It’s hard to think of an individual Red Dwarf episode that’s had quite so much hype as Siliconia, and for such a sustained period. We’ve known about The One Where Everyone’s Kryten for as long as we’ve known that there’d be a Series XII, it was the subject of the first series’ first publicity shot, and it features one of the run’s highest-profile guest stars. It would be fair to call it long-awaited, both in terms of how long we’ve been aware of the story, and owing to the manner in which many of us first saw it: very late on a weeknight, after a full day of frequent F5-ing. Could it possibly live up to the anticipation?
For a brief moment on Thursday night, I was suddenly struck with the feeling that I was watching something truly incredible. It was funny, it was moving, and it somehow just felt like Red Dwarf should. That had faded slightly by the end, but I was nevertheless shocked to go online and see that the general consensus was far less positive than I’d have predicted. I found myself agreeing with many of the criticisms, but still they didn’t shake the warm, happy feeling the episode gave me. After several repeat viewings and a few days’ thinking time, am I now in a position to make sense of all this? Let’s find out.
We start how so many episodes have started in recent years, with depictions of everyday life on board ship while we wait for the plot to get started. As with Cured‘s poker face scene, it later becomes apparent that the opening scenes are there to establish character themes that run through the story, but unlike the first episode, they don’t seem quite so purposeless on first viewing. They’re much funnier than the average for this type of scene over the last few years, and contain perhaps the strongest “status quo” material since Trojan‘s moose gag.
While the reveal of Lister messaging Kryten from the sofa would undoubtedly have been funnier were it not spoilered by a Youtube thumbnail, of all things, it’s a damn fine visual gag. Further comedic highlights come from Kryten’s subsequent corridor exchange with a particularly officious Rimmer, particularly the phrase “you’re seeing me illegally” and the use of “Rimmering” as a verb. Meanwhile, we’re quietly re-establishing that Kryten sometimes feels put upon by the rest of the crew, but that he’s not afraid to think for himself, wilfully disregarding Rimmer’s orders about Lister’s guitar.
There’s also a flurry of back-references in this portion of the episode, with mentions of said guitar being flushed into space, the Om song, and even Baby Don’t Be Ovulating Tonight, which was something that played in the Copacabana Hawaiian Cocktail Bar in the first novel. The subsequent Starbug cockpit scene harks back to Camille in a big way; not only does this remind us of Lister’s part in making Kryten who he is, which will be relevant later, but Kryten’s chirpy satisfaction that he’s “still got it” provides a huge laugh.
Less successful is Lister’s improvised colander guitar. Full marks to the art department for painting it in the style of Eddie Van Halen’s, but the only thing that got a laugh from me was the phrase “Les alert”, and I don’t think that was supposed to be funny. I enjoyed the fairground grabber game, which was part of a raft of impressive visual effects throughout the episode. The reveal of the giant spaceship using their own grabber on Starbug kicks the plot into gear, although it subsequently splutters when a not-particularly-funny gag about how cloaking works breaks the rhythm by being too wordy for a perilous situation.
That aside, those opening scenes zip by, and we’re on board the oddly-named SS Vespasian before we know it, meeting the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front. Now, while I don’t personally find the term this alludes to offensive per se, it’s still not terribly pleasant, and furthermore it’s a bit old hat. American Pie was nearly twenty years ago, and the term is no longer as fresh or subversive as the show seems to think it is. A little subtlety would have saved the gag; perhaps it may have gone too far the other way if the acronym had never been pointed out, but leaving it at one explicit reference would have been enough. The joke is stretched so many ways throughout the rest of the episode – calling members of the group “a MILF” or “MILFs” seems contrived and illogical – that it ends up being faintly irritating. Less is most definitely more in this case.
But still, despite it only having been three episodes since we last met another mechanoid, it still feels like an incredibly rare and exciting thing to happen. It’s the first time that we’ve seen mechs played by women; Camille doesn’t count for obvious reasons, but it’s interesting to compare the two and note that the ones in Siliconia don’t have big pointy triangular boobs, or indeed any physical characteristics that differentiate them from the ones played by men. This feels like progress; we’re along way from bright pink skutters.
There’s an impressive number of made-up mechs on-screen at once, something that would have been impossible to pull off back when Kryten was first invented. As you’d expect, the strain does show at times – there’s only a much smaller number that are deemed worthy of being shown in close-up, and while the berets and sunglasses undoubtedly work as part of the group aesthetic, they do cover a multitude of eye-blending sins. The perhaps unintended effect of the MILF’s look is that they bring to mind David Ross’s Kryten when he rebels and dresses up as Marlon Brando.
As for the mechs that we do meet, Richard Glover gives a rather eccentric performance as group leader Wind, but it pretty much works. It gives a creepy undertone to proceedings, making him more reminiscent of a cult leader rather than a military one, hinting that all is not what it seems in this mechanoid utopia. It occasionally veers towards the silly, but that’s no bad thing in itself, and it’s worth it for the quite extraordinary delivery of the line “people you should despise”. At the very least, it’s a distraction from how closely Kryten’s answer to the question of whether he respects his crewmates resembles his assessment of them in Camille.
Meanwhile, the humanoid faction of the crew are in mortal danger, if you can somehow ignore the fact that the device they’re strapped to is just a bunch of hairdryers. Based on everything we knew about the episode, the question wasn’t so much what would happen to them, but merely how; it makes sense that it’s a brain transfer, and it leads to the gag of Cat’s brain taking a much shorter time to upload than the others, which would have been so much better without the subsequent That’s The Joke dialogue. This lack of subtlety is in contrast to the earlier, much smarter discussion of Asimov’s First Law, but in keeping with Cat’s later line about his “wing dang doodle”.
With the physical Krytenification complete, it’s soon revealed that their personalities will change too, and the transition starts impressively smoothly. There are just a few tiny changes to the crew’s mannerisms at the start – they instantly stop using contractions, and start expressing their feelings in that slightly detached way that sci-fi robots do, such as Rimmer’s “I feel most strange”. It makes you realise there are these unwritten rules to how Kryten is portrayed, which are only noticeable when they’re transferred to other characters.
As a side note, the rest of the mechanoids all seem to have their own unique patterns of speech, suggesting that these foibles are idiosyncratic to Kryten rather than the species as a whole. Perhaps the crew’s close connection to Kryten means they default to his way of doing things when they become mechanoids, or perhaps it’s just a massive inconsistency, depending on how you’re feeling about the episode.
Nowhere is the varied nature of mechanoid characterisation more pronounced than in the therapy scene, perhaps the standout comedy set-piece of an episode that’s built around them. Marcus Garvey is very funny as Excalibur, the slightly effete northern chairbot. While I understand the accusations of insensitivity that have been levelled at this scene, I don’t feel the humour was aimed at the expense of anyone; the setting was just an excuse for amusingly sincere performances of lines like “our heads are sensibly shaped”. Frustratingly, the only jokes that don’t land are the ones that Kryten delivers, and suddenly there’s a theme of inconsistency developing. That rinse aid joke is woeful, although I do like Kryten’s smug reaction to the round of applause he receives from the group.
While Kryten is slowly being turned against his old friends, they continue to be turned into him, and we start to see how it’s affecting the three of them differently. For my money, Craig’s is the best portrayal; despite his physical characteristics showing far less then the other, there’s still plenty of Lister in the performance. He’s taken some of Kryten’s mannerisms, and his “X my Y and call me Z” gag construction, but he talks in a way that’s recognisably a version of his regular character, rather than merely an impersonation of someone else’s.
For this reason, and despite the nostalgic invocation of the talking books, I prefer Craig’s approach to Chris’s, whose performance choices are at odds with the direction the story takes his character. While he quickly ditches Rimmer’s persona, the script is quite correctly pointing out that Rimmer is more mechanoid-like in the first place than you’d expect. It makes total sense – Rimmer subscribes to there being a natural order in life, and he doesn’t actually mind if he’s giving or obeying orders, as long as his life has that structure. In fact, it’s easier for him to be the subservient one, and being a mechanoid removes the life-long pressure to rise up the ziggurat. Red Dwarf is often at its best when it’s really getting under the skin of its most complex character, and this is no exception.
In fact, it was this speech that gave me that aforementioned feeling that I was watching something special, and I stand by that. It’s a powerful and emotional treatise on a character that I care deeply about, and the later realisation that Rimmer’s repressed desire to be a fish is something that has previously risen to the surface, as early as the very first episode, was the cherry on top. The comedy was allowed to take a back seat for a while, which is always a risk, but when what you get instead is so good, I’m completely OK with it. Red Dwarf can be many things, but at its heart it’s all about the characters, whether it’s using them to get laughs or, on a much less frequent basis, to get an emotional reaction.
However, as good as the Rimmer stuff was in this scene, it highlighted that the Cat’s mechanisation process was a little jumbled and – again – inconsistent. With Rimmer’s subservience and Lister’s determination to escape providing the two extremes, Cat was deployed as the spare man, taking whatever stance the script required of him at any given moment. This is illustrated perfectly by him making a joke about eating fish, followed by the deliberately out-of-character, but rather quite touching, line about how he’d miss Rimmer if they left him behind. Both are good, but doing them both in a row is having your cake and eating it.
It’s not until we’ve been through all of this that we finally meet the episode’s much-vaunted big guest star, and it’s quite a small part considering how much James Buckley has been part of the promotion of the series. He doesn’t have much to do, but at least he’s good at giving the same performance he gives in everything. His Mk II cohorts, and their constant repetition of “so cool” are a big distraction, taking up a significant proportion of Buckley’s screen time, and necessitating several awkward moments where he has to wait for them to finish before delivering the next line. The scene also shifts the focus back on to the MILF and the way it’s run, which is necessary for a plot that’s heading towards a resolution, but it serves as a disappointing interval in the much more interesting character studies that have been taking place.
In the following scene, Listerbot and Kryten come face to face, and we get a really touching conversation about their relationship and what they mean to each other. It’s a dynamic that’s often overlooked in favour of the more frequently examined pairing of Lister and Rimmer, but there’s a lot to explore. This scene addresses the dichotomy of Lister giving Kryten independence but still retaining his services as a manservant, clarifying the pair’s feelings on the matter in the most heart-warming way. Somehow, the fact that it’s the mechanoid-Lister delivering these lines somehow makes them feel more genuine; the measured, matter-of-fact statements lending an extra level of sincerity.
It’s a shame that it’s the news about the slaves in the engine room that snaps Kryten out of his allegiance to the MILF, rather than Lister’s heartfelt pleas. As we reach the denouement, it becomes apparent that there’s not quite enough space to resolve both elements of the story – Kryten being brainwashed against the crew, and the rest of the crew becoming Krytenified – in an emotionally satisfactory manner. Cat and Rimmer are pretty much removed from the plot at this point, meaning that for Rimmer in particular, the huge character journey he starts is never completed. You kind of need to see him change his mind and choose to go back to his old life, much like Kryten does both here and in DNA, instead of it just being something that happens to him, where he has no say in it.
It doesn’t help that the resolution to the MILF side of the story is so… weird. The clean-off looks great visually, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and it’s just a bit dull, especially if you consider that this is what they’ve chosen to do in lieu of resolving the Rimmer story properly. Like so many other parts of the episode, it’s slightly frustrating, because there’s yet more good character-based dialogue happening – with Kryten desperately trying to get his Lister back by telling him how much he cares about him – but the mop-swinging action is a huge distraction from this.
As for the means by which the plot is resolved, “deus ex machina” is a term used almost exclusively by complete dickheads who aren’t as clever as they think they are, but, well… this is quite literally “god from the machine”. It’s not guilty of the crime that the common usage of the term implies, as Siliconia is so well-seeded throughout the episode that it’s plastered in big red letters over the first scene, but its unexpected appearance does seem sudden and somewhat convenient. Once again, in an episode that’s at its strongest when it’s focussed on character development, it’s an external element that wraps things up.
Before we know it, everyone’s turned back to normal and we’re back to the status quo, just in time for a little sign-off from Wind and Rusty and a brief conclusion of the guitar sub-plot. It’s nowhere near as jarring as the sudden endings to Samsara and Officer Rimmer, but it does feel like there’s something missing, even before you learn that a song and dance routine was removed during the edit. We don’t even see Cat and Rimmer back to their old selves, which really underlines how much the last few minutes of this episode sells the rest of it short.
A theme has emerged in this review whereby virtually every scene has something truly commendable, notable or brilliant, but that this is balanced by a series of accompanying caveats or disappointments. From what I’ve seen online, people are largely in agreement about which elements of the episode work and which ones don’t, and yet we’re still seeing such an extreme gulf in the conclusions that people are reaching. I think it all depends on just how much you like the good bits, and how much you feel the bad bits drag it down.
I wish the climax was better, and that Rimmer’s story was followed up to its conclusion, and that some of the inconsistencies in both the tone and the quality of the jokes had been ironed out. But when the jokes work, they really work, and for me the character stuff that we get is so good – both with Rimmer, and with the Kryten/Lister relationship – that I’m prepared to overlook some faults that I’d be less generous towards had I not enjoyed the good bits so much.
There was, you’ll remember, that brief moment where I thought I was watching something truly incredible. I remember thinking to myself that this could end up being the best episode of the Dave era. In the end, it wasn’t quite at that level – the minus points are slightly too numerous for that honour – but I’ll always remember that moment, and I’ll always be incredibly fond of The One Where Everyone’s Kryten as a result. For me, it’s very much a great episode with some disappointing bits, and not the other way round.
TINY TEASER: Flouncy Shirts (The type that Robocat was made to iron. Pirate ones, specifically.)
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 27 (Series total: 44)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 2 (Series total: 2)