Worst to Best
Red Dwarf
Season Seven

Red Dwarf returned to screens for a seventh season after a break of over three years. With it came major changes, including the introduction of a new Kochanski, the leaving of Rimmer, and Rob Grant departing from the series as co-writer...


by
THE ANORAK
SEPTEMBER 2018


The DVD release of the series can be ordered online from Amazon. In the meantime, please join me as I rank the eight episodes from worst to best...

8 Ouroboros

It's easy to feel sorry for Doug Naylor with season seven. Agreeing to write 16 more episodes of the series so that it could reach syndication numbers, he found that his writing partner had left and taken all the jokes with him (though dropped them on the way to his typewriter before he started work on The Strangerers) and the main star of the series had announced he didn't really want to do it any more, and would only appear in half the episodes. Consequently, while season seven is hugely flawed, it should at least be given credit for daring to try.
      Ouroboros sees the return of Kristine Kochanski to the Red Dwarf universe, as well as the real story behind Lister's origins. Unfortunately neither really come off, as Lister is revealed to be his own father, which is sci-fi nonsense, and Kochanski goes through two seasons with less than a dozen funny lines. It's a chronically bad instalment, comedically, with Naylor weighing far too heavily on his lazy use of overlong similes like an arthritic nun at a Mogadon-addicted snail's meditation convention.
      The big contention here is the replacement of Kochanski. Chloe Annette is a fair actress, and original Kochanski Clare Grogan had some shaky moments (somewhat cruelly targeted by John-Jules on the DVD commentary tracks) but a "head swap" recasting is always a little hard to take, particularly as Grogan had a cameo in Psirens just the prior season. Perhaps most hard to come to terms with is not the change in face (they talk about anomalies in Tikka To Ride, so a generous-minded viewer could make the stretch...) or the change in continuity, first meted out in D.N.A., that Lister had dated Kochanski, but that Grogan was Scottish. Here the cut-glass Annette is a completely different character, and it takes an enormous amount of goodwill to take it on board.
      Season seven had been delayed for a variety of reasons, one of which was Craig Charles being imprisoned while on rape allegations for which he was eventually acquitted. Repeats of certain season six episodes had been postponed as a result, so it's something of a surprise that the post-season six Lister is recrafted as so morally repugnant. While most of this occurs in season eight's Back In The Red, where Lister attempts to get involved in two rapes, Ouroboros sees Lister steal a kiss from Kochanski under the full knowledge that she's mistaken him for his parallel universe counterpart.
      In terms of continuity, then things get even further complicated by an opening scene which sees baby Lister in a cardboard box in 2155... which is neither the 2055 it should have been to match the original two seasons, OR the "23rd century" referenced in D.N.A. There's a vast number of problems with this episode, ranging from Lister again able to get back to Earth, down to the fact that Lister then spends the rest of the season setting out to be the ultimate MF. Ultimately it's a show that takes its own SF origins far too seriously, and is something of a mess.

7 Beyond A Joke

Written by Robert Llewellyn and Doug Naylor, it's something of a shame that Llewellyn was never given a second chance, even though Beyond A Joke very much does, as per its reputation, tank. A major issue is that Red Dwarf in 1997 seemed too content to hang on to current trends rather than plough its own path... here a two-years-too-late recreation of Pride and Prejudice seems a horrible attempt to be "zeitgeisty". It also undermines the fundamental set-up, in that in order for Kochanski's sophistication to be thrown into contrast, the IQs of the main cast are dumbed down even further into Beavis and Butthead territory.
      Yet while the only joke in this episode is in the episode's title, it's not horribly unfunny, more just kind of devoid of any real gags. Harmless rather than grating, although there is a ghoulish element to Don Henderson's guest role as a Simulant, given that his throaty voice wasn't a sound effect, but the effect of his terminal throat cancer. A Starbug sequence with EDM over the top is a bizarre choice of incidental music for the show and the final, curry-related, payoff is a stinker, but overall it's... okay.
      Llewellyn wrote the episode with a minimal role for himself, to give him chance to avoid the Kryten make-up, but Naylor insisted he feature more. Altogether 35 drafts were written by Llewellyn, who had writing experience but regarded it as the hardest thing he'd ever done. Speaking on the DVD commentary, Llewellyn acknowledged that "I would never have done it again, say if Doug had said 'please write another one', I would have said 'no'. Not that he ever did, and he was right not to."

6 Duct Soup

Although Red Dwarf was always based around male casts (the sexless Holly doesn't count) it was never an especially "laddish" show. In fact, Lister would show a sensitive side towards women in the earliest series, and most conversations that objectified women were usually rebuffed as the words of inadequate men. Unfortunately Red Dwarf in 1997 was without real direction, desperately feeling the loss of its ostensible leading man, and trying to retool Lister as the comic driving force, despite the fact it had begun to abandon him as the focal point since as early as 1989.
      Into this comes Kochanski, the straight (wo)man the show didn't need, contributing nothing on a comedic level, while the humour of the show is retooled to follow the Men Behaving Badly/Lad Mag world of the late 90s which it inhabited. It doesn't help that Doug Naylor - an actual grown adult in his early 40s when this was scripted - writes Kochanski like a man who has never met a woman in his entire life before. Here is a character who talks about wanting to go shopping and doesn't understand the offside rule.
      What also works against Kochanski is that, while it's more than possible to understand her point of view, the slobby crew of Red Dwarf have been the audience identification figures for six seasons. Having a brand new character come into the series to tell established regulars how terrible they are isn't a way to get viewers onside, though Annette's main function was to get backers interested in funding a film. It also doesn't help that, while a fair actress, Annette doesn't have a comedy background, so that she approaches the part as an acting one, rather than a purely comedic one, effectively becoming the Mike of the series. Though she at least fares better than the Cat, who has been reduced from one of the most original characters on TV into the most predictable and tedious over the space of nine years.
      Lister's homophobia seems even more out of left field than his claustrophobia, but an episode where the crew are trapped together has the potential to be a minor classic... if the crew had anything still to say to one another. Season seven drops the gag-a-minute format in favour of a more comedy-drama format, which has potential, though never quite comes off. Awful jokes in this one abound, like "To pee or not to pee, that is the question" and "What would you say to a glass of drinking chocolate?" "I'd say 'glass of drinking chocolate, get me out of here.'" Sadly, the funniest part of Duct Soup is the commentary track, which sees Chris Barrie remain in the booth for episodes he didn't even appear in (the first six in total) and make clear how unfunny and tedious he finds proceedings, with tongue only partly in cheek.

5 Tikka To Ride

With a filmised look, no studio audience and Chris Barrie's obvious ennui, the atmosphere is very "off" in this season opener, particularly in the extended 38 minute cut with no laugh track. With no excitable audience whooping like it's a US sitcom, it really flags up just how unfunny the episode is, and how little Chris Barrie really cares. There's also the small matter of the improvements in Charles's acting. While he'll never be mistaken for DeNiro, in the three year break since the prior season he'd taken up serious roles in series like The Bill and Lynda La Plante dramas. Consequently he improved, which is a little disconcerting after seeing his efforts in earlier seasons, which nevertheless had a kind of feckless charm.
      While perhaps best summed up as "flat", Tikka To Ride isn't obnoxiously unfunny like 90% of season eight, more just kind of harmlessly unamusing. Ironically enough, the best bit is probably the last five minutes, illustrating what took place after they all jumped Lister, even explaining that the time drive can't go back to present-day Earth... sadly, they threw it away and kept the rest.
     The season sensibly reconfigures Lister as the main character, given that Rimmer left, but in so doing flags up the fact that Lister had become so sidelined that he barely had a character left at all. Consequently the comic lynchpin of this episode relies upon Lister "hilariously" being in pursuit of a good curry, or talking at length with Kryten about all the different side dishes that come with such a meal... seemingly in the belief that eating curry is some wild, zany pasttime, and not something that millions of people in the UK do every week. It's staid, reactionary humour, and somewhat desperate as a result. Though the very same day it aired, Channel 4 screened Captain Butler, making it only the second-worst comedy Craig Charles was appearing in that night.

4 Epideme

Written by Paul Alexander and Doug Naylor, Epideme indulges in more of the "Lister kissing" humour that became a trend for Red Dwarf at the time, following on from him swapping saliva with a Psiren and Rimmer over the last few episodes. It's a very cheap, crowd-pleasing attempt at humour, as is the US-courting "deader than a Saturday night in Salt Lake City" which audibly gets no laughs from the UK audience.
      What's notable in season seven is how out-of-character Kryten and Lister became in order to artificially generate some form of "humour". Lister was always the "cool" one of the group, mainly, his bad habits a supposedly likeable counterpoint to Rimmer's uptight nature, rather than being a simple "bozo" who does constantly buffoonish things in the name of komedy. Meanwhile, Llewellyn himelf admitted that the needy, bitter Kryten of season seven deserved "a good slap". Epideme has some fairly clever plot elements, and engages to a point... though the fact that it makes the top four here shows the overall low quality of the season.

3 Nanarchy

It's not being "politically correct" to point out that a sitcom listing how people with missing limbs have never amounted to much is in bad taste. What would have worked in the 70s was deeply old-hat and offensive by 1997, though it's perhaps somewhat tempered by the knowledge that Doug Naylor himself has an artificial leg, and so is effectively taking the piss out of himself. Nanarchy also has the distinction of containing arguably the worst-ever joke in the entire series, with Doug's desperate "simile" humour plummeting to new lows with "there must be more electricity out there than the surge that went through the national grid during the commercial break in the Olympic all-girl custard wrestling finals." That Danny John-Jules manages to say the entire line without a pause for breath is to his credit.
      The big event of Nanarchy is, of course, the resurrection of Red Dwarf and Holly. A suitably wacky plot device sees the ship existing microscopically in Lister's laundry basket due to Kryten's rogue nanobots, which is unbelievable but pleasingly zany, especially when passed off by Norman Lovett as "the oldest trick in the book". Having Holly reset to "default" Lovett mode is pleasing, albeit somewhat of a slight to Hattie Hayridge. Hayridge wasn't the greatest actress in the series, and her rapport with the crew was never the same as that of Lovett's, but her role was made increasingly redundant due to Kryten's growing prominence, and she never had the opportunities in the scripts that Lovett had during season two.
      Actorly slights aside, the sight of Lovett returning to the series lent hope that the glory days of the series could be resurrected along with the ship... sadly, season eight gave Lovett nothing to do, and, on the occasions where he did have jokes, they were terrible. Norman was vocal on the commentaries about how poor he thought the humour was, though wasn't without blame for some of the weaker jokes... season eight opened with a "sickbags on standby" gag, which was his own suggestion. Such developments should have been obvious here, where not only is Lovett's timing not as sharp with the passing of time, but he opens up with a "can't pronounce a word" routine like Crackerjack never ended. To his credit, Lovett also criticised his own performance, believing "I've lost it, I've just lost it... it's all gone."
      Nanarchy is a reasonable season finale, yet rather than being the introduction to a great new era, led into an all-time low.

2 Blue

Doug Naylor has a degree in psychology, and this is a more thoughtful episode that even namechecks Freud. Sure, a Lister-Rimmer kiss and the "munchkin song" are both a little broad and twee, but this is a rare season seven episode that actually has a working punchline. The co-writer here is Kim Fuller, who wrote films and TV of varying quality from Spiceworld (underrated, to be fair) and Alas Smith and Jones.
      The Rimmer song kind of works, though some may find it a little too cheesy. Sung by series composer Howard Goodall, his voice could be heard on every title sequence from Season Three onwards as he sang the title of the series four times through a vocoder. Recently revealed, this aural "Easter Egg" can be first heard from around 14 seconds in to every episode, one of those elements that, had you not heard it before, once you hear it you'll wonder how you never spotted it.

1 Stoke Me
A Clipper

Ace Rimmer was a jarring addition to the Red Dwarf universe, RD's very own Lord Flashheart. Suddenly stories weren't "real" within their own confines, but every week became a Parallel Universe-level comic strip. Stoke Me A Clipper, the highlight of Season Seven, takes the format-corroding silliness of the character and smashes so many fourth walls it no longer matters. Put simply, Stoke Me A Clipper is SO over-the-top it finally all clicks.
      The first of five episodes with Paul Alexander as co-writer (Epideme/Nanarchy/Krytie TV/Pete Part 2) it's easily the best. A four minute sequence of Lister in a computer simulation cheating sex with a computerised Sarah Alexander shows Alexander's more immoral, obnoxious side, and the entire plot - Rimmer becomes the new Ace - is a little unlikely, but it works... just about. It's sad that this is the final time the real Rimmer ever appeared in Red Dwarf, and maybe a little cruel that Lister allows Cat and Kryten to think that he died, but for a way to see off an actor who no longer wanted to be in the series, it's a decent step.
      Sadly, the emotional payoff, with a planet ring full of deceased light bees, is undermined by Season Seven's usage of cheap CGI, a serious blight on an otherwise great-looking season. (The cheap special effects elsewhere are all part of the joke, and work well). The visuals are supposed to be awe-inspiring, but instead look like a screenshot from Captain Kremmen.
      There's nothing here good enough to match the first four minutes of pre-credits silliness, but the rest of it stands above what follows. There have been at least twenty better episodes before Stoke Me A Clipper; sadly, Blue aside, afterwards there haven't been any that have come close.