enough though, I hadn't been looking forward to it. Knowing the story in advance, I'd expected the episode to be a little awkward to sit through, but in fact it's roaring full steam ahead with that peculiar Red Dwarf combination of comedy sadism and oddly heartfelt character work. Holly has never been funnier, with his characterisation simply on a different plane to anything they'd give Hattie Hayridge. "What's happening then, dudes?" "Groove-town." He's got a clearly defined personality, he doesn't have a clue about anything and it's a joy to see him torture Rimmer and the others. I also love Lister's moral centre in this one. Then there's the final scene, which is so much more than just its punchline.
This year had three great episodes. I'd say that these are the first and last ones (involving girls) and Queeg, which I regard as narrowly the best and nailing every beat in its story from start to finish. If you don't like this one, you probably won't like Red Dwarf.
12. PARALLEL UNIVERSE
What's cool about this one is how thoroughly it's exploring its theme. We start with a Top of the Pops music video (Tongue-Tied)... and it's a song about boy meets girl. We get the Cat talking about Cat relationships and Lister taking Rimmer apart on How To Pick Up Girls By Hypnosis. Six minutes have passed before we get even a hint of the plot, but it's all a vital part of what the episode's talking about. There's a parallel universe (d'oh) in which gender roles have been reversed, you see. This is of course a cliche, but somehow the show manages to turn this into something worth telling. Seeing the equivalent of Rimmer's sexism coming out of a woman's mouth is startling, although it probably shouldn't be, then we find Lister too doing a U-turn and becoming a raging hypocrite over something he'd been blithely ignoring while he was still thinking like a man. You can understand his concern, but even so this is stronger stuff than you'd expect. It's just that it's camouflaged by drinking competitions and knob gags.
None of that would matter if the episode wasn't funny, but fortunately it is. Very much so, in fact. The Cat's new friend is a laugh, I'm always happy to see more skutter involvement and oddly enough it's even a memorable outing for Holly. "I'm in there." Admittedly they don't even try to justify the biological goofiness, but I like the fact that they're still acknowledging continuity points from old episodes instead of trampling all over them as they would in later series.
In short, this isn't half bad at all. It's clearly not the same animal as Series 1
, but it's still the last hurrah of old-school Red Dwarf with Norman Lovett and the grey-walled corridors. Even the weaker episodes I loved twenty years ago. The stronger ones are outstanding.