Worst to Best
Red Dwarf
Season Five

Red Dwarf's fifth season aired from February-March 1992, and concluded with Back To Reality, an episode commonly regarded as its finest hour...


by
THE ANORAK
JULY 2018


Season five was a darker, more serious retooling of the series, fraught with behind-the-scenes problems. The DVD release of the series can be ordered online from Amazon. In the meantime, please join me as I rank the six episodes from worst to best...

6 Terrorform

Terrorform is a collection of decent scenes that somehow never really feels like it comes together as a whole. Heavily brought together in the edit suite, as with nearly all of season five, it's somehow less than the sum of its parts. Filmed just after Holoship, it means that there's two back-to-back episodes (although not screened as such) that see Chris Barrie take his shirt off.
     What really lets Terrorform down is the final punchline, which underwhelms, as do most of the season five endings... Back To Reality not even really bothering with one. Perhaps it's also that, as good a character as Rimmer is, well brought to life, the Rimmer episodes were also becoming the show's fall-back point at this stage.
      There does also appear to be a very conscious effort to appeal more to the US market with season five, with the characters regularly indulging in dialogue like "dork" and "schmuck"... consequently the dynamic of the programme can seem a little "off" at this stage, a very British series being artificially transformed into something it's not. However, it's a testament to the quality of the series during the Grant-Naylor years that this, the worst episode of season five and one of the five weakest entries from the initial 1988-1993 run, is still more than above average.

5 The Inquisitor

The Inquisitor is probably the most drama-heavy of all the season five episodes, where the comedy is largely left on the cutting room floor to make way for a more adventure-orientated time travel story. It's fairly involving, though the lack of real comic intent does make rewatches less rewarding. Jack Doherty marks the third performer from sketch show Absolutely to appear in the series, after Morwenna Banks played a lift hostess in Statis Leak, and Gordon Kennedy played another villain, Hudzen, in The Last Day.
     Docherty's character doesn't specialise in funny lines and, while the special effects surrounding him are hugely advanced from those used in the earlier series, they've still aged in the interim, proving that while humour can date, nothing can date as quickly as CGI. Today's state-of-the-art is tomorrow's cheap, and so characterisation and story have to take precedence.
      It's also notable that continuity again doesn't quite make sense: Rimmer starts the episode in his green uniform, but ends it, after time has been put right, in his red one. Or how about the opening, where "Thomas Allman" is put to death - without the trial that the Inquisitor gives to everyone else? Then there's the final punchline, which sees Lister have a severed hand in his jacket, despite the fact that said hand should no longer exist.
     Red Dwarf perhaps never specialised in final punchlines, and certainly they began to get very poor from season six onwards, but here it's a desperate need for one that overrides any kind of internal logic. Which would be fine in earlier seasons, perhaps, but not season five where the show has suddenly began to take its SF plots very seriously...

4 Holoship

Holoship was never an especially popular episode among the series' fans, even though it has many funny moments and much to offer. Perhaps its that the establishment of the "Red Dwarf" posse is now fully in effect, with many of the episodes cutting back on the Rimmer-Lister dynamic. Or maybe it's just that it lacks that "opening episode" feel.
     Certainly it's very much a solo Rimmer episode in many senses, with Chris Barrie interacting with guest stars rather than his usual co-stars for the most part. (Rimmer's amusing parting line of "people I... met" was Barrie's own suggestion). Although none of the DVD commentaries could perhaps be described as "essential", Holoship is more amusing than most, as Craig Charles's absence due to illness means that not only does Hattie get more of a word in, but Barrie impersonates Charles throughout, affectionately mocking his need for all the good lines.


3 Quarantine

With Grant-Naylor refilming and heavily editing all the episodes directed by Juliet May, she was let go after four episodes and the direction of Quarantine/Back To Reality was taken over by the writers. A "bottle" episode there to save money, it's nevertheless dramatic and contains some strong sequences as Rimmer is driven temporarily insane by a holovirus.
     Most of the best Red Dwarf episodes are dialogue-based, and, while this one is a little overrated and not quite up there, it's still a strong entry. It's also the first, and, so far, only appearance of Mr. Flibble, a character who has so far not joined Duane Dibley in being overexposed and rehashed to death, at least outside of the Smegazine, where he'd regularly feature in cartoons. Just one sticking point... would the vain Cat really wear a gingham dress, even to taunt Rimmer?

2 Demons and Angels

With regular director Ed Bye leaving the series to work with his wife Ruby Wax, comedy director Juliet May was brought in to take over during season five. Unfortunately her lack of experience with science fiction saw her struggle, and Grant-Naylor take over direction for many of the episodes, often finishing them heavily in the edit suite. May described her time on the official website as going "tits-up", and starting her time on Red Dwarf with a split-screen intensive production was the very definition of jumping in at the deep end.
      Red Dwarf, certainly with the Grant-Naylor episodes, was quite a progressive show, and so very few of the gags can be regarded as unpalatable today. And while it would be foolish to place modern sensibilities on something even as comparatively recent as 1992, it's curious that what would be today regarded as mild homophobia can be seen in some episodes, particularly with Rimmer's character. Only in the previous year he had questioned Ace Rimmer's sexuality or asked a wax droid soldier if he was "queer", so it's almost like an intended continuity point that Rimmer's inner nature produces a version of himself with homosexual tendencies. That this is also seen as being his "dark" side is another debate for another time. There's also some continuity issues with the episode, such as how Lister still remembers playing pool with planets after the time was undone (White Hole), or how his evil self and remote control still exist after everything has been restored to normal.
     While season five looks slicker than before, helped by an increased budget and vastly improved special effects, there's an argument to be had that it should no longer be a studio sitcom with the increase in dramatic events. Here the audience laugh at three strawberries, and even Lister's higher self being stabbed to death. Demons and Angels is a good episode, and the low selves are horrifying, but in terms of out-and-out laughs it's more of a drama. Consequently the audience laughter can feel intrusive, particularly as it clashes badly with the poor editing on display. (Note also that a boom mike can be seen in at least two shots).

1 Back To Reality

It's redundant to point out that Back To Reality is a little overrated, or that some other episodes are underrated in comparison, as even on its worst day it's an easy top five episode. If the biggest criticism you can make of Back To Reality is that it's only better than 69 of the 73 Red Dwarf episodes, then this is damning with faint praise.
     The episode became so popular that the season order was rearranged and it was put first on DVD releases... despite the fact that, as it could have been the last episode at the time, with the renewal of the show in doubt, it made the perfect season finale.
      Often reworked and driven into the ground, characters like Duane Dibley and the despair squid should have stayed one-offs, but then as the plot is essentially an inversion of Better Than Life, it's perhaps not ideal to discuss the nature of originality. A classic.