I mentioned last week that Kryten is a potentially difficult character to build stories around. Here’s a confession, though: part of the reason I made that observation is that I knew that this week’s episode — the last in series XI — was about The Cat. And if Kryten is potentially difficult, The Cat is a problem the show never before cracked. In fact, I’m still not sure it has.
But, you know what? I really enjoyed “Can of Worms.”
And that says something, because I actually wanted to hate it.
Watching it, I was almost relentlessly frustrated. “Can of Worms” contained so much of what often holds latter-day Dwarf back from being great. It recycled plot lines. It leaned on silly faces and references to previous episodes. It underused a guest character. It felt cobbled together from at least four different scripts.
I wanted to abhor it.
…but I couldn’t. Because it was very funny, sometimes quite clever, and always a lot of fun. “Can of Worms” isn’t great, but it’s a riot.
Until this week, we’ve never had a Cat episode. Sure, there was “Waiting for God,” the runaway worst episode of the classic years, way back in series I, but even that was more about his species and its history than it was about him.
And that was it. No other episode even came close to being “about” The Cat. There was, of course, “The Identity Within,” which was written for series VII. It was never made, though…a fact that immediately makes it the best episode of series VII, but still means we had no Cat episode.
We had no Cat episode, I’m sure, because there isn’t much about him that’s conducive to driving complete stories.
He’s vain, he’s selfish, he’s a bit dumb. Any of that could be at the center of a narrative, but I think it’s safe to say that Red Dwarf has been most comfortable keeping those things on the sidelines, tapping into them for punchlines or isolated sequences, and otherwise just leaving them be.
See, each of the other characters has a bit of emotional give. Lister is a lazy slob, but he’s ethical and caring. Rimmer is an abrasive coward, but he’s fragile and has a conflicted soul. Kryten is an anal exposition bot, but he has real desires and is unfailingly loyal.
The Cat doesn’t have a but. He’s vain, he’s selfish, he’s a bit dumb. That’s it.
Earlier in this very series he refused to give a dying Lister one of his kidneys, and that wasn’t an episode-specific development. I genuinely believe that he would always have refused, at every point in the show’s run, and would continue to refuse in a hypothetical series XX. That was true to the character, and it also illustrates why he’s not a natural protagonist.
TV shows (and novels, and films) nearly always require some kind of arc. A character starts somewhere, then experiences something, and ends up somewhere else. The Cat, by nature, stalls at step two. He doesn’t learn any lessons, not even temporarily for the purposes of an episode. He’s him, and he’s gorgeous. Why would he change?
And so “Can of Worms” doesn’t evolve the character. He doesn’t express some moral awakening the way Lister does. He doesn’t reel from a dark exploration of his psyche the way Rimmer does. He doesn’t embrace some newfound taste of humanity the way Kryten does. He’s The Cat when the episode begins, he’s The Cat throughout, and he’s The Cat at the end.
That in itself is not a bad thing, but it does mean that the episode this one most reminded me of was “Only the Good…” That one ended series VIII with a barely-connected series of skits that didn’t so much build upon each other as sat next to each other until the episode ran out of time.
“Can of Worms” flits similarly from idea to idea, but it’s not as dissatisfying. This is for two reasons.
One: As we’ve said, The Cat can’t experience a narrative journey the way the other characters can, so an episode “about” him needs to be more about the things that happen around him.
And, more importantly, two: the ideas that flit around are funny.
Danny John-Jules really has gotten better with each series, and I honestly feel that his performance over the decades culminates in the great scene in which he describes his first sexual experience. It was funny, oddly sweet, a little disgusting, and perfectly delivered. The punchline (“It still counts!”) served as absolutely perfect punctuation, entirely in keeping with the character, and it was a highlight of the entire series.
The Cat wasn’t the only character who got great moments, though. Lister’s face before his emotional surgery — and the reveal that Kryten hadn’t started yet — got a huge laugh out of me. The three simultaneous Mexican standoffs toward the end were also a hugely funny surprise, and they redeemed the fact that so much of the basic idea had already been done before in “Polymorph.” (I also have to admit that I laughed for a very long time at Lister shooting The Cat without knowing that it wasn’t really his crewmate. Again, a similar idea to what we’ve seen before, but a surprising take on it.)
The biggest disappointment for me came early. After finally meeting a female cat, we learn much too quickly that she’s a shapeshifter. At first my disappointment was simply the fact that we’ve seen Red Dwarf use that development a few times already, but really the biggest issue is that we didn’t spend more time with her. Like Butler from the last episode, she was a nice parallel version of a character we know, and her relationship with The Cat is one I really wish we could have explored without immediately shifting into another kind of episode altogether.
But you know what? These are nitpicks. And they’re nitpicks about an episode that, by all rights, should be riddled with issues.
Red Dwarf did the impossible this week. It didn’t give us a latter-day episode that felt like the classic years; it gave us a latter-day episode that felt like a latter-day episode and was still really good.
I think that says a lot about series XI. If you’ve been following these reviews…well, thank you! But, also, if you’ve been following these reviews, you know how much happier I am with this batch of episodes than I was with series X.
And I think “Can of Worms” really showed me why that was. As much as I could poke at X and dissect it and prattle on about its flaws, it really came down to one fact: I wasn’t laughing. I can poke at “Can of Worms” and dissect it and prattle on about its flaws, too, but I was laughing, and that makes all the difference.
Series XI has been funny. No, scratch that. Series XI has been very funny, and it’s the happiest I’ve been with the show in ages. I don’t want to say Red Dwarf is back, because that implies that it’s become whatever it used to be. And it hasn’t. But I will say that Red Dwarf seems to have found itself a second wind. It’s found a groove that works for it. It’s not exactly what we knew before, and that’s okay. It may even be a good thing.
It’s confident. It’s smart. It’s very funny. It’s easily the best the show has been in twenty-three years.
Latter-day Red Dwarf has found its voice. And since series XII was shot almost immediately following this one, I’d guess this unexpected streak isn’t over quite yet.
I will end this review by briefly mentioning something about series XI as a whole: I’m surprised by how divisive these episodes have been. In the last series, we could pretty easily identify the two everyone liked (“Lemons,” “The Beginning”) and the two everyone hated (“Entangled,” “Dear Dave”). This time around, though, just about every episode seems to be somebody’s favorite and somebody’s least favorite.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, and, I admit, I don’t have anything intelligent to add to that. I don’t even have any theories. I just find it very interesting.
Personally, though? I’m happy with the entire series. I have my favorites and my least favorites, but even the lows here are higher than almost all of series X and Back to Earth. We’re on an upswing, and I look forward to seeing how high it takes us.
Of course, though, what’s a review series without a definitive ranking that you’re wrong if you disagree with?
“Twentica” > “Krysis” > “Can of Worms” > “Samsara” > “Give & Take” > sitting on Kryten’s screwdriver > “Officer Rimmer”
I’ll see you all for series XII. Thanks for reading. Oh, and do share your favorites and least favorites in the comments. I really do find it fascinating.