An army of Tonys are divided on Episode 4.
Four episodes in, the DNA of series 11 of Red Dwarf is beginning to show. Every episode so far has had elements of previous ‘classic’ episodes and series in: Twentica had the Dwarfers dressing up in period costume (Gunmen of the Apocalypse) and a mad version historical Earth where one important thing was different (Backwards); Samsara had Justiceworld technology (Justice), the crew split into two pairs to annoy the pants off each other (Marooned) and a world where things happened inexplicably until you worked out its governing principle (also Backwards); Give and Take had a medical emergency (Epideme)and time-twisted solutions (Stasis Leak). Officer Rimmer, as the name suggests, puts us back in the familiar territory of Rimmer achieving his ultimate dream (Holoship), gaining the power and influence to order everyone around and be a total gimboid, instigating a class system aboard Red Dwarf (Me2). It also has DNA splicing technology, and a monster made from something very unlikely.
You could make the argument from this that it’s very samey, and to be honest, we wouldn’t stop you. There is a very familiar feel to this episode, but the reason why is interesting. It’s not the recycled central idea that begins to rankle in Officer Rimmer – indeed, the delivery here is quite fresh, as Rimmer body-prints himself time after time after time, to form his very own Officer’s Club. Kryten even defuses some fan-disappointment at the re-using of the notion of there being more than one Rimmer on board, by making explicit reference to previous occasions when that’s been the case – ‘History tells us that you and you is not a good idea sir.’
No, what begins to rub Red Dwarf fans the wrong way in this episode is that the character of Rimmer is relied upon not to have evolved at all since the last time he had the opportunity to be this kind of gimboid. Immediately he achieves power, the lying, two-faced, weasel-hearted scumbag takes to grinding the noses of the lesser classes, as though he’s learned nothing from all the previous times he’s ground the noses of the lesser classes, only to have Lister lead a straightforward revolution against him and make his life consequently more miserable than it was before. The bulk of the comedy in this issue absolutely relies on that idea – that he’s learned nothing from Lister’s previous defeats, and that he genuinely believed this time it will be somehow different, because he hasn’t exactly cheated, schemed or fantasised his way to his commission, but been legitimately given it by a superior officer. There’s a point when everything starts going wrong at which Chris Barrie gives Rimmer a look of complete frustration at the inevitable, when Lister and the Cat barge through the barriers of class he’s erected, in an attempt to shut down his ghastly empire of Rimmers, and it looks like genuine exasperation – Series 11, and essentially he’s playing the same character as he played in Series 1. That’s not by any means strictly fair – the original Rimmer did evolve, especially after Stoke Me A Clipper in Series 7. But that was the point – a Rimmer that could evolve was no use within the confines of the Red Dwarf format, so when he returned to the show in Series 8, his character was essentially rebooted, returned to the weaselly scumbag of Series 1, so the Rimmer we have now hasn’t actually learned the lessons of Series 4, 5, and 6. It’s by that thin but logical thread that episodes like Officer Rimmer aim to get by, presenting early-Rimmer reactions as fairly new, eleven series on. And admittedly, if we stop to rationalise it that far, we view the episode with kinder eyes. That said, as an actual experience for Dwarf-fans who’ve been with the show since the beginning, or who’ve caught up along the way, the idea that ‘Rimmer gets authority’ still feels like a fairly low bar of imagination and there feels like little in the episode to dazzle us with originality.
There is, it should be said, plenty of wit. The Nautilus, the ship that leads to Rimmer’s commissioning, provides us with a great office equipment gag, and who knew there were any of those that could still make us laugh in 2016? Doug Naylor finds one by combining cutting edge technology, extending it to its logical, if inherently comical, conclusion, and then slamming it up against an experience every office junior will have had at some point. The result of this beautiful gag is another gag, this time a visual one that is less clever and far more overplayed. Rimmer’s instigation of a class system of course allows the majority of the thematic humour in the episode to not be about Rimmer’s neuroses at all, but about the inequity between the classes maintained by people exactly like Rimmer in our own society – the smarmy social climbers of the middle class, who find their life only worth living if they’re doing conspicuously better than the oiks. That Rimmer’s the consummate incarnation of this class surprises no-one – he’s always been the middle-class toady despised by everyone both above and below him, hating his inferiors, such as they are, and secretly hating his superiors too, even as he smarms up to them (as embodied by Todhunter in the very first episode). When he achieves authority, he quickly becomes a heightened version of those very worst elements in society – under the regime of Rimmer, there are Officer class lifts and very specifically made-worse Grunt class lifts, Officer corridors, Officer TV channels. He takes the phenomenon of the class system and writes it in giant blue crayon all across the lives of those who are officially under him, which is now everyone else on Red Dwarf bar the other Rimmers he clones to be his immediate inferiors – again, even grinding the faces of Lister, Kryten and the Cat is not enough for him, he has to make multiple copies of himself to provide him with a class of people to whom he can be ingratiatingly tolerant while making sure they know they’re actually beneath him and have to do what he says.
There’s some comedy with an inverted version of the same idea from Lister too – having sold his genome as a young man, he discovers he’s been cloned thousands of times, for use as Grunt class labour across the cosmos. We won’t spoiler the best of those gags for you here, but they’re pretty high concept and funny to boot.
When Rimmer’s natural impatience results in the creation of a monster that combines elements from Series 4’s D.N.A and Series 5’s Terrorform, the pathway to the end of the episode is rolled out neatly in front of us, though there’s a great eighties video game joke along the way. Unable to deliver his usual revolution, Lister presents Rimmer with a choice that pits his cowardice against his snobbery, and uses psychology against the monster.
Well, psychology and a big mining blaster, obviously, but mostly psychology.
Overall, Officer Rimmer has some good things in it, but it’s difficult to escape a feeling of déjà vu and idea-exhaustion here, as we re-run some corridors of logic we’ve strolled down before. If you sit and think about it for any length of time, the episode gets better and hits more of the bases for which it strives.
Arguably though, if you simply sit and watch it, it’s too much of a repetition to stand out as a memorable episode in 2016.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk