Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Written by Doug Naylor (all), Paul Alexander (2, 7, 8), Kim Fuller (5), Robert Llewellyn (6) and James Hendrie (8). Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.
Regulars: Having enjoyed the brisk studio days on BBC1 sitcom The Brittas Empire, Chris Barrie had tired of the stop-start process of making Red Dwarf. He wanted to quit but agreed to appear in two full episodes, and record cameos for two more, so Rimmer could be written out properly. His replacement in the line-up is Kristine Kochanski. It’s not actually the same woman we saw sporadically in series one and two, though. This Kochanski is from an alternative reality. She also looks different: the not-good-enough Clare Grogan has been dropped, and Chloë Annett cast in her place. Kochanski was added, in part, to prepare the ground for a Red Dwarf movie. Funding would be easier to get if the show had a female regular.
Episode 1: Tikka to Ride (17 January 1997): Because he’s run out of curry supplies, Lister convinces everyone they should travel into Earth’s past to get more. The gang end up in Dallas on 22 November 1963… The Dallas scenes are really something. Clearly a lot of research, thought, effort and talent has gone into restaging John F Kennedy’s assassination. Given the budget and the fact it was shot on an airfield in Surrey, the scene is a remarkable match to real events. Also, the script is peppered with both genuine and fictional history, all nicely thought-out. But the comedy is more silly than actually funny.
Observations: The cliffhanger from the end of series six is dealt with in the first scene by a bit of comedy exposition from Lister (we also get a clip from Out of Time). Lister says he’s 28 years old. No one explains how the time machine from series six now moves people through space too. (Or why the characters don’t use it to escape the drudgery of being stranded on Starbug.) Michael J Shannon plays JFK with a spot-on Massachusetts accent.
Best gag: Kryten’s enormous double take when he realises they’re in the Dallas Book Depository.
Episode 2: Stoke Me a Clipper (24 January 1997): The show goes back to its popular-old-character well again: Ace Rimmer shows up and asks our Rimmer to take over from him as an inter-dimensional superhero… The episode is built on some really naff ideas. Firstly, the notion that Ace Rimmer is someone who needs replacing. It’s reminiscent of what’s happened in modern Doctor Who: a character becoming mythic within the fiction just because he’s popular with audiences. Secondly, the writing has some juddering gear changes with big, ugly grinding noises when it tries to convince you that our Rimmer would even consider doing the job.
Observations: There’s a corny pre-titles sequence of Ace fighting some Nazis (one of whom is played by Reg Holdsworth). It contains some *appalling* green-screen shots and an awful rubber crocodile. Later, Lister and Kryten enter a medieval VR simulation so Lister can have a shag. The game’s king and queen are played by Brian Cox and Sarah Alexander. It’s 10 minutes into the episode before we see either the Cat or Rimmer (though we have seen Chris Barrie, of course). This episode’s Ace isn’t actually the same Ace we saw in series four; that one died and another Rimmer from a different reality took over. When our Rimmer is thought dead, his eulogy consists of numerous callbacks to old episodes. On a literal level, this is the last time we ever see the hologram Rimmer who was activated in episode one and lived through the show’s first 38 episodes.
Best gag: Because Chris Barrie’s got funny bones, Rimmer’s attempt to impersonate Ace are enjoyable.
Episode 3: Ouroboros (31 January 1997): Starbug flies into a spatial disturbance and the crew meet their equivalents from another dimension. In that reality, Lister’s one-time girlfriend Kristine Kochanski has survived… Chloë Annett is instantly impressive as Kochanski – especially when the façade drops and we learn she’s just as messed-up as the other characters – while Kryten’s jealousy of her is really funny. This is a generally funny episode, in fact. The central gag (the word ourboros being mistaken for ‘our Rob or Ross’) doesn’t really work. But there are some good comedy moments, such as the state of Lister (broken tooth, shaving foam in his ears, pink dressing gown) when he meets Kochanski.
Observations: We find out the details of Lister’s backstory. He was abandoned in a Liverpool pub, the Aigburth Arms, on 26 November 2155. So he’s now a *22nd*-century guy – that’s the third different century he’s been said to be from. Well, he was actually born three million years later then taken to 2155 via time travel. Turns out, he’s his own father and Kochanski, his ex-girlfriend, is his mum. The baby Lister is played by Danny John-Jules’s nephew Alexander. The Starbug crew from the other reality include a hologramatic Lister and a gold-plated Kryten. We see a flashback to Red Dwarf before the accident – it reinforces Kochanski’s backstory (or the current version of it, at any rate), Lister is dressed in a series-one-style Hawaiian shirt, and it also features Rimmer.
Best gag: Kochanski has fallen through a tear in the dimension bridge (or whatever it is), so Lister fires an arrow at her that has a rope attached. It hits her painfully in the leg and she calls Lister’s walkie-talkie. Kryten answers it, listens for a moment, then says, “It’s an obscene phone call, sir.”
Episode 4: Duct Soup (7 February 1997): A power failure seals all the doors on Starbug, so the team have to spend the night crawling through the ship’s innards to get to the cockpit… Right from the word go this feels different – it’s character comedy and, production values aside, feels like a story from series one or two. Again, Kochanski’s very funny: amazingly, the show isn’t missing Rimmer (this is the first ever episode without him). And considering how much of the story takes place in cramped, samey tunnels it’s very well staged. Really good stuff.
Observations: There’s no title sequence (it was dropped for time reasons: better that than cutting meat out of the episode). Not since Queeg in series two has there been an episode where the crew neither go somewhere nor bump into someone. Kochanski specifies that she’s from Glasgow – a nod to the original actress, I suppose, even if Annett uses her own English accent.
Best gag: Kryten sees an insomniac Kochanski wrapped in a white blanket and wearing earmuffs. “Oh, my goodness,” he says to himself. “It’s Princess Leia.”
Episode 5: Blue (14 February 1997): While the crew attempt to get Kochanski back to her own dimension, Lister starts to realise that he’s missing Rimmer… It’s a smart move to have Lister yearn for Rimmer’s company. After all, the latter was created specifically to keep the former sane. A very enjoyable episode.
Observations: Rimmer appears in flashbacks, a dream sequence and a virtual-reality fantasy created by Kryten. This is the second episode running to feature no ‘outside influences’.
Best gag: Rimmer returns to visit Lister, talk of his adventures as Ace and ask about Kochanski. Overcome with emotion, Rimmer and Lister embrace… then kiss! (It’s a dream, of course. Lister wakes up screaming.)
Episode 6: Beyond a Joke (21 February 1997): Kryten’s head explodes when he gets angry, so the others try to track down a replacement and end up finding Kryten’s sorta-brother… Entire minutes pass without a single laugh. I’m not sure Red Dwarf has ever been more boring than this.
Observations: The episode was co-written by Kryten actor Robert Llewellyn. The gang play a Jane Austen virtual-reality game, which Kryten invades with a tank because he’s upset. The frequency of VR simulations in this show is getting tiresome now. Don Henderson plays an android trader. Llewellyn also plays Able, the Kryten-like character the team find.
Best gag: When asked what his name is, the senile Able has to send the request down to long-term-memory retrieval.
Episode 7: Epideme (28 February 1997): The crew board a derelict space ship and find a frozen woman, who wakes up, bites Lister and infects him with a strange virus… A boring and largely unfunny episode.
Observations: Gary Martin voices the intelligent virus. This is the start of a two-part finale.
Best gag: The gross-out comedy of Kryten hacking bits of Lister’s arm off in sloppy, squelching chunks.
Episode 8: Nanarchy (7 March 1997): On the search for Kryten’s missing nanobots – infinitesimally small robots that fix mechanical faults – the gang find a planetoid that was constructed from Red Dwarf… An underwhelming end to a mixed batch of episodes.
Observations: It starts with a ‘Last week on Red Dwarf…’ montage. The team return to the planetoid from series five’s Back to Reality. When Red Dwarf is found again, the characters also locate Holly – now played, for the first time since 1988, by Norman Lovett. (Why the character is no longer Hattie Hayridge is not mentioned.) At the end of the episode, Red Dwarf is rebuilt and we get a blast of the old-style theme tune.
Best gag: The early scenes of Lister trying to come to terms with only having one arm are amusing.
Best episode: Duct Soup. Worst episode: Beyond a Joke.
Alternative versions: Tikka to Ride is available on the DVD in four different edits: the broadcast version, an ‘Xtended’ cut with a few deleted gags and scenes added back in, and both of these with new CGI special effects. The new effects are appreciably better than the 1997 shots, but still not a patch on earlier series’ model work. The 37-minute Xtended version, meanwhile, has had its laughter track removed – an instant improvement. The biggest addition is a new ending set three weeks later, which explains what really happened to the ship’s curry supplies. Ouroboros and Duct Soup also have Xtended edits with jokes added and the laugh track removed. Duct Soup is a real treat, actually. Perhaps it’s our best indicator of how a Red Dwarf movie would have felt.
Review: Blimey, more changes. This show rarely stands still, you’ve got to admire that. For example, the episodes are now shot single-camera with no studio audience. This technique was the coming thing for British sitcoms in the late 90s, and in some ways Red Dwarf VII was the vanguard for The Royle Family, The Office and the like. However, not only has laughter been inelegantly dubbed on – at times actually masking lines of dialogue – but the comedy is still being written, played and edited as if there were an audience. It means stilted moments and forced timings. (It’s not far off Red Dwarf does Last of the Summer Wine.) The episodes have also been filmised, which only adds to the sensation of the comedy being at a remove somehow. Elsewhere, the most noticeable changes are in the cast. Rimmer jumps ship after two episodes; Kochanski joins the team in the next story. It works much better than you would have thought beforehand. As routinely funny as Rimmer has been for six series, giving him a break was probably a necessary evil, while Kochanski creates a whole new dynamic. Other changes include… Deep breath, now… New writers (co-creator Rob Grant had left after an obscure parting of the ways with Doug Naylor)… The return of Ed Bye as director after two series off… An increase in the number of episodes (the plan was to reach 52 so the show could be sold overseas as a package; this run gets it to 44)… New cartoony CGI for special-effects shots (though model are used at times)… The incidental music being much bigger than before (it sweeps and bombasts like a film score)… And a regrettable OTT change in Robert Llewellyn’s performance (once the calm voice of reason, Kryten is now like a CBBC character). After a very mixed opening, the series hits its stride with episodes three to five – all good, well written and funny – but then falls off a cliff with a trio of episodes that are duller and more lumpen than anything we’ve seen before.
Six nureeks out of 10