Worst to Best
Red Dwarf
Season Two

To continue celebrating the 30th anniversary of Red Dwarf, the Anorak Zone looks back upon the second season, which aired from September-October 1988.


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 Kryten

Season two of Red Dwarf was generally screened in the order in which it was recorded, except for the two broadest, most crowd-pleasing episodes being placed at the start and end of transmission. Kryten is an episode with an audience so amped-up that there's no less than a dozen applause breaks (with a further two attempted by a single audience member) and a girl in the audience notably shrieks throughout.
     It's a bit more "mainstream" than what came before, but it's also the start of Red Dwarf's finest season. Suddenly the series has jokes, and, while not the most depth-filled episode, it adds more layers to Rimmer. Although he's still obnoxious (and inexplicably blessed with the gift of smell), there's a moment where the audience audibly cry out "ahhhhhhh" in sympathy for him, something that would have been unthinkable for the majority of season one.
     Of note is that Rimmer calls himself "Ace", which would be reused for his alter ego in season four, and there's a scene where he confuses Esperanto... just five years later and this schtick would be transformed into "Space Corp Directives" and make up approximately 90% of the jokes in season six. David Ross plays a very different version of Kryten to the one that began to take over the show from season three onwards... Norman Lovett states on the commentary track that David was unimpressed with the credentials of the cast, but Ross and Barrie can clearly be witnessed on the verge of laughter during their final scene together. Although Kryten ranks the lowest of the season two episodes, such is the quality of this run that for the series overall it would be placed higher than around fifty other episodes.

5 Parallel Universe

Parallel Universe has an "end of term" feel to it, whereby after four very good episodes (and one decent one) the cast are allowed to bow out of the season with a somewhat silly finale. Featuring the crew meeting female versions of themselves, some of the "gender politics" routines seem incredibly trite today, and broad, but what makes the episode is the interaction between the regulars. Now familiar with their characters and in possession of good timing with each other, with the behind-the-scenes tensions adding to the dynamic. At this stage it seemed as if Red Dwarf was going to go on to be a consistently great series, but sadly Lovett bowed out, and Hattie Hayridge's replacement Holly was an odd fit for the somewhat "boy's club" dynamic of the show. Although the series still went on to produce many fine instalments, it was a very different kind of series, with a different feel.
     While the discussions about dating between Rimmer and Lister are funny (if a little out of character for what we've previously learnt about Rimmer), it does begin to grind to a halt when the female opposites are introduced. While it has its moments, it becomes too much of a "one joke" situation... something that can be levelled at the next episode, season three's Backwards. Notable, though, is that John-Jules gets to break the fourth wall when he first sees the Dog, the first time the fourth wall has been broken in the series... if you don't count all the times Charles looked out to the audience during season one. A fairly amusing end to a silly episode sees one of the very few times where Cat actively enjoys Rimmer's company, enthused by Lister's predicament and Rimmer winding him up over it.
     Perhaps the most unsettling part of the episode is the opening "Tongue Tied" dream sequence... while a catchy song and a fairly amusing sequence (albeit with Charles milking his part somewhat), it now unfortunately brings to mind the woeful single version by John-Jules, which was released five years to the day after this episode aired, and got to a mighty No.17 in the UK charts. It's quite inexplicable what prompted the release so long after its appearance in an episode, as by the time it was brought out, Red Dwarf had just begun season six, and was a very different programme...

4 Better Than Life

Any debate about which is the best season of Red Dwarf isn't particularly reliant on whether the sets improved, the acting got better, or the plots more involved. More crucially, as a comedy series, it's a comedy show that changed its style of humour throughout. While season six was content to adopt a more Americanised "one-liner per minute" model, season two was more about character comedy. Not only that, but while the series began to point more heavily towards the American market (including bringing on board a Canadian-accented robot, "clips" titles and Lister referring to himself with the very non-UK term of "bum"), the earlier series pointed towards a more provincial English comedy.
      Tony Hawks (here in his fifth of eight roles, most of them vocal) plays a guide to "Better Than Life", an immersive computer game. Hawks is amusing, but was more known for his novelty Top 5 single "Stutter Rap", and the too-late TV series which failed to cash in, airing 16 months after the record was released. Although some more alternative names pop up throughout the series, such as Morwenna Banks and Tony Slattery, they're still very "safe" choices, for an episode that has some gags that could have seamlessly fitted into ITV peer Home To Roost. (Note that Rimmer's reaction to his tax bill is an almost identical comedic device to Henry finding what he thinks is Matthew's school report... though, in fairness, both are very old comic devices).
      If this was all Better Than Life was, then it would still be charming and likeable. However, the show continues to mine extra depth, by giving Rimmer the news that his father has died. The episode introduces the observation deck, as Rimmer looks into space and reveals his traumatised childhood to Lister. Sadly, their bonding is somewhat undermined by Lister and Cat bullying him during the game itself, though Rimmer refusing to accept nice things happening to him is a good touch. The episode was made into the second novel, and also the core concept was clearly inversed for Back To Reality. A lot of the character developments in this instalment have been retroactively made redundant after being contradicted in later episodes, particularly the Dave ones, but Better Than Life is worth rewatching with a 1988 mindset...

3 Stasis Leak

Another very clever plot that revisits the ship before the crew were wiped out, placing the Red Dwarf crew of the present into their own past. While the footage is newly-shot, rather than inserting new material into old episodes, this does predate Back To The Future II by a year, so was nicely ahead of the curve. Not that people visiting their past in sci-fi is especially new, but it's done with invention, and the science fiction, which could get a little too nerdy in later series, is here kept light, particularly with Cat's "what is it?" scene. It's a SFX-heavy episode made in a time before the programme could produce competent special effects... which only adds to the charm and comedy, not detracts from it. Sadly, a mentality that such things needed to be "fixed" led to projects like the Remastered episodes.
      The original guest cast return for a final time, with Mac McDonald back as Captain Hollister and Clare Grogan as Kochanski. Grogan would make a return appearance as a hallucination of Kochanski in Psirens (1993), before being replaced by Chloë Annett in 1997. Hollister, meanwhile, would return in 1999 and 2017, but it was a very different, broader take on the character, with a completely different acting style from McDonald. Overall, it would have been better if they'd both stopped here, though that could be said about so many things after the Grant-Naylor partnership split.
      Those looking for continuity issues may note that the more colourful season two decor is retained in the "past" scenes, including the giant inflatable banana... and also that the Lister-Rimmer dynamic isn't full of the hatred that it was in season one. Those really looking for anal trivia may note that the date they arrive back in the past is Wednesday 2nd March 2077... which would actually be a Tuesday. Lister claims that this is "three weeks" before the blast that killed the crew, which, if we take this literally, means that the crew were wiped out on the 24th March. In all, this is a very good episode of Red Dwarf, and there's just a hair's breadth between it and the second place entry...

2 Queeg

While still one of the best-ever episodes of Red Dwarf, Queeg does raise the question of how much rewatch value an episode has when it's almost entirely based around its punchline. Norman Lovett's Holly was generally a more abrasive character in the first season, reflecting everyone else's hostility, but with the NORWEB gag in Me2 Lovett got to really show what he could do. It's worth remembering that Lovett's role was initially just a voice-over, and his appearance was added later, but with Queeg we get the ultimate Holly story, and what was basically a 100 second throwaway gag in season one expanded to episode length.
      There's still plenty to laugh at along the way, and, even if you've seen the episode multiple times and know what's coming, it still gets a laugh. There's a camaraderie in season two that the later seasons lacked, perhaps helped along by the fact that we spend much of it with the crew on "down time". Whereas later seasons saw plots often dictate the characters rather than the other way around, there's a number of "night time" scenes in season two, whereby even though there's no day in space, we see the trio sleep and go through evenings in their mundane existences. Sometimes though, it's best not to analyse a comedy show too closely, or to think too hard about the content... otherwise you might reflect on things like how disturbing Lister using Rimmer's inflatable doll really is...
      One last thing to note is that - greyness and cheap special effects aside - the 80s episodes have held up reasonably well as the show was never about modern fashions. However, some of Cat's outfits are more Al from Quantum Leap than a trendsetter, and he wears a particularly chronic outfit here. Speaking of Cat, then this is the episode where where Danny John-Jules's mock-combative take on the nature of commentary audibly wears Norman Lovett down. "How many more episodes have I gotta do with you, Dan, till I come to series seven?" Lovett asks at one point, seemingly only semi-joking, "So I'll have a break of about three years."

1 Thanks For
The Memory

Not just the best episode of season two, but the greatest episode of Red Dwarf ever made. Grant-Naylor often wrote beneath themselves, but here they're at their best, delivering an intricate plot (of which a very similar plot appeared in the 1991 Next Generation episode Clues) and adding substance to what were originally somewhat two-dimensional characters. Way before the series began to lazily plough a path of one-liners and recurring gags, Grant-Naylor understood the importance of character-based dialogue, with Rimmer's "I've always got a pen" an inexplicable highlight that says so much.
      Craig Charles admits on the season two commentaries that his immaturity at the time already led to a hyper-competitive atmosphere where they were concerned about who was getting the most laughs. Although the season begins and ends with ensemble pieces, and Queeg is very much a Holly episode, Thanks For The Memory is the middle of a trio of Rimmer-centred episodes. When written well, Rimmer is clearly the more interesting character with the most to explore, and, while Lister began as the lead role, it's something quickly pushed aside as early as this second season.
      Having experienced love for the first time, and the pain of loss of love, Rimmer is both elated and heartbroken, with the added tragedy that it never actually happened. A classic.