Red Dwarf XII: Timewave review (Spoilers)

Red Dwarf has always been a show that’s had a lot of different approaches. It’s certainly not an original statement to point out the differences between say Series I and VII, and in terms of episodes, Balance of Power is far removed from the likes of Pete. However, with the third instalment of Red Dwarf XII, we have perhaps the most unusual and atypical episode of the show there has ever been.

For those of you that were following our coverage of the recordings of Series XII, you will doubtless have noticed that our report on Timewave had a slightly different tone to the others. The night itself had the longest recording by some length, many retakes, only one scene that recorded on a set visible to the audience and some unpleasantness from certain members of the audience. Combined with such an unusual episode, the strained recording made it difficult to form a definitive opinion on the episode until airing.

On leaving the recording, I had some serious reservations about certain elements, most of which were the ones that dominated the recording time. However, I still hoped that the elements that I liked would be highlighted in the edit, while the parts that I didn’t would be played down. That has proved to be something of a faint hope.

Timewave presents us with the broadest, campest episode of Red Dwarf that there has ever been, and even taking into account the show’s many sides, its jarring. After a strong run with XI and the first two episodes of XII, it ironically gives me no pleasure to criticise this episode, but there is no escaping it; this is the weakest episode of the Dave era.

It’s difficult to pin the problems with the episode to just one element. There are sections where the what’s happening in a scene isn’t clear, there’s an unpleasantly misogynistic line and a terrible attempt to make spit-on-a-wrist a pun of clitoris among many others. In fact, there are so many that we don’t have space for them here and will instead be turning our attention to them in The Garbage Podcast review of the episode next week. But for now, lets look at some of the larger issues.  

Certainly the idea of exploring the idea of criticism isn’t an inherently flawed one. That said, it’s territory that we’ve seen addressed in Sci-Fi before, and there are very strong overtones throughout this episode of both The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy and Rob Grant’s novel, Incompetence. As a concept, it’s certainly not one devoid of interesting ground to explore, which perhaps makes the way that the subject is examined here to be so odd.

The concerns however don’t creep in from the off, and indeed the opening of the episode is pretty much difficult to raise any great degree of objection to. While previously seen on the series trailer, the sequence of the crew on Planet Rimmer is a reasonably nice start to the episode, and this full version features perhaps a funnier line that the one in the trailer with Rimmer naming the star ‘Sunny Rim’.

In terms of content, the same applies to the following sequences in Starbug, which while being a heavy exposition dump, present a way for the idea of valid criticism to be explored in an interesting way, in what appears to be the set up for a reasonably standard ensemble episode. At this point, the main question that there seems to be over the episode is whether there are too many instances of the Cat insulting Rimmer; a question that will only be further raised through the rest of the episode as similar lines are delivered on multiple occasions.

As we move onto the SS Encomium though, the problems begin with the arrival of Ziggy. Let’s address one thing straight off the bat; this episode has more mincing than a convention of butchers. Before we go further down this rabbit hole however, and while it shouldn’t need restating, it is important to remember that camp characters can exist without them being an outdated stereotype with some degree of homophobic undertones. Nothing here makes that link to sexuality and I absolutely in no way believe that this was a consideration.

However, there is perhaps a worrying lack of thought that has been granted to this topic. When you take the camp performance and pair it with such an outlandish costume, it certainly opens you up to people questioning your motives. However you view it, it’s most definitely ground that should be carefully trod. Even with the previous points in mind, it’s difficult to escape a deep feeling of unease from the moment that the character of Ziggy enters the episode. I can perfectly understand how anyone else would be concerned by the path it sets off down.

From the look of the other inhabitants of the ship as well as the colour of the guest sets, it seems clear that the intention was to aim for a psychedelic effect. However this just gets lost in the pantomime of everything else. It seems to be largely an issue of portrayal, as aside from a line about Lister’s accent there isn’t anything in the script that relies on such a performance. Instead, a great uncomfortableness is generated by us being invited to view how he behaves as wrong and worthy of criticism.

Of course the other aspect at play here is the costuming. As will doubtless have been immediately apparent to many people watching, Ziggy’s costume has been previously worn in Spaced by David Walliams’ character Vulva; a performance artist based on Leigh Bowery. Here it is employed more for the previously mentioned psychedelic effect, but when coupled with the performance, it’s naïve to expect that an audience won’t assume that certain connotations are being made.

To further highlight this, it’s something that is far less of an issue with Johnny Vegas’ portrayal of the crit-cop. While not given a huge amount to do in the episode, he manages deliver the material in a way that shows what might have been a preferable approach. By not going for an exaggerated performance, he presents the idea of the outlawing of criticism as a draconian solution to a problem, and means that lines about the uniform and his pleasure rush on criticising the crew work much better. I can’t help but feel that many of this episodes problems would have been solved if his character and Ziggy had been merged into one role.

This is also true to Joe Sim’s performance as someone incarcerated for tutting. Portraying the character as someone driven to the edge by the heavy hand of the criticism police, we almost get a glimpse of what could have been some further interesting ground to explore on the merits of valid criticism. It also goes to highlight how putting the other guest characters in the costumes they are in also goes to distract from the idea of the episode rather than reinforce it. Scenes like this end up coming as a relief, and when Ziggy returns to the episode, so does the feeling of my heart sinking.

At this point though, the episode takes a strange tonal shift, with the focus turning squarely on Rimmer. The creation of Rimmer’s inner critic certainly looks good on-screen, and while a touch similar to Terrorform, the fundamental idea of Rimmer’s inner critic not being able to take criticism is an amusing one that would easily have me justifying it’s inclusion. But because we haven’t focused on Rimmer for most of the rest of the episode, this resolution doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should. Ultimately, it comes so late on in the episode that a lot of goodwill has already been exhausted.

As the episode closes with yet more over the top ghastliness from Ziggy, I find myself feeling as drained as Rimmer, and the quelling of my criticism about every bit as successful. Much as some of our readers may suspect that we enjoy picking apart an episode in this manner, writing this review is actually much more heartbreaking than I feel I can adequately relay here.

Since watching the episode being recorded, I find that the elements I enjoyed then such as Rimmer’s inner critic I still enjoy now. However, the elements that troubled me then are also no less troubling. While I restrained my comments back then due to the way an edit and re-shoots can change an episode, the final edited down episode just brings the problems into sharper focus than they were before.

With twelve episodes being written and produced back to back, there was always the potential for one to fall short of the rest. In the case of Timewave, what would have perhaps been an unremarkable but fundamentally fine episode has been turned into something far weaker and inherently questionable by production choices. That it reached this point without anyone pointing out the potential problems is frankly remarkable.

On the upside, as is probably evident from the set reports, Timewave was always the episode of this whole production run that was to be the low point. With this now out of the way, we can all look forward to the back half of the series. Based purely on the recordings I saw back in 2016, each of the remaining three episodes holds so much more promise that to put it alongside this episode it’s almost like looking at a different show. My hope remains that as time passes I may be able to look past some of the abrasive parts of this episode and focus on the parts I liked, but for now, this episode marks the point of Series XII I would rather forget.