Red Dwarf II, episode 2: “Better Than Life”

reddwarfII2incredible

So. Been a while, hasn’t it? I have to admit I’ve been having way more fun with writing these pop song reviews than I thought I would and, as a result, these Red Dwarf reviews (which take longer to write and generate far less traffic) have basically fallen by the wayside. I also planned on reviewing some current television at one point, but so much of what’s on these days either peeves me off royally or just bores the breath out of me (or both, as the latest series of Doctor Who managed to do).

But I don’t want this to become a one-note blog, so this new year I’m going to have to get back into the feel of writing about television, firstly by getting these Red Dwarf reviews back on track. As you might notice I’ve had to streamline these reviews with a simpler format, just so I can get them out quicker – but don’t worry, that classic Archbudgie charm will still shine through as it always has. Aren’t you lucky?

Red Dwarf II, episode 2: “Better Than Life”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 13th September 1988.

What happens?

The first true “outside” adventure story for the Boys from the Dwarf, even if they never really leave the ship, the Red Dwarf crew receive a (very, very, very) late delivery of post, including a letter informing Rimmer that his father has died, forcing Rimmer to reveal his true feelings about the man he always looked up to. They also receive a virtual reality game, Better Than Life, that allows them to live out their wildest fantasies. Inside the game they wallow in the excess their imagination provides for them, until Rimmer gets an unwelcome visitor and his fantasy, as well as those of his crewmembers, begins to unravel.

reddwarfII2rimmerdad

What do I think?

A good episode, this, with a simple premise for the jokes to hang on. Virtual reality is a pretty common science fiction trope and Grant and Naylor don’t really up-end it in any major way (though the fact that the eventual threat arguably comes from the humans themselves, rather than the software itself, is quite a nice twist), instead treating it with that classic, down-t0-earth irreverence that sets this show apart from its more serious sci-fi counterparts. If Red Dwarf had a holo-deck, this is probably how it would get used: screw personnel training, wouldn’t you rather have lavish lunches and drive around the countryside with beautiful women?

It’s also a neat opportunity for some subtle character development as we see their desires come to life in front of them (I suppose Cat’s fantasies were the closest Dwarf fans were getting in terms of development at this point). In regards to that, there’s a poignant moment at the beginning when Rimmer realises his father is dead, proof that the show was very capable of these little human moments; the dead man mourning his dead dad is also wonderful science fiction material. That they later trip up that sentimentality completely with Rimmer’s true feelings about his father is pure Red Dwarf.

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Admittedly, however, the “dead father” theme doesn’t feel as neatly connected to the rest of the episode as it should. Oh, sure, it’s the appearance of his father that triggers Rimmer’s downfall within the fantasy, but it’s never made clear whether the man’s appearance is a random occurrence as a result of the game or a symptom of Rimmer’s own unconscious need to defeat himself divorced from his feelings towards his father, so it’s unclear how it ties in to his earlier disdain towards him. He hates his father but he looks up to him; so when his father insults him shouldn’t his hatred allow him to rise above his deflated respect?

Personally I’ve never truly cared for “alternate reality” storylines, even deliberately silly ones like this. Also, watching the characters laze about in their own fantasies doesn’t make for particularly great viewing, even if the jokes are decent, so the story and the comedy only really pick up towards the end. It’s still a funny episode, though, and a good indicator of how the show was starting to step out of its comfort zone with more complex, emotional storytelling.

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Some stray smeg:

  • That news report always kinda bugged me. I mean, how and why are they watching it at all? If the human race is extinct, how is there news to report? It must be an archive report of some kind, but why would these guys bother to watch something like that? For the stray piece on Better Than Life which tells them nothing they don’t already know about the game? Or were Grant and Naylor just that desperate to get that Bible joke out of their systems?
  • Famous goof here: Rimmer picks up the sand when they arrive in the fantasy, but it’s only later as they’re eating together that Cat remarks how Rimmer can touch things now.
  • Is it me or is it a little odd that Lister fantasises about Marilyn Monroe, a woman who died roughly two hundred years before he was born? It’d be like me fantasising about Marie Antoinette.
  • Terrific special effects, there. I do love Rimmer’s idea of what would complete a fantasy involving a fast car and a beautiful woman, though.
  • I appreciate that they didn’t go for the “father-son reconciliation” device as a more sentimental sitcom would have. Red Dwarf was always best when it was at its most cheekily dark and subversive.
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