Red Dwarf: revisiting the fifth series

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To prepare for its twelfth series landing on Dave this month, I’m rewatching all of Red Dwarf from the beginning. This week it’s time to take some luck virus and avoid making Mr Flibble cross in Red Dwarf V.

In comparison to the previous series, Red Dwarf V is noticeably darker in tone. Many of the episodes follow paths that put the crew in mortal danger and/or explore the depths of their psyches. It’s also visually darker, with more action taking place on Starbug and on other ships and planets than ever before. At the height of my obsession with Red Dwarf, this was certainly my most watched series, and it contains an episode that is often cited as the show’s all time best.

Holoship and The Inquisitor

The series opens with a Rimmer-focused episode, which sees him apply to join the elite crew of a holoship and fall in love along the way. The object of his affection is Nirvanah Crane, played by Jane Horrocks, who gets to deliver some memorable dialogue about how families and relationships are “outmoded concepts” on board the holoship and that it’s considered “the height of bad manners to refuse an offer of sexual coupling”. Rimmer goes on a bit of an emotional journey, from his excitement at the prospect of joining the holoship and determination to cheat his way in, to despair when he thinks he has failed and nobility as he ultimately gives up his place so that Nirvanah can return to the ship. Chris Barrie is on top form with the dramatic stuff, while also getting some big laughs from lines like “I hardly said anything apart from… geronimo” and “over the years I have come to regard you as… people I met”. The rest of the cast get a chance to shine too though, with Cat responding to Kryten’s cry of “they’ve taken Mr Rimmer” with “quick, let’s get outta here before they bring him back” and the classic scene in which Lister mocks a snooty holoship crew member played by Don Warrington.

After the comparatively light opening episode, things get pretty dark in ‘The Inquisitor’ as the crew encounter a rogue droid who forces people to justify their existence, and if they can’t prove they have tried to live a worthwhile life, erases them from history. As Rimmer says, the crew are in big trouble. The Inquisitor can take on other forms, so the boys from the Dwarf end up being judged by themselves, with the funniest defence being Cat’s argument that “I have given pleasure to the world because I have such a beautiful ass”. Kryten also has some great moments in this episode, such as his delivery of “blood-chilling terror” and his strategy of distracting the Inquisitor by saying “excuse me, could I possibly distract you for just a brief second?” The ending is a little convoluted, but the final act does give us the “warm compost” anecdote from Rimmer’s past as well as Kryten’s adorably distressed reaction to Lister using a severed hand to open a door (“sir, you’ve got it in your jacket!”).

Terrorform and Quarantine

‘Terrorform’ has possibly the best opening to any episode of the series, as Kryten, stranded without the use of his legs, removes his hand and attaches an eye to one of the fingers, turning it into a spider-like creature which he can send back to Red Dwarf for help. Lister’s fear of the creature is amusing, and so is his remark after ‘fixing’ Kryten that there are “a few bits and bobs left over” while holding a big pile of cables and circuit boards. When the crew go to track down Rimmer, they find that the planet has terrorformed to represent Rimmer’s mind, complete with frogs repeating the word “useless”, a leech with the face of his mum and a monster embodying his self-loathing. After retrieving him, Kryten realises that the ship can’t take off while Rimmer is feeling down (not before calling him such things as a “cruddy little scudball” to test the theory) and persuades Lister and the Cat to tell him they care about him. All in all, an inventive episode that manages to cover new ground when it comes to Rimmer’s neuroses.

Despite Rimmer’s character development thus far, ‘Quarantine’ sees him revert to being as antagonistic and unpleasant as he was in the very first series. However, because it’s such an iconic episode (The gingham dress! Mr Flibble! The luck virus!) you’d have to be quite pernickety to really care. Following a nasty encounter with Dr Langstrom, a hologram suffering from a ‘holovirus’, Rimmer forces Lister, Cat and Kryten into quarantine. Only five days in, the trio who usually get on so well are at each other’s throats. When you know what’s coming, it feels like the first half of the episode is just build-up for the second half, in which it’s revealed that Rimmer has caught the holovirus and been driven mad by it. The sight of penguin puppet Mr Flibble shaking with rage never fails to make me laugh, and standout lines include “You want to fly on a magic carpet to see the King of the Potato People and plead with him for your freedom… and you’re telling me you’re completely sane?” plus of course “We couldn’t possibly do that… Who’d clear up the mess?”

Demons and Angels and Back to Reality

In ‘Demons and Angels’ the crew accidentally destroy Red Dwarf and create two copies of it – one good and one bad. To restore the original ship, they must venture onto each of the new ships, where they encounter good and bad versions of themselves. The premise of this episode gives rise to some great visual gags such as the angelic dance performed by good Rimmer and Cat, the gender-bending outfit worn by bad Rimmer and the bad crew controlling Lister’s body through a spinal implant. There are also some nice food-related jokes as Lister is delighted to find an edible Pot Noodle on the good ship, while the bad ship is full of cinema hot dogs. However it’s all a bit simplistic and the good/bad characters are entirely one-dimensional. This episode is enjoyable enough to watch, but nowhere near as memorable as others in Red Dwarf V

The fifth series culminates in ‘Back to Reality’, in which a misery inducing creature called the despair squid makes the crew believe that the last four years of their lives have been nothing but a video game. Timothy Spall puts in a guest appearance to quiz the crew on their achievements in the ‘game’ and make them feel like failures in the process. For instance, he reveals that the primary goal for Lister was to get Kochanksi and “jumpstart the second Big Bang” and that Rimmer was supposed to have discovered at some point that he’s an undercover agent – “You mean to tell me you’ve been playing the prat version of Rimmer for four years?” It turns out that in their hallucinated world, Lister and Rimmer are brothers, although Lister is significantly more successful… if you can call mass murdering opponents to a fascist regime successful. Meanwhile, Kryten is traffic control officer Jake Bullet and the Cat is uber-nerd Duane Dibbley, whose appearance is a good source of laughs throughout the episode, with Cat saying he has “teeth that druids could use as a place of worship” and Rimmer later lamenting “I’m on the run from the fascist police with a murderer, a mass murderer and a man in a bri-nylon shirt”. Along with the crew’s conversation with Timothy Spall and the subsequent scene where they discover their ‘real’ identities, the imaginary car chase is another high point. ‘Back to Reality’ frequently tops lists of the greatest Red Dwarf episodes and it isn’t difficult to see why.

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