Critical Contrast – Red Dwarf : Extra Contrast

Red Dwarf didn’t just mess with time of course. It also dipped its toes into a multitude of alternative universe tropes in order to leverage and explore multiple interpretations of Lister, Cat, Kryten and Rimmer, allowing Grant Naylor to explore their characters from far more oblique angles than a traditional sitcom would allow. Series 2’s final episode Parallel Universe treated the trope in a straight forward manner, having the all male cast meet their all female equivalents (or in Cat’s case, a Dog). But both the sets and the characters are largely the same.

As the series progressed however, Grant Naylor began to play with the idea of alternate versions of the core cast far more effectively, defining who the characters were by showing the audience what they weren’t, creating a unique kaleidoscope of character comedy into the bargain.

One of the most fondly remembered episodes of series 3, Polymorph, blends homages to Alien, The Thing and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to create its titular antagonist, and gives it the ability to drain its victims of their emotions, draining Lister’s fear, Rimmer’s anger, Krytan’s guilt and The Cat’s vanity, turning the crew into emotionally unbalanced parodies of their former selves:

This allows Grant Naylor to freely swap around their main character’s archetypes in universe, creating humour from the jarring juxtaposition compared to the originals, and showing the audience the emotions that define those characters most (and how they’d be without them).

The “many worlds theory,” was developed by Hugh Everett and John Wheeler in the 1950s in an attempt to answer the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” paradox, positing that the cat is dead in one universe and alive and well in another. This idea that the consequences of every decision we make are played out in their own universe is the basis of series 4’s Dimension Jump, swapping out Erwin’s moggy for the far less cuddly Arnold Judas Rimmer.

The episode begins with a young Arnold Rimmer (hanging upside down from a tree) being told by his mother that his school is considering keeping him back a year, and that she is holding the note from the headmaster which will decide the outcome- the pivotal decision.

20 years later flashes on the screen, and we are treated to the Arnold that could have been- Ace Rimmer; part James Bond, part Top Gun, all sexual magnetism- on an average day in his universe:

with only 4 minutes to play with, the scene above quickly summarises the Rimmer that could have been (intelligent and charismatic, yet caring and down to earth, he is all things to all men and women, the cream of the space corps), before explaining the episode’s core concept of alternate dimensions.

Establishing the theory in the parallel universe streamlines the process, using the unique visuals and the character interactions between alternate universe cast to make the explanation both concise and more crucially comical, doing much of the expositional heavy lifting long before any jargon is delivered.

This sticks to the writing formula we saw in the previous CC- Grant Naylor’s ability to introduce an episode’s sci-fi concept to the audience in a brief yet understandable manner, and then play off that understanding to comical effect.

For the second part of the thought exercise the next few scenes return to our universe, re-establishing Rimmer prime as an anal-retentive, loathed and self-loathed failure (“as popular as a horny dog at a miss lovely legs competition”), and advancing the plot by taking the crew on a fishing holiday.

Ace Rimmer enters our reality by crashing into Starbug and marooning it on a stormy planet. Ace goes down to help (what a guy!), where he comes face to face with his other self for the first time.

The ship crash allows both Rimmers to show their strongest qualities- Ace the charismatically capable hero who saves the day, and Rimmer, snide and ultimately useless, pettily questions his alternate self’s sexuality for the rest of the episode.

Having Rimmer interact with an idealized version of himself sheds far more light upon his character, showing him more than ever before to be a bitter underachiever who spent his life making up excuses for his failings. This point is hammered home when Ace reveals that it was him who was held back a year in school, which forced him to buckle down and make his own successes.

This is nicely juxtaposed with Lister and his alternate self Spanners, who embodies his ideals as a flight engineer in the Space Corps, married to Christine Kochanski with twin boys, Jim and Bexley. Listen explains:

“I made up for him! Whatever he did that I didn’t, he deserves the lot. For me it makes sense, him having all this stuff. To think that in every dimension, every possibility is played out.”

Like Rimmer he’s an underachiever in comparison to his alternate, but he’s far more emotionally mature (at least in this regard), more relaxed in himself and able to accept the success of others, further highlighting Rimmer’s neuroticism and the comedy that comes from it.

Series 5 is probably the most prolific in these alternate explorations of character, with Lister’s underachievement and acceptance of it explored further in series 5’s  The Inquisitor, which finds the crew going up against a time travelling android who visits everyone in existence and erases all those who have wasted their lives, replacing them with those who never had a chance of life (“the unfertilized eggs, the sperms that never made it”). This episode takes up the vague theme of measuring up to personal ideals seen in Dimension Jump and runs with it, particularly in The Inquisitor’s brand of judgment, which sees each character justify their existence to themselves:

The penultimate episode sees the whole crew are subjected to meeting their spiritually high and degenerate low aspects of themselves (Demons and Angels), but the absoluteness of the archetypes results in characters that, although funny, don’t really feel like aspects of the characters that we know. Still funny though.

In Back to Reality, the crew “dies”, and the episode “reveals” that they have in fact spent the last four years playing “Red Dwarf the Total Immersion Video Game”, and are not who they believed themselves to be.

As my liberal use of quotation marks would suggest however this is not the real world, and they are saved by Holly, who reveals they’ve been under the influence of The Despair Squid, a creature whose defence mechanism induces hallucinations of despair, attacking the quintessential elements of the victim’s self-esteem by belittling the past four years of their lives, and casting them as people designed to drive them to suicide:

Rimmer’s “real” self, (“Oh my god!  My name is Billy Doyle and my cologne is “Eau de Yak Urine.”) is unable to blame his failings and shortcomings on his parents because he shared an upbringing with Lister’s Sebastian Doyle, the richer, more important, half-brother. Unfortunately, Sebastian is a mass-murdering butcher in a totalitarian state, conflicting with Lister’s pride of being a good man of moral courage. The Cat became Dwaine Dibbley, a man so bereft of cool that life no longer had any meaning to him, and Kryten’s Jake Bullet persona becomes a killer, conflicting with his own strict moral code.

Like Polymorph, Back to Reality changes the archetypes to further explore the characters, each an antithesis of their personal identity. Unlike the former, they explore these new self-image and moral codes as their true selves, and ultimately reject their hallucinated personas independently, again reaffirming and defining their characters for the audience.

written down it all seems a bit heavy, but the broadness of the hallucinated personas (particularly the fan favourite Dwayne Dibbley) and the general confusion keeps it light-hearted and able to sustain the series’ high quality dialogue, keeping it from edge of tragedy that it could so easily fall down. Also, the whole hallucination is revealed in this both hilarious and cost-effective gag:

Seriously, watch Red Dwarf, it’s very good!

Once you’ve done that though we’ll revisit series 5 one last time.

Terraforming is the hypothetical process whereby a hostile environment is altered in order to be suitable for human life. It’s a concept rooted in science fiction, particularly Jack Williamson’s “Collision Orbit” where the term was first used, but the idea is being explored in actual science, particularly around altering Mars’ climate, which may fall within current technological capabilities (although likely no one’s bank balances).

Grant Naylor take this idea and blends it with others from Forbidden Planet, Dante’s Inferno and horror tropes in Terrorform (a puntastic title), which sees the crew discover a Psi Moon; An artificial planetoid that tunes into an individual’s psyche and adapts it’s terrain to mimic their mental state.

Unfortunately, the individual in question is Arnold Rimmer, and his patchwork psyche of neuroticisms manifests as a twisted, allegorical hellscape, with locations like The Swamp of Despair, The Wood of Humiliation, and The Chasm of Hopelessness, ruled over by the physical incarnation of his own Self Loathing, who dominates Rimmer’s subconscious along with other personifications of his negative emotions.

Rimmer himself is captured, whilst the rest of the crew navigate his twisted mind made physical, encountering metaphorical wildlife (the frogs croak the word “useless” and the leeches have the face of his mother) and gravestones symbolising the death of his positive emotions; Self Respect (died aged 24), Generosity (aged 9), Self Confidence (22), Honour (12) and a particularly small one for Charm.

This rather literal piece of character exploration allows Rimmer to be cast in a far more sympathetic light- seeing his personal demons and failings in the flesh making him seem a more tragic figure. However, exploring these emotions in the physical plane allows Rimmer himself to remain the same unlikable egotistical coward, preserving the humour of the character, particularly Grant Naylor’s distinctively descriptive brand of insults levied against him, with this episode having some of the best in the series (“Only this morning you referred to me as a cancerous polyp on the anus of humanity.”)

Having Rimmer be represented in the set dressing via psychic Terraforming lets the writers have their cake and eat it- exploring his darker, more painful traits in visuals and symbolism whilst preserving the show’s momentum and most crucially, the comedy of the character.

Right, that’s enough about Red Dwarf, Rick and Morty next time!


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  1. Critical Contrast – Rick and Morty : Extra Contrast – MediaSplat
  2. Critical Contrast – Sci-Fi Comedy : Rick and Morty – MediaSplat

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