Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Red Dwarf VI Episode 6: "Out of Time"

The Grant Naylor era comes to an end and the Dwarfers discover that they have a dark future even though they don't know about Series VII yet. An episode that famously was written in such difficult circumstances that they had to build teleprompters into the set and the show was literally being written as the actors performed it, this episode concludes the series' messy composition. It starts largely as an episode about "unreality pockets", but turns into a story about the Dwarfers acquiring a time machine and being attacked by their future selves. The highlight of the whole episode probably comes with the morale meeting at the beginning, followed by the sequence in which Lister appears to be an android.
The idea of the time drive itself, which allows movement in time but not space, is an interesting and clever one, and effectively sets up Rimmer's entertaining line about the "heady medieval atmosphere of pre-Renaissance deep space", but I'm not sure how effective the idea of "evil future selves" is necessarily. It's just not quite a clear progression from anything else in the episode, I think, which makes the story feel a little unstructured, given that most of the episode is about the Dwarfers' despair at their predicament and how that's reflected by the unreality bubbles affecting their perception of reality.

The "droid Lister" concept gets some worthy jokes, including "Made in Taiwan" and Kryten asking Lister whether the box he was found on said "kit" or "paint before assembly" on the side. The "Kryten's head" joke in this one isn't terrible, largely due to Robert Llewellyn's delivery of the line "freak formation of mashed potato". This delivery similarly pays off for "And I want to see creases!" I also like Lister's confession about the tattoo: "I don't really love Petersen; he just got me so drunk that I didn't know what I was doing." The unreality pockets form a bit of a bizarre defence system though, disorienting potential discoverers rather than simply attacking them.

The rushed nature of the story is highly noticeable in how they approach the time drive ship, later given the name "Gemini 12" in "Tikka to Ride", which is obviously just a close up of Justice World, followed by a brief scene of them looking at the time drive installed in Starbug, followed by them back in the cockpit. It's all done very hastily. Kryten's behaviour after discovering that Lister's just a brain in a jar, particularly with a high pitched voice, seems to be what was built upon for Kryten's behaviour in Series VII as well. The appearance of the future Dwarfers is kind of funny, especially Kryten, but the best part is the current Dwarfers' reactions, particularly Rimmer's "Oh dear." The other standout line is obviously Kryten's incredulous "Herman Göring is a bit dodgy?!", the third joke about him in the show. "Better dead that smeg" is good, but "better anything than that toupee" might be even better.

I personally think that the original ending (at least insofar as it involved Rimmer's destruction of the Time Drive) should have been retained at the end of Series VI, and the cliffhanger should have been catching up to Red Dwarf; I don't think the "urine recyc" gag is terribly funny. Supposedly the cliffhanger, an obvious paradox, was to encourage the BBC to commission another series (which apparently they wanted to do anyway), but as it happened, due to a number of background difficulties, the show wouldn't return to television screens for another three years and two months. The same can be said for "Out of Time" as most of Series VI's episodes; there's plenty of entertaining humour, but unlike some of the best Red Dwarf the most interesting ideas aren't necessarily given sufficient attention.

Red Dwarf VI Episode 5: "Rimmerworld"

I've always found this to be a weirdly fillery episode because of the way it's structured. The setup is so lengthy that the actual "Rimmerworld" sequence feels like a rushed coda to a story primarily about looting the simulant ship from "Gunmen" and the conflict between this and Rimmer's diagnosis with a nervous disorder. I suppose you could say that Rimmer's use of the escape pod and creation of the world made in his image is ultimately the result of his stress condition, but it's not entirely clear how it completes the story of his medical situation. The entire premise of Rimmer being stressed seems to have little payoff apart from the admittedly amusing gag of the ground-down worry balls at the end, although the highlight of that element is definitely the line "Balls on standby, sir." You can't go wrong with the word "balls", really, though, as "grind those balls" and "after you with the balls" are both winners as well.

This episode goes even further than ever in emphasising the idea of holograms as "electronic life forms" rather than computer simulations of people, something which seems to connect to, for instance, the fact that Rimmer was judged like a living man in "Justice" and "The Inquisitor". Weirdly, despite having so much human biology replicated through his hologrammatic programming that he can have the equivalent of blood pressure and be at risk of dying, Rimmer doesn't age over the course of six hundred years, yet an episode later he ages rapidly over fifteen. Nonetheless, there are all sorts of unnecessary explanations to cover this and why Rimmer would age as the actor who plays him ages. I think the reason might be because it's a TV show.

The idea of Rimmer failing to get along with duplicates of himself feels rather like a retread of "Me2", and the idea that the world is controlled by Rimmer's worst impulses is very evocative of "Terrorform". I also rather dislike the way that the clones openly and unironically embrace Rimmer's worst characteristics, which reminds me unpleasantly of Rimmer's admissions of being a "coward" and a "bureaucratic nincompoop" in earlier episodes of the series. It seems to lean weirdly towards the "nature", as opposed to "nurture", side of things, which I thought was already debunked by "Dimension Jump". Perhaps you could blame it on hologram Rimmer's influence on the society, but it's all so rushed that it's not clear.

The episode's set and location work is good, including the "paradisal" appearance of Rimmer's planet after terraforming although the simulant ship set would very obviously pull double duty for the interior of Starbug in other episodes, particularly the climax of "Out of Time". I enjoy Lister's line about the simulant ship: "Let's pray the crew are rotting in Silicon Hell with all the photocopiers." Possibly the funniest part of the whole thing is how Cat and Lister rapidly adapt Rimmer's misremembered names for them: "There isn't a prison built that can hold Derek Custer." Some other vaguely funny bits include Rimmer's rising panic about "the heart palpitations and the blackouts and the chest pains and the voices!" which oddly doesn't seem to get a laugh, and the seedy Space Corps Directive about "sniffing the seat of the exercise bicycle in the women's gym." I especially like how Kryten says it "doesn't quite get to the nub of the matter for me." Rimmer's skepticism about being able to build a "two storey home with running water and a balcony stroke sun patio" is a funny line and sets up an occasional joke about Rimmer's love of spacious accommodation, followed up on in "Trojan" with the "barn conversion" joke. I also like his description of how they'd be forced to attack in the disintegrating simulant ship: "What do we do? Whisper 'charge', tippytoe up to them all screaming 'shh' and chloroform them with Lister's armpits?" Of course Kryten's line about greeting the time "with a smile on your lips and a song in your heart" is a good one too.

A lot of people seem to think that the naked Rimmer clone who emerges from the pod with a bare arse is Chris Barrie, but it's not; it's obviously a body double, for no more clear reason than the shape of the head and the hairstyle, and I'm surprised more people haven't realised this. Rimmer's "What the hell, I just wouldn't tell her" is good, but the longer version of the speech, found in the deleted scenes, in which he talks about Alexander the Great crying and says "if it's okay for Big Al to cry, then it's okay for me" before falling to his knees weeping is a funny bit that should have been retained. In general, "Rimmerworld" is ultimately a pretty funny episode, although it has a few fairly dry spots, especially in the simulant ship, but like "Emohawk" it feels like it's rushing through a bunch of different ideas without giving any of them sufficient time.

Red Dwarf VI Episode 4: "Emohawk: Polymorph II"

Almost certainly the weakest episode of the series, "Emohawk" probably most emphasises the show's behind-the-scenes writing difficulties, as Grant and Naylor are forced to retread three popular elements from previous stories in order to score some quick appreciation. We get a polymorph from Series III, Ace Rimmer from Series IV and Duayne Dibbley from Series V, and it wouldn't be the last time we'd see the two character variants either. The episode also rather emphasises the structural issues common to Series VI episodes, as the plot repeatedly changes direction. First it's about them getting attacked by a Space Corps enforcement probe, then they're trading with GELFs for a new oxygen generator, then Lister's getting married and finally they're hunting an emohawk around Starbug in a manner altogether similar to the last act of "Psirens".

The enforcement orb is a decent model let down by a bad special effect as it appears. There are some weak gags here too, including "dream on, metal trash." Rimmer's long rant about sensible haircuts gets a bit tedious as well; it'd be better if it just ended with "and wherever possible a sensible haircut." The best piece of Rimmer material is probably "Sorry, I was looking at the wrong panel." I've never understood why Kryten's amusing line "forced you at gunpoint to do my evil bidding" doesn't get a decent laugh. The model shot of Starbug crashing out of the GELF icon is pretty good too.

The GELF village looks good, although Kryten translating their language perhaps exhausts any necessity or humour fairly quickly. The comedy wedding ceremony seems like a bit of a cliché. The funniest parts are Rimmer catching the bouquet, the Kryten-GELF leg shake, and, of course, "Change of plan! Leg it!" accompanied by a number of comedy runs from the cast. The emohawk sequence itself contains a few funnies, but my favourite is probably Kryten's "It's the wall!" Rimmer as Ace surprisingly calls Lister "Davey Boy" rather than "Skipper". The line about Cat looking "so geeky he probably couldn't even get into a science fiction convention" is amusing, as is "suck my thermos", but the whole idea of emotions as a trading commodity seems like an underused element. It perhaps would have been more interesting if the characters swapped emotions or traits rather than just losing them and turning into their fan-pleasing alter egos.

Red Dwarf VI Episode 3: "Gunmen of the Apocalypse"

The Dwarfers all put on cowboy hats and it's a huge success. "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" more or less encapsulates Series VI: it's an entertaining blend of action and comedy without having a particularly large amount to say about anything especially insightful and it somewhat rushes through two different narrative concepts in the space of a single episode: firstly a plot about the Dwarfers fighting simulants and then one about them going into Kryten's head as cowboys. It's also noteworthy for re-establishing virtual reality, after "Better Than Life", as a source of unusual settings, something that would be done to death in Series VII. It also firmly established the nature and back story of simulants, the show's subsequent go-to for serious dangerous villains.

It's possible that, as tends to be the way with Series VI, "Gunmen" tries to do too much in half an hour, and that the cowboy section as such is rushed, but it's also worth considering that it might have become annoying if it'd gone for much longer. The storyline is also used in Rob Grant's solo Red Dwarf novel, Backwards, in far greater detail. Due to the gaps between DVD releases in the 2000s, I actually read this novel before I watched the episode, and I was surprised at how breezy it all is on TV, as in literary form it's a lot more drawn out. Grant's novel is a lot more harsh than the episode as well; several of the main characters die.
The simulant ship is a nice model and the crew are well-costumed, although the secondary eyebrows are rather peculiar. I personally love the "Vindaloovian Empire" joke, my favourite bit being when Lister, for no particular reason, licks the eyeball on his chin after speaking. The "Armageddon Virus" seems like an effort to be tech-savvy in an increasingly computerised decade, but the explanation of how Kryten intends to deal with it is a bit vague, and the whole thing is rendered in terms of analogy, which is a bit "magical" in a way similar to some Series V episodes. It's not clear that Kryten's actually doing anything to combat the virus in the time up to the implementation of the "dove program"; it's not especially apparent how the problem is resolved unless sobering up Kryten in the dream constitutes helping him solve the problem.
That being said, Laredo is obviously a good find for location filming and, despite the fact that it's clearly in the middle of the muddy English countryside, the shooting evidently benefits from the dedication of the Wild West enthusiasts responsible for the site. This episode, like "Out of Time", seems to be trying to establish a sort of catch phrase for Rimmer: "marvellous". Cat is spot on as the Riviera Kid, with a very snazzy Mexican costume, and I personally find his little dance amusing. The biggest woofer in the whole thing probably comes when Kryten's knocked down by the town sign. Check out the cast commentary and Series VI documentary for Craig Charles's complaints about being given the "knife man" character, which he apparently thinks was the worst option. I wonder why there wasn't a lasso character. I don't much associate knife throwing with the Wild West, but I'm not actually sure I've ever seen a Western, come to think of it.
As usual, Rimmer gets a lot of the best dialogue, including "Sorry, what were the choices again?" and "There's been a bit of a cock-up in the bravado department." The joke about the escape pod is entertaining too: "to cut a long story short, it's me." In terms of standout lines, however, the best overall might be when Cat asks if there's "some gizmo" that can let them enter Kryten's dreams, "and if not, why not?!" It was only recently that I figured out the meaning of "faster than a toilet stop in rattlesnake country". The whole confrontation with the Apocalypse Boys doesn't make a great deal of sense, but I suppose it's just an excuse for a cowboy episode. The model work featuring Starbug plunging into the lava and then bursting out again is top quality, and the lava itself is pretty convincing. "Gunmen" is an entertaining and visually pleasing episode with some good jokes and really only one from the formula, the "all nations agreement", but if I'm going to be completely honest I'm not sure what made it so wildly popular in its day by comparison to any other decent episode of this period in the show's history.

Red Dwarf VI Episode 2: "Legion"

Rimmer gets hard thanks to a middle-aged man in form-fitting lycra. In my view, "Legion" might be the best episode of Series VI. The guest character is interesting and there's an entertaining combination of verbal and physical comedy. If I had one major issue with the episode, it's that the Legion character isn't quite utilised fully to realise the idea of a gestalt of the four Dwarfers. He still appears to be the sophisticated, debonair individual he's implied to have been when he was made up of "great minds" in the past. The episode only really goes further by having Legion be a bit violent and by turning into Kryten when the others are all incapacitated. It's not clear what other qualities of theirs he possesses. Furthermore, it's a little odd that, despite the fact that Kryten concocts the plan to defeat him and puts it into action right in front of him, Legion does nothing to intervene. I suppose this is all conveniently explained away by his line about how being rendered nonexistent after being composed of them "feels like promotion", but I can't help but wonder if Grant and Naylor bit off a bit more than they could chew here.
Nevertheless, "Legion" is a funny episode. Bits that stand out to me include the faux-French way Rimmer pronounces "Legion" and the speech he gives trying to persuade him to join their "already pretty damn fine top notch team." In fact, I'd argue that Rimmer gets the lion's share of good gags, including the "we surrender" one, although the bit about him having a "humiliating panic attack" is a step too far I think, especially as he's forced to run back into the cockpit moments later. Lister's plan involving replicating something from Revenge of the Surfboarding Killer Bikini Vampire Girls" is pretty funny, as are Lister and Cat's comedy slides across the table after being struck by Legion and the way Kryten keeps whacking Rimmer over the head after he's told him to stop. This episode has another moose joke as well: "asteroid shaped like a dancing moose." Is the word "moose" really that funny? This episode also gives us a silly comparison "nostril hairs vibrating faster than the bed-springs on a Spaniard's honeymoon bed" and a Space Corps Directive in quick succession. A better Rimmer joke is "Kryten, stop your blathering and get in the damn tube."
Some other highlights include one of the funnier "Kryten's head" jokes, "Just because I look like Herman Munster's stunt man", and Lister's "let's flag down a black cab and head for Real Street." It might be worth noting that, similarly to the incompatibility of prospective hologram Harrison in "Holoship" in Series V, in this episode Lister says of Legion that "he'd never fit in. Can you see him joining in on our late-night sessions of 'pin the pointy stick on the weather girl'?" It might have been good for Doug Naylor to keep this in mind when writing for Kochanski in Series VII. I'm not sure if I consider the "light switch" gag to be funny, and perhaps the alleged "masterpiece" status of Legion's artistic compositions was the script asking a bit too much of the props department.
Rimmer gets a hard light drive in this episode, granting him a fully tangible body at last. It's notable that this isn't dwelled upon in any great detail; it's mostly used to set up physical gags about him being pelted with food in the banquet scene. The way Kryten says "But of course, we all know that" after explaining Mimosian cuisine has always amused me. Despite how unflattering it is, I think that the Legion costume is quite effective, although as is pointed out by Chris Barrie and Robert Llewellyn in the cast commentary I dearly wish they'd kept the tube on his head consistently tucked into the mask. The space station model is nice, the location shooting is more convincing than the dingy old boiler rooms used most of the time, and the sets in general are a pleasant spot of brightness and cleanness amid the surrounding episodes. I also enjoy that they're drinking buck's fizz for breakfast.
One joke I've never entirely understood in this episode is the "raw carrot" one. I used to think that the point was that Lister was so averse to "fresh vegetables" (something he wasn't in earlier episodes) that he couldn't tell the difference between a decorative orange flower and a healthy comestible, but it appears that in actuality it is carrot, just carved into a flower shape. The whole food supply dilemma seems a bit contrived in general given that they're meant to be only twenty-four hours behind Red Dwarf. The final shot of them struggling against the vacuum of space is funny, but again it's not entirely clear what happened with the "star drive". Is the point that it never worked properly, that they hadn't connected it properly, or something else? I may as well ask how Kryten is able to eat the banquet: because it's funny.

Red Dwarf VI Episode 1: "Psirens"

Red Dwarf is lost and Lister kisses a dung beetle. It's interesting to observe that this episode seeks to reintroduce the audience to the characters. It first aired nearly two years after Series V, so I suppose that's somewhat understandable, particularly in those days, and I'm sure the show was always eager to pick up new viewers and bring them comfortably into the fold. Lister's introduction with a wild mane of hair and comedy fingernails and toenails is an amusing opening, and I particularly appreciate his "Who the hell are you?" introspection at the opening, a nicely sombre complement to the grotesquely funny sight of him trimming his claws in the pencil sharpener. Why on earth would Starbug have a desk-mounted pencil sharpener? Must have been built by those Russians in that urban legend who didn't use pens in space.

This episode runs the full gamut of the Series VI formula jokes: "Do I have a head like an amusing ice cube?" "There's a Cat proverb..." "We're deader than corduroy." "Space Corps Directive 1742." "Head like a genetically flawed lumpfish." There are also three unrelated "X like Y" jokes and the same number of "More X than Y" jokes. Some of these are at least reasonably funny, including "bigger than King Kong's first dump of the day" and "our innards will be turned inside out quicker than a pair of Lister's old underpants"; this second one is greatly enhanced by Chris Barrie's rapid-fire delivery of the line. "Hook, line, sinker, rod and copy of 'Angling Times', sir," is a great gag, as is "Someone who badly needed a pen" and "It probably just plopped out", all enhanced similarly by Robert Llewellyn, Craig Charles and Chris Barrie's spot-on performances. "Smug mode" is also entertaining and I like the Cat's description of Red Dwarf as "a gigantic red trash can with no brakes and three million years on the clock."

There's some cracking model work in this one, setting the standard for the rest of the series. While Starbug striking the giant flaming meteorite isn't entirely successful, the shots of the spaceship graveyard and Starbug crashing onto the asteroid are very nice indeed, and the forced perspective shot making a full-size Starbug appear to have one of its legs buried in rock is pretty much entirely convincing. The Psiren costume is a big step up from some of the slightly ropey creatures of prior series, such as the polymorph and the curry monster, as well. Crushed Kryten doesn't look much like he's actually made of Kryten (more like foil and duct tape) but you can probably excuse that by imagining some other garbage got mixed in.

A noteworthy element of this is the last (as far as we know) appearance of Clare Grogan as the original Kochanski. It's a bit of an odd cameo, coming five years after the character's previous appearance, in Series II's "Stasis Leak". As the method of persuasion the Psirens would try to lure Lister, however, it makes sense. It also sets up a good Rimmer line: "Lister, tune into Sanity FM." Perhaps the best element from a sci-fi point of view, and one of the show's best cameos, is Jenny Agutter as Professor Mamet (or at least the illusion of her) forcing Kryten into the waste disposal. "Psirens" is a decent episode with some memorable lines and moments, but it feels like it would work better as the opening instalment of a much longer story than a six-episode series of Red Dwarf, especially as the narrative it sets up isn't resolved by the end of the series.

Red Dwarf Series VI Overview

Like all of the series from the "Grant Naylor" era of Red Dwarf, Series VI is good. The shift to Starbug and the over-arching premise of the pursuit of Red Dwarf is interesting and it makes some very inventive uses of the various sci-fi concepts it deploys. It trims away any chaff by focusing purely on the four most major characters, and more or less gives each of them something to do, treating them like a team who are capable of cooperating while still rubbing against each other. In many respects it's a natural evolution of Series V in that regard. Nonetheless, I'm inclined to say that Series VI might be the weakest series of those "classic" years, not in terms of specific episodes, which overall are quite strong, but in terms of some of the composition across the board.

One aspect I noticed about this series upon rewatch is that a huge amount of the humour derives from the characters making silly similes and comparisons, to the point where it goes from the characters taking the piss out of each other to simply seeming to be in non-stop joke-cracking mode even when they otherwise seem to be taking a situation very seriously. The problem is not the making of jokes, obviously: Red Dwarf is, after all, a sitcom. The problem, rather, I would argue, is that the situations in which the characters find themselves are often so non-comedic and intense that the comedy doesn't fit well.

Something feels rather repetitive about elements of Series VI. Two episodes ("Psirens" and "Emohawk") both conclude with the Dwarfers chasing a GELF around Starbug's engine deck in their climaxes. A simulant ship and its crew are used in two episodes, "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" and "Rimmerworld", although to be fair they are consciously linked. "Gunmen" also features the characters inhabiting an illusion through a video game, as already occurred in "Better Than Life", and "Rimmerworld" has Rimmer in a world made hostile by his own worst traits, as in "Terrorform", and failing to get along with duplicates of himself, which already happened in "Me2". Furthermore, "Emohawk" is a kind of triple sequel, featuring a return of Series III's polymorph, Series IV's Ace Rimmer and Series V's Duane Dibbley – a character who had only appeared in the show four episodes previously. "Gunmen", depicting Kryten's subconscious struggle against a computer virus with metaphorical representations of death, peace, existence and the like, also evokes "Terrorform". The most creative and original episodes are almost certainly "Legion" and "Out of Time", which to a degree once again feature the characters failing to get along with alternative versions of themselves. Thus, while Series VI appears more fresh by exchanging Red Dwarf for Starbug and featuring an overarching plot, in some ways it's a victory lap for the show to rehash well-worn and previously successful narratives and plot conceits in a different setting.

Series VI appropriately feels dirty and grimy. Lister and Rimmer are both afforded rather unflattering outfits, Craig Charles being costumed in a pair of stained long johns as his primary costume rather than the shirt and trousers he sports in the previous few series, with Chris Barrie in a size-adding padded jacket which is very different to the svelte red Series V costume. It suits the more action-oriented narratives, admittedly, for which his rather formal-looking Series III to V uniform appears increasingly out of place, but it also seems to add a few pounds to him undeservedly; this is made worse in Series VII. The Cat's costuming is now largely based around changes of jacket with a single all-purpose undergarment, while Kryten goes back to being a bit more colourful.

It's worth noting that this series also sees some changes to characterisation. The Cat is now presented as the main pilot, with feline intuition and implausible nasal powers enhancing his abilities. Lister, by contrast, seems to regress a bit, with the scripts playing up his delusions about his musical talent and treating Kryten like a servant when previously he'd encouraged him to be independent. Rimmer is presented as more of a self-conscious and active coward, although the series' setting is used to emphasise his interest in militaristic order and discipline.

To expand on the point I made in the second paragraph, an issue with Series VI that I noticed in the latest rewatch is that much of the comedy becomes formulaic, perhaps as a result of behind-the-scenes pressure to get scripts written on time. I also understand that Grant and Naylor, after watching a lot of American TV while attempting to get the failed American Red Dwarf off the ground, became interested in a sort of gags-per-minute approach in which the characters spit out a new joke every other sentence. Thus the scripts tend to deliver a combination of the following:

1. An "old cat saying".

2. Cat declaring "we're deader than" some outmoded item of clothing.

3. Rimmer misquoting a Space Corps directive or similar regulation.

4. A joke about the shape of Kryten's head.

5. Lots of silly comparisons and similes, very much in the Blackadder mould.

I have to admit that even from the point of view of a Red Dwarf die hard like myself, these become a bit tiresome after a while. This, combined with the increased action and some excellent effects work, gives the show an even more intense feeling than Series V, and as a logical development of where the show had been going since Series IV if not earlier. Some consider VI to be the last "good" Red Dwarf, but I'm almost inclined to argue that, Rob Grant or no Rob Grant, it's actually the start of "less good" Red Dwarf, mostly due to structural issues with the narratives of several of the episodes, which I'll discuss in the individual articles, and limited characterisation.

Just as each of the four Dwarfers has a spot in Starbug's cockpit now, so do they have a clear role. Kryten delivers exposition and is used to make cooking and cleaning jokes; Rimmer makes snide remarks; Lister makes silly comparisons; Cat is stupid. They're meant to seem more like a team, but the relative lack of interpersonal conflict in more or less every episode except "Rimmerworld" possibly leaves something to be desired. Furthermore, most if not all of the episodes feature interesting ideas which aren't usually given the attention they might warrant due to the hectic pace of plot developments in the stories. Thus, while Series VI still has the "feel" of the "Grant Naylor" era in general, it also feels like the show struggling in a way that many commentators generally attest purely to Series VII onwards.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Red Dwarf V Episode 6: "Back To Reality"

Often held to be the best episode of Red Dwarf ever, "Back To Reality" is the first and best "group hallucination" story in the show's history, and almost certainly the best "alternate identity" exploration of the characters as well. I don't really have a "favourite" episode of Red Dwarf, and if I did it wouldn't be this, but "Back To Reality" is still definitely a very good one. The model of the Esperanto seeding ship is excellent and the work with sets, lighting and location shooting, with limited resources, to create a vision of earth under the heel of a fascist government, is in my opinion more or less completely effective and convincing.

I get the impression that this episode has a reputation for being "good, but not that funny". I fail to see how this impression has arisen; it's loaded with jokes around the effects of the despair ink, how the behaviour of the characters would appear if Red Dwarf was really a serious sci-fi adventure, the confusion over their identities and the way their hallucinations are being played out in reality. Probably the only truly "serious" sequences are the establishing material at the beginning, the majority of the scene in the car park and aspects of the scene in which the characters become suicidal at the end. These work for what they are, and reinforce the comedy elsewhere.

Even the premise is established in a funny way through Lister's quick realisation that "there's some huge damn fish out there [...] some kind of gigantic, weird, prehistoric leviathan who's porked his way through this entire ocean." The idea that an "oriental" person would "commit seppuku" seems like a weird stereotype. The funniest part of this opening sequence is Lister, Kryten and the Cat all getting weepy in the Esperanto airlock. Timothy Spall's scene as Andy the technician is an amusing way of playing up Lister and Rimmer's anxieties: Lister's led to believe that he failed to achieve his purpose and Rimmer's convinced that even his life within the game was a lie. I particularly like the way Chris Barrie delivers Rimmer's line " 'Jump starts the second big bang'?!"

Probably the highlight of the episode is the scene in the "recuperation lounge". It's impressive how much humour can be injected into the scene with a few facial expressions as the Cat realises that he's "Duayne Dibbley", and I've always enjoyed Kryten's dramatic, cliché speculation on what his personality as "Jake Bullet" must be like. The way Rimmer runs around behind the Cat and says "It makes perfect sense... Duayne," is another memorable moment. Probably the only weak line, in my opinion, is "Oh my god. My name's Billy Doyle and my cologne is Eau de Yak Urine" because it comes off as a repetition of Lister's joke about the coat smelling "like an elderly male yak has taken a leak in both the pockets." It should be noted that some lines are deleted here; in the deleted scenes, the "Eau de Yak Urine" joke works better because it's separated from the previous joke by Rimmer desperately trying to rationalise his situation as "Billy Doyle".

The scene in the carpark is arguably the "dramatic highlight", although Kryten's "move one inch and I'll crush every bone in your body" line is pretty funny. It's interesting how easily the idea of a totalitarian society is conveyed through some shooting in a darkened car park, a sign, some posters and a scarily intense man in an overcoat. The idea that Sebastian Doyle changes people "from being alive people to being dead people, to purify democracy" has always stuck with me as well as a line which very effectively conveys the nature of this nightmare world. I've seen some people argue that the cutaway to Starbug, revealing the hallucinatory nature of the episode, is done too soon, but it should be remembered that without this we wouldn't have the very funny car chase sequence; that being said, my favourite of all of this is how, after they "dump the limo" and take to the streets, the characters just run around and around the four boxes they were sitting on to simulate travelling a great distance. It's also interesting to observe that all of the "enemies" they face in the car chase – motorbikes with rocket launchers, fascist cops, a barrier, a raising bridge, helicopters and so on – are mentioned by Rimmer who, as established in "Better Than Life" and "Terrorform", is mostly likely to dream up horrible things happening to himself.

The "attempted suicide" scene, despite being pretty grim, has some good laughs too, mainly from Rimmer. The line about "being on the run with a murderer and a mass murderer and a man in a bri-nylon shirt" is classic, but I feel like a bigger reaction is deserved for "my best flashing mac is about to be splattered with an android's brain." You know, for a long time I never realised that the "fire extinguisher" Kryten turns on at Holly's subconscious instruction is actually the canister of mood stabiliser gas he suggested they use at the start of the episode. Since we see Lister and the Cat using gas masks when they get back to Starbug, I always assumed that they'd already taken the gas and it was simply taking a long time to take effect. Furthermore, I have to admit that I find Holly's explanation for what happened to the despair squid at the end to be a bit of a cop out, although obviously the creature had served its purpose as a plot device and was no longer relevant. If they had these "limpet mines", though, why didn't they think to use them earlier?

These minor quibbles aside, "Back To Reality" is definitely a strong episode indicative of what made the Grant-Naylor era so special: an effective use of the ensemble cast, an ability for the show to reflect upon itself with insight and competence, pervasive atmosphere despite budgetary limitations and plenty of memorable humour. The episode is also rather interesting in terms of how it explores the idea of what is fundamental to our self-image, and the traits around which we construct our own identity, indicating how complex and fragile our sense of self can be. I also found it, rather confrontingly on my most recent viewing, a bit of a reflection on how, as viewers and particularly as "enthusiasts", entertainment becomes an escape. Like the "sad acts who want to spend four years playing a computer game", there's a possible implication that consumers of media can be people "running away from god knows what" or who "have nothing worth living for in the first place." The world in which they're "sad acts" is the fake one, however, so perhaps the episode is not condemning the consumer's indulgence in worlds of imagination, but encouraging them to use it constructively to reflect on what they value in real life. Or perhaps I'm overanalysing a show about four idiots mucking around in space.