Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Written by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor. Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.
Regulars: Lister, Rimmer and the Cat are still in place, though they’ve each had a makeover. Rimmer’s new costumes are very Captain Scarlet-y, for example, while Lister’s developed a love of leather jackets. (The newly hired costume designer was Howard Burden, who worked on Doctor Who between 2012 and 2014.) Elsewhere, Holly has been recast. Norman Lovett was bored of commuting from his home in Edinburgh to rehearsals in London and studio days in Manchester. So replacing him is Hattie Hayridge, who’d played the female Holly in series two. The change of gender is explained during the comically fast-scrolling on-screen text at the start of episode one. Also explained in that copy is the fact that Kryten, a guest character in series two, has joined the regular team. Original actor David Ross wasn’t available, so Robert Llewellyn is now under the mask. He uses a strange, kinda-Canadian accent for some reason, but he’s very funny when given stuff to play.
Episode 1: Backwards (14 November 1989): A terrific start. Rimmer and Kryten fly their shuttle through a ‘time hole’ and end up on a version of Earth where time is running in reverse… Great comedy is mined from footage being played backwards (or actors pretending it is). A woman regurgitates an éclair, people ride a tandem the wrong way, a big bar brawl sees tables ‘unsmashed’ and Lister thrown through a broken window that then reassembles… In truth, a lot of these jokes don’t stand up to logical scrutiny. But it’s all very entertaining.
Observations: The Star Wars-spoofing caption at the beginning tells us that the twin boys Lister was pregnant with at the end of series two have been returned to their original universe. The gang’s new type of shuttle – the green, globular Starbug – makes its debut. This episode features the first Red Dwarf scenes set on a recognisable and real Earth. Writer Rob Grant cameos as a man smoking a cigarette. Tony Hawks has another Red Dwarf role: he’s the compère at the pub in the backwards world.
Best gag: Just before the team leave the backwards Earth, the Cat nips into the bushes…
Episode 2: Marooned (21 November 1989): Red Dwarf is approaching five black holes, so the gang evacuate while Holly flies the ship through the cluster. Lister and Rimmer crash-land on a planet and are stranded without food or heat… Scintillating comedy. Stunning. It’s largely a two-handed playlet based on the twisted friendship of Lister and Rimmer. (The Cat, Kryten and Holly are absent for a 22-minute stretch of this 29-minute episode.)
Observations: Almost everything is set inside Starbug. There are no scenes set on Red Dwarf itself: a first. We also see Blue Midget. Why the gang don’t evacuate in the same shuttle is not addressed.
Best gag: *All of it.* Lister and Rimmer’s bewilderingly entertaining duologue covers Alexander the Great, the meaning of the word mayday, a tube of Bonjela gum ointment, dog food, Harold Pinter, William Shakespeare, virginity, a skateboard, the day Cliff Richard was shot, a Javanese camphor-wood trunk, a Bentley V8 convertible, the ninth hole of Bootle municipal golf course, page 61 of Lolita, Napoleon’s Armée du Nord, an authentic Les Paul copy guitar, She’s Out of My Life and the Last Post. Amazing stuff. Really well played and thoroughly hilarious.
Episode 3: Polymorph (28 November 1989): A genetically modified creature that can drain people of emotions boards the ship… Uproariously funny. There’s a great comedy prologue about Lister using medical supplies while cooking, then the plot kicks in and the episode freewheels along with joy and huge confidence.
Observations: At the start, a gravely voiced narrator warns viewers of scary content. The whole thing is a pastiche of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Since series two, Lister and Rimmer have moved into posh officers’ quarters (well, you would, wouldn’t you?). At one point, Rimmer watches an old home movie, in which we see him as a child (played by Simon Gafney), his three brothers and his mum. The polymorph later takes the form of his mother (played by Kalli Greenwood). Frances Barber cameos when the polymorph poses as a sexy woman to entice the Cat into flirting. Kryten cites a Space Corps directive: not the last time we’ll hear a variation on that joke. He also uses a psi-scan for the first time: it’s a spoof of Star Trek’s tricorder device, and will become a regular source of exposition.
Best gag: There are three *enormous* contenders. The scene of the polymorph taking the form of Lister’s underpants, which he then puts on, is puerile visual comedy of the first rank. The boxers start to constrict, causing Lister agony. So Kryten – wearing a vacuum cleaner attachment on his groin – kneels between Lister’s legs and tries to yank the pants off. Rimmer walks in on them. “Well, I can’t say I’m totally shocked,” he says once the studio audience have stopped hyperventilating. “You’ll bonk anything, won’t you, Lister?!” Just as hilarious is the polymorph pretending to be Rimmer’s mum. It claims to have slept with Lister and goads Rimmer with descriptions of the act: “I honestly thought my false teeth were going to fall out…” Finally, Rimmer as a pacifist hipster after he’s lost all his anger is spectacularly funny.
Episode 4: Body Swap (5 December 1989): Rimmer convinces Lister to trade bodies with him for a time, ostensibly so he can get him fit… Giving Craig Charles and Chris Barrie the chance to play the other’s character is a fun idea. But sadly the practicalities muddy the humour somewhat. The proper actor still voices the character (Barrie dubs dialogue over Charles playing Rimmer, for example), which can be very distracting. You sense the actors having to awkwardly match their words to unfamiliar mouth movements, and it surely means that the audience laughter we hear is not genuine.
Observations: Starbug is featured again. As is another shuttle – it’s referred to as White Midget in dialogue, but the shot of it is of Blue Midget from series two. Rimmer also takes over the Cat’s body in the last scene, so Barrie and Danny John-Jules trade roles.
Best gag: Rimmer, in Lister’s body, pretends that he’s lost his arm in an accident. Lister is aghast. Rimmer: “It’s worse than that. I’ve lost your watch too.”
Episode 5: Timeslides (12 December 1989): Kryten discovers a mutated developing fluid, which prints photographs that allow you to travel in time… The plot makes very little sense, but never mind. Tremendous fun.
Observations: One of the photographs is from the wedding of Rimmer’s brother Frank (played by Chris Barrie). Comedian Mark Steel has a silent cameo as a skier. At one point Kryten suggests they go to Dallas in 1963, stand on the grassy knoll and shout, “Duck!” (a whole episode will be based on this joke in series seven). We meet Lister aged 17 (played by Craig Charles’s brother Emile). Ruby Wax (the wife of director Ed Bye) cameos as a TV reporter. Koo Stark plays Lady Sabrina Mulholland-Jjones, an attractive woman Lister marries in an alternative timeline. Simon Gafney plays a young Rimmer for the second time. It’s taken 17 episodes of Red Dwarf for scenes set on the actual, real, proper planet Earth… unless you count the backwards version from earlier in this series or the home-movie footage Rimmer watched in Polymorph. At the end of the story, thanks to timey-wimey nonsense, Rimmer is fully human again. But he soon accidentally kills himself.
Best gag: Rimmer, realising he’s now alive: “Kryten! Unpack Rachel and get out the puncture-repair kit!”
Episode 6: The Last Day (19 December 1989): A message reaches Red Dwarf that Kryten is at the end of his working life. A replacement is on its way to deactivate him… It’s a good idea to focus on Kryten, who’s settled into the team very nicely, but this is a relatively underwhelming episode.
Observations: Robert Llewellyn also plays a rep from the company that built Kryten. Gordon Kennedy plays Hudson 10, the replacement android. Lister reveals that he was abandoned as a baby in a pub – we’ll see that happen, and learn more of the context, in series seven.
Best gag: Kryten is told there’s no such place as Silicon Heaven. “Then where do all the calculators go?” (Hudson 10 repeats the same joke later on.)
Best episode: You’re a better man than me if you can separate Marooned and Polymorph. Worst episode: The Last Day.
Alternative version: The episodes were ‘remastered’ a few years later. Avoid at all costs. Much more fun is ‘Backwards Forwards’ – a DVD special feature that allows you to watch the episode Backwards playing in reverse. Among a number of treats, you can see what Arthur Smith is actually saying in his rant at Rimmer and Kryten. He’s ridiculing viewers who have bothered to watch the footage in the right order.
Review: This feels very different from the first 12 episodes. For example, giving Kryten stuff to do and involving the Cat a bit more means a more democratic approach to the storytelling. It’s not so much the Lister-and-Rimmer show now, reportedly a deliberate move because of a behind-the-scenes feud. (Having said that, episode two is basically one long scene between the pair.) There are other major changes too. A new high-tempo title sequence is made up of clips from the series and is scored by a rock-guitar instrumental version of the closing song. Sets, costumes and visual effects are all on a much higher level of professionalism. Everything’s more artfully lit, more polished and generally classier. Series two had been consistently funny and entertaining. This is even better.
Ten pistons in an ocean liner’s engine room out of 10