Red Dwarf III, episode 1: “Backwards”
Written by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 14th November 1989.
While out on a training exercise, Rimmer and Kryten (he’s back, by the way) accidentally get sucked into a quasar, transporting them to a strange parallel universe where time runs backwards. Lister and Cat head in as well to rescue them, only to find that their strange “forwards” behaviour has become something of a hit with the natives.
What do I think of it?
Two parallel universe episodes in a row might seem strange on paper, but not so here. Whereas Red Dwarf II aired only six months after I finished broadcasting, III began airing a full thirteen months later and it definitely shows. Between the two series the show evidently got a nice budget boost because… well, just look at those sets, those costumes, the location shooting, the cast. It all looks so lovely. Actually, no, that’s pushing it – this is still 1989 we’re talking about here – but it does at least look a lot bigger and shinier and more like a professional production.
More to the point, Kryten’s back! After the character’s success with audiences in series 2’s “Kryten” the producers brought him back as a full-time member of the crew, this time played by Robert Llewellyn rather than original actor David Ross. That said, Llewellyn’s performance at this time often feels like an attempt to replicate the fussiness of Ross’s Kryten, which in hindsight seems strange but otherwise makes sense. The casualty of an increased role for Kryten, however, is a reduced role for Holly, who has since become a woman played by Hattie Hayridge (otherwise known as Hilly, Holly’s own love interest, from previous episode “Parallel Universe”). With Kryten there to provide necessary exposition Holly’s role is essentially reduced to a sidepart, occasionally chiming in with a point to make, which is a shame because Hayridge does a good job at taking Norman Lovett’s deadpan mannerisms and twisting them just enough to suit her own performance. She would have a wider role in later episodes, but for the most part she’s a non-presence here. A shame but there’s not much we can do about it now.
Anyway, the episode. The lion’s share of the comedic fodder of “Backwards” comes, as you might expect, from the backwards stuff and the inverted logic of it all, so your enjoyment of the show will largely teeter on what extent you care for any of it. Personally I find the sheer volume of backwards jokes a little tiring after a while, but it does demonstrate the show’s level of comic invention nicely. The points made about the ethical pros and cons of living in such a universe as opposed to our own are actually quite interesting and provide a pretty good balance of opinions. Yes, wars would progress with all the soldiers and victims coming back to life while people would live their lives gradually getting younger and younger, but you’d also have to go through puberty again and eventually end up as a sperm, which isn’t exactly a pleasant way to go out either. (The point about Father Christmas stealing all the kids’ presents is also pure down-to-earth Red Dwarf. Way to put things into perspective, Lister.)
Like all sci-fi logic in this show the backwards stuff doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny. If anything it only seems to apply to localised events, like applauding by pulling your hands apart and spitting beer into a mug, rather than the overall running order of things. I mean, if time truly does run backwards in this universe, shouldn’t Rimmer and Kryten’s entertainment career have started with them being fired? Shouldn’t the crowd laugh and cheer before they even do anything? As much as these little things admittedly bother me, I can’t deny that the reverse fight scene is just brilliant, with some excellent set work that showed how the programme was developing with not only an increased budget but a tighter sense of direction. Good stuff.
The episode does make a criminal mistake, however, in separating the two characters who make up its best dynamic, Lister and Rimmer, by having Rimmer go into the parallel universe with Kryten instead (a mistake the next episode would rightfully and gloriously rectify). While I think it would have been a better idea, also, to start such a newly-jazzed up Red Dwarf with a story set on the flashy new ship, rather than one that takes them all far out of their comfort zones like this so soon, it does at least signal where the show was headed with its storytelling and sense of scope.
You’d have to twist my arm pretty tightly for me to call it a classic, but by all means “Backwards” was a promising start to what would eventually become a stellar run of shows.
Some stray smeg:
- Yep, that’s 1989 right there, in all its day-to-day glory. It probably won’t mean anything to many other people, but I love little glimpses into the past like that. There’s a similar bit in Sherlock Holmes in Washington where the central characters are driving through the city. Obviously it’s a stationary car with footage playing behind them, so as they “drive” on you can see a group of people just standing and chatting with each other in the background, apparently not even aware that they were being filmed. It’s so wonderfully normal and natural, it’s just like, “hey, that’s 1940s Washington right there.” Just kinda cool, y’know?
- Who exactly is that woman watching Rimmer and Kryten in the café?
- Oh, right, I forgot to mention Cat. Well, what do you expect at this point? Actually “Backwards”, while not exactly letting the character bloom fully, does give him little moments of integration with the cast, like having him go on the mission or showing him talking about The Flintstones with Lister early on, that stand in contrast to his relative distance from the others in the first two series, indicating that Cat was gradually becoming more of an active crewmember than the stowaway he often felt like before without sacrificing any of his key triviality or self-obsession. Hey, it’s not much but I’ll take it.
- Thinking about the “bar room tidy”, it’s actually quite messed up. It starts/ends with Lister uneating/eating the gentleman’s pie, the gentleman gets worked up about it and unpunches/punches Lister, then the fight gets going and eventually ends/starts with the room nice and tidy. So looking at this in linear forwards logic, the room gets trashed, then the man punches Lister, then Lister eats the pie? Shouldn’t that be the backwards narrative? I guess Lister and Cat as forwards-universe agents in a backwards-universe screw up the logic a little, but it’s still a bit odd.
- That final scene with Cat… there aren’t any words.