“‘Allo, ‘allo, ‘allo, what’s all this then?”
“Just my Timewave review, officer.”
“I see…a comedian, are we?”
“That’s very kind of you, officer.”
“Smart arse. Lock her up.”
I brought it on myself, I suppose. I did volunteer to take this episode on, even with the sight of Johnny Vegas in a pink helmet. That’s the thing, though; I have enough of a personal investment to avoid assumptions with Red Dwarf, and it’s this goodwill that the show puts to the test each week. Although I get the idea some don’t really believe me, it’s a genuine gut-punch when, as in this case, I finish an episode feeling disappointed and confused.
Speaking of coherence, let’s look at the structure of the story. We start with a brief reprise of Thanks for the Memory (somehow looking more ropey than in the original episode), which sets up the plot point of Helium-7. Given the payoff – an explosion to let the Dwarf crew out of prison straight into recapture – doesn’t actually lead anywhere except as a reason to get them into the Criticism Extraction Room, it seems a completely unnecessary sub-plot. Why wouldn’t the crew be put into the CER straight away after the confrontation with the Crit Cops? At least the jail scene gives us Joe Sims, who provides a convincing picture of a man driven to distraction by his imprisonment for tutting. It’s a beautifully simple joke, but it hardly seems worth the journey to get us there. The BBC/Yewtree joke is symptomatic of the lack of coherence from the start of this episode; it’s laboured, scans poorly and isn’t really making any sort of point apart from the rather boneheaded desire to have a swipe at the BBC for not welcoming back Dwarf with open arms. What’s it doing there?
The next plot point is equally puzzling. It’s not unusual for Red Dwarf episodes to be named after the science fiction conceit that appears in it, and this is no exception. But it does bring attention to the fact that the time wave doesn’t really do anything, which is really unusual. The crew force in a couple of jokes to suggest they’ve had a confusing experience, but it’s very hard to see how they’ve had it. Given that weird timey-wimey events are nothing new to the crew, it’s extremely odd to see them making such a fuss. They’re the Boys from the Dwarf, surely?
The temporal wave washes up a 24th century ship, the SS Enconium. It’s equipped with a faster-than-light drive, and is heading straight for what is called Planet Rimmer for the rest of the episode, despite it clearly being referred to as a moon at the start. What’s weirder is that Kryten is the first member of the crew to call it that. Perhaps we’re meant to fill in the gap with a theory of our own, as an awful lot of episodes have asked us to do in the past? Create your own story! Perhaps you can incorporate why the faster-than-light drive is set up as a thing and is dangled as a possible reward later on for saving the Enconium, but isn’t ever used. What is it? Why are we being told about it?
Still, onwards. As Starbug approaches the stricken Enconium, what might have been a nice joke about Kryten having a reversing alarm is spoilt by clearly showing Kryten turning round and entering the frame forwards whilst the warning is still playing. I know I’m sensitive to continuity problems (it’s a curse), but I was by no means the only person to notice this, and it’s so frustrating when it could have been so easily avoided. So we don’t have a great introduction to our main exposition scene, where Kryten has found out from the Enconium’s data banks that the ship has made criticism illegal, prompting Rimmer to tell the crew about a hitherto unrevealed part of his past: his time spent at the St Trembles school after having his confidence destroyed by the time he was 6 years old, a school where competitiveness is discouraged in favour of self-expression.
Rimmer’s always been my favourite character, so this extra detail about his past intrigued me, especially as it makes no bloody sense whatsoever. Why hasn’t Rimmer talked about this before? Why isn’t he at St Trembles in Timeslides? Why don’t any of the crew ask him why he hasn’t revealed this before, rather than having a rather prosaic discussion of criticism with the odd joke thrown in?
Anyway, we make it onto the Enconium, where our gang notice childish pictures drawn by (we learn) the crew members, which are all hung badly on walls decorated garishly, and they watch a video of a hippy-like older man giving them his ‘wisdom’. They then encounter our main antagonist, Ziggy Briceman, who appears to be in charge and has chosen to express himself by dressing in an extreme drag outfit, accompanied by a camp voice and odd ‘flying’ arm movements. It’s worth spending some time on how the crew have been realised on the Enconium, because I think this is really important to the core of what the episode is trying to explore. We find that everyone on the ship is dressed in fairly extreme versions of fancy dress under the guise of being allowed to express themselves without criticism. I find it fascinating that only one possible result seems to arise from this policy: high camp. I’m not opposed to camp, or drag, or unusual costumes per se, but I like to see them used within a coherent context, and I don’t see why all the crew of the Enconium would choose elaborate costumes when left to their own devices. Moreover, no motivation is offered other than ‘they aren’t being criticised’.
It’s swiftly established that the Enconium’s in trouble mainly because the crew are all attempting jobs that they’re not suited to, so many elements of the ship aren’t working properly. Which, to be fair, is one of the elements of this episode which does make a certain amount of sense. It’s curious that the assumption behind this story is that we’re all in jobs that don’t make us happy but which we’re competent at, and it’s even more curious that this part of the story is very similar to Rob Grant’s novel Incompetence. Which makes me wonder exactly what Ziggy’s role is on the ship, because it’s never really made clear what post he holds or why he’s clearly an authority figure. He’s not the captain, because he makes a reference to looking for the captain, and, in fact, we never find said captain. Who is Ziggy? Perhaps he’s still trying to work that one out himself.
The portrayal of the Enconium crew gets even more problematic when we consider that, for the purposes of this episode, they are the threat to the Red Dwarf crew, as they end up imprisoning (and, let’s face it, torturing) them for breaking their golden rule. Although I really don’t think this was the intention, you have with people who (in our society) often attract a lot of hostility ending up being the bullies, without any real motivation being offered by the script. I don’t think it’s acceptable to do that without giving enough context to explain the story you’re trying to tell, and throughout the episode, it’s truly difficult to know what side the script is on, or what moral it’s trying to impart. As the episode is obviously trying to say something, you owe it to your ‘villains’ to make their actions a lot clearer, especially given who they are.
The ship’s diner is full of crew members in elaborate costumes, having fun, with one guy giving our guys the chance to make a reference to the Om song from Timeslides. Rimmer (to his credit) praises the atmosphere, seeking an interesting justification for not feeling so bad about killing the original Red Dwarf crew because of his incompetence, but his attitude swiftly changes when the waitress pours coffee into his lap. It’s reasonably amusing, which makes Lister’s quite aggressive attitude towards the waitress giving them someone else’s orders strangely out of place. I suppose the episode needs something to cause the waitress to get upset and to call the Crit Cops on them, which is of course followed by our Dwarfers being apprehended by said cops in the corridor. With both of the cops dressed in bright pink. I don’t know why. It’s not explained. I feel we need a bit more than ‘self-expression’.
Anyway, some mild banter follows before the crew try to explain about the Enconium’s fate, which ends with the cop giving them a caution. The Cat reacts by telling our guys that the cop’s a idiot, and then calls him “Lieutenant Asshole”. Which is fine…but then, for some reason, what is a relatively mild-mannered conflict escalates into Cat making a remark about the cop’s wife’s “titties”, which is weirdly out of character and sounds truly odd in an episode of Red Dwarf. After Cat gets tasered, our guys end up in jail and break out as described earlier. However, due to there being absolutely no effort to figure out a way not to get caught, they get caught. This is, I feel, a major problem with the episode; our main cast act out of character and even have their history altered in the service of moving the plot along. My feeling is if you need to go to these lengths, is the plot worth it?
It takes an awful lot of messing around, but at last, events come to some sort of head. The whole point of draining the inner critic is to reprogramme the person to express themselves without their inner critic holding them back. Rimmer, unsurprisingly, takes centre stage, and his struggle with his inner critic, with said critic breaking their bounds (nice makeup job, BTW), has the potential to be quite interesting. Unfortunately, it’s not, partly because Rimmer delivers a bizarre joke about sex advice. I’m sure it’s not that easy to come up with a rhyme for ‘clitoris’, but the joke doesn’t make it worth the effort. It also feels uncomfortable for Rimmer to make jokes around ranking women when he’s clearly meant to be the hero in this scene; he firstly beats the ship’s criticism extractor, and then, with encouragement from the rest of the boys, beats his inner critic with the correct criticism that he doesn’t really protect Rimmer from making a fool of himself.
Still, never mind: Ziggy is impressed, and promptly repeals the criticism law, despite the fact that this is a central plank of life on the Enconium, to the point that they’ve made people suffer hideous punishment for mild infractions of the law. Again; who is Ziggy? How has he got this authority? Presumably Ziggy wouldn’t have been able to order the engineers back to their actual jobs without this change of heart, but his fickleness means that he changes his mind again when he attempts to give our heroes one of his drawings, and our lads run away, presumably back to the safety of Starbug. Somehow. Actually, how? It’d be good to know.
Dave-era Red Dwarf has been a challenge for me at times, I admit, although I’ve always been careful to say that normally each episode is based on a sound idea. The way society uses criticism as peer review and social sanction is undoubtedly an interesting topic. However, I think this episode is proof that it’s probably not something you can adequately tackle in a half-hour sitcom, especially when you have to write jokes about it, and especially when you belong to a group of people who generally get to do far more criticising than they ever receive. I do feel a bit sorry for Doug at times that the last 30 years have taken place, but here we are. I feel any efforts he has gone to in order to debate the idea within the episode have been undone by his own assumptions, and although that’s a natural obstacle we all have, a more coherent episode might have meant that his message got across more successfully.
TINY TEASER: Crevice Brush (An implement Kryten owns, which he will apparently eat if Rimmer’s toy soldiers ever do anything useful)
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 18 (Series total: 62)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 1 (Series total: 3)