Fathers & Suns could have been a classic episode of Red Dwarf. It’s got two intriguing, interweaving plots that bring with them danger, pathos and a whole bunch of quality comedy. There’s a superb guest performance, exciting levels of peril, and there’s one stand-out scene that embodies everything that made us fall in love with this programme in the first place. However, there’s also a few unnecessary and excruciating elements, featuring some of the worst guest performances we’ve seen for some time, that drag the episode down and leave me struggling to fully fall in love with an otherwise extremely enjoyable show. These two extremes of quality make for a complex and confusing episode, that will take quite a lot of words to summarise…
We start the episode with a now-traditional ‘status quo’ scene of Lister playing a video game (presumably reverting to physical controllers having got bored of AR) and having a quick chat with each of his fellow crewmates. Unlike the rather unconnected pig-racing opener of Trojan, this scene seeds a lot of elements that will be important later in the episode, from Lister’s toothache, to his stock of GELF hooch, to Rimmer reminding us all that Lister’s his own father. The humour is a little broad at times – the far-too-loud-in-the-mix gunshots and Cat’s tow-rope-flossing mime spring to mind – but there’s a lot of laughs to be had, and Lister’s reaction when he receives the card is sweet and neatly sets a tone for what is an epic acting performance from Craig.
A lot of people seem confused as to what the whining sound that Rimmer hears is; it’s clearly not his own voice, for starters. It’s not explicitly stated, but I figured it was there to set up the fact that the ship – and B-Deck in particular – is in a state of disrepair, and as such the mechanics are behaving unusually. The tour of B-Deck in the next scene confirms this theory, and also sets up the troublesome Chinese Whispers sub-plot. While I’m pleasantly amused by the notion that Kryten and his fellow artificial life-forms are friends in their downtime, it’s here that we encounter the first real problem with the episode. The way Rimmer decides to take exception to Kryten’s use of the phrase ‘Chinese Whispers’ is jarring in a way that I initially found it hard to put my finger on. Having talked it through, I think it boils down to the fact that race has never previously been an issue in the Red Dwarf universe. The fact that two of the four main characters are black has never once been commented on, which makes you optimistically hope that racism might just be a thing of the past in a couple of hundred years’ time. To have Rimmer explicitly use the word ‘racist’ is a shock to the system, which puts paid to this long-standing feeling of optimism, in quite a disappointing way.
I have no real issue with Rimmer’s initial discussion of the Chinese. It’s a very pompous and Rimmer-ish thing to do to declare that someone is wrong to think in the way they do, whilst subsequently demonstrating your own ignorance and prejudices. It’s not the voice of the author that struggles to fill a list of Chinese achievements without resorting to “laundry” and ” pointy hats”; it’s Rimmer thinking that he’s more intelligent than he is, and falling short. The faux-pas on Rimmer’s part isn’t my problem with the episode; that comes much later, in a way that undermines this subtlety of characterisation.
We then go straight into another problematic scene, with Lister visiting the Medi-Bot. The concept of the Medi-Bot itself is sound; an automated system with an artificial intelligence, much like the one we see in the lost episode Bodysnatcher. That aspect is fine, as is Craig’s performance, proudly and wistfully bigging up his son, in an endearingly chummy and loveable manner. But it’s the execution of the Medi-Bot that lets it down, with Kerry Shale turning in a baffling and embarrassing performance. It’s overtly wacky, which Red Dwarf should never be, and it makes you wonder why on Earth anyone would programme a machine to speak like that. The reliance on a zany look and a comedy voice puts one in mind of the Data Doctor in Back In The Red, and that’s never a good thing. There was a scene shot with this character on the audience night for Trojan, but mercifully it was cut from the final episode.
There follows a short sequence of vending machine business, which exists to seed the later return to the Chinese Whispers thread, but adds little other than Kryten acknowledging the existence of the garbage crushers that will end up playing a part in the denouement. It’s a reasonably tight sequence, and it displays an ability to seed plot elements in a non-intrusive and economical way; I only wish that it’d been spent setting up something better!
Fortunately, when we return to the main thrust of the episode, the quality takes a dramatic upward turn. The drive room scene that introduces Pree is very funny stuff, with Chris doing his usual trick of shining through in an episode that’s supposed to be all about Lister. He’s a joy to watch while Rimmer and Kryten are working through the preferences menu. switching very quickly between his “it doesn’t matter” tone and his more determined “use this option” tone to drive home every single gag. Particular highlights include the line “I order you to select 36D as the breast size for this computer”, his genuine lack of interest in the personality of the computer, and on Robert’s part, Kryten’s heartfelt delight at his choice of frame size.
The subsequent dialogue with Pree introduces a fantastic guest performance from Rebecca Blackstone. Her acting choices will have been limited by the fast-talking computery nature that the part required, but you can see flashes of personality and intriguing ambivalence regarding Pree’s nature throughout. Her comic timing is spot on, and I find myself disproportionately amused by her repetition of the word ‘conversation’. The concept discussed in this scene is also superb; there are strong parallels with Series VIII’s Cassandra, but the twist of the crew not even bothering to attempt to participate in the discussion themselves is what makes the execution significantly different. Pree makes predictions, while Cassandra has premonitions, which means that there’s a lot more potential for both the crew and the computer to take control of their own destiny, in a way that a pre-ordained future does not allow for.
This scene feels very Red Dwarf, with its strong sci-fi concept and jokes derived from the situation the crew find themselves in, rather than stock one-liners or unrelated flights of fancy. But this is even more true of the following scene, which we reach via the excellent reveal of Lister being asleep in a shopping trolley. The video message from ‘Lister Snr’ being on VHS is a nice touch, but it’s Craig’s performance in two distinct roles that makes this scene the stand-out success that it is. There are so many little touches from Craig that make you genuinely lose track of the fact that ‘father’ and ‘son’ are the same person. The tone that Lister Snr takes rings so true, with details such as using his son’s full name when he’s in trouble, to the “I’m not angry, just disappointed” nature of his argument, and the well-chosen “you’re living under my roof” type clichés, which show that Lister understands the tropes of being a dad, and is trying his best to make up for lost time by employing them in a slightly bungled way.
Lister Junior also contributes significantly to the establishment of the father/son dynamic, veering between petulant, disrespectful and ashamed. I also love his hissy fit at the end, with an unexpected but extremely amusing “bastard!” almost hidden under the laugh. The most memorable moments of the scene are the reveal of what’s happened to Lister’s guitar and the superb slapstick of Lister Snr falling off his chair – not once, but twice. The progression of the video messages is expertly judged, with each iteration getting progressively funnier. But overall, what separates this scene from the rest is the way that the two main elements of the episode – Pree, and Lister being his own dad – are brought together and intertwined so beautifully. A lot of people seem to miss the connection, but it’s clear, both from Lister telling Pree “I’ve got a job for you” and the coherence of the conversation between father and son, that Lister is acting with the assistance of Pree. It’s not just the fact that Lister knows himself so well, Pree has clearly told him exactly how he’s going to react when he sees this sober, and he tailors everything that he says, even down to leaving pauses for the response, to these instructions. It would be wrong to say that it’s the kind of scene that only Dwarf can do, especially when you consider Doctor Who‘s Blink, but it’s exactly the type of scene that Red Dwarf *should* do. It’s a pretty dark concept, given that the nature of Lister criticising himself means that he has to look deeply into his insecurities and issues, but it’s packed full of enough gags to make it a pure comedy piece with depth to it, rather than a mismatched comedy-drama.
After the break, we immediately get a nice bit of foreshadowing from Pree, predicting that Rimmer’s evening will be a “nightmare”. It’s a little touch that prompts the viewer to speculate as to the nature of Pree’s character, with Blackstone displaying suggestive nuances that flesh out what could otherwise have been a far more straightforward and uninteresting character. The gag about Pree deleting Rimmer’s favourite TV show is funny, and offers further details of the consequences of living with a computer that predicts your every move. Again, there’s flashes of a previous episode, with the tone of the conversation bringing Queeg to mind, but this time it’s not so much with the concept of Pree, but more in how Rimmer reacts to having a new computer forcing him to live his life in a far more energetic and worthwhile while than he’d like to. It’s consistent characterisation across a 24-year-period, and also the line about how he loves the busty heroine with no personality mirrors the superficial attitude shown when selecting Pree’s appearance.
We’re then introduced to the fantastic concept that Pree aligns herself with the mindset of the ship’s senior officer, and as such cocks things up in a way befitting of Rimmer. Again, it drags yet another strand of amusement out of the central concept, and tells us a lot about one of our central characters. You also get the bonus gag of Rimmer being informed that he’s inevitably going to blame Kryten, and as such dismissing him with an aggressive point of the finger and threatening nod, before walking off confused. Pure Rimmer and pure Barrie. So at this stage in the episode, things are very much on course. Each scene is relevant to what’s before and after, we’re constantly learning more about the situation, and laughing along too.
However, the balance of the rest of the second part is weighted too heavily towards the less successful Chinese Whispers strand, and the good bits start to become less frequent. They’re still there, of course, but up until now they’re by far in the majority, and that’s not the case from this point on. There’s a lot to like about the subsequent scene in the waiting room, not least Cat acting catty whilst reading Morris Dancer Monthly, but at this stage we want to hear more about Pree and/or Lister’s interactions with himself, so a return to the much less interesting Chinese Whispers strand is not exactly welcome. The reveal of the name ‘Taiwan Tony’ is amusing, and it’s a shame that it’s ruined by the later characterisation. The phrase “Taiwan is a bit Chinesey” is potentially troublesome with the knowledge of what’s to come, but in isolation it’s fine.
It’s certainly better than the subsequent scene, with the atrocious Denti-Bot. I understand the need to differentiate the performance from the earlier Medi-Bot, but the problem is that the performance becomes even more wacky and O.T.T. than the already too-bloody-wacky character from earlier. It leads to a confusing and unnecessarily sinister characterisation, that seems even less well suited to the machine’s function than before. The raspy Papa Lazarou inflections utterly destroy any comedy that could have been wrought from a scene that’s relatively sound on paper. But just when you think two terrible performances from one actor was as low as it could get, we meet Taiwan Tony.
I have serious reservations about Taiwan Tony, and I can’t see an in-story excuse to dismiss them like I can with Rimmer’s speech near the start of the episode. If you’re dealing with sensitive issues in comedy, such as the portrayal of race and racism, it’s very important to keep the intentions of the creator clear and well-defined. Rimmer’s initial objection to the term ‘Chinese Whispers’, followed by a display of his own ignorance, is there to tell us something about the character. The writer doesn’t agree with what Rimmer’s saying, and it satirises a particular characteristic that the audience recognises from the real world. However, this entire point is undermined the second we’re introduced to Taiwan Tony, with his ridiculous and borderline offensive exaggerated Chinese accent.
It’s so, so jarring, and comes out of nowhere. Of all the machines that Lister’s got curry out of at some stage, none of them have spoken to him via a white actor doing a comedy Indian accent. The characterisation of Taiwan Tony isn’t making any sort of point, and it’s not there to tell us anything about the character – this is genuinely the way that vending machines serving Asian food talk on board Red Dwarf. And the joke seems to be: isn’t this accent funny? And no, it’s not. It’s detrimental to the writing; it distracts the viewer so much that they’re taken out of the action, and it makes his lines unclear and hard to follow. There’s no reason whatsoever why the accent should be so over-the-top; it adds nothing to the humour other than uncomfortable connotations. In the later scene with Kryten, we’re introduced to what could have been an amusing concept – the fact that Taiwan Tony hates Dispenser 55 because he serves microwavable food. Individual vending machines having feuds with each other? Yes! That’s the kind of idea I love seeing in the show. But because the characterisation is so overwhelming, and indeed makes the lines so difficult to comprehend, it’s a detail that gets completely buried when it should be pushed to the forefront.
I’ve moved discussion of that Kryten/Tony scene up a bit so that I can deal with it in line with the Cat/Tony scene, and this leaves us with a solid collection of decent scenes for the remainder of the episode. But the whole Taiwan Tony thing is so much of a shock to the system that, for me, the episode has to start again from scratch to re-establish the quality that we saw in the first half. The second double Lister scene is a treat that does as much as it can to perk the episode back up. The resigned and shameful demeanour that Lister Junior adopts while admitting to his dad that he’s not done as asked shows Craig at his best, as does his attempted explanation to Pree about who exactly it was that resigned from the JMC. We’ve got more grey area with Pree’s character; on the one hand, she’s only doing what she’s programmed to do, but then she displays a lot of crafty cunning to lure Lister out of the bunk room by projecting a Kochanski-like voice into the corridor.
A quick note on a related topic – this episode is the first of the series to directly reference the ‘missing’ crew members in a significant way. Holly is given an affectionate name-check from Kryten, and Rimmer’s line about the quality of cock-up could be seen to reference both his and the audience’s thoughts on the matter. Later, Lister Snr tells Lister Jnr that one of his top priorities should be to go out and find Krissie. It reconfirms that what Lister learnt in Back To Earth was true – that Kochanski isn’t dead, but she’s out there somewhere, and was probably added to the script to foreshadow the planned, but eventually abandoned, later episodes which featured the character.
Back to the action, and Lister is being chased into an airlock by those garbage crusher things we saw earlier. It’s not a bad concept, but the execution would be a little better if the movement of the trucks wasn’t so precarious. Luckily, the impact of Lister being flushed in to space is superb, even if it’s slightly undercut by the huge audience laugh over the top. This segues into a very nice Drive Room scene, which brings to mind the fast-paced gags in a perilous situation vibe that was perfected in Series VI. For the first time in this episode, it feels like the Cat has a purpose. This isn’t a great episode for the Cat or Danny, but it’s nice to show that he still has piloty-type buttons that he knows how to push. The main woofers come from Rimmer, however, in particular the phrases “leg gravy” and “mad goth bastard”.
This scene more than most emphasises the villainous aspects to Pree’s character. She seems to take pleasure in informing her senior officer that he’s going to die, sarcastically giving him two options that will both result in death, smiling as the utters the words “operation sizzle” and that slightly odd thing when she accidentally-on-purpose informed the crew that they’d be dying in 90 years rather than 90 minutes. This, coupled with the later “your attempts to defeat me are futile” line, strongly hints that Pree is a fully-fledged baddie, but as we’ll see, it’s still ambivalent by the end of the episode.
Before that, though, there’s a superb showcase for the visual effects team, Howard Goodall’s music and the ingenuity of cost-cutting production methods. A lovely shot of the menacing sun is interrupted by Lister jetpacking his way into view, and straight into Red Dwarf’s ramscoop. It’s a fan-pleasing but worthwhile moment; that scoop has been a prominent feature of the ship since day one, but we’ve never been anywhere near it before. It makes total sense that it’s a possible point of entry to the ship, and the interior shot of Lister making his way through the huge vents is superb. We’re also treated to a swelling, heroic version of the main theme, which shows that as with last week, Goodall is doing a fantastic job of taking existing scores and using them to maximum effect to deliver brand new feelings and emotions. And then a small but lovely touch – some stairs up against the wall of the studio doubling as the stairs from the ramscoop down on the main ship. The show has been taking us to lighting gantries and whatnot right from Series 1 up to Back To Earth, and it really helps to make the ship feel much bigger than the cost and time constraints of set building can allow.
The crew are reunited in a scene that also reunites peril and comedy, as indeed it did for the denouement last week. But whereas in Trojan the comedy in the gun-toting-simulant scene relied on integrating the phone plot, it’s more successful in Fathers & Suns because the new laughing gas element can be judged on its own merits, rather than whether you’ve enjoyed a particular plot thread for the previous 20-odd minutes. I for one loved the laughing gas stuff, as it allowed the actors a chance to exercise some of the broader aspects of their comedy capabilities, in a way that made sense within the story. Kryten being amused at the vent being sealed is a particular highlight, as is Rimmer’s “here comes the wall” when the garbage crushers hone into view.
As with their earlier appearance, the crushers don’t quite convince, and I think the direction could have been a little clearer during this sequence. We’re never quite sure of how far away the trucks are from the crew at any given point, and we don’t see enough of the spikes in the earlier shots, so their size and prominence seems a little odd later on. I’m also not convinced that Lister being reminded of the pending medical file by the word ‘stasis’ quite rings true. It’s a reasonable attempt to bring the Chinese Whispers thread in line with the rest of the episode, and offer it some sort of resolution, but it seems a tad too contrived. It could have been anything that triggered Lister’s memory – if indeed it needed anything at all – and the lack of real laughs for any of the mangled iterations of the Chinese Whispers phrase means that the conclusion to this thread is nowhere near satisfying enough to justify its existence.
However, Lister subsequently defeating Pree by putting his plan into action is superbly done. There’s an unusual amount of long speeches for Craig in this episode, and he handles it superbly well, even without the subsequent knowledge that he was in bed with the flu for the entirety of the rehearsal period. The logic in the writing is faultless, and it makes perfect sense that Lister’s words should lead Pree to terminating herself. This is the point that confirms that we’ll never be truly clear on Pree’s nature – she’s pretty calculating towards the back end of the episode, but she offers no resistance to the pure logic that leads to her demise. Self-preservation was clearly never in her interests – don’t forget that flying into the sun would have killed her too – but perhaps she’s not quite as murderous as other aspects of the performance would indicate. It’s possible she takes a perverse pleasure in following logic and programming to the absolute letter, which can lead her to extreme things such as depriving people of oxygen, setting the ship on a suicide course, or even shutting herself down, but she’s not doing it out of malice or bloodlust.
After a slightly-unnecessary moment of smug celebration, justified by Rimmer’s self-concious shuffle, we end on the traditional coda scene, establishing a pattern on all recent Dwarf output of starting and ending with the ship and crew in a state of normality, waiting to be livened up with another exciting incident the following week. The scene itself is not particularly amusing, but not it’s not bad either. There’s very little to say on it, which is in stark contrast with the rest of the episode, which I shall now make a vague attempt to summarise.
It’s difficult to avoid getting bogged down in the negative aspects of the episode, despite there being so much that it does just right. But the fact remains that the show is so wildly inconsistent, that each memory of something funny, dramatic or clever is weighed down by a simultaneous memory of something jarring, irritating or embarrassing. This is despite the fact that the good bits do outweigh the bad bits by a very decent ratio, and that I’m spending each viewing of the episode laughing far more often than I’m shaking my head. The problem is that each soaring high is matched by a proportionately sinking low.
And the most frustrating thing about this is that it’s so avoidable. The Medi-Bot and Denti-Bot could have been fixed with a more controlled performance, which perhaps would have been enabled by some stricter direction. But there’s no reason whatsoever for any of the vending machine stuff to be there at all. Every single moment with Pree on-screen is a joy, and it leaves me longing for far more. There is no shortage of ideas in this episode, so why does it have so much crammed into it? Lop out the entire third plot and not only do you get an extra five minutes to deal with the possibilities of Pree or further explore the Lister/Lister dynamic, but you also avoid all the distracting and troublesome elements that stop me from putting this episode on a par with the golden years of Series 1-VI.
As I’ve said, I can’t fully love this episode, but I want to make it clear that I do like it. It makes me laugh a lot, I adore the concept, I admire how the two main plots fit together so well, and the double Lister scene is perhaps the most inventive and unpredictable sequence we’ve seen in Red Dwarf since 1993. There’s so much to love here, but unfortunately, there’s so much to dislike. At its best, Fathers & Suns holds its own against the impenetrable bubble of perfection I’ve built around the first 36 episodes. Its worst elements – the medi-bots and Taiwan Tony – belong in the same bin as dancing Blue Midgets, the Data Doctor and Kryten’s penis.
Put simply, Fathers & Suns needed its big fat butt kicking at times. It could have been so much more, and it knows it. And it most definitely could have done with a bit of Dougy discipline.
TINY TEASER: Taiwan – oh, that gobshite
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 23 (Total so far: 47)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 3 (Total so far: 5)