Greatest TV Seasons: Red Dwarf Series Five (1992)
What is the greatest season of your favourite TV series? And what makes it stand out from those seasons around it? Every fan will have their own opinion of what is great and what isn't and here at The Digital Fix, our team of writers are going to complete the possibly impossible task of selecting what season of their favourite shows makes the cut above all others.
We continue with British comedy sci-fi series Red Dwarf.
The UK has a long history if quirky, low key sci-fi and quirky, eccentric comedy. These very British sensibilities were combined perfectly back in 1988 in the form of Red Dwarf. There have been several iterations of this uniquely British, high-concept sitcom over the years and with short series runs, changing channels and big gaps between productions, its almost more appropriate to review this show on periods rather than specific series; S1-2 is the Original Grey period, 3-6 the Golden period, 7-8 the Wilderness Years and 9 -12 the Dave period.
Personally, I’d argue that all these periods in the show’s history are enjoyable and all have some great episodes. Yes, the current Dave period is a little generic but it feels like a confident continuation of series six; series seven wasn’t well received but was interestingly trying to push the show in new directions, series eight tries to claw back the glory days but stumbles the landing while still widening the shows scope. Yet still, over all, I like all the iterations, all the periods and all the episodes. For me, even weak Red Dwarf is fun and funny. I’d rather see a comedy try something different and miss the mark, as long as it’s trying something inventive and for years now Red Dwarf has been a subtle master of low-key re-invention.
So which is the best series? Of course, we all have our favourites. With most series of the show being just six episodes long it would be easy and not un-acceptable, to base your favourite series pick on just one episode; love Queeg? Series two is the best. Fan favourite Gunmen of the Apocalypse? It's series six. I’m going to opt for series five as the best series of Red Dwarf and here’s why…
Any fan knows that the first two series were low budget and high concept. Cheap sets and limited special effects didn’t matter with sharp and poignant writing at the forefront. For many, the series never got any better than this and there is a lot to be said for taking that stance – I think its arguably fair to separate the first two series from what follows as it is almost a different show. Series three shows a jump up in production design and location work as well as better FX and playing with sci fi genres a little more; the show leans into its sci-fi roots. Series four hones this approach and by series six Red Dwarf is not just sharp and funny but slick and exciting. With Doctor Who popping off the schedules, Red Dwarf actually seemed to become the front runner home grown sci-fi show on the BBC for a while and the production values reflected this.
But series five is where the show really found itself, at least in terms of the shiny version we know now. It fell into its new, stylish production perfectly after the slightly clunky soft-reboot of series three and the writing was never better (yes, even compared to Gunmen of the Apocalypse). We know the characters well by now but they can still surprise us and we care about this band of misfits. Kryten is part of the team, we’ve got used to the new Holly, StarBug is fully introduced and everything just gels. Series five delivers six top tier episodes of Red Dwarf; its Red Dwarf at its height.
Series director Juliet May deserves a shout out here as well. While its true she famously couldn’t get to grips with the science fiction elements of the show and left, leaving writers Grant & Naylor to step in and complete directing duties, the series does have a more dynamic, dramatic edge to it. We may never know exactly where the split lies between May and Grant Naylor but her input, even if it just encouraged the writers to step up, brings an aesthetic maturity to its staging and shot choices.
With only six episodes it’s silly to choose a top five, so here are all six episodes of Red Dwarf series five:
The series opens with a Rimmer episode. I, like Doug Naylor, enjoy the idea of redemption and growth in Rimmer’s arc. It would be easy to leave the character as a weak, pathetic git who acts as little more than a foil to Lister; but right from the start the writing and performance offer up a deeper character. In this story, the Boys From The Dwarf encounter a holoship crewed entirely by holograms. Here Rimmer is accepted and encouraged; he even has sex (a ship-wide mandate states crew must have sex at least twice a day). Rimmer falls for guest star Jane Horrocks, who weirdly falls for him back.
What makes this one of the best episodes of Red Dwarf is the twist; Rimmer can stay on the holoship if he passes a test. With Jane Horrocks’ support, he passes and is allowed to stay (he cheats of course). However, due to limited resources, the ship is one in, one out and he discovers he will be replacing Horrock’s character. In an act of unusual decency, he does the noble thing and declines the offer to stay, allowing Jane Horrocks to be reinstated. It’s bitter sweet and provides a level of development we hadn’t yet seen in Rimmer and opened the door to more depth in future narratives.
5.02: The Inquisitor
This is still a scary concept and one that blew my mind as a young teenager; an android that travels through time, judging people and removing them from history. The philosophical and temporal ramifications are huge and it’s terrifying to imagine being deemed unworthy.
This could easily have been a standard running away from a killer narrative, but when the team discovers that they judge themselves, we’re treated to some excellent comedy and insightful existential pondering. When The Cat judges himself worthy of existence because he has a great arse, you buy it completely that this is enough, by his standards, to be worthy. In contrast, Lister deeming himself unworthy because he knows deep down he could have done more with his life is clever and worrying, leaving the audience to think “Would I consider myself worthy?”. We are, after all, usually our own greatest critic.
But... the episode doesn’t just stop there, before (yes, okay) the boys get chased by a killer, Kryten appears from the future to give himself and Lister a message, before dying. The show is so confident with the world its built by this point in its run, that it just throws a time travel causality loop into the third act like its no big deal (not to mention new alternate reality versions of Lister and Kryten for good measure). Very funny with a sly depth this episode incorporates the flashy new production design with the earlier high concept sci-fi.
Another Rimmer-focused story, though with the rest of the team taking up the bulk of the on screen adventuring, this series starts to show a real focus on developing his character beyond caricature. The episode opens with the fantastic tarantula sequence – Kryten, laying in bits after he and Rimmer crashed StarBug on a moon, casually puts together a one eyed-spider robot using his own hand and eyeball as parts. The scene of Lister and The Cat being so scared of the robot spider that they can only communicate by typing on a computer screen is not only very funny, it again shows a confidence that they can have a prolonged scene where characters are just typing and the audience has to read the jokes.
After finding and reassembling Kryten, the gang discover that Rimmer has been captured and is being held hostage on a Psi-Moon, which shapes itself based on the psyche of its inhabitants. Rimmer of course is a mess of self-loathing and disgust so his world is gross and dangerous, with an impressive monster hiding in a pit waiting to devour an oiled up Chris Barrie holding his gut in. Lister, Kryten and The Cat have to compliment and raise Rimmer’s confidence in order to improve the moon and release StarBug. The ultimate punch line that the team didn’t really mean any of the nice things they said, is not only funny but important. A lesser sitcom might have left us thinking the guys kind of liked Rimmer deep down, but not Red Dwarf.
This has always been a favourite of mine and is another great example, of the high concept coupled with witty comedy. It’s also the subtle birthplace of a classic (if less subtle) running Red Dwarf gag. The boys investigate a research station where they are exposed to an infected Hologram with a madness virus. Annoyed at his crewmates’ for leaving him behind and always using the Space Corps Directives against him (and newly infected by the holo-virus), Rimmer follows the rules to the letter and puts them all in quarantine after their encounter. It’s a classic Rimmer power play; cowardly and smug but not without merit in the realms of snide practical jokes. The best angle being, as Lister is the only designated human crew member - The Cat and Kryten being neither human or manifest crew - he issues them one set of quarantine quarters for the three of them to share.
The scene where we join the three after being quarantined for only a few days is great; it very quickly establishes where their friendships have arrived and the things that have been eating away and annoying one another. Kryten, especially, being rude and abusive to Lister and Cat is great to see. In particular the latter where, in response to being likened to Frankenstein, another in a long line of jokes at his appearance, Kryten snaps back that only really stupid people mistake the creature for the scientist. It’s from this episode that we end up with the Space Corp Directive gags that epitomise series six, where Rimmer has incorrectly memorised all the Space Corp Directives but muddled up the numbers. It’s worth noting that Rimmer seems to know all the directives just not the correct numbers, perhaps a by product of trying to learn them while going mad or maybe just because he’s such a smeg head.
Chris Barrie is genuinely creepy in his mad form and when Rimmer just starts screeching it’s honestly unsettling. We’re also introduced to Mr Flibble, another fan favourite and a remarkably under utilised merchandising opportunity. We also get the fantastic concept of positive viruses (such as sexual attractiveness and luck!) Funny, creepy with a high calibre guest star and an unexpected joke legacy.
5.05 Demons and Angels
This is probably the ‘weakest’ episode of the series but the standard is so high in series five that this isn’t much of a criticism; if you’ve got five Aston Martins, the BMW seems like the run-around car. The episode opens with a classically Red Dwarf scene that skillfully lays out the narrative conceit while providing us with some vey funny gags. Kryten has developed a device that can synthesize two duplicates of an item, specifically food, to help with their deplenishing rations. Lister eating the greatest strawberry he’s ever tasted followed buy crunching into a maggot invested duplicate, plus Rimmer on hearing the machine can produce about five fruits a week, sarcastically declaring they could have a whole fruit salad by the end of the year is a highlight.
There is something about Rimmer’s sarcasm in the face of outlandish sci-fi concepts and his complete disregard and unwillingness to be awed, that works not just for a comedic effect but as a great buffer for the non-sci-fi fans in the audience. Red Dwarf is a sitcom after all; plenty of it’s audience really don’t care about the sciency-fictionay stuff, they just want jokes. Rimmer puncturing the sci-fi bubble helps bring at times an accessibility to the material. I’d argue that the earlier and later series lacked this element a little, perhaps leaning on the sci-fi a little harder.
Lister casually tries reversing the process and manages to destroy Red Dwarf while creating two duplicates of the ship, one divine and one grotesque. Its really a riff on the old Two Kirks in the transporter malfunction from Star Trek but its done here on a much larger scale (the whole of Red Dwarf and its crew) as well as pushing things much further than Star Trek ever managed. It’s interesting that on the bad ship, Rimmer has risen to be the sexually perverted, homicidal leader of the team and Lister is little more than a cackling imbecile. Another great performance form Chris Barrie that adds yet more depth to Rimmer-Prime, though all the cast shine in their multiple roles. Funny, clever and at times genuinely bordering on gross-out horror.
5.06 Back To Reality
While Gunmen of the Apocalypse got the Emmy, this is perhaps my favourite (with a caveat) episode of Red Dwarf. Back to Reality frequently makes fans’ top five and often appears at the number one spot. It had such a lasting impact that the narrative ideas were re-visited with a meta-twist when Red Dwarf returned our to screens in Back To Earth.
After investigating a research facility where everyone (including the fish) have committed suicide, StarBug gets chased by a giant squid and crashes, killing everyone on board. Game Over, the screen reads in what was, at that time, not actually an over done gag. Our heroes wake up to discover their entire lives, as they knew them, had in fact been part of a high-end virtual reality video game. And they’d been really bad at it. What follows is one of Red Dwarf’s funniest and most thoughtful stories. The Boys from the Dwarf slowly discover they’re nothing like their Dwarf personas, even going as far as to find out they’re are the antithesis of who they believed themselves to be. Rimmer is a junkie tramp, Kryten is a macho, half human cop, Lister is an amoral, elitist, fascist leader and The Cat, of course, is Dwayne Dibley.
The episode provides us with the superb sequence of the gang on StarBug – after we, the audience, have been let in on the fact they’re hallucinating – acting out a dramatic car chase sat on old crates. Its not only a fantastic bit of physical comedy but also allows us to understand how the Dwarfers are hallucinating. The boys seeing a much cooler group of players playing the game better than them is a great gag and Craig Charles is especially good in the episode which reminds us again, as the whole series has, that Lister is, underneath everything else, a very good, noble and compassionate man.
While very funny throughout, the epsiode probably dips its toes earnestly into dramatic realms more than most episodes previously? though manages never to lose sight of the comedy, even if it ends on a slightly gag free but oddly poignant note. The episode, like many others in the show’s history, isn’t necessarily the most original of ideas but it plays with established science fictions ideas while putting a very Red Dwarf twist on things. After all, I don’t think the Wachowskis could ever have come up with a scene of Neo jumping around the living quarters of his ship pretending to beat up invisible guards!
What are your favourite episodes - and season - of Red Dwarf? Is season five the best and brightest? Let us know in the comments below...