Red Dwarf XII: Skipper review (Spoilers)

It seems that it only started last week, but we’re already at the end of Red Dwarf XII. With M-Corp last week, we were provided with what may be considered to be typical series closer. It encapsulated various qualities we look for, from a potential changing of the status quo as with episodes like Back to Reality, to a reverential nod to the past to close on as with episodes like The Beginning. So with this all coming in show five, how could Skipper present a fitting end to Series XII without redoing what we’d had the previous week?

As it turns out, quite easily in fact, although doing so creates an episode structure that is unusual for Red Dwarf, presenting us with an almost end of series revue. It’s a tour of different elements of the series that while not as narratively driven as last week, is nonetheless an equally pleasing affair that provides a suitable cap to both this run of episodes and the show as a whole, while still leaving the door open for more.

Much as with several of the episodes this series, the first half takes something of a different approach, to the second, with the ad break serving as the split point. The first half sees is in more traditional territory, with the crew looking through the Captain’s crew appraisal files, and setting up the idea of rivalry between Rimmer and Lister to pay off later. Coming at the end of a production of 12 episodes, there a definite ‘end of term’ feeling to proceedings, and it pervades right from the start of the episode. The performances are buzzing, and when Lister boasts to Rimmer of having been labeled ‘quite bright’ you can almost see some of the cast on the verge of corpsing.

This plot strand is soon put on hold temporarily though, with the appearance of a dimensional anomaly, or ‘weird thing’. As with M-Corp, it presents us with a great comic idea which allows for some fantastic moments of physical comedy. The basic idea is a spin on the bicycle gag; the idea of someone saying ‘you won’t get me on that bicycle’ and then immediately cutting to them riding it. It’s a well established comedic device, but the true spark here is making the characters aware that it is occurring.

This self-aware deconstruction is the kind of thing we see in stand up routines by the likes of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, but to see it in a visual live-action medium is very unusual and generates big laughs. Just as with the mime in M-Corp, it’s truly played for everything it’s worth, with Cat’s constant misunderstanding both plays to the character’s traits and keeps upping the laughs.

On at least two occasions there are great further pushes of the joke, just at the point it might be waning, which pick it back up again. The first (and possibly best) is Lister trying to explain what’s happening to Cat before finding himself furiously stuffing his face with toast, and the second is Cat’s misstep that sends everyone back to the bunk room, just after we’ve spent so long getting to the science room. All of these sequences show a masterful combination of set ups and payoffs, twinned with precision editing to generate the biggest laughs.

With the anomalies explained as Kryten’s doing and the potential of better realities presented with his Dimensional Skipper, we pick back up on Rimmer’s plot line from the start of the episode and accelerate towards the advert break. As we move into the second half of the episode, we find the structure take on something more akin to a sketch show in some respects. It’s a comparison that may seem to be a negative one, but in this instance, it’s absolutely the best way to examine the ideas this episode is presenting.

This idea of jumping between different realities is something that has certainly been seen in other shows before, but often it’s largely just in animation due to the constraints of budget and the confines of the world other shows present. Two of the most obvious examples would be the Time and Punishment section of The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror V and Family Guy’s Road to The Multiverse.

Skipper is probably more similar to the later, with both showing various potential dimensions, but looking at a couple in more depth before the final one being used to examine a character’s outlook on their own universe. The first dimension we visit is of course the one that’s been most publicised in advance, featuring the return of Norman Lovett as Rimmer appears on a version of Red Dwarf minutes before the crew are wiped out.

Despite it being a little shy of 20 years since Norman last appeared in the show, his deadpan portrayal of Holly is potentially closer to his original appearances than his ones I Series VIII. This is also supported of course by having some great dialogue for the character, and seizing on the opportunity to recreate and reverse a scene from The End. And yet despite this being the fan pleasing part, it’s Holly’s announcement of a radiation leak that is the biggest laugh and should rightly be regarded as one of the great moments for the character.

Yet while fans may have expected in advance that Holly’s return was to be the big moment of fan service in this episode, it instead proves to be just one of several through to the end. Hot off the heels of Norman’s appearance, we have the surprise (if you didn’t already see him in the trailers) return of Mac McDonald as Captain Hollister trying to make his escape before the ship goes down. As with Norman’s scene, it’s ultimately a fairly brief appearance, but Mac is entirely on point with his performance and the episode would be lesser without his inclusion.

The second of the three major dimensional stop of points takes us to a version of Red Dwarf with a more sophisticated Lister and his wire collection, alongside a 7ft tall talking rat. If I had to anticipate which element of the episode may divide people, I would place money on it being Mr Rat, whose appearance immediately puts me in mind of the American book club edition of the first two Red Dwarf novels. It’s so out of left field, so over the top and so silly that I can see some may find it hard to take to.

For me though, Danny’s performance here is one of the big highlights of the episode, and were he placed in a subtler costume the joke wouldn’t work. It’s precisely because it appears so strange that it’s visually so striking and funny, and the fact that it generates laughs just purely by Danny looking at the other cast while in the costume only goes to exemplify this. While in Terrorform the episode was directed specifically to hide the monster, to do that here and make the looks at the costume more fleeting would be to undermine the joke completely.

With the last dimension though, we get the real fan pleasing material of the episode, as well as some wonderful character moments too. Scooting back into a Series I version of Red Dwarf, Rimmer finds he is an officer, married, a father to four boys and has the respect of the crew. While the earlier scene teased us with the potential of a Series I Dwarf, this section actually delivers in a way fans likely wouldn’t have expected.

Even having seen the episode recorded, I never expected that we would see the model of the Dwarf revert to the original model of Series I-V in some beautifully cleaned up footage that will now certainly raise questions about where the Dwarf of Series X onwards originates from. It’s carried through to the sets as well, with the repainted corridors seen earlier being combined with a wonderfully accurate recreation of both the Captain’s office and the original bunk room set, arguably looking better here than it did when recreated in Back in The Red.

It’s an extravagance that you can only really get away with in an episode of this nature, and I think that to have made a more traditionally narrative driven story would have been to the detriment of the fun of what we have here. Yet all of this would be pure fan service were there nothing to tie it to of course. What makes this scene work even better for me is that it does tie back into the narrative strongly, as Rimmer is forced to decide if a dimension where the clock has been reset and he has everything he dreamed of is worth it when Lister has done better than him and become a hugely wealthy Captain.

The dilemma he faces here gets back to the core rivalry between the characters, and the Series I setting helps to enhance this no end. Chris’ performance of the realisation that the embarrassment would be too much to bear is wonderfully underplayed, and manages to portray what feels like a summation of the relationship between our two main characters since they first appeared in 1988. As Rimmer returns to his dimension in the knowledge that even a universe where he is a loser is preferable to one where Lister is better than him, Doug has found a wonderful sentiment to close that series on that is perfectly true to the character.

As an endpoint to Series XII, Skipper is an episode in best Futurama traditions that could equally well serve as an endpoint to the show where there never to be anymore episodes. After the character introspective end of Series X, it made sense here to do something entirely different, and Skipper delivers that with barrels of fun and an irreverence that avoids us having a retread of other series closers. It also serves as a perfect episode to mark an important anniversary, and despite being a few months early, this is a perfect celebration of thirty years of Red Dwarf.

Whether we see more Red Dwarf after this episode remains to be seen, even though everything currently seems quite promising. For the two series we have just had though, Series XI felt like a reasserting of what the show was and could be, while Series XII has felt like it has used that as a springboard to go into stranger territory. It may not always have worked in some episodes, but Skipper exemplifies how the show can still takes risks and surprise, as well as subvert established comedic ideas and remain fresh. The second half of this series has truly proved that the show continues to be every bit as relevant today as it has always been, and on the strength of Skipper, I can’t wait to see what’s still to come.