If ever an episode was under pressure to deliver, it was this one. Red Dwarf XI has been critically acclaimed and the fan reaction has been mostly positive, but there’s a handful of niggling doubts amongst the more hardcore elements of fandom, ourselves included, with regards to pacing, clarity and consistency. A finale that delivers on these points would surely put these doubts to bed, but to end on a duff note would leave a lingering dark cloud as we begin the process of revisiting the series and consolidating our opinions.
Not only that, but Can of Worms was specifically chosen as the final episode, the implication being that this is the one that they want you to remember while the show’s off air. You expect an episode six to contain higher stakes, an emotional punch, and a careful balance between a sense of closure and anticipation of what’s to come. What’s more, we also knew that this would be a long-awaited Cat-centric episode – arguably the first one ever – and that we’d finally see another of his species for the first time in 28 years. There was an extra frisson on top for anyone who’d read the spoilers in the Radio Times. It all added up to the expectation that this would be something special.
Of course, you know all this, but the point of this preamble is to explain why I really really wanted this episode to be a classic. I had visions of laughing, crying, applauding and then immediately firing off a couple of thousand words about how the show that I care about so much is now finally back to its best. Instead, I now have to attempt to articulate why I had the same nauseous feeling on Friday night as I did the last time my team lost the FA Cup Final.
The main problem is with the plot, and it’s a return to a problem that dogged X but had seemingly been eliminated from XI until now. There are too many ideas here to comfortably fit inside half an hour of sitcom. It’s not that the story is meandering or beset with extraneous b-plots; in fact the opposite is true. Can of Worms tells one big story from start to finish, with a relentlessly fast pace and no shortage of twists and turns. On this level, it’s a success, but there’s a problem.
The story goes directly from A to B, but it doesn’t stop there. It reaches B within the first few minutes, and then just carries on, reaching at least L or M by my calculations. There’s a surfeit of key events and this has two big negative effects. Firstly, it gives the story a distinctly disjointed feel, with each plot point dealt with and replaced by a new one every couple of scenes. It feels like a series of vignettes – this happens, then this happens, then this happens – rather than a natural progression. Ideas are layed on top of other ideas, rather than flowing into one another.
The consequence of which is that the characters end up feeling irrelevant. Lister, Rimmer and Kryten are swept along in a story that doesn’t tell us anything new about them, nor particularly reinforce the things we already know in any meaningful way. The closest we get is a few jokes early on about the make-up of Rimmer’s personality, but that scene in the curiously-labelled “Starbug 19” mid-section feels like a slight retread of Psirens. New Dwarf is inevitably going to be compared to old Dwarf, and it’s often viewed as a positive when there’s a similar vibe to a past series, or a similar theme to a previous episode. But when it’s a case of one specific scene being reminiscent of another specific scene, it feels like the show’s treading old ground, which is not the ideal starting point for an episode.
Then there’s the Cat, and this brings us on to the second problem of the story’s format: wasted opportunities. There’s a lot to like within this episode. The plot consists of little more than a series of segments, but a lot of these segments are very funny indeed. Each contains a smattering of the good stuff – character comedy, intriguing sci-fi concepts, funny one-liners – but then we move on to something new very quickly, leaving us with just a taster of a broad idea without the satisfaction of seeing it taken further by exploring the details.
With this in mind, can we even say that this is a Cat-centric episode? His actions and decisions don’t drive the story; the early discussion about his virginity proves to be incidental, as his meeting with a supposed lady Cat comes about as a result of Lister’s desire to rescue a potential human, rather than the Cat’s need for a companion and/or desire for sex. Throughout the episode, things happen to him rather than him instigating them, and as with the other 66 episodes, it falls to anyone but the Cat to be the protagonist who actively drives the plot forward.
It gets to the point towards the end of the episode where he’s either unconscious or missing for long periods of time, although prior to that it’s fair to say that Danny has way more to do than normal. The aforementioned virginity discussion, and the later anecdote about how he loses it, provide almost as high a word count as a whole series worth of one-liners. Danny copes very well, considering that putting the character in the spotlight can reveal some unavoidable limitations to a set of mannerisms that are tailored for quips rather than speeches. The broader strokes are kept to a minimum, and instead it’s a version of the Cat that’s peppered with subtle touches that can highlight his insecurities or obscure his intentions as required. In the end, there’s not enough of that kind of thing, but the performance is good enough to suggest that Danny could have easily handled a more consistently central role in the story, had that been the requirement.
The highlight for me is the interaction between Cat and Ankita, with its callbacks to the long-forgotten practice of Cats making things theirs, and the more recently-established love of The String Game. It sailed pretty close to becoming caricaturish at times, but it made sense that meeting another Cat would make The Cat revert to being more like an actual cat. Ankita was confident and in control, and it was an opportunity to see exactly how the Cat handles being given everything he’s ever wanted.
Those initial scenes established an exciting new dynamic, with the promise of more to come. Then it just stopped. It’s utterly bizarre to show the pair arranging a date and then not show the date itself. The show promises us a potentially brilliant scenario, then doesn’t deliver it. I suppose most guest characters in Red Dwarf need to be disposed of by the end of an episode, but this seems way too early to kill off a promising premise. And as with most female guest characters, it was indeed a killing off, but at least this one is mitigated by the fact that she wasn’t actually a real humanoid, and that it was integral to the plot, rather than just a way of tying up loose ends.
But still, it’s a shame that she disappears so early, because it turns out the whole plot thread about Cat meeting a female Cat was a big old red herring, and that this episode in fact tells a completely different story to the one advertised. But what of the plot we never had? If Ankita was who she said she was, it would have raised so many questions about where she came from, what happened to the other Cats, how our Cat would be affected, and how the relationship between them plays out. I suppose there’s nothing to stop Doug telling that story for real in the future, but if you’re going to set up such a tantalising prospect and then abandon it, it puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the episode to compensate.
And it turned out that the rest of the episode was Polymorph III. It’s always a risky move to look to the show’s past for ideas, but it’s not an inherently bad practice. There are countless concepts in Red Dwarf that could easily sustain a much longer running time than half an hour, and the key is whether the sequel tries something different to the original. That’s the difference between Fathers & Suns picking up a loose thread from Ouroboros and using it to examine Lister’s character, and Duane Dibbley being wheeled out to make jokes about computer programmers.
On this point, Can of Worms scores highly. The revelation that Ankita is a Polymorph could easily lead to the same alternate-personalities-shooting-random-objects runaround that we’ve seen twice before, but instead the show confounds expectations in a good way this time. The Polymorph isn’t hunting the crew down in order to feed on their emotions; she’s motivated by the biological imperative to reproduce, and the real threat is what she’s already done to the Cat.
But by this point, we’re halfway through the episode and we’re still not sure what the storyline is. We’ve already dismissed the possibility of it being a revisitation of Identity Within, and at one stage it looks like it’s turning into a version of Dad. As with the previous date scenario, the realisation that the Cat is going to have to carry his babies to term conjures up so many potential comedy scenes, but in the end it’s a quick montage before moving on to the next idea: what are baby Polymorphs like? This is quickly dealt with via another quick montage before moving on to the next idea, and so on. The frustrating thing is that the glimpses we see of these ideas are often very funny, but it’s jarring when they’re not given time to breathe, and frustrating that so much potential is discarded in the relentless pursuit of the next idea.
Never is this more evident than with the Personality Tuck Machine. When Kryten introduces it in the opening scene, he may as well call it the This Will Be Necessary To Resolve The Plot Machine. There’s no innate problem with that – it could be handled a little less clunkily, but it’s a necessary part of storytelling, and it’s preferable to a piece of problem-solving tech being plucked from thin air later on. What’s so weird about the Personality Tuck Machine, though, is that it’s not necessary to resolve the plot.
I’m on board with the logic that if Polymorphs are tracking down emotions, it makes sense to formulate a plan whereby you send someone in who doesn’t have any emotions to detect. So why, then, do Rimmer and Kryten, who do have emotions to detect, go in with him? The plan was to have Lister move freely among the Polymorphs, but instead they’re drawn out into the open. It seems to be a way of bumping off two of them so that you can have a triple Mexican standoff – the reveal of which was perhaps the comedic highlight of the episode, and a great example of how Doug’s direction is becoming more confident as he becomes more experienced. But rather than having this whole subplot about an emotionless Lister in order to make that situation possible… why not just have the number of Polymorphs be a multiple of three in the first place?
That’s not the worst thing about it, though. Think of the implications of a Lister without emotions. Lister, the moral heart of both the crew and the programme. Lister, who so far this series has twice refused to abandon Kryten, tried to teach Cat the difference between right and wrong, and boasted about how he helped Kryten become who he is by allowing him to feel emotion. Lister, the last human being alive, alone in a Godless universe, whose sense of self is the only thing keeping him sane. All those issues that there’s no time to explore, because so much has already happened that there’s only five minutes left. All that there’s time for is to note that he’s a bit reckless now, and then it’s time to move on to the next plot once more.
You can file the Personality Tuck Machine alongside the Mercenoid. Kryten sets them up as some sort of allegory for religious fanatics, which could well have ended up being interestingly contentious had it been followed through, but instead has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever. It was just a big scary robot with a big scary voice – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but again, it’s odd to spend time fleshing a concept out and then not see it in action.
Then there’s the mention of the Vampire GELFs, the abandoned Alien parody, the hormone that makes the Cat fiercely protective of the Polymorphs, the suggestion that we’d see him change back to normal as each one is killed… this episode has so many ideas that don’t lead to anything substantial, and it all adds up to a plot that relies too heavily on convenience and wilful stupidity from the characters. Nothing would have happened at all had anyone asked the quite reasonable question of why the Mercenoid was keeping Antika prisoner in the first place, or if Kryten had performed even the most cursory of medical checks before bringing her on board the ship.
The result is a disjointed and dissatisfying scattergun approach to storytelling that’s almost at the level of Dear Dave compared to the tighter, more focused stories of the previous five weeks. By the time we reached the denouement the tone was all over the shop, with three of our four characters threatening to kill each other, while the fourth performs weird motherhood-based quips as he destroys his offspring. The threat is dealt with, the status quo is resumed, but I don’t feel like I’ve been on any sort of meaningful journey with these characters that I love so much, because there hasn’t been any time to explore how any of them are affected.
There was still an opportunity to provide the emotional punch I craved with a little Lister/Cat coda, the very presence of which means that this episode did at least find time for some sort of ending, unlike some of its stablemates. Lister seeking to reassure the Cat that there’s nothing wrong with being a virgin, thus further strengthening their friendship and providing an opportunity for the pair to learn from their experience? Yep, that’s what I’m after. But then it’s undercut by it all being a dream, and we’re just left with the sight of Danny John-Jules, 56, in bed with two women who have the combined age of 56.
So the episode ends with yet another groan from me, and despite the fact that there’s been just as many laughs as there have groans, it’s the groans that I’ll remember more. It’s such a shame that this was picked to go out last, as it’s really not representative of Series XI as a whole. Each episode has had its issues, and they’ve almost all been extremely divisive, but they’ve all been imbued with a strong identity, characterised by high production values, substantial plots and well-defined portrayals of the core four characters. The first one’s present here as always, but the other two are sorely lacking.
I’d like to reiterate again that it’s not without its merits. While I think the plot is bad, I don’t think it’s a particularly bad half-hour of television overall. But it is my least favourite of the six by some distance, and it does bring the hypothetical average score down. This is at the heart of why I was so gutted to discover that I didn’t love Can of Worms like I thought I would. To return to the football analogy: Red Dwarf is the show that I support, the show that I’ll follow for the rest of my life, the show that influenced who I am and how I identify myself. When I talk to people about Red Dwarf – whether it’s friends, colleagues, or you lot – I want to be able to say that it’s the best show in the world. I like to say that it’s now better than it was towards the end of the original run, and that the new stuff is just as worth watching as the old stuff.
That’s true for the majority of Series XI, and for the majority of the Dave era so far. But every now and then there’s an episode like Can of Worms, and I’m reminded that from 1997 onwards, my favourite show occasionally throws up a stinker. It gives me no pleasure at all to point it out when that happens, and I don’t even have the catharsis of being angry about it straight away, because I have to get past the upset stage first. It’s completely irrational, but that’s what happens when you love something – it becomes part of you, it grows inside you, and it makes you want to protect it.
It’s just that sometimes, every now and then, the end result feels like you’ve forced a pineapple through your arse.
TINY TEASER: Hedgehog With A Top Hat – I know, I know, it’s serious.
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 34 (Series total: 150)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 0 (Series total: 11)