For the third time since Red Dwarf‘s revival, I find myself sitting down to review a series finale, and pondering the very nature of what a series finale ought to entail. The Beginning went for an emotional resolution, leaving the characters very much in a place where they can be picked up again, but providing a satisfying full stop to their adventures if the worst came to the worst. Can of Worms didn’t have to do that, and indeed it wasn’t initially designed to be the final episode; it was placed at the end presumably because it was deemed to be one of the strongest, with an attention-grabbing premise to raise expectations.
Skipper aims to tick both of those boxes, and yet in many ways it’s like no Red Dwarf finale that’s been before. While it shares with Back To Reality the threat of a fundamental change to the show’s formula, it packs so many big and varied ideas into its running time that it feels more along the lines of a Doctor Who finale – throwing handfuls of elements from the history of the series together, jumbling them all up and turning everything up to 11. It super-serves the hardcore fans and hooks in the casual and lapsed ones with a much-publicised returning guest star, then hits them all with surprise after surprise when it gets underway.
Such a unique episode of Red Dwarf needs to be tackled in a different way. The story can be split into three distinct stages, both in terms of the progression of the plot and the journey of the main character. So let’s deal with those stages one by one.
1. An Unknown Force
The protagonist chosen for this story is Rimmer, and so in keeping with what has become something of a format point this series, we open with a scene that doesn’t immediately feel like it’s directly connected to the main plot, but which establishes key character themes that will become important later on. While Lister gets the scene’s best gag, in his continued pride at being labelled “quite bright”, reiterating Rimmer’s key character flaws allows Doug to highlight one of them – him blaming everyone but himself for his failings – and use it as Rimmer’s motivation for the rest of the episode. It’s perhaps strange that in an episode that embraces callbacks so emphatically, the extremely similar scene in Waiting For God has been seemingly forgotten about, although the choice of font for the confidential files folder is entirely in keeping with designer Matt Clark’s attention to detail throughout the run.
Where Skipper deviates from the template is in the introduction of this week’s big sci-fi idea, in that it initially introduces a completely different big sci-fi idea. You can very easily imagine the first half of Skipper being turned into a full episode: The One Where Everything’s Opposite. But it’s hard to argue that it’s wasted here, when it’s used to such brilliant effect. Due to the pre-publicity focussing solely on the second half, I had no idea any of this was coming, making it both the biggest and the most pleasant surprise to emerge unspoilt from the last three series.
It’s a simple premise, but one that’s mined for comedy superbly well. It’s the old Last of the Summer Wine bicycle joke (“you’ll never get me on that bicycle”/jump cut to that person on a bicycle), but as a space-time phenomenon. The jump cuts aren’t just a comedic device, they’re what’s actually happening to the crew. Virtually every iteration of the gag is funny; most involve the Cat saying something stupid, but the best ones are the more surprising ones. Craig throws away his line about not eating the breakfast so casually that it doesn’t feel at first glance like he’s made a decision, so the sight of him involuntarily chomping eggy toast is all the funnier. My absolute favourite has to be Kryten finding himself in the middle of a tannoy announcement. I don’t think anything in the Dave era has given me such a sustained belly laugh as the timing of the chime at the start, followed by Robert’s double-take afterwards.
While I wouldn’t have lost that gag for the world, we perhaps didn’t need to see both pairs of characters figuring out what was going on, with Lister’s practical exploration of the theory rendering Kryten’s verbal explanation unnecessary. Later on, there are sections that could really do with expanding, which freeing up this screen-time could have helped with, but it’s hard to complain too much when these opening scenes are so good. Even the Michael Jackson joke works; while I can’t quite turn off the nagging voice in my head that’s questioning why these characters know so much about the physical and mental deterioration of a pop star at specific points late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s this specificity that makes it funny.
Only after ten minutes, and several amusing Cat-caused changes of location, of this luxurious set-up do we get to the start of the advertised plot, with the reveal that this was all caused by Kryten’s experimentations into creating a dimension-skipping machine. After the ensemble-based shenanigans so far, it’s at this point that Rimmer emerges as the main player in this story, and he really is the ideal choice if you need a character complex enough that there’s still mileage in exploring his issues even after thirty years. It’s been noted that the crew have been at each other’s throats a hell of a lot this series, Rimmer and the Cat in particular, and you could interpret Rimmer’s decision to leave as the climax that this shift in dynamic has been leading to.
Or it could just be that those gags are an easy and reliable source of woofers and that this latest development is just a coincidence, but either way I totally buy Rimmer’s decision to go searching for a better life in an alternative universe. What I don’t buy is that absolutely nobody mentions Ace, in the context of a discussion about the possibility of there being a better Rimmer in an infinite number of dimensions. Lister jokes that a non-loser Rimmer would take some finding, despite the fact that he’s already met at least two such Rimmers, and seen the caskets of thousands of others. I refuse to believe that the combination of this episode’s synopsis and its title weren’t intended to tease fans about the possibility of an Ace appearance, and yet he’s absent to such a degree that the lack of a reference to him at this stage in proceedings seems like an oversight.
Not that I wouldn’t have been complaining if Ace had turned up, of course. This is an episode that, on the whole, incorporates the show’s past, but does new and unexpected things with it, which is the focus as we move on to the second stage…
2. Leaping From Life To Life
It’s worth pointing out that there’s a lot about the dimension skipper that doesn’t make immediate sense, or is at best under-explained. One of the few pieces of specific information we’re given is that it takes time to recharge between uses, and that detail is promptly done away with after the first jump, when it ceases to benefit the plot. It’s not clear what happens to the parallel Rimmers that ours displaces, or why some of his skips take him back in time and others don’t, but it’s clear that the inconsistency is there to aid the cultivation of maximum comedy and drama from each situation, so it’s best to go along with it. I like to think of it as working the same way as Quantum Leap – our Rimmer takes the place of the alternate ones at a point in their lives when a major event is about to occur.
The virtue of this plot device is that it provides an automatic excuse for any continuity issues in the situation it produces – it’s an alternate universe, things are different there. That’s why it doesn’t matter that in the first dimension we visit, the corridors and science room don’t look like they did in 1988, or that both Rimmer’s H and his name badge are alarmingly oversized on the otherwise faultless recreations of the original costumes. It doesn’t even matter that he’s inexplicably a hologram pre-accident, or that despite this he happily taps away on a keyboard – this universe is just like ours, except Rimmer was already dead and hard light, and Holly looks like a terrifying combination of a prune and a bloodhound.
The lighting and make-up do Norman no favours, but his performance is a genuine delight. The self-satisfied mugging of the Series VIII incarnation is gone, with a return to the much more restrained deadpan that Lovett excels at, with an extra dose of world-weary dourness that’s developed in the intervening thirty years. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the lines that were used in trailers, but there were a few real gems in the full scene, most notably Holly breaking off to announce the imminent radiation leak, complete with original foghorn sound effect.
The big set piece for Holly was the inversion of the iconic scene that first cemented his popularity, with “everybody’s dead, Dave” becoming “nobody’s dead, Arnold”. It maybe went on for slightly too long – the understandably enthusiastic audience reaction affected the pace, and gave the exchange a different rhythm to the original, which detracted from the effect – but as was the case with the final scene of M-Corp last week, the realisation of what was unfolding made me very, very happy. It’s perhaps a shame that those two fan-pleasing The End recreations came in consecutive episodes too, but I wouldn’t want to lose either of them. And while I wouldn’t necessarily want Holly back full time (and if I did, it’d be the other Holly), I enjoyed his guest appearance far more than I thought I would.
There was of course one more returning character from Series 1, and this one was so very nearly kept a secret – it was commendable to digitally remove Hollister from the shot of the explosion in the opening titles, but sloppy to leave him in one of the trailers. Either way, Mac McDonald is an inherently funny performer, and he rolls back the years with ease. He’s undoubtedly the “Dennis The Doughnut Boy” version of Hollister here, as opposed to “The Captain” of the early series, but that makes sense – he was the straight man back in Series 1 and 2, and while I didn’t like much of what he was given to do in Series VIII, if you’re going to bring him back for a cameo in an episode that celebrate’s the show’s entire history, you’re obviously going to go down the more comedic route.
Even so, the fat jokes were thankfully constrained, with the focus instead being on Hollister’s selfishness and unsuitability for his position. And there was nothing overtly comedic about the way his appearance ended. It was a brutally realistic depiction of a nuclear explosion, much more reminiscent of the description in Infinity than the rather tame version seen in Me², right down to the “nuclear wind roaring down the corridor towards” Rimmer. He got out of the way, but the inexplicable lack of window in the escape pod means that the last image we may ever see of Hollister is his face being engulfed in flames. It’s pretty grim.
On Rimmer’s journey goes, to alternative universe number two, in which Lister is doing his posh voice from the deleted scene in Only The Good… and Craig’s introduction in Universe Challenge. Luckily, it’s funnier here than it is in these prior examples – it’s a bit of a route one performance from Craig, but worth it for the “space chums” line. This Lister also has a collection of vintage wires, which subtly links to Rimmer’s own collection that we see him fiddling with towards the start of the episode, but which is never explicitly referenced.
Wherever I thought this scene was heading, it was certainly not with the introduction of a giant rat with the mannerisms of a 70s blaxploitation character and a heavily-implied sexual relationship with Posh Lister. As my colleague John pointed out on our Live DwarfCast, it’s the incongruity that makes this scene work so exceptionally well. If Danny had just been a humanoid version of a rat, Rimmer could have easily lived with it, and more importantly, it wouldn’t have been nearly so memorable and amusing. All the ingredients are wrong for Red Dwarf, but the alternate universe excuses covers a multitude of sins, and we’re free to enjoy the uncomplicated delights of Danny’s delivery of lines such as “yo Krytie, where my dinner at” and “he’s so warm and snuggly” for what they are: unashamedly silly, and extremely funny.
The pace of Rimmer’s skips picks up after this universe, and the effect is similar to a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror segment or Futurama Anthology of Interest, in which we see a relentless succession of funny and interesting ideas, and if you don’t like one of them, another one will be along any moment. I admire the economy of the “lots of Listers” and the “Rimmer becomes Holly” universes – in, joke, out. This slightly scuppers the “human sacrifice” universe, however, as the scene is so short that virtually the whole thing is in the title sequence. The montage that follows relies a little too much on sound effects when the visual gags thus far have been so effective, but it nevertheless moves us on swiftly and effectively to the episode’s final stage.
3. The Leap Home
This is the one section of the episode that feels like it could have done with a lot more time spent on it. After all the comedy – very fine comedy at that – had been wrung out of the “everything’s opposite” and “Rimmer’s tour of weird universes” ideas, the last universe feels very different, but there’s only five minutes left to explore it. As I enjoyed the preceding 23 minutes so much, I wouldn’t want to lose very much of it at all, which leads me to conclude that this is one of those episodes that really feels like it warrants a longer running time. It’s a risky move when you consider the problems Red Dwarf has had in the past when it’s tried to tell stories longer than thirty minutes, but just ten minutes more in the “almost everything’s perfect for Rimmer” universe would have worked wonders.
For example, we learn that this Rimmer has a wife, but we never meet her. Is it McGruder? Could it possibly be Kochanski? That would really give him the upper hand over Lister, but there’s no time to go down that particular avenue. That said, as with almost everything else in this episode, what we do get is very good indeed. For one thing, the near-perfect recreations of the bunkroom and the decor (if not the geography) of the captain’s office are absolutely spot on, right down to the grey lager cans and old one-inch tape reels for background colour, it’s just a shame we don’t see more of them.
The use of an original model shot for this sequence is inspired – it instantly tells us that we’re “home”, and it’s a heart-warming feeling. The sight of planet Earth through the portholes is a tantalising glimpse of how it would look if we ever reached the show’s definitive end. Meanwhile, Craig is very good as Captain Lister; despite having the moustache from the aforementioned Only The Good… deleted scene, the performance feels very true to our version of Lister. It’s our Lister putting on a show to reflect his ill-gotten position – he has the affectations that he feels a captain should have, but it’s clearly still recognisably him underneath.
Of course, in a universe that’s practically perfect in every way, it had to be Lister that ruins it for Rimmer, who would rather be dead and light years from home than be less successful than his old bunkmate. Despite the pleasing back-reference to Helium-7, providing a neat link back to an earlier episode in the series, it’s here that the emotional resolution to Rimmer’s character journey falls short of the standard set by The Beginning of how to do an open-ended but satisfying potential last episode ever.
The issue is that when Rimmer returns home, it’s because he’s exhausted all the other options. It’s not the “there’s no place like home” realisation that I was hoping for, it’s “there’s no place like home, but only because everywhere else is shit”. I wanted Rimmer to make a pro-active decision to stay in our universe; he should have realised that getting back to Earth would be meaningless without Lister, Cat and Kryten by his side. It would have filled me with so much joy for him to discover that he wouldn’t want to live without his crewmates, but as it stands, none of the issues that lead him to leave in the first place are resolved, and he’s going to be just as unhappy as he was before.
So if this does turn out to be the last episode ever, that’s going to go down as a huge missed opportunity, but hopefully it won’t come to that. On its own merits, Skipper works exceptionally well as a finale to the twelfth series – it’s the biggest and most ambitious storyline, it’s got some of the strongest performances, and it’s quite possibly the funniest of the six episodes. The symmetry is also very satisfying – Cured begins with the guys sitting around playing poker, and Skipper ends with Rimmer taking his seat at the table as Lister deals the latest hand.
When we look back on Series XII, we’ll conclude that it was indeed pretty “out there” compared to what came before it, whether or not this was an intentional move by the production. We’ve seen Lister jamming with Hitler, the crew turned into mechanoids, a spaceship full of pink policemen, a mock general election, our lead character desperately alone and interacting with invisible objects, and now such things as returning cast members who last appeared eighteen years ago, recreations of sets and scenes from the very first episode, and giant rat pimps. Who’d have thought just ten years ago, when The Bodysnatcher Collection seemed to signal the very end of Red Dwarf has a going concern, that we’d end up here, 21 brand new episodes later?
To return to my earlier Doctor Who comparison, Skipper coming along at this point reminds me of how the revived series steered clear of the show’s past for the first couple of years, as it fought to establish itself in its own right, before slowly gaining the confidence to embrace its own history as it became a success. That’s exactly what’s happening with Dwarf. By coincidence, Skipper marks the point at which the number of “Doug Dwarf” episodes exceeds the number of Grant Naylor-penned episodes for the first time, and it’s only now, with the momentum of three full new series under its belt, that it no longer feels a comeback or a revival, but the new status quo. Dave era Red Dwarf is still very much distinct from the BBC era, but equally it’s happy to be part of one glorious whole.
While Series XII has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, the sheer quality of the last three episodes has now, for me at least, outweighed the immense drag factor of Timewave to tip the balance heavily towards favourable. With the caveat that I’m still processing my opinions, it could well be my favourite of the three most recent runs. It’s bold, confident, ambitious, full of imagination and – with the likes of M-Corp and Skipper at least – it demonstrates that Doug is still capable, thirty years later, of delivering episodes that can surprise, amuse and entertain just as much as ever. Long may it continue. Please.
TINY TEASER: Space Chums (what Posh Lister and his version of Rimmer are)
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 35 (Series total: 139)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 2 (Series total: 10)