Oddly disappointing. It's as if something's been shaken loose in the new season overhaul. There aren't any actual stinkers, with nothing hitting the depths of the following year
's waxworld episode, but it's not as funny as I remembered it. Only one and a half episodes would qualify as actually good as far as I'm concerned and worryingly neither of those have much involvement for (the real) Lister and Rimmer. I used to love seeing those two sparring at each other, but they seem to have lost something now we've got Hattie Hayridge and Robert Llewellyn in the cast.
Oh, the show's still trying. No complaints on that front. It's just that the three episodes which give the most time to the Lister-Rimmer relationship also happen to be my least favourites of the season. Bodyswap and Timeslides are oddly unconvincing, while my respect for Marooned doesn't change the fact that unfortunately I don't much enjoy watching it.
Of the newbies, I won't go on about Hattie Hayridge. She's not funny. Enough said. Meanwhile Kryten is a perfectly good character and Llewellyn clearly enjoys playing him, but his mugging reminds me of Herman Munster and it's a shame that his arrival seems to be what caused the phasing out of the skutters. Every change that's been made seems to have put distance between the show and everything that made its first two seasons distinctive, from the mournful opening music to the grey-walled sets. It doesn't feel as if Lister's lonely any more. When he starts moaning in Timeslides that he's sick of his life, I didn't buy it. Admittedly it would have helped for Craig Charles to be putting more depth into those scenes, but fundamentally I didn't see what his problem was as I would have done the year before.
I'd also like to mention the opening crawl for Backwards. You can catch the gist of it in real time, but you'll need to get out the pause button if you want to catch every word. What's interesting (in a bad way) about this massive info-dump is that it's full of stories which do fundamental things with the show's status quo and could surely have been great to see played out in front of us. You've got Lister giving birth to twins only for them to suffer from time-dilated accelerated growth and reach the age of eighteen years old within three days of being born. Lister has to take them back to the universe where they were conceived in order to save their lives. You've got Kryten being found in pieces on an asteroid and Lister rebuilding him but being unable to recapture the android's former personality. You've got Holly performing a digital head swap operation on himself, taking on the personality of "a female computer with whom he'd once fallen madly in love". The show could have gone to town with any of those.
I've been told that Grant and Naylor tried to cram all that into an episode called Dad, then abandoned it. I'm not surprised. That's three episodes' worth of plot, not one, if not even an entire season's worth if you really wanted to make the most of Lister's pregnancy.
One thing the show hasn't forgotten though is the art of finishing (and also if possible starting) a season on a high note. Compare this with, for instance, the Davison era. Admittedly Backwards is a good distance below the heights of the entire series to date, but it's above average in the context of this season. Going through the episodes:
One of Red Dwarf's concept-led episodes, this time involving an Earth where time's running backwards. Oddly enough it's not any Earth that the crew would have recognised, but (d'oh) our present day. The first thing that needs saying is that this episode makes not the slightest scrap of sense. Obviously the show's basically going for cheap laughs and gross shots of people un-drinking beer and un-eating food, but even so it's easy to be distracted by causality working in whichever direction happens to be convenient for the plot, both for the reverse-time natives and for our heroes. The printed word goes from right to left (why?), except when it doesn't. I realise I'm not meant to be thinking about all this, but great Scott. Furthermore we have the additional questions of how they can still communicate with Holly even on the reverse-Earth and how come Rimmer's didn't blink out of existence the moment they stepped into the great outdoors. Even if we assume that he's being generated by that light bee that the show eventually came up with, I thought it took terrifying quantities of energy to do the calculations required to keep him going? It was a plot point in series one that Red Dwarf could only maintain one hologram.
Apart from all that, though, it's not a bad episode. It's not outstanding, but I could believe in Rimmer and Kryten's reactions to the reverse-Earth and it has laughs. I enjoyed the Cat's "don't ask" at the end, for instance. Oh, and you might recognise a few incidental cast members. The pub compere (Tony Hawks) was also the game's host in Better Than Life and is actually something of a semi-regular on the show, while Arthur Smith pops up as the landlord.
I like the idea. Strip away all the fluff that the show's accumulated by stranding Rimmer and Lister on an iceworld where they might never be found. The dialogue feels like the old show again. The episode can be funny and Rimmer gets more depth than usual, but I find the whole thing a tad painful. I was of half a mind to skip it in my rewatch.
This is where the continuity-rewriting begins, though. Suddenly Rimmer's had sex with more than one person in his life. Yvonne McGruder? Who's she? I'm familiar with the argument that it's okay to trample on continuity for the sake of a good story, but it's an argument that irritates me and it's not even as if there's any point in it here. It's for the sake of a joke. Fair enough, you might think. This is a comedy. Jokes are good. However that's an attitude that eventually leads you later in the season to the likes of Rimmer's family being Seventh Day Hoppists, which is moderately amusing but also (for me) completely unbelievable, showing up Rimmer's backstory as whatever arbitrary nonsense Grant and Naylor want it to be this week.
This episode is a good thing and a strong counter-argument to all the criticisms I've been making of Red Dwarf series 3. I just wish I liked it more.
The second half of this story is some of this year's actual good stuff. Admittedly they achieve this by brainwashing our heroes and turning them into emotional cripples and retards, but it's a laugh, isn't it? There's some weaker stuff earlier in the episode, e.g. Kryten's guilt trip, but the Kryten-Lister pseudo-shagging scene is about as good as it gets if you're looking for juvenile sex gags. Yes, I realise that's a backhanded compliment. This isn't a perfect episode, but it's a lot of fun.
This is also the first story where we get a good look at the new white-walled sets, by the way. Lister and Rimmer have moved into officers' accommodation. We'd spent so little time on board Red Dwarf so far this year that we hadn't even glimpsed the new decor yet. Think about that for a minute.
16. BODY SWAP
Body swap comedy is an SF staple with almost limitless possibilities. I can think of hysterical examples in both Farscape and Doctor Who, but Red Dwarf's attempt fails because Craig Charles and Chris Barrie can't act. Neither is remotely convincing as their opposite number, despite being overdubbed with the other actor's voice. The lip-synching's often rubbish, by the way. They should have done it with Danny John-Jules, who's the best actor on the show despite never getting any opportunities to demonstrate it, although the problem there is that Chris Barrie's attempt at Cat is testicle-shrivellingly bad.
Oh, and "White Midget"? Where'd that come from all of a sudden? It's not even as if the model we see on screen isn't the usual blue one.
It lost me, I'm afraid. There's nothing wrong with the plot and I'm awestruck by its evil ending, but unfortunately they kick off with Craig Charles whining about his life. This doesn't work. On the other hand, I admire the episode's wacky means of time travel, while the twist at the end would seem to overturn almost everything we thought we knew about the show's backstory and is thus presumably a "get out of jail free" card for any future continuity rewriting.
There a couple of casting curiosities. Craig Charles's real brother Emile plays a teenage Dave Lister, while Ruby Wax appears and is annoying, but deliberately so. Personally I thought she made a surprisingly good fist of some lame jokes. However she was apparently a last-minute replacement for one of the Monty Python crew! Graham Chapman was cast, but died shortly before the start of rehearsals.
18. THE LAST DAY
The best episode of the season, although before this rewatch I might have nominated Polymorph for that honour. This is the one where Kryten learns he's going to die. There's robot religion (Silicon Heaven), an attempt at using Kryten as a character rather than a gurning machine and Lister saying, "Don't give me that Star Trek crap, it's too early in the morning." It's a strong episode even before Hudzen-Ten turns up with his original brick-smashing technique, but he brings in something completely new again and he's a hell of a lot of fun. "You are all viable targets."
Overall, this season has left me a little worried. If I've decided we're heading downhill this early in the game, how will I react to the episodes I thought were bad on first transmission? Nevertheless it's still an irreverent, energetic show with lots of gags and a likeable willingness to be gross and/or juvenile. The only unarguable downgrade is the departure of Norman Lovett and that wasn't the choice of the production team. I think it's become a less distinctive show, but plenty of fans would say that this is where the series really took flight and at least you can't say Red Dwarf isn't a show that evolved. We'll see how it continues.