“So what is it?”
“I’ve seen one like this before; everyone has. It’s like White Hole.”
“Yes, every episode has an equal and opposite version. But this one just uses lots of the same ingredients, shakes them up and does something completely new.”
Callbacks to the past can end up being incredibly self-indulgent, reminding you of that thing you liked but leaving you feeling a little bit hollow and unclean, like someone tainted your favourite mug by using it to store their urine sample. But if you have the right mix, you can use the same basic ideas to create something completely new. White Hole takes the concept of the ship’s computer failing meaning the crew no longer have supplies or even oxygen, and the ship is in danger thanks to a white hole. This time, we have the ship’s machines failing, meaning the crew can’t access supplies or even oxygen and the ship is in danger because of a black hole. While the latter used a science-fiction idea as the solution, this time out it’s a completely character-driven piece. That distinction really sets this episode apart.
Up to this point in the run, Red Dwarf XII’s episodes have all featured significant guest casts. That can dramatically useful as it opens the episodes up from the four main players and lets them spark with different characters in different situations. It also allows for more effects shots and guest sets which helps make the universe feel bigger and shows off the scale of the production. But sometimes it’s nice to get back to the mother ship and explore the relationships of the core four, and let’s be honest, Red Dwarf has been feeling a little bit neglected of late, with the small rouge one not even appearing in the previous episode.
It’s also worth mentioning the use of the Red Dwarf flybys. We’ve become accustomed to the use of the main passing across the front of the ship but it’s lovely to see some greater use of the bigature with the show opening with an unconventional shot and then many more being used throughout, even a vertical pan which we’ve rarely seen before. Just like the brief use of location shooting with Kryten on the lower decks, this really helps sell the idea of a massive ship.
The episode begins with Kryten just sitting at the table in the sleeping making different expressions. It’s a really weird start and different to anything we’ve seen before. It’s also oddly comforting and most importantly, it’s funny. Robert Llewellyn is able to convey so much with just a glance and has a willing audience eating out the palm of his hand. The sequence that follows with Rimmer and Kryten arguing over their different approaches perfectly sets up the episode that follows in best Star Trek: The Next Generation-style, with Kryten ultimately gaining the upper hand.
The retrieval sequence very much mirrors the opening sequence of DNA with lots of tapping at computers and the crew acting like they know what they’re going. That all makes sense given this is a crew doing the same kind of thing. But the sequence turns around with them being tricked by essentially a sci-fi version of clicking on an email virus. These schemes always target the old and vulnerable. It’s a shame.
The exchange between Rimmer and Lister with Rimmer promoting and demoting his subordinate originally featured in the script for Officer Rimmer and was shot on the night. It seamlessly fits into this story and demonstrates that there’s still a decent amount of antagonism between the pair, despite recent series having made their relationship a little more cordial.
Following the computer virus, the machines stage strike due to them being unfairly treated by the rest of the crew and they refuse to work until they are given a representative. And so an election is called with both Kryten and Rimmer deciding to stand to be their president and to be the voice of the machines. This is a classic TV plot with every high school show and most set in an office featuring an election, whether it’s to be prom queen, class president or the person in charge of the biscuit cupboard. It’s remarkable Red Dwarf has taken so long to do this but the concept is very well executed.
Red Dwarf doesn’t indulge in satire too often, even if there have previously been plenty of digs and the establishment. Given his background on Spitting Image, Doug knows how to hit the target. Rimmer makes the perfect slimy politician, telling everyone what they want to hear and answering questions with platitudes. There was some fear that this element might have felt dated given it was recorded almost two years ago, but it actually feels very timely with our political leaders on either side of the Atlantic acting increasingly strangely.
There is a B-plot featuring the Cat needing glasses. Red Dwarf hasn’t done much to acknowledge the ageing of the cast, and there’s a considerable use of wigs to cover some of the cast’s entropy. Here’s it’s fleeting but it’s a decent motivation for what follows between Cat and Rimmer. Timewave’s constant bickering with Cat telling Rimmer the various ways he’d like him to die felt so tired and like retreading old ground. This feels like something new with Rimmer using blackmail to manipulate his felis sapien crew mate and then Cat going along with it. They’re an underused pairing but it really worked.
Making the vending machines a major part of an episode might give many a fair amount of fear, especially considering the way they were overused during series X, but here they are used to better effect, just giving them enough personality but not letting them dominate the episode. Primarily, it’s an ensemble character episode and each of the team gets a chance to shine
There are references galore in this episode and while some will complain that it’s retreading old ground, I thought it just felt like nice attention to detail. You get mentions of PD as a punishment, the diesel decks show up, Cat talks about his hot wax hair remover, and then of course there’s the campaign adverts. These are like the Red Dwarf equivalent of those Doctor Who sequences where there are shots of the all the past Doctors. It’s glorious fan service, but most importantly they work in the context of the episode. They even use the skeleton props from Samsara to recreate dead crew of the Nova V. And speaking of the Nova V, it’s only David Ross back as Talkie Toaster.
There is a loving attention to detail in this return. Sure, it’s not the same prop and the screen might be a little higher quality, but it’s all there in essence. And they even bothered to recreate the toaster’s point of view shot which is a really nerdy thing to do and makes weirdos like me feel very happy. It’s Red Dwarf quoting itself, with Lister recreating the “no toast” scene from White Hole with even more bread products listed but it worked before and it works now.
Like many Dave era episodes, there’s a post-plot scene with a bit of a stinger gag. This one is used to tie up all the threads and is funny enough without being absolutely hilarious, but it’s good to actually see Talkie throwing a major wobbler as previously described and everything that’s set up is resolved by the end.
Essentially, the whole episode felt really fresh and refreshing. It’s an episode that I like more, the more time I have to think about it and sits high in the Dave era. It seems, what’s old can become new again.