If you were to put together a wishlist for elements you want in a Red Dwarf episode, it would feature a credible threat, character issues bubbling away in the background, an interesting narrative, memorable guest performances, fantastic model work, and, preferably, something that draws from and expands on the mythology of one of the central characters. These elements have been present in throughout Red Dwarf X, though not all at the same time, and with varying degrees of success. Could The Beginning bring everything together to give us the conclusion that this series and – potentially – Red Dwarf as a whole deserves? The answer is… pretty much, yeah.
From the very second that a beautiful effects sequence reveals that we’re at Io Polytechnic roughly three million years in the past, we know that this will be a significant episode. A glimpse of someone’s past always indicates that something important is going to happen to them over the next thirty minutes, regardless of whether the episode is good (Dimension Jump) or bad (Ouroboros). It was a strange choice to deck everyone out in 1940s/1950s gear – from the audience’s point of view, if you equate life on board Red Dwarf as analogous to the present day, someone of Rimmer’s age should be of university age in a time period equivalent to the 1980s – but it works superbly, giving the scenes an other-worldly feel, and emphasising that from Rimmer’s point of view, this was a hell of a long time ago.
But it’s the casting that makes this sequence as successful as it is. Rimmer’s ‘Dad’ is perhaps the most significant “off-screen” character in the history of the show (Better Than Life doesn’t count), and the performance and writing had to live up to the picture that we’ve built up in our heads. It was always possible that Rimmer had been exaggerating his father’s cruelness, but we see it in full force here, with Lecturer Rimmer being deliberately and needlessly spiteful to his son/pupil. Simon Treeves puts in a performance that sits well with both John Abineri’s prior portrayal, and the version of the character that’s existed in my head for the last twenty years.
The real star, however, is the brilliant Phillip Labey as Young Rimmer. Putting together a believable alternate version of an iconic character is a tough job, so much harder than just copying the established actor’s mannerisms. Labey pulls it off with a performance that transcends imitation to become so true to the character that you emphasise with him in an instant; the fact that it’s not Chris Barrie could have been a distraction, but it just isn’t. So many aspects of Rimmer’s character are there – the resentment, the smugness, the eagerness to please – and it’s the writing that allows Labey to provide a hugely multifaceted performance in barely a few minutes of screentime. The hand-raising experiment is a fantastic way of demonstrating that everything we assumed about Rimmer’s relationship with his father is true, and it’s also very funny.
Back in the present, we’re finally introduced to Hogey the Roguey. It’s a character that feels vaguely familiar to the portions of the audience who watch DVD documentaries, and we soon learn that he’s very familiar for the crew – they even have a special Hogey Alert icon on their monitors. I love this concept – the idea that Red Dwarf has an annoying neighbour character, turning up every now and then and doing nothing more than piss people off, like Jim in Friday Night Dinner or some of the Balowski Family in The Young Ones. Not only is it a funny idea – particularly Kryten’s low-key interaction with Hogey, which comes before the audience are aware that he’s not a credible threat – it also shows us just how jaded the crew have become in the (at least) nine years they’ve spent rattling around on their own.
Hogey’s appearance ties in with some of the newly established themes particular to this series. One of these is that the Dwarfers are living in a more populated universe than they have done previously – they’ve always met the odd nutter here and there, but elements like Trojan‘s call centre and Dear Dave‘s dealings with the JMC make it clear that our crew are no longer isolated within their universe, and a bloke coming round for the occasional ping-pong tournament is a further indication that the status quo is very different now.
Another theme of this series seems to be guest stars with exaggerated accents – mostly vending machines and assumed deities prior to this point. The Inigo Montoya-inspired performance here is definitely on the broader end of the spectrum, but crucially, it’s funny. It’s a little creepy and disconcerting to have him on board in the first place, and the silly voice here works in the same way it does with some of the darker characters in The League of Gentlemen – to neutralise Hogey’s threat and to reassure the audience back in to the realm of laughter. It’s far from subtle, but it’s entertaining.
Unlike most other RDX episodes, these opening scenes are relevant to the theme and mood of the episode, and help to get the main plot started. Hogey inadvertently leads the simulants to the Dwarfers, having stolen something from them. A couple of significant elements are set up in a not-very-elegant way – Lister swiping Hogey’s gun and Rimmer picking up the hololamp are clunky in a way that betrays the lack of time that Doug had to polish his script or the direction for the final two episodes of the series. Incidentally, there’s no way we’ve seen the last of that map…
Soon after this, we’re treated to another rarity in the Red Dwarf oeuvre – scenes with none of our regular characters present. The first simulant scene is superb, combining the creepiness of the Dominator character with the comedy of Chancellor Wednesday’s gross-out slapstick. Gary Cady is particularly impressive, and gets a huge laugh from his delivery of the “formal letter of apology” line. The concept of the initial skit isn’t staggeringly original, but it’s well executed and is perhaps the comedic highlight of the episode. The later simulant scene is not quite as successful, as it takes too long for each joke to play out, but again Cady is a highlight with his delivery of “kill him”.
Meanwhile, the Dwarfers have escaped to Blue Midget via some impressive model work, the likes of which are scattered throughout the episode. It’s undoubtedly Bill Pearson’s finest work on the series, and it lifts the pace and quality of the show substantially. It’s worth remembering that – aside from a couple of new sets – this is every bit as much of a bottle episode as Dear Dave, but it doesn’t feel like it. It was a wise decision for Bill and his team to spend so much time and effort on The Beginning (time and effort in comparison to the rest of the series at least; they still had nowhere near as many resources as they would have hoped for). Not only was this work necessary for the story, it also separates the episode from the rest of the series and is the chief component in giving us a suitably ramped-up finale.
While most of the scenes are equally ramped-up, there’s a rather saggy bit in the middle of the episode which drags the pacing of the plot down a fair bit. At a point where the crew are in mortal danger and frantically escaping, they park up and pause for a big long chat. Hiding in the asteroids makes sense in terms of the story, but the structure of the episode suffers as a result, especially as the earlier scene of Rimmer explaining the significance of the hololamp has sown the seed that we’ll be seeing some serious character progression for Rimmer, and this ain’t it.
We’re about half way through the review now, but make sure you keep reading past the scene and smeg counts.
It’s around this point that we get the controversial nod towards the Series VIII resolution. It’s very funny, and it’s the perfect indication that it simply does not matter how that tedious affair concluded, and nor does it matter which version of Rimmer it is – the show is doing a lot of new things, and it benefits nobody to dwell on the long-since-boring mysteries of the past. However, it does pull you out of the episode, and the knowing laughter it gets from the audience is jarring. It’s a reminder that we’re watching a revival of an old show, which (aside from certain jokes being similar to things that have come before) hasn’t – and shouldn’t – happen in this brand new series. Series X is its own thing, and regardless of whether you like it or not, it’s earned its place in the pantheon of Red Dwarf.
Fortunately, this is just a blip, and the scene ends with Rimmer being given the responsibility of formulating a plan, which snaps us right back in to the action. The battleplan timetable is a fantastic slice of pure Rimmer, as is the subsequent chat with Kryten. The forks/pencil sharpener gag has less impact than it would have done without being trailed relentlessly, but that’s not the fault of the material. Kryten ominously leaving Hogey’s gun behind is a tad obvious, though – you can pretty much come up with the battleplan yourself at this point, way before Rimmer does.
The following scene provides a rare opportunity for a Rimmer/Cat interaction, and it’s always good to see unusual pairings of characters. Danny is very funny here; for some reason the addition of the word ‘game’ makes his mutterings inherently amusing. We also see The Cat being incredibly insightful, which could be seen as peculiar, but makes perfect sense to me. The Cat was learning and developing at an incredible rate from the early days, until his peak of usefulness when he becomes Starbug’s most skilled pilot. He’s had less to do since then, and his character has regressed to more small-‘c’-cat-like in the years since Series VIII. But he’s always had a keen grasp on the characters of his ship-mates, and he knew as far back as Better Than Life that the way to piss Rimmer off is to remind him that his father hates him. He’s been sitting back and observing these stupid humans going about their stupid lives, and his catty instincts have lead him to speak out at a moment where his intervention could help him to survive.
With the answer to his deep-rooted psychological problems spelled out to him by the stupidest person on the ship, it’s time for Rimmer to become a man, and rebel against his father by playing the holo-message. The set-up feels dramatic and significant, although you are distracted by just how convenient that holo-lamp-shaped plinth in the middle of Blue Midget’s cockpit is. But Chris is great here; it’s his best performance of the series. In the other Rimmer-centric episode, Trojan, he spent half the episode putting on an act for the benefit of Howard, and Mark Dexter’s performance was so good that it overshadowed his own. Not a bit of it here – Chris is centre-stage, so much so that Lister barely gets a look in.
Simon Treeves returns as Mr Rimmer with the rather significant news that he’s not actually Rimmer’s dad. It’s very well delivered, and shocking for characters and audience alike. It gives Rimmer the impetus to improve, but how does it affect us? I’m going to go into this in far more detail over the coming weeks, but fundamentally, it shouldn’t change the way we view Rimmer’s previous adventures. As far as he was concerned, it was his dad that died in Better Than Life, and our empathy isn’t affected by us knowing more than he does. Plus, regardless of the genetics, this moustachioed lunatic still brought Rimmer up, complete with stretching racks and schoolroom humiliation.
As for the newly enlightened Rimmer, he deduces that he’ll have already made his biological father proud, by virtue of not being a stinky working class type. The politics of this are dodgy to say the least, but it’s a perfect fit for the snobbish, status-obsessed Rimmer. He decides to step up to the plate, and we get a huge laugh from the jump cut from Rimmer preparing to explain his plan to “it’s crap”. We also get a great call-back to the opening scene, with Rimmer subconsciously raising his hand in order to fit in, and finally realising that he shouldn’t do that. It’s powerful stuff, and it ensures that the opening scene wasn’t just an isolated sketch – its importance to both the audience and the character is made clear.
Also, Rimmer is properly brilliant at being rousing, and we’re totally with him when he decides he’s going to kick bottom. My favourite aspect of Out of Time‘s iconic final minutes was Rimmer seeing an opportunity to be a hero; to snap out of his normal neuroses for the greater good. It doesn’t quite hit those heights here, but the audience are totally on Rimmer’s side at this point.
The denouement of the episode’s drama is fantastic for so many reasons, not least the use of model shots as gags, when the Death Ship and Annihilators are revealed surrounding Blue Midget. When we see the radar shot of the ships at perfect cardinal points, the memory of Kryten handing over Hogey’s gun makes the solution pretty damn obvious, but that’s not the point – it’s the joy of getting there that matters. The Geneva Convention stuff is great – really well played by all parties, and another perfect slice of everything that Rimmer personifies. There’s a small chance that people would think that this bureaucracy was his plan, which makes the revelation that Rimmer was in control of the situation the whole time even more delicious.
It really is all about Rimmer, and again it’s Chris at his best. His bravado in calling the simulant “miladdo” in the knowledge that he’s perfectly safe was reminiscent of his interactions with Hudzen 10, in a good way. But the thing that separates the call-backs from the steps-forward is one line which demonstrates the love and care for the characters that Doug shares with the hardcore fans: “sometimes you live, die and then live again”. It’s a very simple thing, but it’s Rimmer’s equivalent of Lister’s “I’m cool, I don’t take any smeg” self-assessment at Back To Earth‘s conclusion.
Rimmer has achieved so much more in death than he did in life. Taking effective command of a ship, finding love with Nirvanah Crane, becoming an officer on the Enlightenment (albeit through cheating), losing his physical presence and the joy of gaining it again, and now resolving some of his family issues. The audience has been with him on this journey, and it’s why we love him so much. Sometimes you live, die and then live again. One line that says everything about how the character perceives themselves, combined with hope for the future. Enough to make even the most hardened and cynical fan nod sagely and say “yep, he’s got a handle on him there”.
And speaking of fans, not since Duane Dibbley whooped his way into Emohawk have we had such a “this is for you guys” moment as the repetition of “the slime’s coming home”. If you can look past Seb Patrick’s pathetically weak cheer immediately afterwards, there’s more significance than the simple nod to the past. It’s an obvious point, but Earth has long since stopped being ‘home’ for this crew. Losing Red Dwarf forced them to change their mission objective, and while we don’t know everything that’s happened since they found themselves back on the mothership, it seems that they’ve pretty much given up on trying to improve their environment. Being cooped up in Starbug, then being cooped up in prison, has made the big red hunk of metal take on huge sentimental value for the guys, and with their shopping channels, on board JMC computer and pesky rogue droid neighbour, what else do they need?
So, what does this all mean? Why The Beginning? This could well be the end for Red Dwarf, which would make the references to The End make perfect sense. But if it’s not, then it’s the beginning of a new era for Rimmer, freed from the father-shaped monkey that’s been on his back for his entire life, death and life again. He’ll still manage to cock everything up, but as with the revelations about Howard at the start of the series, it’s a significant development in a character that has constantly evolved for twenty five years.
Red Dwarf X as a whole will hopefully also be the beginning of a new era for Red Dwarf. It doesn’t feel like one last hurrah for a dormant franchise, it’s simply a new series that happened to come thirteen years after the last one. Sometimes a series can live, die and then live again. It’s been far from perfect, and The Beginning doesn’t quite feel like a billion piece jigsaw slotting into place, as it doesn’t exonerate the problems that we’ve seen throughout. But what it does give us is a solid, confident final episode, which certainly holds its own against the 24 other post-1993 episodes, and even compares favourably to the original 36.
With a combination of excellent guest stars, pinpoint characterisation, fantastic visual effects and very funny sequences, The Beginning is the series finale that we deserve – one which gives hope for the future, but that leaves us with a satisfying and pleasing moment of closure if The Beginning ends up being the end.
TINY TEASER: We’re Fucked – the line “we’re smegged” was delivered like this on the night. They must have picked up the bowlderised version later. If it turns up uncensored on the DVD, we’ll be very impressed.
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 53 (Total so far: 174)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 4 (Total so far: 17)
Oh yeah, that little post-credits stinger was pretty funny, but these things tend to be a lot better when they’re not built up so much. I was hoping for something more dramatic, but it was all worth it for the tribute to Peter Wragg. How fitting that it came at the end of an episode where the model effects did such justice to the great man’s spirit and style.