Red Dwarf: revisiting the third series

Before its twelfth series lands on Dave in October, I’m rewatching all of Red Dwarf from the beginning. This week it’s time to give quiche a chance and ponder where all the calculators go in Red Dwarf III.

If the transition from Red Dwarf II to III happened today, it would probably get called a reboot. The long-running sitcom’s third outing (1989) boasts swanky new sets and costumes, most noticeably with Rimmer swapping his grey uniform for a shiny green suit. Replacing the rather sombre opening sequence of the first two series is a fast-paced montage of clips, accompanied by an electric guitar theme, plus Robert Llewellyn has joined the cast as Kryten and Hattie Hayridge is the new Holly. This series clearly has more budget behind it, and as a result, includes more ambitious sci-fi storylines than before.

Backwards and Marooned

In series three’s opener, Rimmer and Kryten drive Starbug (making its very first appearance) through a ‘time hole’ and get stuck on a version of Earth where everything happens in reverse. Unfortunately most of the episode is a bit one-note and the sight of people doing things backwards, like eating and drinking, isn’t really as hysterical as the writers clearly thought it would be. Highlights come towards the end though, when the crew have a backwards bar fight and there’s an amusing conversation about the mechanics of a world in which Santa steals children’s presents and muggers force money into people’s wallets at knifepoint. Kryten explains: “War is a wonderful thing here. In fifty years time, the second world war will start, backwards… Millions of people will come to life, Hitler will retreat across Europe, liberate France and Poland, disband the Third Reich and bog off back to Austria!” This episode also gives us our first gags about the shape of Kryten’s head (“Tell them you took your car to the crushers and forgot to get out”) which would become a staple of later series.

Although I mentioned that Red Dwarf III is more high-concept than its predecessors, ‘Marooned’ harks back to the first two series as Lister and Rimmer find themselves stranded on an ice planet with only each other for company. It’s an extremely well-written, character-driven episode, which in my opinion is the best of this series and one of the best of Red Dwarf altogether. Classic moments abound, from Lister saying he would rather eat dog food than a pot noodle (and later begrudgingly eating said dog food) to Rimmer’s “In a past incarnation, I was Alexander the Great’s chief eunuch” and “You lost your virginity when you were twelve?… You can’t have been a full member of the golf club then”. Things come to a head when Lister burns part of Rimmer’s valuable camphorwood chest for warmth, but convinces him that he has burnt his own guitar instead, and the subsequent speech Rimmer gives about Lister being “a man of honour” who has made a “supreme sacrifice” never fails to have me laughing and cringing in equal measure.

Polymorph and Bodyswap

‘Polymorph’, in which an alien creature infiltrates the ship and steals emotions from the crew, is one of Red Dwarf III’s most memorable episodes, especially thanks to the monster’s reappearance in series six. It’s certainly a lot of fun seeing Lister without fear, Kryten without guilt, Cat without vanity and Rimmer without anger, and a standout scene is the strategy meeting where Lister suggests strapping a nuclear warhead to himself while a hippie-dippie Rimmer wants to “hit it hard and hit it fast with a major, and I mean major, leaflet campaign”. This episode also has a particularly strong opening, before the Polymorph has even come into play, as we’re introduced to Kryten’s multi-purpose groinal socket and Lister prepares a meal using medical equipment, including salad in kidney bowls and chilli sauce in colostomy bags. Cat is unimpressed, commenting “This isn’t a meal, it’s an autopsy!”

Like ‘Backwards’, ‘Bodyswap’ has a rather gimmicky premise that’s reliant on a special effect. After learning about the existence of mind swaps, which involves inserting someone’s mind into someone else’s body, Rimmer persuades Lister to do this temporarily with him on the false promise that he will get Lister in shape. This episode starts well, with some tension as the crew think the ship is about to self-destruct and a good gag about Lister’s mind being stored on a tiny cassette, which cat proceeds to drop in his cup of tea. However once the mind swap kicks in, the interesting concept fails to translate into a great episode. The idea of Lister and Rimmer having each other’s voices and mannerisms is a novel one, but the dubbing makes the dialogue feel a little stilted and the episode does less to develop the characters than you would expect. Instead of letting the duo learn what it’s really like to be in each other’s shoes, we just get a lot of jokes about Rimmer stuffing his face and Lister telling him off for it.

Timeslides and The Last Day

Red Dwarf III has some enjoyable Lister-and-Cat scenes, such as the Flinstones conversation in ‘Backwards’ and the previously mentioned meal/autopsy in ‘Polymorph’, and ‘Timeslides’ adds another one as the pair go through their “ingenious ways of wasting time” including a game in which they’re “on unicycles, belting a beach ball up and down the corridor with French loaves.” In this installment, Lister is particularly sick of life on board Red Dwarf and manages to travel back in time through a photograph and meet his younger self. He convinces young Lister to invent the ‘tension sheet’ which makes him rich and means he never worked on Red Dwarf, so Rimmer goes back in time to change things and bring Lister back. If you think this sounds a bit complicated, you’re right… and the more you think about it, the less it actually makes sense. If Lister managed to change the course of time, why is everything on Red Dwarf exactly the same apart from him, Cat and Kryten not being there? Why does Rimmer remember him and why does Rimmer even exist at all for that matter? All of this aside, Rimmer’s efforts to retrieve Lister do provide some good laughs (“It’s my duty as a complete and utter bastard”) and the sequence where Lister enters a photograph of Hitler is pretty funny.

‘Red Dwarf III concludes with ‘The Last Day’, in which the crew are notified that Kryten has reached the end of his life and must dismantle himself within 24 hours. What’s more, a replacement droid is on its way, with instructions to shut Kryten down if he hasn’t done it himself. Like ‘Marooned’, this final episode is more character-driven than about big adventures and sees the crew try to come to terms with Kryten leaving them, throw him a farewell party and ultimately decide that they’re not going to let him die. There’s some nice religious satire, with Kryten explaining the concept of silicon heaven while dismissing human heaven as “something someone made up to stop you all going nuts”, plus the party and its aftermath, where Lister wonders where he managed to get a traffic cone in deep space, are a lot of fun. ‘The Last Day’ provides a satisfying ending to the series, bringing the crew closer together and cementing Kryten as a permanent part of it.

Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back soon with a look at series four….