Red Dwarf: revisiting the seventh series

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With Red Dwarf back on our screens recently for its twelfth series, I’m rewatching it from the beginning. This week it’s all change in Red Dwarf VII. 

In the three years between Red Dwarf VI and VII, some big changes occurred. First of all, the Grant-Naylor partnership came to an end, with Rob Grant leaving the show and Doug Naylor writing the seventh series without him. Secondly, Chris Barrie decided to take a break from the small rouge one and appear in just a few episodes of the seventh series. As a result, Kristine Kochanski – now played by Chloe Annett rather than Clare Grogan – was brought in to essentially replace Rimmer and keep the crew as a group of four. And finally, the seventh series was shot single-camera without a studio audience, with laughs added in later. If you watch the series on Netflix as it currently is, you will find that a few episodes are the ‘extended versions’ which don’t have any audience laughter, and this makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing…

Tikka to Ride and Stoke Me a Clipper

The opening episode of Red Dwarf VII is an ambitious one, and it’s enjoyable as long as you don’t think too much about the logic of it. After Lister tries to explain to us why the crew aren’t all dead, as they appeared to be in the series VI finale, we’re introduced to the driving force of ‘Tikka to Ride’ – that there is no Indian food left on Starbug. For curry-mad Lister it’s a disaster, and Kryten’s suggestion that “perhaps you could learn to love pasta” does not go down well. Lister wants to use their newly acquired time drive to visit an Indian takeaway on Earth and buy supplies (even though it was established last series that the time drive allows them to travel in time and not space, but never mind…) and the rest of the crew object. His solution, which involves covertly replacing Kryten’s head with a spare head that has no behaviour protocols, results in some of the episode’s funniest moments, as the new Kryten smokes, drinks and uses his groinal attachment to stir tea. The high-concept second half of ‘Tikka to Ride’, in which the crew accidentally travel back in time to the JFK assassination and alter the course of history, feels a bit more like something out of a drama than Red Dwarf. It’s an interesting concept though, and there are some memorable laugh-out-loud moments, such as the crew obliviously pushing the gunman out of a window and Kryten feeding everyone “roasted dead person” due to his lack of behaviour protocols.

People tend to complain about the quality of the post-Rimmer episodes of series VII, but I would argue that ‘Stoke Me a Clipper’ (his last one as part of the crew) is much weaker than some of the episodes that followed. It’s all just a bit too silly, from Ace Rimmer riding a crocodile out of a plane and Lister trying to seduce the Queen of Camelot in an AR game, to Cat and Kryten believing Lister without question when he says that Rimmer has been killed by a knight that “escaped” from the AR machine. The point of ‘Dimension Jump’ in series IV, which revealed that the key difference between Ace Rimmer and Arnold Rimmer is that Ace got held back a year in school, was that just one thing can drastically alter the course of someone’s life. This message is essentially thrown away in ‘Stoke Me a Clipper’ because we’re expected to believe that not only is Rimmer capable of becoming the new Ace, but that it was his destiny all along. He may have had a slightly heroic moment in the series VI finale, but we haven’t seen him change that much! At the time of recording, it hadn’t yet been decided if Chris Barrie would ever fully return to Red Dwarf or not. Thankfully he did return for subsequent series, because this really wasn’t the farewell that Rimmer deserved.

Ouroboros and Duct Soup

The third episode of Red Dwarf VII introduces us to the new Kochanski, who becomes part of the crew after crossing over from another dimension and getting stuck. It’s established that Kochanski and Lister now have a different history from the one we’ve previously heard. Instead of him simply admiring her from afar on board Red Dwarf, we’re now told that they once had a short-lived relationship. Despite having a few good gags dotted throughout, such as “It’s an obscene phone call sir” and Lister meeting Kochanski in a pink dressing gown and slippers with a box of floss attached to his face, ‘Ouroboros’ serves as a rather messy introduction to a new character. The fact that Kochanski has been recast is not a major issue, but her new backstory seems unnecessary. Plus the idea that she has to get back to her own dimension, where she has her own Lister, ends up getting dropped fairly quickly. Rather than having her arrival as the main focus of the episode, there is also, for some reason, a plot about Lister being his own father and Kochanski being his mother. This doesn’t really add anything to Lister’s character – if anything it takes something away, since it makes him seem like less of an everyman – and it detracts attention from the introduction of Kochanski.

The next episode ‘Duct Soup’ tries to give us more of an insight into Kochanski’s character. Unfortunately, this means we get her talking about how hard it was to accept that “shopping was unlikely” when she joined the space corps and crying about how she “even tried learning what offside was” in an attempt to fit in with her male crewmates. What’s more, Lister attempts to cheer her up by giving her some makeup and a sparkly dress, and rather than finding it patronising she is actually pleased, plus Kryten has a dream where Lister informs him that “you settle down with a woman and the first thing they do is systematically set about getting rid of all your mates”. It’s “the fourth law of the universe” apparently… Moving on, the second half of the episode, in which all of the ship’s doors lock and the crew spend the night crawling through vents, is less irritating but also quite forgettable. ‘Marooned’ in series III, which similarly featured characters being trapped with each other and recounting stories about their lives, set a very high standard in this department. ‘Duct Soup’ never manages to meet this standard and none of its dialogue leaves much of an impression.

Blue and Beyond a Joke

Lister is surprised to find himself missing Rimmer in ‘Blue’, which is possibly the funniest episode of Red Dwarf VII. However it does make the mistake of constantly reminding us that Rimmer is gone, causing us to miss him and judge Kochanski as his replacement more harshly. After being rather whiny and annoying in the previous episode, Kryten is on much better form in this one, talking about ironing bras by stretching the containers over his head and accidentally playing one of Hitler’s speeches instead of a relaxation tape. But of course the high points of the episode are Lister’s dream, in which he and Rimmer share a passionate kiss, and the Rimmer Experience in the AR suite. From the heavy makeup and the “He’s Arnold Arnold Arnold Rimmer” song, to Rimmer giving Cat fashion tips and Lister squealing “Somebody save us before I wet me kecks”, the climax of ‘Blue’ delivers some of series VII’s biggest laughs.

Following AR jaunts to Camelot in ‘Stoke Me a Clipper’ and the Rimmer Experience, series VII’s sixth episode ‘Beyond a Joke’ sees the crew visit Jane Austen World. However their fun is quickly ruined by Kryten, who has prepared a fancy lobster dinner to mark the anniversary of his rescue from the Nova 5. The sight of Kryten ambushing the Bennett sisters from Pride and Prejudice and then rolling in on a tank (“I said, supper is ready!”) is enjoyable, as is Lister’s request for ketchup with his lobster but “brown ketchup” because apparently that’s classier. Things start to go downhill after this opening segment though, when Kryten’s head explodes along with all of his spare ones, so the crew need to find a solution. The idea of Cat and Kochanski disguising themselves as GELFs makes little sense (where did they get the costumes from?) and isn’t particularly funny, and new character Able doesn’t provide many laughs either. The revelation that Kryten was designed to mock a pompous, mother-hen-clucking ex of his creator also doesn’t make much sense, as these are traits he didn’t display much until series VII anyway.

Epideme and Nanarchy

Longer than any of the previous series, Red Dwarf VII comes to an end with connected episodes ‘Epideme’ and ‘Nanarchy’, which see Lister become infected with a deadly virus and lose his arm. Highlights across these two episodes include Lister’s encounter with a frozen zombie woman (“I’ve just been molested by Tutankhamun’s horny grandma”) and the amputation scene, as well as Kryten’s mollycoddling of Lister once his arm is gone and the crew’s efforts to cheer Lister up by listing one-armed people who’ve led successful lives, e.g. the Venus de Milo. The “hand, pick up the ball” sequence is pretty good too, and so is the return of Norman Lovett as Holly. Among the low points of ‘Epideme’ and ‘Nanarchy’ are the annoying voice of the virus and the anticlimactic reveal that the missing Red Dwarf has been hiding in Lister’s laundry basket all along.

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