“Despite some last-minute shooting by Rob and Doug after the wrap party, Demons & Angels was felt to be the weakest show of the series by Rob and Doug, and so was placed 5th – the traditional place for what you think is your worst episode. (Despite D&A being great.) Nobody cares if you’ve got a duff ep if you’ve had four great ones before it, and end the series with a blinder.”
“Episode Orders”, Ganymede & Titan, December 2005
Over the years on here, we’ve often idly mentioned the idea that the worst episode of any given comedy show should be put in the fifth episode slot out of six. In fact, we’ve mentioned it so much that it’s almost become a truism, a cliché… and yet we’ve never really examined where it came from, or actually looked at whether it applies to Red Dwarf in any concrete way.
Hello. I am John Hoare, and I am going to take a look at whether this actually applies to Red Dwarf in any concrete way.
For starters, let’s try to nail down exactly where the idea for this practice actually came from. With thanks to Gary Rodger and Tilt Araiza of The Sitcom Club podcast, the earliest example we can trace so far is in There’s No Answer to That!, Morecambe and Wise’s second autobiography from 1981. Specifically, page 111 – while talking about their Christmas shows, Eric gives the following aside:
“The rest of the year, just so long as we do four good shows out of the six in a series, we can afford to lose the other two. We would hide them, by putting them in the number three and number five spots. If the others – particularly the last – are good, then we still did a great series.”
Oddly enough, the idea about the third episode seems to have fallen by the wayside, at least when it comes to the public consciousness. (In as much as the episode order of comedy shows has a place in the public consciousness.) But the idea that the fifth episode of a six part comedy series is where you hide the dud – or, at least, the weakest episode – seems to have taken hold.
But does it actually apply to Red Dwarf? Luckily, we don’t have to rely on my opinion of each series for the answer. The Pearl Poll gives us THE ACTUAL WORST EPISODE OF EACH SERIES WITH PRECISELY NO ARGUMENTS WHATSOEVER, so we can approach this idea with SCIENCE.
So: is the fifth episode in each run of Red Dwarf actually the worst of each series? Let’s take a look.
Fifth Episode: Confidence & Paranoia
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Waiting for God
Oh. That’s a good start.
To be fair, Series 1 does have some oddities which need to be taken into account. Specifically, there’s an element of serialisation in Series 1 which means that some episodes have to be in the order they’re in, without the freedom to just switch things around at will. Confidence & Paranoia has to go before Me² due to the cliffhanger, so if you want Me² as your final episode, you have no choice but to place Confidence & Paranoia fifth.
It’s perhaps worth noting that both Rob and Doug have gone on record as saying they disliked Waiting for God; if you can’t put your least-liked episode fifth, perhaps fourth is a good compromise.
Fifth Episode: Queeg
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Parallel Universe
I’m sorry, the very idea that Queeg might ever be considered to the the worst episode of Series 2 has just make me cough up a lung. Indeed, according to the Pearl Poll, Queeg is the fifth-best episode of Red Dwarf full stop.
Now, admittedly, like with Series 1, there are serialisation issues to consider here. Parallel Universe could never be slotted into the fifth episode place, what with it ending on Lister’s pregnancy cliffhanger. But we’re pretty much as far away from hiding away a slightly dodgy episode in fifth place as it’s possible to get here.
Fifth Episode: Timeslides
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: The Last Day
Series III is perhaps the first real test of the fifth episode theory. There are no serialisation elements in III to confuse things; that scrolltext at the front of Backwards could have been plonked onto the front of any episode, and while an episode called The Last Day might beg to be put last, there’s no reason why it has to be.
Like Series 2, however, we don’t really get any kind of matching pattern here. Timeslides isn’t especially known for being people’s favourite or least favourite episode; it sits comfortably in the middle. Hmmmmm.
(Planned) Fifth Episode: White Hole
(Actual) Fifth Episode: Dimension Jump
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Camille
Now, with Series IV, we have to be a little careful. The planned order for the series is different from the actual order on its first TX, due to the Gulf War. For more on all this, take a look at that Episode Orders article I wrote 13 years ago. (And I’m still writing the same old shit. Sigh.)
So, the planned fifth episode was White Hole… which is actually the best IV episode as voted for in the Pearl Poll. The actual fifth episode as originally transmitted is Dimension Jump… which was voted the second best IV episode. And the worst episode of IV is Camille… which actually ended up being broadcast first in its initial run.
It has to be said, at this point it almost seems like the reverse of the fifth episode rule is true for Red Dwarf, which twice so far has put its best episode in fifth place instead. This is getting ridiculous.
Fifth Episode: Demons & Angels
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Demons & Angels
This does seem to be the first time the show may have tried to hide away a disliked episode in fifth place. It’s no secret that huge chunks of Demons & Angels was reshot after Juliet May left the production; it doesn’t seem a huge stretch to suggest that the episode may have been attempted to be hidden a little.
(Of course, it’s worth pointing out that this is merely supposition; this article is trying to see if there’s a pattern from the evidence available, not arguing that the production definitely took a certain point of view.)
Fifth Episode: Rimmerworld
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Emohawk: Polymorph II
Well, Rimmerworld is the second least-liked episode from VI, according to the Pearl Poll. At least the series isn’t doing anything stupid like hiding away Gunmen in the fifth episode slot or anything, which is an improvement.
Not that the series could, mind you. It’s worth pointing out that yet again the serialisation element rears its ugly head. Psirens has to come first in the series as they’re all coming out of deep sleep, and Out of Time has to be last as it ends on That Cliffhanger. And Rimmerworld has to come after Gunmen: “We’ve come across the simulant ship we totalled a couple of weeks back.” The opportunities for re-ordering this series are fairly slim.
Seventh Episode: Epideme
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Beyond a Joke
Now, with Series VII and VIII, we come to a little quandary. With eight episodes in each series rather than six, how do you interpret the fifth episode idea?
My answer: you have to treat it like the penultimate episode instead. It wasn’t like there was anything special about the fifth episode per se: it’s that it’s slightly hidden away as the second-last episode in a series, and then you come back strong for the final episode. With this in mind, for VII and VIII you have to look at the seventh episode of each series.
Still, yet again, with VII you have to take a look at the serialisation element. Tikka has to be first in the series due to Rimmer’s presence; Stoke me a Clipper has to then come second in order to write him out; Epideme has to come just before Nanarchy due to the Lister’s arm business, and Nanarchy has to come last in the series due to the cliffhanger where they find Red Dwarf.
Granted, you could swap round a few episodes in the middle, but it gets tricky very quickly. Certainly, even if the production had wanted to put Beyond a Joke in the seventh episode slot, they couldn’t.
Seventh Episode: Pete (Part Two)
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Pete (Part Two)
HOW VERY INTERESTING, I AM NOW GOING TO EAT A BISCUIT AND PONDER ON HOW INTERESTING THIS IS.
Right, I’m back from my biscuit, and I have to report that this is probably more coincidence than anything, due to – you’ve guessed it – the serialisation of the show. Indeed, perhaps counter-intuitively, there’s even more serialisation in this series than with VII. The three episodes of Back in the Red have to come first in the series due to introducing the new status quo; and Only The Good… has to come last due to the cliffhanger. But Cassandra also has to come fourth in the run, as it introduces the whole concept of the Canaries which the other episodes rely on. And believe it or not, you can’t have Pete Part Two before Pete Part One. In fact, the only thing the series could have conceivably done is move Krytie TV to after the Pete two-parter.
It’s at this point that I realise Red Dwarf has far more serialised elements than I thought.
Back to Earth
All serialised, only three episodes, stop wasting my time.
Fifth Episode: Dear Dave
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Dear Dave
Now, this really is very interesting. Dear Dave was, not to put too fine a point on it, a production disaster, with the episode essentially being rescued by a long after-the-fact bluescreen shoot. It’s difficult to imagine it ended up as the favourite episode of anybody on the production. As with Demons & Angels, it seems like an ideal episode to slot into the least-coveted fifth place.
It is, however, worth noting that the entire series ended up being transmitted in production order. And considering this is a programme which also transmitted Queeg in the fifth episode slot… who knows?
Fifth Episode: Krysis
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Can of Worms
I have to be honest: I find this one absolutely baffling. Can of Worms feels like the most fifsthyist fifth episode which has ever fifthed. Not only does the production not put it fifth, but it actually puts it in last place – where you’d expect to put one of your strongest episodes. It seems damned peculiar to me. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I understand it even less now.
Even more weirdly, the actual fifth episode, Krysis, feels like an ideal candidate to be placed last in the series. Talking to “The Universe” gives that episode a decidedly end-of-term feeling which feels right for the end of a series. Just switching round Krysis and Can of Worms would seem to me to improve the experience of the series significantly.
I dunno. I may be letting my hatred of the episode come to the fore a little too much. Luckily, there’s not long to go.
Fifth Episode: M-Corp
Pearl Poll Worst Episode: Timewave
SERIOUSLY, GET FUCKED, YOU PUT THE BEST EPISODE FIFTH?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Ahem. Excuse me. Let’s try again.
SERIOUSLY, GET FUCKED, YOU PUT THE BEST EPISODE FIFTH?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Oh dear. Right, one more go.
YOU DIDN’T PUT TIMEWAVE FIFTH?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
I need a drink.
OK, a bit of number-crunching. Over the years, Red Dwarf has put the worst episode as the penultimate in the series three times. It’s also put the best episode as the penultimate in the series three times, if we include the intended order of Series IV.
Now, obviously a fair amount of this article is rather facetious. Not only is the best or worst episode purely a matter of opinion, but – as far as I’m aware – the fifth episode theory has never been talked about by anyone who has ever worked on Red Dwarf. Sure, the ordering of episodes has been talked about occasionally – Kryten was placed first in Series 2 because it had such a good audience reaction, and Paul Jackson argued that Backwards should go first in Series III because it had a gimmicky hook ideal to grab people’s attention. But we’re essentially looking at a production technique which Dwarf has never said it practiced, and then are slightly surprised when, erm, Red Dwarf doesn’t seem to have practiced it.
But it feels worth doing for two reasons. Firstly, this isn’t something that fans have just made up out of thin air – as per the Morecambe and Wise quote which opens this article, it’s a practice which did actually happen at the BBC. And secondly, because whenever an idea like this takes hold in discussions about the show, it’s often automatically assumed to always or usually be true. Just take a look at the quote which opens this article.
Here, we’ve seen that with Red Dwarf… it kinda isn’t true. The “best” episode has shown up in the penultimate slot just as much as the “worst”, and serialisation issues force a certain order on a number of occasions anyway. Only with Demons & Angels and Dear Dave is there an obvious possibility that the weakest episode was shunted to fifth place, and twice over 12 series hardly constitutes a pattern.
Unless. Perhaps – just perhaps – episodes like Queeg and M-Corp really were seen by the production as the weakest of their respective series. But… surely not?