Friday, 8 August 2014

08/08/14 - Red Dwarf Top Ten

It’s often the case in popular culture that the rubbishness of later works casts a grim shadow over the goodness of the earlier stuff. Quit while you’re ahead, that’s generally the key – it’s better to burn out than fade away, etc. Look at the fan-led campaign to stop Weezer recording new albums (the general consensus being that the first few albums were ace, the new ones are a bunch of arse), or Star Wars episodes I, II & III, or The Godfather III, or all of the terrible shit that Coldplay did after Parachutes, or the appalling final season of Scrubs, or… well, there are lots of examples. This, unfortunately, is the case for many people with Red Dwarf.
But this needs addressing. Red Dwarf is a magnificent piece of British cultural history, and unquestionably one of the finest TV series ever devised. The first six series, released between 1988 and ’93, are pretty much flawless.
However, after that point the writing duo – Rob Grant and Doug Naylor – had something of a falling out. It was the age-old problem of ‘creative differences’ that led Rob Grant to walk out (‘I want to have something other than Red Dwarf on my tombstone,’ he said), so Doug Naylor wrote series VII and VIII solo (released in 1997 and ’99). And, it has to be said, they were a bit patchy. Some brilliant moments, a couple of great episodes even, but still nowhere near the quality of the superior collaborative work. Then there was a hiatus for ten years before Naylor put together ‘Back to Earth’ in 2009, a three-episode mini-series commissioned by the Dave channel that effectively acted as series IX. And it was really, really awful. Like, gobsmackingly terrible, I can’t bring myself to watch it again. After a decade of absence, the news of new Red Dwarf was really exciting, but Back to Earth was just a slap in the face. It was shit.
It was slightly less exciting, then, when series X was announced in 2012, although that actually turned out to be very good; still not at the I-VI peak, but certainly better than VII and VIII.

Is all of this starting to sound a bit geeky? Good, that’ll help you enjoy what’s to come. Remember, Red Dwarf may have been set in space, but it’s no Star Trek – it’s an exquisitely crafted comedy show that’s quintessentially British… but you do need to revel in a certain geeky fanaticism to fully enjoy it. Don’t fight it, let it take you.
So, just for funsies, this week’s JuicyPips is all about MY TOP TEN RED DWARF EPISODES. Something to broaden the palate of the uninitiated, and rekindle happy memories for disenchanted fans…

White Hole (series IV)
This episode begins with the creation of one of the most quotable comic characters of the 1990s, the Talkie Toaster. He’s a bit of a prick, basically – a single-minded, bread-obsessed appliance. But you can forgive him that – he’s a toaster with artificial intelligence, what would you expect?
The machine is an experiment in intelligence compression, something that Kryten (a mechanoid, one of the four main characters along with Lister [the last remaining human], Cat [who evolved over three million years from Lister’s pet cat, it’s a long story] and Rimmer [a hologramatic simulation of one of the dead crew of Red Dwarf]) is keen to test on Holly, the ship’s slightly slow-witted computer. It doesn’t really work, for complex reasons, leading to Holly powering down the ship; unfortunately, at this time they’re floating past a white hole – sort of the opposite of a black hole, spewing out time in random pockets and causing all sorts of confusion. Lister uses advanced weaponry and simulations to block up the white hole by effectively playing pool with the solar system and firing a planet into it. Which, of course, all makes perfect sense.
(Nerdy fact: the actor who provided the voice of Talkie Toaster was the same actor who played the original Kryten in series II.)

Quarantine (series V)
The crew receive a distress call from a hologram named Dr. Hildegarde Lanstrom. On investigating her ship, they find she’s got a killer holo-virus and is trying to fry them all with eye-lasers. They escape, but not before she talks to Rimmer over the radio and transmits the virus to him.
On returning to Red Dwarf, Rimmer, who’s in the grip of power-crazed zealotry as well as the early stages of the fever, puts them all in quarantine. He then goes totally mad and cuts off their oxygen supply, leaving them with minutes to live; they escape using a positive ‘luck virus’ they picked up on Lanstrom’s ship.
Rimmer’s parading around in a gingham dress with a penguin puppet named Mr Flibble on his hand, it all gets very dangerous.

Bodyswap (series III)
A series of mishaps leads the ship’s self-destruct sequence to be initiated. The only people who can override the command are dead, since Lister is the only remaining crew member. So, Kryten uses a sodding great syringe to flush out Lister’s mind and store it on tape, substituting it with that of one of the dead officers.
This gives Rimmer an idea – that he and Lister could swap minds and allow him to have a physical presence for a bit (since he’s dead, and a hologram, and thus composed entirely of light). Rimmer gets carried away with eating and smoking too much, so Lister demands that they swap back again. But then Rimmer convinces Kryten to swap their minds again while Lister’s asleep, then runs away with his body in Starbug (one of Red Dwarf’s shuttlecraft) with a cargo of junk food. And then he crashes it into a planet.

Marooned (series III)
The most cerebral episode they recorded, and a real character-development vehicle for Rimmer and Lister. They get marooned on an ice planet, separate from Cat and Kryten, and resign themselves to the fact that they’re probably going to die there. To keep warm, Lister burns all of Rimmer’s books, the money he’d saved up, and his precious 19th century war figurines. Given the nature of this personal sacrifice, Lister agrees to burn his beloved guitar. (Although he doesn’t, he actually burns one of Rimmer’s most prized possessions and pretends it was the guitar…)
A beautifully written and heartwarming episode, one to warm the cockles.
Also, features Lister eating a can of dog food.

Thanks for the Memory (series II)
The crew wake up to find that they have no memory of the past four days, Cat and Lister both have a broken leg, and the ship’s black box is missing. They retrace their steps, finding the black box buried on a nearby moon under a gravestone that reads ‘To the memory of the memory of Lise Yates’ – the name of one of Lister’s old girlfriends. They watch the footage and discover that four days before, Rimmer had drunkenly admitted details to Lister of his tragic love life; Lister had given him a gift of implanting eight years of his memory into Rimmer’s, so that he’d believe he’d once been loved by a good woman. But then the whole plot unravels, it all goes very wrong, and they decide that the whole thing is best forgotten. But they’d left themselves too many clues…
(Nerdy fact: at the time of filming, Craig Charles [Lister]’s wife was in labour, so he rushed to film his scenes before escaping to see the birth of his son. So in scenes where they’re wearing space suits, filmed afterwards, it’s not actually Lister in there, but production manager Mike Agnew. He had bigger feet and couldn’t get the plaster cast on, so there are a number of times when Lister should have a plaster cast on his leg but doesn’t.)

Back to Reality (series V)
The finale of series V sees the crew investigating the wreckage of an ocean seeding ship. They get attacked by the despair squid – a creature that emits a hallucinogenic venom that leads them all into a terrifying mass hallucination. They believe that Red Dwarf has been a total-immersion video game they’ve been playing all along; that the ineffably stylish Cat is actually a buck-toothed loser in a nylon shirt, that Kryten is a loose-moralled half-human traffic cop, that Lister is a mass-murdering official in a totalitarian state, and Rimmer is just a hopeless nobody with no-one to blame but himself. They all come very close to committing suicide. It’s very cleverly done, and the switch between the hallucination sequence and seeing what’s actually happening – i.e. the crew running around Starbug pretending they’re in a car chase and whatnot – is hilarious.
(In ‘Back to Earth’ we’re led to believe that Cat smuggled another despair squid back onto Starbug with the intention of eating it later, although that’s such bollocks that it doesn’t really bear thinking about.)

Legion (series VI)
An all-time classic, for the scene with the anti-matter chopsticks alone.
Starbug is pulled by a tractor beam into an apparently deserted space station; once aboard, they’re greeted by Legion, an almost unbelievably benevolent host who provides every possible fulfilment of fantasy that they could wish for.
However, it becomes apparent that Legion is a gestalt entity – he’s an amalgamation of their four collective psyches, and can only exist as long as they’re there. As such, he’s murderously keen that they should stay there for the rest of their lives, which obviously makes it rather tricky for them to escape…

Me² (series I)
The last episode of the first series, this follows on from the cliffhanger of the previous episode in which Rimmer’s found a way for Red Dwarf to generate two holograms… so has chosen to bring into being a second Rimmer. He thinks it’ll be brilliant. It isn’t. They end up hating each other, there’s a massive power struggle, and Lister exploits the tension to weasel out from the original dead Rimmer the truth about his final moments, and why his last words were ‘gazpacho soup’.

Justice (series IV)
Red Dwarf picks up an escape pod from a prison ship; it claims to contain one of the crew, Barbara Bellini, although it’s equally likely to contain one of the inmates – a psychotic simulant. So, to be on the safe side, they take the pod to a high-tech prison complex in order to contain it.
However, they don’t realise that entering the complex involves a mind-probe, which evaluates the individual’s past for crimes which have gone unpunished – and, detecting Rimmer’s personal sense of guilt about the deaths of the entire Red Dwarf crew, it sentences him to 9,328 years in prison. So they have to come up with a pretty cunning way to get him out.
(Interestingly, in the series VI episode ‘Rimmerworld’, he actually does end up serving 557 years in another prison, having fallen through a wormhole. But that’s another story.)

Gunmen of the Apocalypse (series VI)
No Red Dwarf list would be complete without this episode, it’s the one that won all the awards.
Rogue simulants infect Starbug’s computer with the Armageddon virus – the only way to combat it is for Kryten to plug himself into the computer and attempt to create a ‘dove program’ to wipe it out and save everyone.
Kryten’s struggle manifests itself as a dream in which he’s an alcoholic sheriff in the wild west – a dream that Lister, Cat and Rimmer can observe over the monitors. They splice a role-playing video game into the mix in order to enter his dream as game characters, to help him fight the virus.
(Nerdy fact: Janet Street-Porter was head of Art & Culture at the BBC at the time, and when she saw the script she sent out a memo demanding that filming be stopped, as it would be too complicated and time-consuming to make. Although by the time the memo got to the Red Dwarf production crew, they’d already finished it…)

Actually, ignore all of the above descriptions and just watch the ten episodes, you’ll like them.
In fact, no, sod it – watch the first six series in their entirety. You won’t regret it.

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