Thursday, 15 February 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Ten Best RED DWARF Episodes

In honour of Red Dwarf's thirtieth anniversary today, it's time to take a look at the ten best episodes of the show's run.

The stories are not presented in quality order because at this level, there's not much between these episodes. This is the show firing at its very best and frankly all of these episodes are worth watching.


The End
Season 1, Episode 1

"Everybody's dead, Dave." The very first episode of Red Dwarf sets up a very strong premise, with Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewmember on the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf (because the service robots have a better union than the human maintenance crew), being sentenced to spend the rest of the mission in temporal stasis after smuggling an unquarantined cat on board. This proves unexpectedly helpful when the crew is wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. Holly, the ship's AI (IQ 6,000, "the same as 12,000 traffic wardens"), steers the ship into deep space and waits for the radiation to die down to a safe background level...which takes 3 million years.

Emerging from stasis, Lister discovers his only company is the now-senile Holly, a humanoid lifeform who descended from his pregnant cat and a holographic recreation of Lister's commanding office, the painfully officious and unpleasant Arnold J. Rimmer.

It's a great premise which gets the show off to a good start (arguably the second episode, Future Echoes, is also required viewing as it sets up how the show can move beyond its limited premise), showcases the amazing cast and features some good gags. It all started here, and it's startling to think how far it would come.


Better Than Life
Season 2, Episode 2
Red Dwarf started off being quite claustrophobic, but in Season 2 the writers started finding ways of getting the crew off their miserably grey spaceship. In Better Than Life the crew get hooked into a video game designed to give them their fantasies. Unfortunately, the game is not prepared for the invasion of Rimmer's self-loathing, disturbingly twisted psyche which sets about sabotaging the game for everyone else with wild abandon. The result is an escalating series of catastrophes in the game as Rimmer's subconscious sets about destroying anything that threatens to make him or his friends happy. It's both extremely funny and also desperately sad and twisted as we realise for the first time that Rimmer has deep-seated reasons for being such an unpleasant man, which the series soon starts mining for great material.


Meltdown
Season 4, Episode 6

Red Dwarf is at its best when mixing pathos and comedy, mining the characters to produce funny material. But sometimes the show just likes to kick back and be absolutely daft with a high concept, in this case ripping the mickey out of the movie Westworld. This episode is definitely in that category. The crew arrive on "Waxworld", a theme park planet inhabited by wax-droids who are supposed to act out historical scenes for the edification of visitors. Unfortunately the droids have gone a bit insane over the last million years or so, and are now trapped into fighting a horrendous war based on their characters' programming.

Or, to put it another way, the episode features the crew teaming up with the unlikeliest band of heroes in history, consisting of Pythagoras ("Alas our numbers do not reach twenty-one; at least then we could form an equilateral triangle,"), Santa, Stan Laurel, Marilyn Monroe, Sergeant Elvis Presley, Gandhi ("DON'T EYEBALL ME GANDHI! Drop to your knees and give me fifty, now!"), Mother Theresa and Queen Victoria. Their enemies are the ultimate team-up of evil and depravity: Adolf Hitler, Rasputin, Emperor Caligula ("Bring hither the swimsuit with the bottom cut out and unleash the rampant wildebeest!"), Al Capone, Richard III and James Last. Inspired by the martyrdom of Winnie the Pooh, the good guys have to fight one last battle to gain victory. Which would be more hopeful if some idiot hadn't put Rimmer in charge of military strategy.

Kryten
Season 2, Episode 1 
The second season of Red Dwarf immediately opens up the world of the series, introducing the character of Kryten, a service mechanoid suffering from neuroses and an obsession with cleaning. For this first appearance, the character is played by David Ross rather than Robert Llewellyn (who took over when the character was made a regular in Season 3), but Ross nails the character's tics very well. The episode works so well because it gets up our heroes hopes - Kryten reports that the all-female crew of his starship, the Nova 5, are still alive which turns out to be a slight exaggeration - and then shatters them before delving into both Kryten's character and also the worst excesses of Rimmer at his most obnoxious. The "Kryten's rebellion" scene, where Kryten suddenly starts channelling Marlon Brando, remains excellent.


Back to Reality
Season 5, Episode 6

When Season 5 of Red Dwarf aired back in 1992, the production team let it slip that negotiations for a sixth season had become complicated and the show might end forever. This made the final episode's conceit - that the last four years have been part of a VR game played by four people desperately trying to escape a dystopian cyberpunk future of total law enforcement - a little more disturbing as it could possibly have been true. The episode leans into genuine dramatic moments surprisingly well before bringing things around for an uproariously hilarious finale in which the crew engage in an epic car chase whilst being pursued by rocket launcher-wielding motorcyclists and helicopter gunships...all of which happens conveniently (for the sake of the budget) offscreen. This episode also introduces us to the crew's alternate-reality alter-egos, most memorably Duane Dibley (the Cat's thermos-wielding, sandal-wearing alter-ego) and "Jake Bullet, Cybernautics! (traffic control)".


Quarantine
Season 5, Episode 4
Given that, for most of its run, Red Dwarf has an all-male cast, it's interesting when the show spotlights this fact. Quarantine forces the Cat, Kryten and Lister into living in the same room for a week. At first this seems fine as they hang out all the time anyway, but the inability to leave the room for a break soon pushes them past breaking point. The examination of not-always-healthy male friendships is interesting but not allowed to interfere with the comedy, which kicks in a notch when we are introduced to Mr. Flibble, the universe's most psychotic laser-wielding penguin.


Gunmen of the Apocalypse
Season 6, Episode 3
Did you know that Red Dwarf won an Emmy Award? It did, an International Emmy in 1994, for this episode. Gunmen of the Apocalypse was filmed on location in a replica Wild West town erected in, er, Kent and it's clear that both the writers and actors fell in love with the concept. The episode sees the Wild West town stand in as the personification of Kryten's mind as it is invaded by a computer virus. The crew take on new personas thanks to a VR game and enter his mind to fight the virus, which takes the form of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, here re-conceptualised as Wild West gunfighters.

The whole thing is massively high concept but works well, with some fantastic lines, comic timing and possibly the best musical score ever written for the series.


Thanks for the Memory
Season 2, Episode 3
Thanks for the Memory may be the most melancholy episode of Red Dwarf ever made. Feeling sorry for Rimmer on the anniversary of his death, after Rimmer drunkenly confesses he's never been in love, Lister decides to gift him the memory of the love of his life. It's an act of kindness which, of course, backfires.

The episode works because it has a central, genuinely SF idea that is explored in an interesting manner (namely memory transferal and the question of whether memories are what defines us, recently the focus of Altered Carbon) and the story explores the characters of both Lister and Rimmer in intelligence and depth. A criticism of the series is that the writers found Rimmer such a rich source of humour and story that they sometimes left the other characters out in the cold, including our ostensible hero Lister, but this episode works well in telling us more about Lister and the mistakes he's made in his own life. The result is one of Red Dwarf's finest hours, being emotionally affecting as well as very funny.


Marooned
Season 3, Episode 2

With the third season of Red Dwarf running rather expensive, Doug Naylor and Rob Grant decided to write a tight bottle-episode focusing on Lister and Rimmer after their ship, Starbug, crash-lands on an ice moon. With supplies running low (Lister being forced to choose between a Pot Noodle and a tin of dog food and is genuinely wracked by the decision), the two are forced to resort to desperate measures to survive. We learn more about the two characters than ever before and the episode is unusual in making Lister a bit more at fault than Rimmer. Rimmer is also shown for the first time to have a laudable sense of honour (even if it takes a lot to kick it into action).

Marooned is hilarious and Barrie and Charles have often mooted taking it on the road as a two-man play. Possibly Red Dwarf's best-written half-hour and an unmissable episode.


Polymorph
Season 3, Episode 3
One of Red Dwarf's strictest rules is that there are no aliens. Everything that appears in the show has to be human or made by humans. That means no ravaging monsters. Or at least it didn't, until the writers hit on the idea of GELFs (Genetically-Engineered Life Forms), human-created creatures which, invariably, had broken free of human control and turned in to raging maniacs. The shapeshifting polymorph, which also drains subjects of their negative emotions (turning Lister into a homicidal maniac, Cat into a bum and Rimmer into a vegan hipster) is the finest of these creatures. The crew set out to take on the creature in a mickey-take of Aliens that works fantastically well, resulting in some of the show's finest sight gags. This isn't Red Dwarf at its cleverest or deepest, but it may at it's just laugh-out-loud funniest.

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2 comments:

Mike. said...

I AM A FISH
I AM A FISH
I AM A FISH
I AM A FISH
I AM A FISH
I AM A FISH
...
I AM A FISH

vacuouswastrel said...

Fish of the day is Trout a la Creme...


Really difficult question - even if you just look at S2-6, that's 30 episodes to choose from, and probably at least 20 of them are brilliant...

So, so hard.

Every one of the ten episodes you chose is great (well, I'm not sure about The End in absolute terms, but bonus points for importance and nostalgia).

But in trying to compile a list, I found mine was almost entirely different - so I went the whole hog and made it COMPLETELY different. Obviously, if we're being honest, you can't have a 'correct' top-10 list without Back to Reality, Marooned, Thanks for the Memory and probably Polymorph (which isn't as complete, but is hilarious). [and Meltdown is a personal favourite].

But you can still have a list of ten amazingly good other episodes:

- Me2. One of two first season episodes (along with the clever Future Echoes) to really nail it, in my opinion. It's depressing and dark and irritating, but it's funny, and it's our first and maybe best dive into the psychology of Rimmer, turning him from an amusing jackass into a fascinating abomination of a man driven by such pitiable and intense self-loathing... "gazpacho soup!"

- Queeg. OK, while it does have a few good gags, this is basically an episode based around one joke. But when you watch it for the first time, it may just be the best joke in the history of TV... "basically, I'm fantastic."

- Stasis Leak. Episodes like "Thanks for the Memory" and "Me2" showed that early Dwarf could do piercing psychological tragicomedy. Stasis Leak, with its tangled time loops and a completely insane Rimmer, showed that it could also do farce - and make it clever farce at that. "Now from this point on, things get a liiiitle bit confusing...."

- White Hole. You've got the white hole scene, the pool with planets, you've got the white hole scene, the talkie toaster scene, you've the white hole scene... "so what is it?"

- Holoship. A great sympathetic story for Rimmer, but also a bunch of classic lines. "I've come to regard you as... people I met."

- Inquisitor. I like it when Dwarf goes ominous. Some clever SF thinking, psychological exploration, one of the most effective dramatic plots (yes, I do like the time travel episodes...). "A simple yes would have sufficed..."

- Legion. So, so many jokes - smart jokes, stupid slapstick jokes, character jokes, SF jokes. "It does mean..."

- Out of Time. I love how dark it gets - not just the fantastic ending (which deserved to be the real ending) but right from the beginning, with the totally disorienting 'reality bubbles'. Plus one of the smartest, most SF jokes of the series. "We're still in deep space, only now..."


Hmm. That leaves two places. I think I'd be happy with any of Future Echoes, DNA, Justice, Dimension Jump, Terrorform, Psirens, or even for a change of pace maybe Tika to Ride to fill the last two slots...

Really though the quality was just astonishingly high for so long...