Red Dwarf II, episode 6: “Parallel Universe”

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Red Dwarf II, episode 6: “Parallel Universe”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 11th October 1988.

What happens?

Holly announces a new invention of his: the Holly Hop Drive, which he believes should be able to transport the ship to Earth, or at least where Earth should be. Instead, it takes them to a parallel universe and a parallel Red Dwarf, run by a female Lister, a female Rimmer and their companion, Dog. As they mingle things seem to be going well, at least for the two Listers – until they get a little too friendly.

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What do I think of it?

First of all, let’s get it out of the way so we can move on: the “Tongue Tied” music video at the start of the episode. Yeah, I’m guessing my first reaction to this was much the same as yours, largely in regards to the contemplation of what specific kind of hell it could have been. I mean, what was the thinking behind this? I don’t mean that as a criticism, because the video is downright hilarious, but I… I’m just baffled. The way it’s threaded into the plot of the episode isn’t thoroughly convincing, either, but I have to say that, after repeat viewings, that hardly matters. As a song “Tongue Tied” is passable. As a music video it’s bizarre, daft and wonderful, from the choreography to the faces pulled by the characters to Cat’s spurts of scat to Holly’s dancing ears. None of it makes sense and, I think, that’s why it works.

Speaking of Holly, he once again initiates events this week as he presents his latest invention. Watching Holly explain the Hop Drive, along with its execution, results and reception from Rimmer, all make for some subtle but lovely laughs. Red Dwarf was still quite small and subdued in its comedy at this time (which is probably why moments like “Tongue Tied” stick out like they do), but that would change before too long so, for me, moments like this are a bit of a last lap for the “vintage” Dwarf style of humour. Big laughs and high concept, they were a-comin’.

Admittedly, the second act drags a little because the emphasis is very much on the binary differences – or perhaps, similarities – between the male and female counterparts of each character. From the female crewmembers we get a glimpse at how this woman-centric society trivialises and objectifies men instead. As satire it’s a little blunt, and swapping the sexes is a typically lazy way of making a point about gender inequality. As comedy, too, it’s perhaps a touch forced; and even though hearing about all the gender-swapped figures of history is funny at first, it gets a bit wearisome after a while (although I did enjoy the play titles of Wilma Shakespeare).

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The reason this act really works as it does, despite these issues, is the reason most Red Dwarf episodes work: one Arnold J. Rimmer – or rather, two Rimmers, as the female version keeps hitting on the male version to the latter’s extreme discomfort. There’s a sense of schadenfreude in watching Rimmer’s chauvinism, arrogance and general creepiness towards women reflected back at him, specifically through his methods of “seduction” (like using hypnosis to get a date) and his attitudes regarding gender and sexuality. At the same time, you feel genuinely bad for him – he does, after all, get a fair amount of harassment in this episode; and while I’m sure this is, again, leading into a point about how our society sometimes (often?) treats women as things to be ogled and felt up, I do wonder whether Our Rimmer would be this lechy and overbearing towards Their Rimmer if she was in our universe, or whether the very presence of a woman would reduce him to a puddle of nerves and other things.

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Now, normally I try and avoid spoilers when writing these capsule reviews, but it’s difficult to avoid the big issue that comes up in the third act because it essentially is the third act. Basically, the party goes sour for the two parties that actually seem to be enjoying themselves – the two Listers – when it transpires that [SPOILERS] they done went and slept together. Worse for Our Lister, it’s the men who get pregnant in this parallel universe, and as they’re abiding by that universe’s physical and biological laws Our Lister may very well be up the duff. I’m still not totally sure how this works – did the parallel universe give Lister a womb? No, surely Their Lister would still have a womb because it mostly seems to be gender stereotypes that have switched places in this universe; but then where in his body would the male Lister carry the baby? Wouldn’t he need breasts as well? And why wouldn’t the issue be nullified when they returned to their own universe – wouldn’t their own laws of biology kick in again?

As usual with Red Dwarf, it’s probably best not to think too much about the science of it all. “Parallel Universe” is a fan favourite and generally considered one of the best episodes of the series. While I’m not sure I fully agree with that, it is a very entertaining episode. Of course, things were about to change in a big way for the show, so “Parallel Universe” is something of a cap to this early Red Dwarf, and a worthy one at that.

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Some stray smeg:

  • This was Norman Lovett’s last episode as Holly for a long time due to issues with travelling from his new marital home in Edinburgh to the studios in London; he was replaced by Hattie Haybridge, who plays his alternate self, Hilly, in this episode. So for now, hats off to Lovett for squeezing such a class performance from a deadpan computer programme. We’ll be seeing you again shortly.
  • “Tongue Tied” was apparently so well received at the time that five years later, in 1993, it was re-recorded and released as a CD single in the UK, reaching #17 in the charts (making it possibly the highest-ever charting song to feature the line “my breakfast left my body”). I’m not sure how that happened, to be honest: sure, the song’s all right, but it’s the video that really makes it. There was another video produced to accompany this re-release; it’s decent enough but it lacks the grounded silliness of the original.
  • Someone alluded to this in the comments section in an “uncut” version of the “Tongue Tied” music video and I have to agree: Bruno Mars totally ripped off the look in this video for “Treasure“. Pony up, Mars. (It’s also been pointed out elsewhere that Angela Bruce, the actress who plays alternate Lister in this episode, looks like Bruno.)
  • One last thing about the “Tongue Tied” video, I swear: 1:29-31 – Holly hands!
  • When Cat meets Dog, for a brief moment Cat actually breaks the fourth wall. Does that ever happen again in Red Dwarf? Someone should look into that.
  • Rimmer’s Mesmer stare… yeah.
  • Cat’s dance at the disco… oh yeah.
  • Nice background story with the scutters there. I keep forgetting about that one.
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