What the hell was that? I'm not complaining about the change of format, by the way. On the contrary, it's a good idea and the show had been clearly heading that way anyway. It's always good to shake things up and this is the biggest reinvention we've seen to date, more revolutionary even than the one between seasons 2 and 3.
By the way, this is still basically a fun show. I should point that out before I get going because otherwise it might start looking as if I thought this was the work of Satan himself.
For those who can't remember seasons, this is the year when the crew lost Red Dwarf itself and were stuck chasing after it in Starbug. Now I've always felt that Red Dwarf (the ship) was a much more interesting setting than they ever allowed it to be, full of untapped potential, but this is a good idea too. You can have a lot of fun with it. Supplies are a problem, the universe becomes more dangerous and suddenly our heroes are stuck in an unreliable, low-tech ship that would be outgunned by a tartan zip-up shopping trolley.
Unfortunately Grant and Naylor have forgotten how to write their show and have instead been given lots of bad ideas from going to America and working on Red Dwarf USA
. It's fascinating to see how almost without exception this year's changes make the show feel more clumsy. The characterisation is the easiest target. All four regulars have been made blander, while also being "improved" by being given schticks that keep cropping up again and again. Rimmer will quote Space Corps Directive X and be told by Kryten that he's referring to something inappropriate. This gag gets done to death, i.e. more than once. Cat's been given a sense of smell that can detect approaching spaceships (eh?) and will repeatedly say "my nasal hairs are quivering faster than [insert simile here]". Lister's guitar gets everywhere.
The dialogue's worse than it's ever been, by the way. It's repetitive. It relies too much on overwrought similes and is too quick to lapse into generic plot-progression SF scenes that hardly differentiate between the characters. As an example I'll take the season opener, Psirens, since it's clearly the most wooden Red Dwarf episode. It begins with an amnesiac Lister coming out of 200 years' deep sleep and being subjected to a Kryten info-dump as he tries to work out who he is. We're getting bludgeoned with backstory, but I can forgive that since Grant and Naylor are merely doing what the BBC had told them to. What perplexes me is their choice of characters for the scene. The last time I had fun watching Kryten and Lister together, Lister was giving lessons in how to lie. "Justice" begins badly too and for the same reason.
If one must do this scene, why not do it with Rimmer and Lister? Even Cat would have been better. You could have had Cat and Lister coming out of deep sleep together and making all kinds of assumptions due to mutual amnesia.
Unfortunately Grant and Naylor aren't writing a sitcom any more. They're making a series of which they think the pinnacle is Gunmen of the Apocalypse. Red Dwarf has turned into a show with lots of plot, big SF ideas, better production values and sometimes a few gags for the characters. Look at the storylines for the year. Lister and Cat get nothing to do in any of them! They're the objects of jokes, but as protagonists you could cut-and-paste them with each other. Rimmer fares slightly better, at least getting to shine in one episode (Rimmerworld), but it says everything that in the end he's heroic. The only character who's not being turned into an identikit SF hero is of course Kryten, but that's because he's already useful enough for SF plots and exposition that he doesn't need tweaking. He's also not very funny.
So what does a typical Series VI episode consist of? Leaving aside the freak exception Psirens, you'll have a really good bit at the beginning before the plot's started and the characters are being allowed to relax and be themselves. This will always be true, oddly enough. After that you'll have a monster of the week, in which the crew run into some other spacefarers of the year 3 million. Remember the old days, when Lister thought they were alone in the universe apart from empty space and rocks? These days he can't get a day's peace. There will be a complicated plot that's energetic and imaginative, but only occasionally gives our heroes anything non-generic to do.
Then there's Starbug, which is now dimensionally transcendental. (In the following season, they'd make it still bigger.) Compare with the Starbug we saw in earlier seasons, which had interior sets in proportion with the spaceship model. From the outside it's about the size of a truck, yet on the inside it contains at least a four-man cockpit, a galley, sleeping quarters and a three-storey engine room. It can launch a probe called Scouter and it has enough computer power and energy to maintain Rimmer's hologram, despite the fact that Red Dwarf itself hadn't designed to be able to maintain two holograms. That's right, guys. Voyager it up.
The one thing I like unreservedly is the fact that we've lost Hattie Hayridge. Of course one of the motivating factors in getting rid of Red Dwarf was writing out Holly, who'd been identified along with Cat as disposable.
I've already mentioned this one, but damn, it's weird and not in a good way. There's as much info-dump at the beginning of the episode as there is actual story at the end, with the Psirens. That would be eight minutes. Everything else is the crew flying through space. No, really. It's as dull as that sounds. This isn't an episode, but a format proposal document that accidentally got typed up in script form. Personally I think of it as the Red Dwarf equivalent of Twin Dilemma, because it's introducing a new era of the show so badly. The Twin Dilemma is more incompetent and stupid, but Psirens is more boring.
Theoretically this is a Lister-centric story, but it doesn't give him anything to do as a protagonist. The script's just saying, "look at the slob, ahahaha."
There are some cameos, though. There's Jenny Agutter, Anita Dobson from Eastenders and the only appearance since season 2 of C.P. Grogan's Kochanski. They'd recast the role next year. Apparently also the derelict ships in the asteroid belt are from Space: 1999, Alien
and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Apparently Stephen Fry was unavailable to play Legion. Wow. This isn't a bad episode, with the Good Bit At The Beginning involving Lister and a space weevil, but it's also a bit lukewarm. The bad guy isn't scary and there's a continuity goof involving Lister having his appendix removed for the second time after season 2's "Thanks For The Memory". Doug Naylor explained this away in the novels as Lister being a freak of nature who'd been born with two appendices, but surely the correct explanation is that all series continuity has been screwed by comedy time travel and writers who don't care?
This is also the episode in which Rimmer gets his hard light body. Yet another distinctive point gone about the characters. Another ten years of this and I swear we'd have been watching Star Trek.
33. GUNMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
This is of course the episode that won an International Emmy award for Popular Arts in 1994, albeit shared with an episode of Absolutely Fabulous. Another anecdote is that the BBC Head of Art & Culture, Janet Street-Porter, saw the script for this episode and promptly sent out a memo that the episode should be scrubbed on the grounds of it being too difficult, costly and time-consuming to film. However by the time the Red Dwarf crew received her memo, they'd already finished shooting it and were into post-production.
As SF, it's quite good and stars Denis Lill. However I jeer at the idea that it's the best episode of Red Dwarf on the grounds that it's not even slightly funny. It has the season's least comedic Good Bit At The Beginning and they don't even end on an attempted gag, for goodness' sake. It's just an SFX shot of Starbug breaking free of a lava planet.
34. EMOHAWK: POLYMORPH II
The Polymorph, Ace Rimmer and Duane Dibley return for fanwank. Gyaaah! Theoretically you could say that this disproves my observation that this year the Cat and Lister are being given generically interchangeable plot roles, but technically speaking the Cat's contribution to the story is to be temporarily written out in favour of a one-note gag from the year before.
However on the upside, we're into the second half of the season and have thus hit the start of the quality upswing. The Good Bit At The Beginning is a lovely bit of business (Rimmer's emergency drill), Ace Rimmer is quite well used and there are some great lines. "I have got hair like yours. Just not on my head."
It also seems clear to me that Kryten has managed to make contact with some kind of far-future galactic civilisation in the last 200 years. He knows the rules under which the local space police operate, knows the boundaries of a region of space called the GELF zone and can even translate the GELF language. There are also a couple of casting curiosities, with Hugh Quarshie playing a computer and Ainsley Harriot playing the GELF chief in the days before he became a celebrity chef, although you'll only know it was them from studying the end credits.
One of the year's two outstanding episodes, the other being "Out of Time". It has problems, the biggest being that the planet Rimmerworld doesn't really work. When was the last time the show tried something like that? Ah yes, Meltdown
. You still haven't worked out how to do comedy alien planets, guys. There's also the pointless and counter-intuitive subplot about Rimmer discovering that he has a stress-related heart condition that could kill him despite the fact that he's a hologram (eh?), which would never again be referred to in any subsequent episode and smells American to me.
However apart from all that, this is a brain-boggler of a episode and for once is actually building its plot around its cast. This is an episode with the kind of scope and ambition more normally reserved for the Red Dwarf novels. What happens to Rimmer is incredible. He becomes God! Note the literal re-enactment of the more famous bits of Genesis. The logic of Rimmerworld's topsy-turvy society is a joy, Rimmer's earlier betrayal of his friends is the kind of thing we needed more of and the Cat's glee at everything bad that happens to him is spot on. All that and it's even a sequel to the simulant subplot of Gunmen of the Apocalypse.
The episode even has a good punchline. It feels as if it's been years since we last had one of those!
36. OUT OF TIME
Ironically given the episode title, they ran out of time to write this one. They were still writing it during filming and the actors were getting new dialogue appearing on the autocues while they were performing in front of the studio audience. This kind of thing was part of why Chris Barrie got himself written out during season 7
I'd never have guessed any of that, though. It's the season finale and as such is one of the standout episodes of the entire series, not just season 6. Rimmer's morale-boosting session is a scream, Kryten's reaction to future-Lister is priceless and the show's choice of fates for Lister took me completely by surprise. Furthermore the hedonistic future versions of the crew are one of those iconic Red Dwarf concepts that stay with you.
On the downside it's jarring to see Rimmer being heroic and underwhelming for Kryten to be the one who expresses moral outrage, but fortunately it's Lister who sends the hedonists packing at gunpoint. I also admire the ballsiness of the "To Be Continued" cliffhanger, which made me want to continue immediately with season 7
. My main regret is that they hadn't thought up this story a few years earlier. It would have worked so much better had the show been younger and I'd been able to entertain the notion that Lister might really be an android after all, or if the number of earlier time travel episodes and reset buttons hadn't killed my ability to believe that anything like death might be allowed to be permanent.
Nevertheless it's still a standout episode that bears comparison with anything Red Dwarf have ever done.
Thank goodness for the three-year break between this and the following season in 1997. This is where I stopped watching in the old days so I might be wrong, but I have a good feeling about what's coming next thanks to the return of Ed Bye and the chance that a few years might have knocked some of the nonsense out of the writers.
The show looks good, with some excellent spaceship models. The guest stars can also be surprising, albeit underused. Theoretically the scripts are as overstuffed as anything in season 4, but somehow this year that feels like a virtue. Grant and Naylor have switched gears to writing generic SF adventure with underused characters, so the ideas and plot devices they're coming up with this year never leave you bemoaning any unexplored potential. I still enjoyed watching these episodes, but I'll be surprised if season 6 and Psirens don't prove to be the nadir of the show. Red Dwarf USA
has a lot to answer for.