Alright, pop-pickers. To celebrate this very special occasion, G&T presents a definitive (well, definitive to us) countdown…
Depending on which way you want to look at it, today is either Red Dwarf‘s twentieth birthday, or its twentieth anniversary. Colloquially, it sounds better to say “birthday” – but then, there’s nothing particularly special about twentieth birthdays, especially compared to eighteenths or twenty-firsts (TORDFC certainly seem to think so), whereas a twentieth anniversary is considered A Big Deal. So… call it what you will, basically, but we at G&T thought we’d do something a bit bloody special to celebrate.
So we’ve decided to have it out, once and for all. Cards on the table, bloody-minded opinionating. What you are about to read is, for the first time, the absolute definitive list of all fifty-two episodes of Red Dwarf, ranked by how good this website collectively thinks they are. To our knowledge, it’s the first episode poll that’s been done in a long time – and while it’s not a widespread, expansive fan poll like some of the ones in the past (hey, never say never), we’d like to think that the years of Dwarf-related writing from this site’s team have given us, at least, a fairly authoritative voice with which to talk about these things. Not that we’re telling you we’re right, of course. You will disagree with us. You will debate our choices bitterly. And that’s exactly what we want, because lively debate – from a complete spectrum of opinions – is what this site has always been about. But nevertheless – this is What We Think.
In the interests of transparency, this is how we voted – six out of the eight team members (Tanya declined to vote, having not seen the entirety of VII and VIII and considering that this would produce an unfair skew, while Austin is unfortunately disconnected from the ‘net at the moment, and a bloody great big ocean is in the way stopping us from hammering on his front door and shouting at him) each compiled a list of every episode, ranked in order of personal preference. These votes were then compiled in a big lovely spreadsheet by Seb (who likes playing with big lovely spreadsheets), and points were awarded based on the rankings. The points were allocated so that episodes placed in the top ten (and, to a further extent, in the top five and then the top three) were given a slightly higher advantage, much like, say, motor racing points systems give proportionally higher reward to race wins and podium finishes. From the top ten down, the rankings were each a point apart, running down to no points for 52nd place. Amazingly, this produced a list that, while there was the odd bit of consternation (usually about an episode being a bit low), we were all fairly happy with. Certainly, while our top three episodes weren’t all in everyone’s own personal top fives (which, incidentally, you can see listed at the very end of the article), we feel that they are representative of an averaged, overall opinion. After this, between us we collaborated to write the individual pieces on each episode that you’ll read below. Truly a team effort. Team. Meat pie. A-Team. And so on.
Right, then. Enough of all this. Shall we get started?
52. Pete (Part Two)
Anything that can be said about this episode has already been a million times over, so we’ll restrict ourselves to stating that it’s about as far removed from everything that Red Dwarf should be – on every level – as it’s possible to get.
51. Back in the Red (Part Three)
Oh, and it was all going so well. A completely unnecessary third part that contains, in the shape of the Blue Midget dance, the most self-indulgently shite moment in Dwarf history.
50. Beyond a Joke
It’s not easy slagging off Robert Llewellyn, given that he’s such a nice bloke – but come on. This exploration of Kryten’s background could have been great, if only it actually had a single moment, anywhere, that could be remotely described as funny. More aptly described, by people crueller than us, as “Barely a Joke”.
49. Pete (Part One)
If this had been a one-part episode called Captain’s Office, it might have been salvageable, as it at least contains some actual Jokes. But the basketball sequence can fuck right off, and the rest of the main cast flounder in the sequences without Rimmer and Lister.
48. Krytie TV
Even when series VIII was at its unfunniest, it wasn’t usually downright offensive. Sadly, Krytie TV, with its sexism and complete ignorance of any established facets of the main characters, managed to plumb such depths.
47. Duct Soup
This is an ep that those who hate it really hate, whereas some of us find it more tolerable than much of VII/VIII. There’s no denying that it suffers from being the first Rimmer-less episode, though, and Kochanski simply doesn’t step up to the plate.
46. Back in the Red (Part Two)
As with part one, there are at least jokes here. And they almost cover up the glaringly ridiculous holes in the plotting. Almost. But they don’t excuse the dreadful, dreadful ending.
45. Only The Good…
Given that it does have some good moments, you suspect this ep might have ranked higher were it not for the fact that, as Probably The Last Ever Episode, it really needs to be a lot more than a half-arsed mirror-universe story. And the Talia stuff is excruciating.
When you take the lovely Leviathan set, an excellent performance from Gary Martin and a pretty damn decent storyline it becomes pretty plain that this episode’s chronic unfunniness was its ultimate downfall. Shame.
The plotting is never quite as clever as it thinks it is, but it has its highlights (“it’s an obscene phone call” is perhaps the best gag in VII) and little of the sense of grim foreboding that Kochanski’s appearance would later bring.
A further case of the Series VII Unfunnies aside, it could be argued that Nanarchy is relatively successful story-wise, not least because the ending provided so much hope and optimism with the welcome return of the mothership and a fairly decent Holly return. Far more successful as a series of memorable events rather than anything with any lasting substance.
41. Back in the Red (Part One)
It’s the start of a new series, Red Dwarf is back and optimism is
high. However, despite series VIII being high in many Dwarfers’ estimations, round these parts it doesn’t get cut much slack. BITR1 might be quite high up against other VII and VIII episodes, but in the wider picture it was nothing more than a crushing disappointment which would depressingly be one of the relative high points of what was to follow.
40. Stoke me a Clipper
The exit of the show’s most beloved character was never going to be a series high point, but the episode deserves credit for grasping the chance to give us a Chris Barrie packed episode… no matter how clumsy and disrespectful the ‘A COMPUTER KNIGHT DID IT’ scene was.
By any usual standards, of course, still lacklustre – but the Rimmer Experience is probably the best sustained period of comedy that the final two series offer, and oversaturated as it is nowadays, the Munchkin Song is utterly hilarious the first time you see it.
38. Tikka to Ride
As we discussed in our lengthy commentary, there’s so much potential in Tikka – by no means the funniest episode, it’s quite superbly made, and heralded a possible new “comic drama” direction the series might have moved into. That said promise was never followed up on is hardly this ep’s fault – although it loses major points for logic that is actually contradicted within the same episode. Surely a record.
37. Waiting for God
So, then, the only series I-VI episode with the dubious distinction of falling below an episode from the last two series. Rimmer’s “Quagaars” material is absolutely brilliant, but the main plot, by the standards of the early series, is desperately weak. Of all of series one, this is the one that feels the most hampered by practical limitations – the Cat Priest scene, in particular, is quite shoddily executed.
Meanwhile, the only episode from VII/VIII to actually break out of the bottom 16, Cassandra wins plaudits for actually feeling somewhat like Dwarf should do, and actually having genuinely funny jokes. It’s still not brilliant, but it at least reaches “acceptable”.
35. Parallel Universe
On Bodysnatcher, Doug admitted to being quite embarrassed by this ep. Has this coloured our opinion? It’s hard to tell, but he does have a point. There are good gags and great performances, but there is something a bit simplistic and unsubtle about the portrayal of the female universe.
34. Emohawk : Polymorph II
This triple-sequel to Polymorph, Dimension Jump and Back To Reality proves that the whole isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts. The Kinitowawi stuff is great, and it was genuinely good to see Ace and Duane again, but the final third of the episode is rather unspectacular.
33. Confidence & Paranoia
It could be the fact that it’s so strange and dark that means this ep isn’t quite so popular – or perhaps the slightly lacklustre plot. Ferguson and Cornes are both brilliant, although the latter is given precious little screen time, and indeed the ep is an early example of the “Less Rimmer = Less Good” rule.
32. The End
As a first episode, it’s great. But first episodes are never the best, and by the standards of what would follow, it does fall short in some ways, particularly by the flatness of the overall atmosphere. But you can’t take away from the manner in which it sets up the premise, and clearly defines its two lead characters, beautifully.
As a whole, perhaps the least memorable ep of series VI, despite a pretty decent concept, the main problem being that it never really feels distinctive. At times you could almost be watching both Terrorform (a terrifying world created by Rimmer) and Meltdown (the prison cell set is almost identical) – but what really saves it is one of the greatest single gags in the history of the show: “Or we could use the teleporter”.
Given that the opening act features two of Dwarf‘s most memorable moments – Kryten learning to lie, and the Cat seeing the pleasure GELF as “himself” – and that, indeed, the GELF itself is one of Rob and Doug’s most brilliantly original sci-fi concepts, it’s a shame that Camille tails off somewhat in its second half. We hope you all watched it yesterday, though.
An all too rare look at the Man Behind The Rubber Mask gives us a unique episode in DNA. Despite not being scorchingly popular, there’s no shortage of killer gags here (the Double Polariod scene containing a good number of infamous examples) and the tighter focus on Kryten is indeed most welcome. Perhaps a little too light weight at times (lol, lager kills curry!) but a great episode none-the-less.
28. Balance of Power
While it was shunted back from episode two in favour of Future Echoes, it’s clear that Balance of Power was the next step after The End in terms of clearly setting out the relationship between Rimmer and Lister – and, indeed, provides a counterpoint to their pre-accident dynamic – through some excellent character comedy.
27. Better than Life
Perhaps the quintessential example of an episode that, if the execution had been as good as the concept and script, would have been an absolute classic. But the myriad production problems are all-too-painfully obvious, and it was left to the book to handle the idea in much more spectacular fashion.
A nicely written episode that again looks into the vast array of Rimmer’s psychological problems. A classic opening scene involving an eyeball, a hand and the Copacabana that never fails to raise a smirk, plus a scene that manages to exude funniness with barely any spoken dialogue. Brilliant stuff.
Actually (see 27) here’s another episode with a great (if not as original as some have claimed) concept poorly executed. Superb individual jokes and set-pieces (the bar fight, viewed in isolation, is a masterpiece), but it’s really difficult to watch the more aware you are of the inherent logic problems. Some would claim you should ignore such things and just concentrate on the comedy. But you know us.
24. Demons & Angels
The dark nature of the episode doesn’t appeal to everyone, and the way the characters are twisted to fit the story (Lister’s cruel childhood nature has never been hinted at before – this is the same person who would rather go into stasis than give up a cat for dissection) is difficult to reconcile. But as with almost all of series V, the humour beats are still at their sharpest.
23. The Last Day
Given the chance to take centre-stage for the first time since becoming a full-time crew member, Robert’s version of Kryten doesn’t disappoint – and, in fact, feels like he’s been part of the team much longer than six episodes. There’s some excellent, almost series II-ish character material in the Officers Club scene, and Gordon Kennedy’s appearance as the deranged Hudzen is an absolute riot.
This episode served to both re-establish the premise of the series, and take it off in a whole new direction. The opening recap is a great excuse for some character stuff, and the cockpit scenes showed a lot of promise for the new dynamic of the show. Add to that the classic Dwarfy concept of two Listers trying to prove that they’re Lister, and you’ve got a great episode.
The Series 2 opener is popularly remembered mostly for two classic moments – the dogs milk routine, and the sublime “I was only away two minutes”. But beneath the surface of the fine gags, there’s also a new energy to the show in its second series, proving that the show has grown to be brighter and broader, both in terms of look and feel. Although it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Robert Llewellyn playing Kryten full time, David Ross pulls off a damn fine performance here, which occasionally makes one wonder what could have been…
Something of a fan-favourite, Polymorph is an ep that doesn’t seem to have aged particularly well – perhaps the “boxer shorts” scene is over-repeated (funny, yes, the first time. But the hundredth?), the dialogue from the “planning” scene over-quoted. But what could be a strong character exploration instead settles for fairly easy jokes, and a ridiculously “oh, is that it?” conclusion to the main threat. It’s still very funny, of course, but it’s not the sheer classic that it’s often made out to be.
OK, so the internal logic isn’t spot on here (you can’t move outside the edge of the photograph, but if there’s a picture of the outside of a building, you can appear out of nowhere in the dining room?), but the timeslides concept is a fantastic ploy for Rob and Doug to mess about with putting familiar characters in new settings. There’s the excellent stuff at Frank’s wedding, the unforgettable Hitler stuff and of course the oft-quoted scene with Emile Charles in the pub. There’s also a fantastically understated performance from Robert Addy as Gilbert, the rare double-act pairing of Lister and Cat at the very beginning, and of course Rimmer’s brilliant “who is the rich man” speech. Shame about Ruby Wax, though.
Another series III episode about which it’s best to ignore the logic problems (just how do the characters’ voices change?) in order to just enjoy it. Bodyswap almost feels like a natural partner to the lost Bodysnatcher, as it shows us a deranged Rimmer unable to cope with his hologram status any longer, and the dubbing of the voices is very well done – though we can’t help but half wish they’d kept Chris and Craig’s impersonations, as seen in the rushes, instead.
Another fantastic Grant/Naylor concept that, for once, isn’t really harmed by much in the way of faulty logic (you could argue that the mechanics of the Justice Field are pretty hard to fathom, but hey, remind me how many Stasis Booths you’ve seen lately?) The courtroom scenes are an absolute joy, as is Nicholas Ball’s turn as a gleefully malevolent simulant. Plus, of course, Justice World itself is one of the Model Unit’s finest pieces of work.
15= Dimension Jump
The show that launched a thousand t-shirts. Ace Rimmer, in this episode at least, is an absolutely perfect character. Not only do we get to see another side of Chris Barrie, but also another side to Rimmer. This really is Rob and Doug at their best; taking aspects of a character we think we know, and building something completely different around it, whilst at the same time adding to and teaching us more about Old Iron Balls. And the way each of the other characters reacts to his presence tells us something about them too. Also: condom fishing. Brilliant episode.
While you could never describe any episode of Red Dwarf as “ordinary”, this is certainly one of the more unusual ones. Not only are the crew taken off the ship, but are introduced to dozens of new characters. It’s one of the few times that the element of control is taken away from our heroes, and also a rare occasion where the audience are following two story strands at once. Always been seen as unpopular amongst fans, and we can’t really see why; Tony Hawks’s performance alone is worth the entrance fee. And for all his faults as an actor, Craig Charles plays the wistful, thought-provoking anti-war message at the end perfectly.
14. Stasis Leak
One of the most downright funny episodes of the early series, Stasis Leak represents perhaps the closest Red Dwarf comes to out-and-out farce. In addition to a pleasing return to the (generally underexplored) setup of the pre-accident ship, it provides us with a glimpse of just how hilarious a batshit-insane Rimmer can be. The “Three Listers!” climax, both in its constructed build-up and its payoff, is exquisite.
13. The Inquisitor
Heh-heh, you *could* say if this episode was visited by The Inquisitor himself it would most definitely *not* be deleted in favour of another episode! Do you see…? Ahem, needless to say this is certainly a deserving member of an extremely high quality top 20 featuring as it does the magical Series V mix of a brilliant sci-fi concept written and acted to within an inch of its life, with special mention to the trial scene for a perfect example of just how skilfully executed this episode was.
12. Gunmen of the Apocalypse
Another episode that carries the poisoned chalice of “fan favourite”, and so which has suffered something of a backlash from those who find it gimmicky, despite the fact that it really is rather brilliant. After all, they don’t just give away Emmys with breakfast cereal, do they? Changing the overall setting so drastically – even for one episode – was one of the show’s biggest gambles – but it paid off handsomely.
One of three Series V episodes to make the top 20 and *just* missing out on the Top Ten is Quarantine. The hugely iconic Mr. Flibble and be-frocked Rimmer aside, this episode is stacked with heavy quotable stuff (the entire scene actually in quarantine, for example) coupled with some of the most wonderfully scary and most atospheric scenes make this episode well deserving of its 11th place.
Craig Charles has often bemoaned the fact that Rimmer seems to get an inordinate amount of action compared to Lister, considering that there’s a certain ‘being dead’ disadvantage against him, and all that. And he has a point, but never has Rimmer achieved in this and other areas so much than he does in Holoship. Promotion to officer-hood, a solid body and masses of sex with Jane Horrocks all await him on the good holoship Enlightenment.
Series V is often praised for providing the best mix of science fiction and comedy, and while that is true as ever in Holoship, it also provides some of the very best character comedy the show has to offer. The concept of the Enlightenment and its crew is a solid (so to speak…) sci-fi concept, but the opportunities it provides for the exploration of Rimmer’s hopes, dreams and neuroses help create an episode that could rival Thanks for the Memory or Marooned in the character comedy stakes. Well, almost rival.
A potential problem with an episode that puts one character through so much and even threatens to take him from the show entirely in exchange for eternal bliss is that inevitably it has to end and the status quo needs to be restored without jarring too much. The fact that the episode manages to do that quickly, convincingly and with expert use of the central sci-fi concept *and* a touching sentiment is the final proof needed to see that this is one of the most successful episodes, on every level possible, that Dwarf ever gave us.
Popular consensus posits that series II was the point at which Rob and Doug really “nailed it” with Dwarf, getting fully to grips with their characters in tandem with the actors’ performances. While that series is indeed just about as good as it gets, however, to say that it was the first nailed-on success ignores the fact that Me2 – which, with its curious place in the production process, basically makes up “Series 1.5″ – is a startlingly good piece of character comedy and examination that plays to Chris Barrie’s considerable strengths as a performer (and puts him through an absolute physical wringer, basically demanding twice the work for the same fee and shooting time).
In six short episodes, bringing us to this point, Rimmer has gone from being the stuffy unlikeable prat to someone with genuine depth and pathos. Alright, so we still don’t exactly like him, but he’s clearly more complex than presented in The End and Balance of Power. In those early appearances, he appears to have a high opinion of himself (despite his lowly status), looking down on Lister, and for that we hate him. Once Me2 offers us a glimpse into his bottomless self-loathing, however, he instantly becomes more human. Admittedly this is achieved in part by – a little unsubtly – demonising the second, “pre-accident” Rimmer – who is far more of a snidey git – but even he gets a conversation with Lister that betrays his morose unhappiness, suggesting that it’s not just the influence of Lister that has changed “our” version. But it’s clear that already, the show’s “second” character has become by far its most interesting.
Of course, Me2 doesn’t just put Rimmer forward as someone emotionally ill-equipped to cope with facing up to his every foible. After all, the central conceit is drawn from Bodysnatcher – which had Lister as the one failing to live peacefully with a hologram duplicate – and you sense that the episode is asking a pretty universal question: could any of us, really, happily cohabitate with ourselves? Only the purest narcissist, surely, could honestly answer “yes”. So maybe Rimmer’s not as pathetic as we thought.
Having a strict ‘no aliens’ rule for red Dwarf must’ve been a real bitch, and this is evidenced by the fact that only the first two series truly stick by it before Rob and Doug (rightly) decided to go ahead and write whatever monster they want but with a ‘created by humans’ clause. Before then, though, they were forced to concentrate their creativity into other areas. Creations like Queeg are a testament to the success of that approach as it forced our intrepid pair to create something more unexpected.
Having started life as merely a voice over, Norman Lovett’s Holly finally comes of age in this episode with a story that elevates the character above his normal duty as plot moving exposition computer (admittedly a brilliant and funny one) into the centre of attention. Ironically for Norman Lovett, the role of his character ends up being shared by another actor in the process – the quite magnificently malevolent Charles Augins – but that doesn’t stop him rising to the challenge and doing so superbly.
It’s an episode designed to show the characters and the audience just how wonderful Holly can be. We see a devious, complex side to him that we only saw a glimpse of back in Me2, with his NorWeb jape, but this time extended to a whole episode and crafted (supposedly accidentally) into one of the most joyous episode climaxes the show has to offer.
The only disappointment that comes from this episode is that it shows by contrast how wasted the character would become and how this episode would end up being practically peerless. The further exploration of the character with any sort of depth was left to the books in the end, as the change in lead actors would leave the character unfairly shelved, with only White Hole offering a promise of more.
7. White Hole
The fact that White Hole is the first TV story to contain material taken from the novels, rather than vice versa, should give you some idea of the calibre of story on show. Indeed, it’s only a shame that they didn’t go the whole hog and make it a two-parter, with the second half featuring Lister’s tribulations on Garbage World. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Red Dwarf played about with “timey wimey stuff” on various occasions over the years – but in White Hole, we have a story about how perceptions of time can be relative, and be affected by external circumstances. The concept of a “reverse” version of a black hole is a superb piece of sci-fi thinking, and consistent with the idea that in an infinite universe, everything must have its counterpoint. And, as is customary, the theoretical physics is mind for some truly unique humour – in this instance, the “So, what is it?” scene, perhaps the cleverest bit of narrative trickery since Future Echoes.
Clever sci-fi aside, though, White Hole is a well-loved episode – popular enough that Cappsy named his website after it – and its real star is Hattie Hayridge. Holly is given the chance to take centre-stage for the first time since Queeg, and for the only time in Hattie’s tenure – and given how sorely underused she is over the course of her three series, it’s a delight to see how strongly she can carry the ep here. Rob and Doug effectively tackle one of the burning questions of the series – just how can the crew get by when their computer is getting stupider and stupider, without trying to do something about it? And she’s not the only non-human character who gets to shine, either – David Ross makes a welcome reappearance, this time as the fantastically inane and irritating Talkie Toaster Mark II.
Not that the main cast don’t get their moments – Rimmer’s attempt to succinctly explain the white hole situation to Holly is superb (if unfortunately truncated from the fantastic section of the book), and when Lister finally steps forward to play “planet pool”, it’s another chance to delve into his pre-Dwarf background.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that the “it didn’t really happen” ending feels like a completely unnecessary cop out, there for the sake of only one gag (admittedly a funny one), and contradicted as early as series V’s Demons and Angels. Nevertheless, in a series that arguably represented Dwarf at its most consistently excellent (some even preferring IV to III and V), White Hole is arguably the standout – and that’s no mean feat.
Apparently, the first ten minutes of Legion are Rob Grant’s favourite bits of Red Dwarf ever. And it’s not hard to see why. It represents the greatest success of Series VI’s fast-paced gag-a-minute formula (and we use that word carefully), with the cockpit scene jam-packed with classic gags. One classic gag in particular is remembered above all others, apparently from here to
Skaro. No matter how many times you see it out of context on clip shows, or with bad animation in mobisodes, or misquoted on Robert Llewellyn’s website, the light bulb gag is absolutely corking.
Then when we get on to Legion’s space station (with looks stunning, both inside and out) we’re treated to many more memorable moments, starting with two of the most controversial moments in Dwarf history. Whilst one of them – the decision to give Rimmer a hard-light body – is now accepted as part of the folklore, there is STILL, fifteen years later, fervent debate about Lister’s appendix…
The episode just doesn’t let up. The superb exchange regarding Legion’s light switch is followed by the awesome slapstick food fight, and after a brief pause for some plot-advancing ponderings in Lister’s quarters, we’re back in the thick of it with the escape. More great slapstick, along with top-notch comedy sound effects, are one thing, but the reveal of the face drawn on the sculpture is a brilliant gag.
The episode ends on an curious philosophical note, with the power of positive thinking and collective willpower being proved utterly futile when the star drive rips a massive hole in Starbug’s hull (which is presumably fixed off-screen in time for next week’s episode). But the episode isn’t just a collection of classic moments and set-pieces, it’s a relentless laugh-a-minute comedy romp, which proves after all that the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts.
Ah, Marooned. Lovely, lovely Marooned. The show had just spectacularly relaunched with a new look, new characters, new theme music, the works, and the boys deliver a timeless two-hander, set almost entirely in one room with only fleeting appearances from anyone other than the two main characters. We’ve said it before (in fact, everyone says it) and we’ll say it again: Marooned could make an excellent stage play.
Time and time again in Dwarf, the greatness of its best episodes are down to the character stuff, and Marooned is the ultimate example of this. Not only do a lot of the laughs come from knowledge of the characters, we also learn so much about them. Rimmer being Alexander The Great’s chief eunuch, Lister losing his virginity on a golf course aged 12, Rimmer’s trunk and toy soldiers… all basic tenets of Red Dwarf, and all originating from this episode.
There’s the simpler stuff as well – Lister eating dog food, Ascension Sunday, Cliff Richard being shot – this episode has everything. Its main draw, however, is the growth in the relationship between Lister and Rimmer. They’ve moved on so much from the sarcastic squabbling of series I, and there’s a real tenderness and affection at play here. The story is all about honour and sacrifice, and surprisingly it’s Rimmer who comes out on top in both counts. When he thinks Lister has burnt his guitar, we get a glimpse of how his mind works as he responds to this apparent selfishness by volunteering his toy soldiers “for the sake of friendship”. He rewards honour with honour, and their relationship changes forever as a result.
Are there any faults with this episode? The only one we could think of was Robert’s delivery of “the Blue Midget is loaded”. A beautiful piece of television, which makes us very proud to call ourselves Dwarf fans.
4. Future Echoes
When looking at Future Echoes, the context in which the episode was first shown to us is very important. After an admirable series opener, it all rests on the second episode to properly set out the show’s stall. Second episodes are vital (even more so in British television, as the length of US series allow them a good 5 or 6 episodes to perform the same task) for the show as a whole, and they often bring out some of the better episodes, as writers bristling with ideas and ambition are finally let loose on their newly established characters and settings. It’s important for the audience too, as after a Pilot which is usually atypical, they need to know exactly what show they’re going to be watching from this point on.
Future Echoes is, without a shadow of a snifter of a smidgen of doubt, the perfect example of a second episode. The sheer impertinence of devoting an entire half hour to breaking promises made to the BBC at the commissioning stage about this space comedy being free of sci-fi is admirable, but I wager it could’ve been a fatal move if the episode wasn’t so good in perfectly encapsulating just why Grant & Naylor’s vision for this show was so immutable. Comedy has no reason to shy away from sci-fi, and sci-fi certainly doesn’t need to exist on some binary po-faced/parody scale and Future Echoes is the perfect exponent of that idea.
It’s amazing how strong the characters are so early on, and this is most likely do to the episode being late on in the writing and shooting. This was clearly an excellent idea, as Future Echoes shows much more confidence in its footing than the actual second episode recorded (Balance of Power) could even hope to offer. Sparkling dialogue, excellent gags and top performances from everyone concerned are almost a given when talking about certain periods of the show, but series 1 isn’t always considered that way, which makes this episode stick out even more.
It would be remiss of us to finish any analysis of Future Echoes without mentioning Ed Bye. His work is especially noteworthy in this episode. In 1988, the sort of split screening he was orchestrating was pioneering enough technologically, but coupled with the superb directing of the actors in these difficult situations Ed’s work was clearly vital in giving the writing of Rob & Doug all the possible justice it could, resulting in one of the show’s most famous and celebrated set pieces of all (“What things?!”).
Viewed in isolation it contains absolutely everything that a classic Dwarf episode requires and then some; but viewed in context of being the second episode of the entire show, it’s quite a remarkable statement in what Red Dwarf is going to be all about and just how high they’ll be setting the bar.
3. Thanks for the Memory
Surprised? Well, if you are, then you’re exactly what’s wrong with Dwarf fandom, my friend. Because Thanks for the Memory is a work of sheer unadulterated genius, and it’s about time a few more people started to realise that.
Ed Bye confided in It’s Cold Outside that upon first reading the script, TFTM was the immediate standout of series two. We’re not quite sure what happened between his reading that script and viewing the final product to make him think it turned out otherwise, however – because with the possible exception of Queeg (and leaving the slightly shoddy CSO of the Hologram Suite scene aside), it’s perhaps the one episode of the six that gets the execution of an excellent concept bang on.
Key to this, of course, is Chris Barrie’s performance. We say this quite a lot about Dwarf, it’s true, but that’s with good reason – writing aside, and no disrespect intended to the rest of the cast, Barrie was quite simply the show’s strongest asset. When on their best form, everyone else is of course brilliant – but in episodes like this, Chris raises his game to an entirely different level. In the post-party scene he gives an absolute tour de force, and the nuances in his acting, as Rimmer drunkenly hurtles around from despair to self-righteous anger, are many and varied. It’s telling that the scene runs for so long, actually – Rob and Doug clearly had the confidence, at this stage in the process, to let Chris and Craig loose on a two-hander that goes on for a a whole five minutes and fifty seconds of precious running time.
The story itself is a curious one – indeed, one of the reasons why it’s so underrated by many fans is that it’s an ep where not much is considered to happen. Admittedly, the “broken legs” plot is something of a Macguffin (not that we don’t get some great comedy out of it), quickly forgotten in favour of the far more interesting idea of being able to drop wholesale chunks of your memory into somebody else’s mind, instantly altering their outlook and personality. As with all of the episodes in our top three, this raises some startling metaphysical questions – what are we, if not the sum total of our memories? Does Rimmer actually become a different person when he has the memory of Lise to add to his experience? Every single event that we remember is based on perception – why is Rimmer’s implanted memory any less “real” than anything else he might remember?
One of the strongest character pieces, not just in Dwarf, but in the canon of recent British comedy, Thanks for the Memory tells us so much about the changing relationship between two lead characters who, at this point, we’ve still only known for nine episodes. Lister genuinely feels for Rimmer’s loneliness, and the memory implant is an attempt (misguided as it is) to give him a truly thoughtful present – of the sort you’d give a friend, not the annoying twat that you hate sharing a room with. Alright, so they’re not bosom chums or anything, but compare the level of mutual respect to that shown in Balance of Power – Rob and Doug had clearly learned as early as Me2 that the show would not be able to sustain its two lead characters at each others’ throats (therein lies the route to nasty, sniping comedy) and altered the focus accordingly – but through organic growth rather than a sudden jolt.
While some of Dwarf‘s greatest moments came from elaborate or gimmicky set-pieces, never forget that one of the main reasons why it endures so well is in its writing, and its characterisation. Worth a million “shrinking boxer shorts” gags, Thanks for the Memory showcases these strengths at their very finest. If you’re the sort of person who tends not to pay too much attention to it because the plot doesn’t grab you, we implore you… give it another try.
2. Out of Time
You can tell how much we at G&T love this episode by virtue of the fact that we built the entire third act of The Movie : Yeah, No, Yeah, No around a shameless extended parody (one in which it took John about thirty takes to deliver the line “Doug, there may be a what?” without either himself or Seb corpsing). And quite right, too – it’s an absolute masterpiece.
Rightly remembered for the nail-bitingly brilliant closing minutes (of which more later), it’s worth bearing in mind just how superbly the episode sets out its stall and tone from the start – the “reality bubbles” sequence creates a fantastically dark sense of foreboding, with Lister badly injured before being “revealed” as a droid. While it’s all later shown to be an hallucination, the message is clear – don’t take anything for granted, here. We’re changing the rules. And so it proves, with the appearance of a terrifying future crew – not some twisted perversion as in Demons & Angels, but a group of personalities for whom you can genuinely see the potential in our own crew – after all, their ruthless avarice is based on an entirely human (and flawed) reaction to suddenly getting everything you want.
It’s not just the creepiness and darkness that makes this episode so loved, though – there’s some genuinely terrific humour, with a particular highlight Kryten’s reaction to the discovery of the Lister hallucination. Indeed, Robert’s performance throughout is superb – all the cast are, but he in particular raises his game in the dramatic final act, all the more remarkable when you consider that lines were being rewritten onset by Rob and Doug, with Robert especially suffering from having to rely on cue-cards and notes.
As we’ve said, though, it’s that closing act that really makes this – there’s a genuine, palpable sense of tension. The goalposts have been shifted, and for that reason we really don’t know what’s going to happen. The deaths of the crew are shocking – even though we have an inkling that some time-travel-related solution might save them – and Rimmer’s attempt to save them by destroying the time drive utterly gripping, aided by some of Howard Goodall’s finest work of all. Some dislike the nature of the cliffhanger – the explosion followed by a simple “TO BE CONTINUED” – but it really does leave a feeling of “What the fuck is going to happen next?” And let’s be honest, here – whether left like that, or given the “Margarita ending” originally intended, many of us would be happy to consider it the last episode full stop. After all, if you’re going to leave things open ended, what would you prefer: this, or Only The Good?
1. Back to Reality
And so, one of the immutable laws of the universe asserts itself – poll Red Dwarf fans on their favourite episode, and Back To Reality will win. The placing of the episode in our top spot will undoubtedly invite debate, just as it always does – but it wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t so well-loved, no matter what the backlashers might say.
As with Out Of Time, the key to the episode is in giving us a series finale – and you have to bear in mind the lack of certainty, each year, over the existence of a subsequent series – that raises the stakes and leaves you genuinely wondering where the series will go from here. It’s easy, after all, to view it in retrospect as a self-contained story with a get-out clause – but it’s more than that. Alright, the cast can hardly have been expected to believe that the “new crew” were going to replace them, and the clues to the nature of the predicament are there if you look for them (“blatant, innit?”) – but even so, the first-time viewer can be forgiven for wondering just exactly what the bejesusing fuck is going on as the crew sit around contemplating their “new” identities.
At its best, Red Dwarf draws both its dramatic thrust and much of its humour from the characters themselves. And nowhere is this more potent than in Back to Reality. Why is it so funny when “Duane”‘s teeth are revealed for the first time? Buck teeth aren’t that amusing – but on the Cat, a character so inherently vain, it’s about the worst thing that could happen. We know, meanwhile, that Rimmer is so fundamentally convinced that his life’s worth of failures are attributable to others; and so his belief that he should be applauded for being forced to “play” the character for so long is entirely characteristic, and the subsequent knocking-off-his-perch even more satisfying. And from a dramatic point of view, we know how much of a nightmare scenario the “reality” is – in fact, we don’t actually need Kryten to explain it one-by-one at the end of the episode, so defined have the characters become.
There’s plenty more we could go on about here – one of the series’ finest supporting turns courtesy of Timothy Spall, the magnificently-choreographed (and admirably budget-defying) “chase” sequence, the superb one-off sets, and the high calibre of jokes both before and during the hallucination. Or, indeed, the underlying suggestion that all is still not as it seems. The parallels with Out of Time (and its reality bubbles) are again clear – once we’ve been presented with the suggestion that everything is unreal, how can we ever put it from our minds? Perhaps Holly’s use of the phrase “Welcome back to reality” is just as deceptive as the Leisure World announcer’s – perhaps the return to “reality” is just another, more elaborate hallucination (one that leads all the way up to the “despair” of series VIII, ho ho ho). The strangely low-key ending underlines this – there’s a brief (and somewhat forced) wisecrack from Kryten, but aside from that the crew are contemplative. Can they – or we – ever take reality for granted again?
So there you have it. By any criteria, Back to Reality is a masterful piece of television comedy. Its tenacious grip on the affections of fandom – whether they just love Duane Dibbley or indulge in pseudo-metaphysical bollocks such as the above – is clear. In our polling, it was the only episode to be placed in the top spot by more than one person, and while it wasn’t in everyone’s top five, none of us can be said to be unhappy with its status as our official favourite episode of all.
Our Top Fives
- Future Echoes
- Out of Time
- Thanks for the Memory
- White Hole
- Future Echoes
- Back to Reality
- Gunmen of the Apocalypse
- Out of Time
- Back to Reality
- Out of Time
- Thanks for the Memory
- Back to Reality
- Future Echoes
- Out of Time
- Thanks for the Memory
- Out of Time
- Stasis Leak
- Back to Reality