Friday, 12 October 2012

Top Ten: The essential Red Dwarf

Red Dwarf Rimmer Lister Kryten Cat top ten

A new series of Red Dwarf returned to British screens just over a week ago, and while the new season / series has been greeted with some acclaim, or perhaps relief at the step up in quality from the abysmal 2009 mini-series 'Back To Earth', anyone coming to the show for the first time may wonder what all the fuss is about. There are a handful of solid laughs, but the humour is a little more forced, the performances that bit broader than they need to be.

To that end, I've put together a list of my top ten essential Red Dwarf episodes. In addition to listing some of the show's most hysterical half-hours, the rundown includes some of the landmark moments in its on-again-off-again run since 1988. At its best, Dwarf combined top tier character writing with unexpectedly innovative sci-fi ideas and an admirable affection for big, silly punchlines. If you're not a fully-fledged Dwarfer after watching every entry in this list, a certain hand puppet penguin will be very cross...
  
10. STOKE ME A CLIPPER (S7, Ep2)

Though science fiction fans are rarely known for their moderate opinions, the hate directed towards seasons seven and eight are grossly disproportionate to the actual quality of the episodes. They were the start of Dwarf's decline from unquestionable classic into merely 'very good' territory, and season eight definitely has a stinker or two, but there's no shortage of fantastic material to be found for anyone approaching with a level head. Season premiere 'Tikka To Ride' has a very entertaining timey-wimey plot, culminating in JFK assassinating himself, but is a little too short of big laughs to make this list. 'Stoke Me A Clipper', however, is close to a classic. Season seven is one of the most visually gorgeous in Red Dwarf's run, and Ace Rimmer's return offers plenty of opportunities for the episode to create some moving images, planet which marks the resting place of every previous Ace. While still not as consistently funny as the top episodes from the six prior seasons, there are some great cameos (Bryan Cox, Sarah Alexander) and plenty of silliness on show (the WW2 opening sequence is as ambitious and ridiculous as Dwarf gets) to mitigate the sadness of Chris Barrie briefly departing as a regular.

Funniest Line: 'Princess Bonjella? Ace Rimmer. There'll be time for explanations later, and hopefully, some sex.'

9. BLUE (S7, Ep5)

Chris Barrie's departure as regular was a major loss for the series, no matter how short-lived, and though Chloe Annett gives a number of fine comic performances and provided a welcome fresh dynamic to the crew's interactions, but her Kochanski (very different to the one played by Clare Grogan in the early seasons, although explained away by Annett's being an alternate universe version) never came close to the heights of comedic perfection attained by Arnold Judas Rimmer. 'Blue' is a big, loving tribute to the character, giving Chris Barrie a perfect final showcase for his talents even though it was technically a guest appearance. The episode works because it plays on the long-held suspicion that Lister and Rimmer had a certain fondness and reliance on each other. The dream sequence brings this to a hilarious comedic peak, with Craig Charles and Barrie playing the hell out of the big moment, but it's the Rimmer Munchkin song at the end which has quite rightly proven the episode's lasting legacy. Kryten and Kochanski's strained relationship provides some amusing background material ('You mean I'm not alone?'), but 'Blue' is all about bidding farewell to one of British comedy's most memorably neurotic creations.

Funniest Line: Sing it with me now... 'He's Arnold, Arnold, Arnold Rimmer, without him life would be much grimmer...'

8. THE INQUISITOR (S5, Ep2)

Some fans complain that Red Dwarf went too sci-fi in its later years, although episodes like 'Future Echoes' show that to be a fairly specious argument. The show certainly evolved over its run, one of the things which kept it interesting, but always maintained equilibrium between its sci-fi and sitcom elements. 'Inquisitor' admittedly leans more strongly to the sci-fi side, but uses its gimmick for some fantastic character work and typically silly Dwarf one-liners. A time-travelling simulant known as the Inquisitor, who puts on trial anyone deemed to have wasted their life, arrives onboard Red Dwarf and demands the crew answer for their wasted potential. The kicker is that, to ensure a fair trial, the Inquisitor takes the form of the crew member being judged. Rimmer's insecurities have already been well-established, but the episode is especially damning towards Lister for squandering his talent through laziness and an unhealthy obsession with curry and booze. He certainly shows himself a pretty forward thinking guy when, on the verge of being erased from time, he manages to open a palm-print locked door in 'totally, totally gross' fashion.

Funniest Line: The Cat's defence is great, but Kryten's reaction to Lister's announcement he's going to use his brains to get out of a hopeless situation pips it. 'Under the circumstances, sir, do you really think that's wise?'

7. KRYTEN (S2, Ep1)

Mechanoid Kryten only became a regular member of the cast in the third season, but was introduced in the first episode of its second. The Dwarfers intercept an SOS call from the Nova 5, a ship apparently populated by beautiful women. Dressing up in their least smeggy outfits and preparing a battering ram of lies to cover their myriad inadequacies as potential mates, they head aboard only to find the sole survivor is the eponymous mechanoid, who has failed to notice that his crew are not what they used to be. In addition to introducing one of the show's most beloved characters, this time played by David Ross rather than Robert Llewellyn, who would go on to make the character very much his own, the episode shows a cast more confident in their characters and more consistently funny writing than the occasionally uneven first season. Plus, there's a tiny bit of (unintentional) foreshadowing for Rimmer's later alter-ego Ace, when the character tries to create a fake nickname for himself. 'Get outta town!' Lister replies, 'No way were you ever called 'Ace'. Maybe 'Ace-hole'.'

Funniest line: Plenty to choose from, and the 'dog milk' exchange runs it close, but Kryten's 'I was only away two minutes!' upon being made aware of his deceased crew is timed and delivered to perfection.

6. FUTURE ECHOES (S1, Ep2)

Creators Doug Naylor and Rob Grant sold the series to the BBC on the basis that they'd minimise the science-fiction elements and make a sitcom which just so happened to take place in deep space. Within two episodes, any intentions of sticking to that plan (not that there every were any) had been ditched with the introduction of one of Dwarf's most long-lasting science fiction concepts. When the Dwarf ship accelerates beyond the light barrier, the crew start experiencing visions of the future. While loosely based on time dilation theories in Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, what matters is that the idea produces the first truly laugh-out-loud Dwarf episode. The pilot introduced the near-fully formed characters and featured the famous 'everybody's dead, Dave' joke, but 'Future Echoes' was the first sign of how sharp the character writing and plotting would get. Chris Barrie's priggish Rimmer quickly establishes himself as the series' MVP, and ship computer Holly's nonchalant use of local slang never gets old.

Funniest line: 'Gordon Bennett, that was a close one!' Holly offers a particularly cockney perspective on the challenges of navigating around planets at light speed.

5. LEGION (S6, Ep2)

With Red Dwarf stolen from under their noses, the crew are on its trail when a tractor beam pulls them onto a space station inhabited by masked creature with a genius intellect and accommodating manner known as Legion. As if the name weren't a big enough clue, the creature turns out to be a gestalt entity, whose mind is formed by those of the people surrounding him. Set to expire if he allows the crew to leave, they are held prisoner until devising an escape plan inspired by 'Revenge of the Surfboarding Killer Bikini Vampire Girls'. Though the episode is less heavy on character work than the nature of its central villain might suggest, it features arguably the greatest Dwarf line ever written - see below, although the lightswitch line is a corker too - and some sensational slapstick in the crew's struggles to get to grips with Mimosian anti-matter chopsticks and their later attempts to knock each other unconscious. The episode marks the moment Rimmer was given a 'hard light' body, allowing him to interact with the world around him, and has been at the centre of fan controversy for featuring a scene in which Lister has his appendix removed for a second time, but 'Legion' is a must-watch primarily for being very, very funny.

Funniest Line: 'Step up to red alert!' 'Are you sure, sir? It does mean changing the bulb.' Red Dwarf never shied away from mocking science-fiction tropes ('Don't give me that Star Trek crap now, it's too early in the morning' - The Last Day, S3 Ep6), but rarely has any show done so with such simple, cutting wit, further enhanced by Robert Llewellyn's pitch-perfect delivery.

4. BACKWARDS (S3, Ep1)

New seasons of Red Dwarf have nearly always started strong, and while 'Backwards' draws some criticism from fans for not exactly having the most watertight logic behind the alternate universe where the crew find themselves stranded, it's enormously silly fun from start to finish. Opening with a Star Wars title scroll parody explaining the many behind-the-scenes changes in the interim between seasons, including the permanent arrival of Robert Llewellyn's Kryten and Norman Lovett being swapped out for Hattie Hayridge as Holly, the episode also marks the debut of the transport vessel Starbug (which would later home the crew when the Red Dwarf went 'missing', aka the production model was broken) and features one of the series' most famous bunkroom exchanges, in which Lister and the Cat debate the sexual merits of the Flintstone women. The bar-room brawl is also a fabulously silly set-piece, and the cheapo appearance of the 'reverse' effects only add to the comedy value.

Funniest line: The Flintstones exchange has to be heard in its entirety, so printing one line here would ruin it. Everything reverse is pretty funny, but I have a particular soft spot for Lister and the Cat mistakenly believing 'Nodnol' to be in Bulgaria. Plus, 'Nodnol' is just too much fun to say.

3. BACK TO REALITY (S5, Ep6)

Often cited as one of the best Dwarf episodes ever made, 'Back To Reality' takes the genus of an idea from the second season's 'Better Than Life' and expands it exponentially. After investigating a wreck where the crew (and a fish) willingly committed suicide, the crew is attacked and seemingly killed by an underwater sea monster known as a 'despair squid'. Moments later, they wake up in a whole new reality, having apparently been playing a virtual reality video game called Red Dwarf. Each crew member discovers they have a new identity, often conflicting with their most deeply held beliefs. The inherently decent, proudly working class Lister is the mass-murdering leader of a fascist political party; Rimmer is unable to make excuses for his shortcomings; Kryten is forced to commit murder; the Cat becomes fan-favourite Dwayne Dibley, a buck-toothed nerd with a love of thermos flasks. With fantastic performances from the regular cast in their characters' skewed alter-egos, beautiful sets and an engaging plot to complement the usual array of memorable gags, 'Back To Reality' fully deserves its reputation. The only downside is Holly Hayridge making her final appearance as Holly.

Funniest Line: 'It thinks we're either a threat, food or mate. It's either gonna kill us, eat us or hump us.'

2. MAROONED (S3, Ep2)

One of the finest half-hours of character comedy ever written, 'Marooned' sees Lister and Rimmer crash on an ice planet and forced to decide which of their beloved possessions to burn to save Lister from freezing to death while waiting for a rescue party. Rimmer's neuroses over being bullied by his more successful siblings as a child had already been established in 'Better Than Life' - another very strong contender for this list - but 'Marooned' gives voice not only to his delusions of grandeur and love of all things military, but also a deeply buried sense of decency which makes him more than just a butt for the crew's best jokes. Insight is also given into Lister's crumbling mental state at being stuck alone in deep space and the psychological consequences of being the last human being alive. It's hardly doom and gloom, though, as the episode also features some of the series' most cripplingly hysterical gags: Rimmer's curtailed attempt at doing Shakespeare, his peculiar ancestry at Alexander The Great's side, Lister choosing between dog food and a Pot Noodle, the story of how he lost his virginity, and how everyone can remember the day Cliff Richard was shot.

Funniest line: Again, too many to chose from, but 'That's all I can remember' and 'You can't have been a full member of the golf club then' are classic Rimmer punchlines.

1. WHITE HOLE (S4, Ep4)

'Polymorph', 'Bodyswap', 'Timeslides', 'Camille', 'Justice'... I'm trying to limit the number of episodes per season included in this list, but the volume of classics between years three and six make it an insanely difficult task, let alone for handing out the top spot. The fourth season may only get one representative, but 'White Hole' is top of the pile, one of the most widely beloved episodes in Dwarf fandom for its near-constant barrage of wonderfully ridiculous jokes, situations and characters. An attempt to restory Holly's intelligence at a cost of her lifespan goes too far, resulting in her being given an IQ of 12k but only three minutes to live. She powers herself down, unfortunately leaving the ship drifting towards a white hole. What's a white hole, you might ask (again and again and again)? One of the show's most memorably science fiction concepts: if a black hole devours time and space, a white hole expels it, leaving the crew experiencing time in random pockets. Sure, there's more than a hint of 'Future Echoes', but when the jokes are this rich (a conversation happening completely out of order) and the episode's climax revolves around Lister 'playing pool with planets' while 'just nicely drunk', you're onto a surefire classic. Talkie Toaster is one of the series' great comic creations, and Kryten's closing line is an absolute joy.
 
Funniest Line: Everything involving Talkie Toaster is a gem ('This is going to be about waffles, isn't it?'), but Kryten's 'I think we've just encountered the middle of this conversation!' gets me every time.

 
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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not sure about the top half of the list, Gunmen Of The Apocalypse needs to be there instead of one of the two S7 episodes, but the bottom half is spot-on. At least there isn't any Series VIII!

Anonymous said...

thanks for share.