Hasslein Blog: Revisiting Red Dwarf, Part Two: There's No Kind of Atmosphere (Series II-IV)


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Revisiting Red Dwarf, Part Two: There's No Kind of Atmosphere (Series II-IV)

Guest blogger Joe Bongiorno continues his re-watch of all ten seasons of Red Dwarf. (View part one here.) Here's his smeggin' review...

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By Joseph Bongiorno

Right off the bat, Season 2 looks better, and it pretty much continues where it needs to with wonderful episodes like "Better than Life," which is a kind of predecessor for what's to come in terms of Rimmer's dysfunction and neuroses. There's a book written by the Naylor and Grant that extends the events of this episode, which I haven't yet read, but am looking forward to.

The only dwarf as enjoyable as Tyrion Lannister.

"Thanks for the Memory" is also brilliant, and up there with "Polymorph" for one of the best episodes of the first three seasons. I love the whole set-up to it, including the beginning where they're all drunk on the planet and rocking out; then it turns into a mystery—and mysteries, when not done right, can be disappointing. But Naylor and Grant prove what great writers they are because the reveal at the episode's end is fantastic and doesn't let anyone down.

"Queeg" is also great, but in a different way. It's the first of several "fake-out" episodes (where what you think is happening isn't actually happening the way you think), and very well done. It's essentially a Holly episode and a great one at that. Norman, who I'll call Holly I to help distinguish from Hattie Hayridge's Holly, is at his best here, and I like the overriding lesson here about not taking the people in your life for granted.

"Kryten" is a fun romp, setting into motion one of the four main crew-members. We'll talk more about Kryten when Robert Llewellyn takes over the role in Series III.

"Listen, girls. I don't know whether this is the time or the place to
say this, but my mate Ace here is incredibly, incredibly brave."

"Stasis Leak" is decent, but easily the weakest episode of the season. In many regards this is a first season type of episode, and in large part fails because Kochanski is just totally uninteresting, and you wonder what it is that Lister sees in her. It isn't until Season 7 that she actually becomes a three-dimensional character and is played by a real actress. Others will disagree and prefer the working class Kochanski, but I think a lot of that has to do with the strong British feelings about class differences, what I call reverse prejudice, and working class viewers seeing Lister as one of them and not wanting him to go over to the hated posh side. I'm also not saying that that portrayal couldn't work. I personally feel it does, and I'll discuss why later, but they never did find a working class version of Kochanski that worked in anything but a brief cameo.

"Parallel Universe" is on the surface a funny and cute episode as the Dwarfers encounter their feminine versions of themselves, but there's an underlying feminist message, as Rimmer learn a bit about what women have to go through in a patriarchal system in which unwanted and obnoxious sexual advances are the normative cultural mode. This is really the first time we're seeing social commentary in the show, which is a nice touch and again underscores that Naylor and Grant aren't just going silly comedy, even if that's on the surface. And speaking of feminine presences, we also get to meet Hilly, the parallel universe version of Holly. The actress will take over the role of Holly from Norman, who proved too cantankerous to work with, in the next season. This is the first episode to leave us on a cliff-hanger, telegraphing the space-opera elements that will come into play alongside the self-contained episodic stories.

"Hi, Hil."
"Hey, Hol."

Season 3: What makes this season a step up from the prior two is the fact that they can get off of Red Dwarf (via Blue Midget) and the proper introduction of Kryten (not counting his season 2 introduction which had been played by a different actor), whose such a necessary component to the dynamics of the group. In large part, he works because he's a very loveable kind of character. He's also an iconic British personality, the servant who truly loves his master and his work. He is, obviously, anachronistic in the modern world, but for many years in the British Empire the servant was a staple of wealthy households, and this is probably best understood to American and British audiences through television shows. What's even more amusing about the character is Lister's attempts to break him from his programming and become more human; we've seen this more human than human kind of robot in Star Wars and other genre fiction, so Kryten's ambivalent attempts to do this via lying and disobeying Rimmer's incessant orders are pricelessly funny.

We also get the new Holly, what I call Holly II, played by Hattie Hayridge. I prefer her to Norman, and there are plenty of fan debates as to which Holly each person prefers. Norman played the role as senile; Hattie goes for a kind of airhead. So, they're different, and they each work in their own way. I just like Hattie's energy and vibe, and I think having a female presence onboard added a nice touch.

"Backwards" very quickly wraps up what happened at the end of the last series with a parody of the Star Wars intro crawl, which works much better on DVD since you can slow it down and actually read it! It's good to have; nobody wants to be distracted in the next season by unanswered questions from the end of the last. As to the episode in question, finally the crew are outdoors, which is a nice change of pace, and they do pretty well with a very small budget. It's not my favorite episode, a little too silly for my tastes, but it's harmless and fun.

"Bodyswap" is far better for my money because it develops the characters based on the old adage of greener grass. Rimmer, whose bodiless, longs for the joys that having a physical form offers; yet Lister, who has a body, is depressed and letting that body go. The switch allows both to recognize that the grass isn't greener on the other side, and that both could be better people in their own forms than they currently are.

"Marooned" also makes good use of a low budget and further develops the Lister and Rimmer characters, and smartly, by not demonizing Rimmer, whose the usual butt of jokes. Here, he ends up the more noble of the two, a nice shift and change of pace. More significantly, this episode puts a priority on dialogue, and there are lengthy stretches of real conversation that aren't just the fodder of jokes. In many ways, this episode foreshadows the more drama-based episodes we're going to see in Series 7.

"Timeslides" is excellent and another of those high-concept shows that they manage to pull off because it's clever and funny. We also get to see Rimmer as a child, which is basically the writers saying "Look, we know this guy is an annoying prick, but let's go back in time and see why that might be." What's interesting the foreshadow of Series 8 in that Rimmer actually finds a way to change time so that he's not a hologram. But the character isn't quite ready for that, and he dies again, making him a hologram yet again.

"Hey come on, come on, what about the Om Song?"

"Polymorph" is one of the top 10 Red Dwarf episodes, from Lister and Kryten humping to the reveal of the creature and the way he sucks their minds, to the effects of its brain-drain upon each of them. Just an amazing and wildly creative episode.

"The Last Day" is another Kryten episode, but it's actual an ensemble piece because it's really about the friendship that's developed between the four of them; so there's a kind of sweetness to the crew's celebration of Kryten's last day, as well as their determination to keep him alive (well, at least Lister's as Rimmer and Cat are still in full self-preservation mode).

Season 4: This season is a big jump up in production value, and nearly every episode is a high-concept episode, and now they pull it off.

"Camille" is great, and very much a Kryten episode which comes at the right time. What makes this episode is Kryten's compassion for Camille, who, even after she comes clean to him that she's really a blob, he refuses to let her down or hurt her feelings, even to the hysterical point of dancing and dining with her! And Cat's meeting his perfect mate is one of the funniest moments of the show.

"DNA" is great, very sci-fi, but ending with the hysterical tiny Lister battling the evil Vindaloo Monster. Fun stuff!

"Justice" is fantastic, and another Rimmer psychological exploration that by virtue of mocking who he is, furthers his advancement into who he'll become. By this point, it's clear that his character is developing along a proper arc. This is true for Lister as well, but as Rimmer is the more extreme of the two, it's him that gets to go first, so to speak. Here, he's still in denial about who he is, and just how bad he is. That's going to change, though. Also, Kryten's newfound ability to say things that are unpleasant (which Lister taught him) serves to save Rimmer's life.

"White Hole" is fun, but essentially a cost-saving episode, which is not to dismiss it, but when compared to the others in this season, is the weakest episode (which just goes to show how good all these episodes are).

"Dimension Jump": The introduction of the pivotal and unforgettable Ace Rimmer, which serves to demonstrate actor Chris Barrie's dimensions (pun intended) as an actor, and such a funny episode that brings us outside the confines of the ship and the world they inhabit. Though we don't know it at the time, this episode is an instrumental part of the larger Rimmer arc.

What a guy!

"Meltdown": My favorite episode of the season, up there with "Dimension Jump," and a kind of homage to Westworld. Great impersonators, really funny, and surprisingly dark, which apparently didn't go down as well in the UK (which is bizarre because it's the closest thing we've seen to Monty Python in Red Dwarf). The episode is dark, but there is a point to it. We first saw social commentary in Series II's "Parallel Universe," but here it's much stronger. A mentally sick version of Rimmer is used to basically rant against the warmongers of the world and to underscore the stupidity and evil of the wars they start. Lister's speech at the end is priceless, and again brings home the point that Red Dwarf is doing more than cracking jokes. And maybe that's what some fans didn't like about it. I'll go on the record now having seen every episode of the show that it doesn't always work for the writers; you have to know what you're talking about to do these kinds of episodes. But here, Naylor and Grant are in top form, and the presence of the Gulf War made this relevant then, and the unbelievable fact that we're still at war makes this even more relevant now. Shame the politicians aren't Red Dwarf fans and that the masses never seem to learn. Definitely in my top 10!

Read Part 3 here.

A New York native, Joe Bongiorno began his writing career as a journalist and medical editor, and soon began contributing stories to Star Wars Gamer magazine and Hyperspace.  After creating the Star Wars Expanded Universe Timeline, Joe turned his fascination to Baum’s Land of Oz, and he created The Royal Timeline of Oz website, a comprehensive chronology of all the Oz and Oz-related stories written since 1899, the X-Files Chronology and A Chronology of Middle-Earth.  

For several years he served as reviews editor for The Baum Bugle before turning his attention to a different kind of Oz, the upcoming eight-part series Black Sabbath: The Illustrated Lyrics.  Joe returned to Baum’s Oz again, creating a publishing company called The Royal Publisher of Oz, which has released several new books, including Paul Dana’s The Law of Oz and Other Stories and The Magic Umbrella of Oz, Karyl Carlson and Eric Gjovaag’s Queen Ann in Oz, and Sam Sackett’s Adolf Hitler in Oz.  

Joe has recently contributed essays for Sequart Books and is currently at work on stories for the official Star Wars blog.  He lives on Long Island where he collects fantasy books from the 19th and 20th centuries, serves as an animal, environmental and human-rights activist, and caters to a demanding pack of two dogs and five cats.

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