Red Dwarf: revisiting the fourth series

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In the run-up to its twelfth series, which lands on Dave on 12th October, I’m rewatching Red Dwarf from the beginning. This week it’s time to reach for the maple syrup, taramasalata, or (if it makes any difference) hummus in Red Dwarf IV.

With bigger sci-fi adventures and the addition of Kryten as a full-time crew member, Red Dwarf’s third series saw the show become less of a Lister-Rimmer two-hander and more of an ensemble comedy. The fourth series completes this transition and is noticeably lighter and sillier than previous series. This is by no means a bad thing, as it’s possibly the most gag-packed series so far, but if you were a fan of the bleak, lonely atmosphere of early Red Dwarf you might feel like the show has lost something during its change of style.

Camille and DNA

Since the third series ended with ‘The Last Day, it seems an odd choice to start the fourth with another Kryten-centric episode. ‘Camille’ does have a corker of an opening scene though, as we see Kryten learning to lie by calling a banana “a small, off-duty, Czechoslovakian traffic warden”. While searching a crashed ship for survivors, Kryten meets another mechanoid (played by Robert Llewellyn’s wife Judy Pascoe) and falls in love with her, only to find that she’s a Pleasure GELF who appears to everyone as their perfect partner. There are some good laughs to be had from the misunderstandings that Camille causes, such as Rimmer commenting that Camille looks like his sister-in-law and Kryten responding “What happened? Was she involved in some kind of horrific car accident?” as well as the classic moment when Cat looks at the creature and sees himself. Once Camille reveals herself to be a large green blob however, the episode gets a bit lighter on laughs, and the ending that parodies Casablanca is not particularly inventive.

In ‘DNA’ the crew come across a DNA modifying machine which, after firstly turning Lister into a chicken, manages to make Kryten human. Even though he has surely spent enough time with humans to understand how they function, the scene in which a puzzled Kryten questions Lister about his new human body is pretty hilarious. He’s concerned that his eyes have no zoom mode, his nipples serve no obvious purpose (when his mechanoid nipples used to pick up radio transmissions) and he’s struggling to locate his recharge socket. The zenith is of course Kryten’s disgust at what’s in his trousers and the “double polaroid” moment he experiences while looking through an electric appliance catalogue. But similar to the series opener, the ending of ‘DNA’ rather lets it down, as the story of Kryten becoming human is abandoned in favour of the crew accidentally creating a psychotic curry monster. Lister’s conclusion of “lager, the only thing that can kill a vindaloo” is a bit of a groaner, and by the time the credits roll, we haven’t even seen Kryten return to his mechanoid state. The idea of Kryten becoming human is an interesting one, plus it’s fun seeing Robert Llewellyn playing the part without his mask, and I wish this episode had done a bit more to explore it. I’m surprised it’s a concept they haven’t revisited since.

Justice and White Hole

Although I have fond memories of Red Dwarf IV, at the start of my rewatch I couldn’t really name a favourite episode of the series. I now think that it’s probably ‘Justice’ which is full of more strong, inventive ideas than I had remembered. The episode begins with Lister, who is suffering from space flu, discovering that a pod has arrived on Red Dwarf. It contains either a female guard or a deranged prisoner from Justice World, so the crew go there in an attempt to find out more. Unfortunately it’s run by a computer that can scan people’s minds for signs of criminal guilt, which results in Rimmer being imprisoned for 1,167 counts of second-degree murder. Another rule within Justice World is that if you try to commit a crime, that crime will happen to you instead, and this leads to an amusing fight which culminates in Cat knocking himself out by hitting his opponent in the head with a spade. The high point of the episode, however, has to be Kryten’s lawyerly speech to convince the Justice Computer that Rimmer feels guiltier than he actually is, because he believes he had a more important role on Red Dwarf than he really did. Rimmer is accused of being so lame that he spends his time “sewing name labels onto his ship issue condoms”, Lister responds to “Would you describe the accused as a friend?” with “No, I’d describe the accused as a git”, and Kryten calls him everything from “an overzealous trumped up little squirt” to “a piece of sputum floating in the toilet bowl of life.”

‘White Hole’ is enjoyable enough but feels like it has too many ideas fighting for room. Aside from being the episode involving a time-scrambling white hole, it’s the one where Holly becomes a genius, the ship loses all electricity and Lister plays pool with planets. It also features a rather slow opening in which Talkie Toaster (played incidentally by David Ross, the original series two Kryten) tells variants of the same joke over and over again. Whereas an earlier Red Dwarf episode might have focused solely on the white hole concept (like ‘Future Echoes’), this jumps from one idea to another, as if the writers didn’t think any were strong enough to base a whole episode around. But in Red Dwarf’s heyday, even the weaker episodes were still quite fun, and highlights include Kryten’s head being used as a battering ram, Cat referring to Rimmer as “Grand Canyon nostrils”, Rimmer telling Kryten “no chance you metal bastard”, and the crew trying to fry an egg with a bicycle powered hairdryer.

Dimension Jump and Meltdown

Penultimate episode ‘Dimension Jump’ introduces us to Rimmer’s dashing alter ego Ace Rimmer, a man with “wall to wall charisma and a PHD in being handsome and wonderful”. In the memorable opening, Ace keeps getting propositioned by alternative versions of the Red Dwarf crew (“I’ll be in my quarters at lunchtime, covered in taramasalata”) plus we first hear “what a guy” and “smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast”. This is followed by an equally laugh-out-loud scene in which Lister, Cat and Kryten are caught sneaking out to go on a fishing trip without Rimmer. All four members of the cast are on top form here, with Rimmer coming across particularly sad and pitiable, in contrast to our first glimpse of Ace, and the other three failing miserably to hide their reluctance to spend time with him. Once Ace meets the crew, a lot of laughs come from his overachieving – at one point he’s said to have performed life-saving surgery on the Cat and be teaching Kryten how to play the piano, all after being on his feet for over 36 hours. There’s also an interesting revelation that the difference between the lives of Ace and Rimmer is that Ace was held back a year in school, as well as a nice moment when Rimmer asks Lister how he would feel if his own charming, attractive doppelganger turned up. Lister indignantly replies “hey man, I am that Lister!”

‘Meltdown’ is a bit of an underwhelming finale to Red Dwarf IV and for me it’s the weakest episode of the series. This is partly due to a poor choice of location, as the alien planet they visit is very clearly a British field, and the unusual premise that never really translates into hilarity. After an unremarkable opening in which the crew plead with Rimmer to stop telling a dull story, Kryten enters with a matter transporter capable of taking them to nearby planets. The planet they end up visiting is an abandoned wax droid theme park, inhabited by copies of famous people from history. The droids have broken their programming and are now fighting a war of good vs. evil, so one side has the likes of Einstein and Elvis while the baddies include Hitler and Rasputin. Lister and Cat are imprisoned, leading to what is probably the episode’s highlight as Lister describes seeing Winnie the Pooh facing a firing squad, and Rimmer makes it his mission to train the good side for combat. As with the Winnie the Pooh sequence, things said to or about the wax droids, such as “that’s Lieutenant Colonel Mother Theresa” and Rimmer’s command to get Gandhi “out of that damn nappy and into a uniform”, prove to be a lot funnier than things actually said by the droids themselves. The actors playing Elvis and Stan Laurel in particular are doing straightforward impressions, and their dialogue doesn’t give them much to work with.

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