Red Dwarf XI: Can of Worms Review (Spoilers)

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Months before Series XI even went before cameras, one of it’s episode plots has already been alluded to multiple times by Doug and the cast; an episode dealing with The Cat’s virginity.

Add further to this the set reports and the online theories as to what form the lady cat would take and the anticipation built higher. Then there were the clips in the title sequence that seemed to back these up, and the the Radio TImes published a review that elected to avoid critical analysis in favour of merely detailing the spoiler laden plot details.

All in all, it made for an episode where it’s likely many viewers will have had preconceived notions of what the direction the episode was likely to take. It seems almost churlish to start a review but talking about what an episode wasn’t, but because of the above, it seems important to say that what this episode was not was Identity Within.

Series VII’s lost episode had of course previously addressed the concept of The Cat meeting another member of his species and culminated in him fulfilling his life’s dream of getting his end away. While the episode never made it to screen, it did however make it to the Series VII DVD in storyboard and voiceover form.

And there’s the rub. That episode has been done. It may not have been on TV, but had Doug tackled a similar story, the comparisons would always have been drawn. Instead, Can of Worms quickly subverts expectation of this to surprise the audience by heading off in a different direction.

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This has been something of a common theme in Series XI, with episodes either taking surprise tangents or playing a riff on an idea from the show’s past. In this episode we get both of these, with the turn from the lady cat plot into a full blown third Polymorph outing. Whether or not this was a plot turn you wished to see, if it was successful or not, or indeed if revisit Polymorph is more excusable than revisiting Identity Within, I do at least appreciate it when the show can still surprise me after eleven series.

It’s a surprise of course that had far more impact at the recording than on watching the final episode, given that the synopsis had already hinted that the Ankita was not all that she seemed, instantly putting many in mind of Camille. In terms of everything until the reveal, the episode is played entirely straight, with nothing to set alarm bells ringing about the encounter, and in many respects presents much of the episode we expected to get. It’s a shame therefore that the surprise that the audience on the night of recording got is one that has already at least been alluded to before the audience watching at home get to it.

At this point I should flag my own personal preferences. I suspect that much will be made of what this episode ‘could have been’ in terms of dealing in depth with what happens when The Cat meets another member of his species. While I’m aware that this has been something that many have said they would like to see, it isn’t something I can say I have honestly ever felt a desire to see presented on screen. I mention this only because I feel the need to explain why I choose not to address that issue, as it’s a plot I’m happy to see avoided.

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That’s of course not to say that what we did get in this episode on that front wasn’t good of course. The Series I callbacks were a nice touch and I’m happy to put any characterisation issues at this point down to Cat showing off having been presented with Ankita. There was a clear choice to have the guest character harken back to the earliest incarnation of the Cat to help play into this, and given the way the two scenes with her play out, it’s a pleasing enough choice that reminds us of the nature of the species.

Could I have been as positive about a further 20 minutes of that? Perhaps less so. As such a change of plot direction isn’t too much of a hindrance to me personally.

And yet, something doesn’t sit right. It’s not even that two thirds of the episode turn into Polymorph III, as unlike Emohawk, the episode expands on the way we have seen Polymorphs before. The touches in dealing with their biology are more than worthwhile, and the defense mechanisms of the babies such as turning into tumors seem like an idea so good that it’s surprising it hasn’t appeared before. As for the plot it allows, it may be a cheap laugh, the water birth scene still gets a hearty guffaw.

The problem seems to be more of an issue of pacing and balance. As with so much of Series XI, there are a lot of ideas a turns in the plot crammed into one episode, almost as a reaction to some of the slower parts of Series X. In many respects, this should be a good thing, and the ideas we are presented with are certainly far more interesting than the B plots in that series.

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But it does mean that some have far more time devoted to them than others, and this has a negative impact on some scenes. The Starbug cockpit scene for example can at points feel long and exposition heavy when it leads into such a zippy sequence straight afterwards, with some more excellent location work. That the encounter with the Mercenoid doesn’t count to much in the overall plot isn’t necessarily an issue, but it’s one of several examples, which when added together become more of a problem.

Jumping ahead for example, drawing the episode and indeed the series to a close with an action based run around is a perfectly good way to go. Indeed, it provides some of the best laughs of the episode with the polymorph paranoia leading to three sets of the crew in a mexican standoff. But it’s the reintroduction of the personality tuck machine from the opening scene at this point though that feels unnecessary and adds to the stop-start feeling that nags at you as you watch.

While not wanting to second guess Doug, I suspect that the reason for the machines inclusion was to wrong foot the audience. From the moment Rimmer suggests using it on Lister, we expect an episode ending in the vein of DNA, with the crew creating a super version of the character that is flawed in some way, but able to deal with the threat they face. Certainly all these elements are here, but how explicit they are and indeed how well you believe they work are a matter that each of us will resolve over the coming days and months.

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Perhaps it’s an issue from the editing, as of the episodes I saw recorded, Can of Worms feels the most retooled in post. A visual gag may have gone from Twentica, a whole Starbug scene from Samsara, but none of them amounting to the scale of changes here. Both of the scenes with the tuck machine have been re-recorded without the audience on a set that wasn’t built for Series XI, and the second has been shortened to remove a scene dealing with what Rimmer and Kryten have created by removing Lister’s emotions.

It’s only a small scene, yet I can’t help but feel it would have helped. The personaility tuck not being the thing that resolves the plot needn’t be an issue, and it doesn’t matter that ultimately it proves to be for nothing as that helps to keep the audience second guessing. The gradual realisation between Rimmer and Kryten that what they have done has been a bad idea when Lister shoots two polymorphs helps to balance this, but it’s not enough at this point, and instead leaves things disjointed at the end when they should be coming together.

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It also doesn’t help that for what has been an episode revolving around Cat (even if not one where he is overly active in progressing the plot), he is absent for a reasonable section of the end, only serving to highlight the problematic tuck machine plot. But through the rest of the episode there is a feeling that they are there supporting The Cat’s story rather than driving within it. All of their scenes are reactionary, yet in scenes such as the initial revelation that Ankita is a polymorph, they can feel slower as we’ve stepped away from the core action.

Again I must stress that this doesn’t come from a perspective of ‘I’d have rather the episode went in this direction’, and I certainly don’t want to deal in the realm of hypothetical lost opportunities. I don’t feel that an expansion of some of the other elements is either an answer or indeed particularly desirable, which is frustrating as it feels that this episode isn’t that far away from resolving its problems.

For the issues I have, there is still plenty to enjoy here, with everything from the Cat’s description of his hot pipe action to Rimmer’s dictaphone recordings all providing laughs as good as anything else in the series.  I can’t in all honestly proclaim this episode to be a dud as I fundamentally believe that what we have within it is good. However it is equally difficult to excuse the fact that something in the way the episode leaps from element to element doesn’t feel right.

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Is it a series closer? That’s something that will no doubt vary from person to person, but for me, no. With no general consensus on what the best episodes in the series were, it will come down to personal taste, and my own feeling was and remains that Twentica is more fitting, barring the final scene that was picked up later. Had that episode had a Gunmen style ending it would likely have felt more of a fitting full stop on the series, and while I in no way believe that this series needed a cliffhanger, it would also have been the logical place to put one should you so wish, given that Starbug had crashed and they were trying to escape being trapped in the EMP wave.

In many ways though, this isn’t a normal series close. It may mark the end of a run of episodes, but in terms of the episodes that have been produced, it’s more of a halfway point pause. How much we will come to view XI and XII as being part of the same whole will remain to be seen in a year, but because of how these series were made, perhaps we shouldn’t try and view this as a series close in the way we normally would.screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-00-34-48

So to take it on it’s own merits, what can we say for Can of Worms? One conclusion that seems fitting is that it is perhaps more indicative of the approach this series than any other episode. It’s densely packed with ideas, it references something from the past, often subverting elements as with the screwdriver joke, and it attempts to misdirect the audience from its eventual ending.

But just because it’s indicative doesn’t mean it’s the shining example of the series, but rather one that seems to most adhere to a general formula we could postulate from these six episodes. Indeed, where those other five episodes have shined brightest is sometimes at the point that they stray away from this mould and do something different that makes them distinct from the other five episodes.

In telling a third Polymorph story, Doug has improved on their last use in Series VI by expanding on the ideas surrounding them, and justifies taking the toys back out the box for a further play. Whether this was a better direction than having an episode more dedicated to interaction between two Cats will be entirely down to what kind of episode you yourself wanted to see from this episode, but personally I’m in many respects happier to go in this direction than to have that alternate episode.

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Does that therefore mean that the episode is successful? That’s far more questionable. There are some inescapable issues such as the tuck machine and the balance of the scenes that nag even when the episode is at it’s most amusing. I can’t deny that I would have few qualms about watching the episode again, but I’m equally certain that where something like Give & Take will be used to highlight when this series worked best, this will be an episode that is used to do the opposite, fairly or otherwise.

It’s also an episode that I in my capacity of reviewer struggle to draw certain conclusions on. For the first and only time this series, I find it hard to reconcile the recording experience with the final episode as it has resulted in the removal of some of my favorite lines and a supporting scene that potentially made me question later events less. In a packed recording, it has the bizarre effect of making scenes such as the ‘oh what a night’ sequence much longer in the final cut to me, which is exactly the opposite of what has happened on all the other episodes.

I suspect the merits and the shortcomings of the episode will be a topic of much heated discussion over the coming months, every bit as much as I expect that the two schools of thought will become more entrenched in their respective positions. My own feeling is very much that the answer is somewhere in the middle. It’s an episode with some genuinely good laughs and plot elements, hampered by the way some of those developments are introduced and played out and by the expectation on the episode before it started.

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Had this sat in the second slot of the series as it had in the recorded order, I suspect that some of this may not rankle with some as much as it does now. Equally, had the pre-publicity not highlighted the lady cat element of the plot, it might not have raised hopes of those who’d like an episode dedicated to this topic. Viewing the episode for what it is rather than for what it’s not, it’s still an enjoyable experience, but one where the problems with the episode come all too quickly to the forefront, when, as with any series closer we inevitably compare it with the rest of the strong series that precedes it

But ultimately, in a series where each episode has provoked such radically different opinions in each viewer, how much can this one review encompass all opinions? While I am happy to see the episode not focus greatly on the Cat species, for another person that will be a back mark against the episode. While I may feel the results of the tuck machine don’t tally with the characters actions, for another viewer this might constitute getting hung up on the tiniest detail.

Certainly when your favourite episodes of the series are regarded as other people’s least, this series more than any other feels hard to draw encompassing answers when so many different fans want different things from the show. Among our own writers on this site, opinion on this episode is hugely divided, and you know what? I’m glad. If an episode can split opinion, it means that I’ll always go back to it and try and reevaluate why I feel one way or the other about it. Whether it prove in future viewing to be for good or bad reasons, I certainly expect this to be an episode that’ll be revisited a few times.

  • Chris Hobson

    So the “starbug 19” set is from series XII??