Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 6: “Can of Worms”

Red Dwarf XI, "Can of Worms"

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.

Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 5: “Krysis”

Red Dwarf XI, "Krysis"

“Give & Take” was the episode I was looking forward to most in this batch…and it was okay. That disappointed me, because I was expecting something great, and got something that was…okay. Admittedly it’s the kind of episode likely to improve over time, with repeat watches, so my opinion on it could well change. But for now?

It was okay.

“Krysis” was, by a landslide, the episode I was looking forward to least.

And it was also okay, but that’s a huge step up from what I expected, and I’ll take it.

Kryten’s an odd character. He doesn’t lend himself as easily to shouldering an episode. It can be done, of course, but compared to Lister or Rimmer — both of whom have clear, identifiable desires and fears that define their characters — Kryten works more naturally as a tagalong.

That’s not meant to be any kind of slight on the character, and it’s certainly not one on Robert Llewellyn, who might be the most consistent performer on the entire show. But Kryten is there to help, by nature. To assist. To serve. Sure, he’s typically the first of the crew to piece together whatever’s going on, but it’s in that way only that he takes the lead. The rest of the time he’s selfless, he steps back, and he lets others go first.

This is who is he is. He was designed to serve, and he genuinely loves to serve. One of his running gags involves how much he absolutely adores cleaning. This naturally endears him to both Lister and Rimmer…the former because he never wants to do it, and the latter because he enjoys issuing orders.

But it’s not easy to build an episode around such a character. The two best Kryten episodes, then, tap into something more universal. “The Last Day” is a kind of riff on general mortality, and “Camille” is a love story.

Very basic stuff. In fact, they’re the kinds of stories you could plug any character into — from any production in any medium — and they’d feel like no less natural a fit.

Was there Kryten-specific and Red Dwarf-specific material in those episodes? Of course there was, and it’s that material that made both of those episodes great. My point isn’t that those episodes failed to find interesting things to do with Kryten; it’s that those episodes were sparked by a creative idea that wasn’t specific to the character.

Also instructive, I think, are the two worst Kryten episodes: “Beyond a Joke” and “Krytie TV.” The former was less “bad” than it was lacking in humor, as Kryten reconnecting with his deadbeat brother Able was better as a concept than it was as an episode of a sitcom. “Krytie TV” was about him broadcasting invasive pornography for prisoners to masturbate to, so Lister trims his pubes.

Those episodes, arguably, were more specific to the character than the good ones. “Beyond a Joke” was about two mechanoids, and the very different ways in which they processed the information they learned about their origins. “Krytie TV” was fucking garbage, but it was specific to Kryten as a masculine character who had been classified as a woman, and so was in a unique position to broadcast invasive pornography for prisoners to masturbate to while Lister trims his pubes.

Based on that alone, the best Kryten plot is the one that’s less specific to who he actually is, and more of a relateable situation that just so happens to be filtered through a robot.

Fortunately, that’s where “Krysis” lands. It’s not a great episode of Red Dwarf, but it actually was not half bad. “Kryten becomes a hotrod” wasn’t a promising direction in my mind — and sure enough that was the worst part, complete with totally unnecessary screeching-tire sound effects — but the episode took us to several interesting places along the way.

It went from being a very frivolous idea for a story to one that, ultimately, I was convinced was worth telling. That’s an achievement.

There was a lot to like in this one, and it’s giving me a good amount of hope for the long-anticipated Cat-centric episode next week.

And it did far more with the mid-life crisis angle than I expected. It also brought that particular thread full circle, as Kryten causes The Universe Himself to question the value of anything.

But the real star was Butler, a great guest performance in a series that’s had a good number of them. (Compare just about any one-off character in XI to just about any one-off character in X and you’ll see how far we’ve come.)

Butler was an absolutely perfect foil for Kryten, being irritating in precisely the right way, getting under his skin for precisely the right reasons. Butler, far from being an embarrassing reminder of Kryten’s early years, has actually used his centuries of freedom to develop intellectually, embrace his artistic side, make friends, and basically become everything a sanitation droid (and Lister’s personal cleanup crew) was never intended to be.

And it’s played perfectly. It’s easy to understand why Kryten would bristle so, and just as easy to understand why Rimmer (and maybe less enthusiastically the rest of the crew) would want to convince him to come along. And all of this is accomplished without, I feel, pushing the audience too far in either direction. I don’t think we’re meant to hate the guy any more than we’re meant to hope he joins the cast; we’re supposed to see both sides, and “Krysis” absolutely succeeds in that. It’s a complex treatment of a character in a show that, lately, feels like it’s lost its complexity.

The more I think about “Krysis,” the more I like it. It fell down a bit here and there, and not all the gags landed or were necessary, but I appreciate what it tried to do, and I largely appreciate how it went about doing it.

I also like that this works as a quiet companion piece to “Beyond a Joke.” In that episode Kryten looked at Able and could say, relieved, “That’s what I could have been.” Here, though, he looks at Butler and can say, jealously, “That’s what I could have been.”

It was handled quite well, and that’s due in large part to the guest performance that does most of the episode’s heavy lifting for us. “Krysis” doesn’t rely on the main cast to tell us what we’re meant to think.

I could have done without so many specific callbacks to previous episodes (416 of them by my count, and surprisingly not one of them was “Beyond a Joke”) but that’s a small gripe. That shows the need for a beltsander rather than a hacksaw, and I’m not complaining.

So, not as good as “Twentica,” but somewhere between “Samsara” and “Give & Take” I think.

“Krysis” is a very pleasant surprise, and this is already the strongest series we’ve had since VI. I’m very excited to see next week’s finale. (The review on that one may be a day or so later than usual. Thanks in advance for your patience!)

Let’s see where it takes us.

Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 4: “Officer Rimmer”

"Officer Rimmer," Red Dwarf XI

Okay, that was pretty awful.

Easily the weakest of the run so far, “Officer Rimmer” is an episode that seems to exist only because multiple Rimmer episodes have worked very well in the past. (Mainly “Me^2” and “Rimmerworld,” but we’ve seen the replicated man in many others.) But it’s missing something important: stuff to laugh at.

My biggest concern with Dave-era Red Dwarf, prior to this series at least, was that it wasn’t very funny. It had the odd great moment, the solid plot idea, the good performance, but overall I just wasn’t laughing.

That changed with this series. It really felt like the show I remembered. Maybe these episodes weren’t as funny as the classic years, but they were funny enough to stand beside them. “Twentica” was great. “Samsara” and “Give & Take” were less great, but they kept me laughing.

“Officer Rimmer” didn’t. Something just felt like it was missing…some crucial little part that failed to keep the gears turning. Which is a shame, because Rimmer episodes in general tend to be very good. He’s a rich character who at heart is both a deeply selfish bastard and a half-decent guy. There’s a relateable inner conflict to the man that fuels the show’s funniest moments and its most affecting.

Early in Red Dwarf, it was Chris Barrie who understood his character best. Lister and The Cat took a while to get going, whether that’s down to the actors, the writing, the direction, or any number of other things. But watching the very first episode of the show — for all of its other flaws — it’s clear that Chris understood what made Rimmer who he was.

It wasn’t enough to know that he was insufferable…Chris knew why he was insufferable. It wasn’t enough to know that he was self-important…Chris knew what fed that self-importance. And, more relevant to this episode, it wasn’t enough to know that he wanted to be an officer…Chris knew what made him want to be an officer.

Chris understood Rimmer, which is what made the character work so well, what made it worth spending so much time with him, and why it was worth duplicating him. Multiple Rimmers meant multiple paths of insight. Multiple avenues for comedy, sure, but that would have been true of any character, and it’s not as though anyone’s clamoring for an episode full of Cats.

Rimmer is a terrible human being who both doesn’t have to be terrible and is fated to be terrible. He has positive qualities — he’s organized, he’s professional, he’s always got a pen — but he presses those qualities too hard, for the wrong reason, on the wrong people and in the wrong context. He turns them into negatives. He, quite literally, works against himself.

He’s nearly always this side of lovable, and he never drifts too far in either direction. The lessons he learns aren’t temporary, exactly, but they don’t tip the scales enough either way to change him for good. He’s a man who should know better, and one who week by week does know better, yet is still tripping endlessly over the line between good guy and utter bastard.

In short, Rimmer, as a character, has a lot to offer the show. And “Officer Rimmer” just makes a bunch of copies of him sit in a room for a while, and then a monster comes.


The episode starts off well enough in theory. A while back I wondered about ethical conflicts. It’s easy, in a narrative, to create ethical conflict by having a character do something good, which backfires horribly and becomes bad. It’s nowhere near as easy to reverse the ethical conflict: have a character do something bad, which actually turns out to be good.

The problem, as I outlined it at least, is that good people will be devastated to know that their actions resulted — however indirectly — in a bad outcome for others. When you reverse it, however, there’s no such innate reaction. Bad people might accidentally bring good into the world, but they don’t care. It won’t keep them up at night. They might be disappointed, at most, but they’ll go on with their lives, doing more awful things, and never look back.

“Officer Rimmer,” impressively, reverses the conflict and pulls it off.

The crew receives a distress call from another ship, with one crewman aboard. The ship is on the verge of being destroyed in an asteroid storm, with an explosion that will take our crew down with him if he gets any closer. Rimmer happens upon a very Rimmer solution: blow the guy up before he gets close enough to do them any harm.

Only the missile doesn’t blow him up. It blows his wing off, knocks him out of the asteroid storm, and saves his life.

Selfish intention, selfless result. And Rimmer doesn’t just shrug and move on with his life because the rescued crewman is so grateful that he offers Rimmer a promotion. It’s a nice way to reward questionable ethics, and complicate the situation for the rest of the crew as well. In short, it’s good.


The other crewman was bio-printed, and the bio-printer jammed, because printers jam, and his head was printed all screwy, because when printers jam they print things all screwy, which is a pretty dumb visual joke in itself.

It doesn’t get any better when the crew sit around insulting his appearance while the guy is in genuine mortal peril. I believe Rimmer would do it. To an extent, so would The Cat. But I definitely don’t believe the crew as a whole to be that assholish. At least not until after they were sure he’s okay.

Then they rescue him, and that’s fine. Rimmer starts instituting officer-only elevators, corridors, and TV-programming, which is…fine, too, I guess. Not especially funny, but not horrible.

Then we remember we have a bio-printer, though, and at one point Rimmer verbally decides to print a shitload of copies of himself and stuff an Officer’s Club with them.


We’ve seen multiple Rimmers before, of course, but always due to side effects of some other decision. I don’t think Rimmer’s ever said, “Eh, I can’t think of anything else to do in this episode, so let’s just pack a room full of me.” Here, though, that’s basically what happens, and it rings false.

Maybe Rimmer would clone himself once, and that clone would have to be subservient to him. It rebels, though, and prints a bunch of other ones to gang up on Rimmer Prime. Or maybe Kryten gives Lister his (very good) bit of non-instruction about operating the bio-scanner, and Lister prints a bunch of Rimmers either a) accidentally or b) to teach Rimmer a lesson.

I could see those things happening. I really can’t see Rimmer printing off dozens of copies of himself for the fuck of it. Especially since he didn’t do anything but serve as doorman for his own club full of them. (He printed off a barbershop quartet, but he wouldn’t have printed off a doorman?)

Anyway, some time passes and Rimmer realizes that he didn’t print out an evil monster version of himself with multiple heads, and he might as well do that before the bio-printer vanishes from existence next week. Everyone runs around for a bit, Rimmer rescinds his officerhood (which…is a thing you can do, I guess?), and Lister fires a gun at the episode, killing it instantly.

Seriously. We’re dropped straight into the credits with no resolution at all. Yes, presumably Mt. Rimmer is dead, but that’s not how resolutions work, and Red Dwarf knows that.

At any point, in any episode, we could cut right to credits with the implication being that whatever the problem was has sorted itself out and we’ll get to a new thing next week, but that’s not storytelling. That’s getting bored and giving up.

It felt careless. It felt narratively sloppy. And the way the episode ended makes it feel like it wasn’t all that interested in itself.

“Officer Rimmer” didn’t sound all that exciting, but that’s because we’ve seen the show trod similar territory in the past, and I didn’t think it could find a way to surprise me.

Sadly, it found a way to surprise me.

Join me next week, for “Kryten Becomes a Hotrod.”

Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 3: “Give & Take”

Red Dwarf XI, "Give & Take"

When information about Red Dwarf XI started spilling out, it was “Give & Take” that intrigued me most. The plot sounded great. The images of the scary-looking medical robot were genuinely menacing. The clips were action-heavy and atmospheric. So “Give & Take” was always the one I was really looking forward to seeing.

And now I’ve seen it, and it was okay.

It wasn’t bad, and I’m not even disappointed that it didn’t match my specific expectations. It did something a bit different from what I expected, and that’s fine. In fact, I like a lot of what it tried to do. It’s just that I wasn’t especially thrilled by the actual execution.

The plot does indeed focus around a deranged medical robot…for a short time, at least. We get a bit of buildup before the robot is revealed, and then he’s dealt with fairly quickly. The rest of the episode has to do with the fallout from the crew’s encounter with him…namely the fact that he snatched Lister’s kidneys.

And it was okay.

The problem is that without kidneys, Lister will die. Kryten buys him a bit of time with a home-made plot device, but the crew is in a pickle: Lister’s only potential donor is The Cat, who both doesn’t want to donate a kidney and is of a different species. This leads to some nice character conflict, and is probably the hardest the show has ever leaned into The Cat’s innate selfishness.

And it was okay.

“Give & Take” felt messy. So did “Samsara,” but that at least had a clear structure and an understanding of what it was doing. I’ll admit that much, even if I took issues with both of those things.

Here, though, it feels like a series of set pieces that flow one from the other without actually feeling like they’re connected. This is especially disappointing to report about an episode that has a full-circle narrative. (More on that in a moment, though.)

First, the good, because I laughed quite a bit. Less than I laughed in the previous two episodes, but Red Dwarf doesn’t live or die by its comedy alone, so that’s not a bad thing. The reveal that Rimmer and Kryten had invited a snack machine aboard — and not the medical genius they assumed — made me laugh for so long that I missed a good deal of the following scene.

It was perfectly executed. Not necessarily snappy or even clever, but a big dumb bit of punctuation that landed as well as anything ever landed in the classic years. In fact, later-series Red Dwarf has always struggled with these one-off characters, so it’s worth celebrating the fact that Snacky in general was a very welcome exception to the disappointing norm.

Also, does this mean that Kerry Shale’s medibot from the previous series has officially been written out of the show’s continuity? Let’s hope the living fuck so.

“Give & Take” had a few really good lines throughout, especially during The Cat’s refusal to donate a kidney, but aside from that, Snacky was my highlight.

I was surprised by the fact that the crew discovered Snacky’s true nature so far into the episode. They could have figured it out the moment they left the exploding space station and nothing would have changed. Sure, we’d have lost the therapy session with Rimmer, but that’s about the only reason to keep it a secret. And it’s not like Rimmer thought Snacky was a psychiatry-bot anyway so…whatever. Moving on.

The issue with the crew realizing that Snacky is a vending machine is mainly the length of time the scene takes.

When we learn about Snacky it’s because he turns around. When the crew learns about Snacky they all stand around repeating themselves for ages, while Snacky does the same. What we learned early in the episode from a character simply walking away the crew learns later, much more slowly, much more gratingly, much less efficiently and effectively.

Which was sort of a problem throughout. Whether it’s Rimmer berating an elevator or Kryten tricking The Cat into being Lister’s donor, things just take so long to happen.

The latter case was especially egregious, because we saw Kryten take time to convince The Cat that The Cat is the one who needs a kidney, The Cat take time to manipulate Lister into believing he’s willing to donate his own, and Kryten come in to explain everything we just saw happen and then, additionally, reveal to The Cat the truth that we knew all along.

Little of it was actually funny, all of it went on far too long. And when we realize that the entire thing was a long red herring (as they couldn’t use The Cat’s kidney anyway) it seems like an awful lot of time spent setting up something that didn’t even happen.

I’m also not convinced that the episode needed to go the time-travel route for its resolution. Maybe it’s because we had a time-travel plot just a couple of weeks back. Or maybe because in a sci-fi comedy you have any number of possible solutions at your fingertips, so “Now the stasis booth is a time machine, but only this once” feels, at the very least, inelegant.

It also introduces the potential for paradoxes. If they steal the previous Lister’s kidney, then doesn’t that prevent the entire rest of the episode from even happening? And the initial exchange between Rimmer and the lift seems to imply that the end of this episode already happened. (In other words, Lister was never hungover…his recovery was always due to the meddling of the future crew.) Which means that when the robot tried to steal Lister’s kidneys, they would be missing already.

Maybe I’m overthinking that, or I’m having trouble retaining a detail I would need in order for the episode to make sense. But, either way, the kidney either has to end up transported to the future, or destroyed in the crazy medi-bot’s lab. It can’t be both.

Whatever. Untangling any Dwarf time-travel romp reveals inconsistencies…it’s just a matter of how bothersome they are logistically (hello there, Tikka to Ride!), and whether or not you’re laughing enough (or invested enough) to justify any potential narrative incongruities. “Give & Take” didn’t grab me the way it needed to in order to keep my mind from wandering.

In fact, it wandered a lot.

Why did the crew have no qualms about outright chloroforming Lister in order to steal his kidney, but did seem reluctant to do that to The Cat?

Why did we see the crazy medi-bot wandering around the exploding space station after he’d been shot? I thought we’d find out that he got aboard Starbug somehow, but…no. He still died in the explosion. So…why did we need to see him get up and wander around at all? Why not just let him be killed in the shootout?

Why in the world did an episode about kidneys and time travel and insane robots have a punchline in which a lift moves really fast?

I was looking very forward to “Give & Take.” And I liked a lot about it. But it’s also my biggest disappointment so far from series XI. “Twentica” had a solid idea and had a lot of fun with it. “Samsara” was less successful, and the seams were showing, but there was a lot to like. “Give & Take,” though…

It was okay.

And I’m deeply sorry to report that.

Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 2: “Samsara”

Red Dwarf XI, "Samsara"

“Twentica” seemed to be a pretty divisive episode. I don’t read other reviews until after I post my own, so I was pretty surprised to learn this. To me it was a clear return to form, and it measured up pretty well to the show’s glory years. I resisted the urge to nitpick because anything I could have pointed out would have paled in comparison to the much more important takeaway: this was an episode of Red Dwarf that I genuinely enjoyed. I’ll take a few dumb lines or sloppy edits any day if the overall product is strong enough.

“Twentica” was strong enough. “Samsara,” bless its well-intentioned little heart, is not.

I’ll say this right now: it wasn’t bad. It was also far better, and more enjoyable, and funnier, than the weaker episodes of series X. Should “Samsara” turn out to be one of the weaker episodes of XI, then that marks a kind of progress, and a welcome one.

The concept behind “Samsara” is…well, it’s not bad, but it is a bit clunky. Whereas “Twentica” took one idea and ran with it, “Samsara” takes one idea, explores it for a bit, reverses it, talks about the consequences of that reversal, and frames the entire thing as a sort of mystery about what happened…with digressions into a mini-bottle episode featuring Lister and The Cat and a few dips into a story that took place three million years ago with a completely different crew.

And yet, I’ll give “Samsara” credit for not feeling overstuffed. If anything, some of these ideas get too much breathing room rather than too little.

Maybe it’s worth comparing this to “Justice” as well as “Twentica,” as that episode gets a nod here in Kryten’s explanation for what’s happening. That episode could also be described as narratively busy. Lister has space mumps, the crew pick up an escape pod, they take it to a prison world in case it contains some crazy robot, the prison world automatically scans for evidence of past crimes, Rimmer is convicted of murdering the crew, Kryten discovers that the computer actually detects feelings of guilt rather than culpability, any crime you try to commit happens to you instead of your victim, Lister squares off with a simulant…

Okay. Those are a lot of ideas, but they all feel natural. Watching “Justice” we slip fairly organically from one concept to the next, and a few of them come together in the climax. Also, we’re laughing, which helps.

“Samsara” isn’t as graceful. It might not be graceful at all. There’s a nice bit of visual artistry when one image in one timeline serves as our pivot point into the other, but beyond that it’s two parallel sequences of events trying very hard to tell just one story.

“Justice” is an instructive point of comparison. That episode, in theory, could also have hurled us back in time to show us what life was like on Justice World, how the Justice Field works, the kind of impact it had on prisoners, the ways in which they (potentially) could have exploited it…but it doesn’t need to do that. It makes all of this clear enough just by having the Dwarfers explore it, face the consequences themselves, and work out everything else from there.

“Samsara,” I think, resorts to the dual timelines because it can’t think of another way to convey all of the information it thinks the audience will need. That’s evidenced by the fact that the second, earlier timeline doesn’t seem to have had as much effort invested in it. Each cut to it feels something like a tutorial pop-up in a video game; Doug asks himself, “What will the audience need to know next?” and then cuts to somebody who tells us, after which we get back to the action.

The story is good, but I think I prefer episodes like “Justice,” “DNA,” “Back to Reality,” and so forth not just because they’re better episodes, but because it’s more rewarding to piece together the puzzle alongside the crew than it is to see a set of guest characters actually going through the motions. Any previous episode could have done that in order to spill its mysteries, but this, I think, is the first time one has resorted to it.

I could explain the specifics of the plot here, but anyone who watched the episode already knows, and I don’t think it’s worth the spoiler for those who haven’t seen it yet. Giving the game away wouldn’t really add to what I’m saying here anyway.

On the bright side, the performances by the main cast were great. “Twentica” showed us that the four actors were back to being comfortable in their roles, and that’s true here as well. The writing isn’t as strong, but the performances certainly elevate it. Danny in particular tried his damnedest to elevate some truly ropey material, and sometimes he even succeeded. Robert was reliably good, as ever, even if he did seem to be left out of the comedy for the most part.

Chris Barrie and Craig Charles were both at their best, but, again, at times the material failed them. Chris was let down by overlong repetitions of a singular gag in the opening, and Craig by an overlong dialogue with The Cat later on. In neither case were the jokes strong enough to warrant their length, and they both felt like odd padding in an episode that had no shortage of better ideas.

We’ll deal with each of those scenes separately.

The Cat / Lister pairing was an inspired idea. I’ve always enjoyed how well these two characters play off of each other. Typically The Cat’s jokes are just for The Cat. Pair him with Kryten and Kryten will just roll his eyes. Pair him with Rimmer and Rimmer will just roll his eyes, and sometimes grit his teeth at an insult. But pair him with Lister and Lister will try to engage with him. He’ll explain things to him. He’ll let the dialogue develop. So putting them together here was a great idea, and I love how much room they’re given to just talk.

But what they talked about didn’t do it for me, and at some point I was wishing we did have Rimmer or Kryten to shut him up. This is no reflection on Danny at all, but the conversation about inventors, in which The Cat mistook Newton for Archimedes…and misunderstood what Archimedes did anyway…and then talked for a while about bathtubs sliding out of airplanes…it just got dull. Not to mention the observational comedy about in-flight service, which gave me nightmarish flashbacks of the phone support gags in “Trojan.” How would The Cat even know about in-flight service anyway, let alone have such fiery opinions about it? See, that’s what I’m doing when I’m not laughing; I’m questioning the point of what we’re watching.

It’s a great idea — a mini-Marooned with Danny in the second chair — but this isn’t talk of virginity and culture and reincarnation. This is Peabody’s Improbable History.

The opening scenes fare much better, I think. Doug has had a bit of trouble writing back-and-forth dialogue between Rimmer and Lister overall, but it felt correct here. It was funny. It was well-handled. The “charmed life” exchange being especially well performed, and something I could easily imagine slotting into the classic series of your choice.

But the gag with the dice rolling…my goodness. This one was giving me nightmarish flashbacks of the psychiatrist asking Kryten if his chair was screwed to the floor. It tied into the rest of the plot, sure, but by no means deserved the amount of screentime it got, and I began to feel bad for Chris Barrie at one point, as he had to keep finding different ways to make the same action and outcome feel like they were worth watching. And I don’t mean rolling with his hands versus the cup, or switching seats…I mean having to find different ways to express through his voice and his face that Rimmer was not going to give up on this.

By the time Rimmer finishes rolling, we’re five minutes into the episode. The scene could have easily been half as long and had the same impact. Heck, we could have cut to the two of them arguing later about how unlikely it was that Rimmer rolled a two and a one seven times in a row. Hearing about it would have been a lot funnier than seeing it.

It’s also odd that the punchline of the entire episode is that Rimmer finds out the Karma Drive was rewarding Lister. This is odd because a) we already know Lister was cheating, so it doesn’t surprise us and b) Rimmer figured this out in an earlier scene anyway, so it shouldn’t surprise him. What’s the point of ending there? It makes the game of Mine-Opoly (hohoho) feel, structurally, like the most important thing in the episode.

So, whatever. “Samsara” wasn’t “Twentica.” But it had some great ideas, even if they were just evolved forms of something we’ve already seen in a superior episode. I really did like the idea of pairing up Lister and The Cat. The bunkroom dialogue was better than it’s been in ages. And there were a few pretty good jokes (and plenty of great character moments) sprinkled throughout.

XI still has every chance to be good. “Samsara” is flawed, but nowhere near bad enough to write off entirely, and it’s not an episode I’d see myself skipping over in the future. It’s just that I was really hoping for another great episode, and instead I got one that was only pretty good.

You know what? I’ll take it. Let’s see how episode three plays out.

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