This review contains spoilers.
The first two stories of Red Dwarf’s tenth series were quite intimate affairs, with last week’s in particular being confined to the ship. This has been both a blessing and a curse; on one hand, it has allowed for some proper character work, remniscent of early Dwarf, but on the other it’s left some fans hankering for the adventures of the show’s middle years.
Lemons is clearly designed to scratch that particular itch, with a plot that sees the Dwarfers travel three million years back in time and several thousand miles to the east, and headlong into an encounter with one of history’s most famous carpenters (after Karen Carpenter and Handy Andy). Or rather it doesn’t, but we’ll come to that.
As in previous weeks, the episode begins with a couple of ‘mood-setting’ scenes between various crewmembers. These scenes have been veering between sharp and funny and broad and overplayed, and we get one of each here, really; Danny John-Jules is once again suitably cat-like in the opening scene with Lister, while Rimmer’s anti-Shakespeare rant feels rather out-of-character – this is, after all, the same Arnold Rimmer who so strongly objected to Lister burning Shakespeare’s Complete Works back in series three’s Marooned.
One interesting thing about this scene is that we see Lister pursuing the robotics course he tried to enrol for in Fathers and Suns; it’s a throwaway line, but a nice character moment for Lister as he starts to follow his buried desire to better himself. Combined with the references to the ship’s lack of anaesthetic and the crew’ search for Kochanski, we get the sense for the first time this series that there is an ongoing arc, however loose and new-viewer-friendly it may be.
Lemons also gives us our second big slice of twenty-first century observational humour this series, with a scene devoted to the assembly of Swedish flatpack furniture. I have no problem with contemporary references such as the Wallace and Gromit line – as I pointed out in a previous review, these have long been a part of the show’s history, from Kevin Keegan to Pot Noodles – but to satirise things like call centres and Ikea feels at times like a step in the wrong direction. That said, it’s a scene which has its moments – Rimmer has some choice lines, and Cat batting around tubing was a fun visual – and once again, Howard Goodall delivers a scene-enhancing variation on the series’ theme.
It’s once the badly-assembled rejuvenation shower has done its job, however, that the episode really kicks into gear. 23AD Britain may only be the woods outside Shepperton Studios, but after two episodes of being cooped up in the bowels of Red Dwarf it makes for a welcome change, and the crew seem particularly energised, with a nice exchange with Kryten which is reminiscent of the “A plan with two drawbacks…” gag of old.
It’s good to see Kryten getting a few solid gags in, as his role here is largely expositionary; instead the episode belongs to both Cat and Rimmer, as the next scene proves. It’s a shame that the “Jesus!” “Yes?” joke was given away in the episode trailer at the end of last week (It’s becoming a bit of a habit – although as others have pointed out, the joke was taken from Mel Brooks anyway), but there’s plenty more to love here, such as the explanation of Rimmer’s middle name or the discussion of Jesus’ age. The latter is a perfect example of why this show needs a studio audience; it seems at first that the joke is being overplayed, but the reactions of the audience help Chris Barrie tease it out for just the right amount of time to be genuinely funny.
So, to Jesus himself then. In some quarters, the inclusion of Jesus in a Red Dwarf episode will likely prove as controversial as Taiwan Tony did last week, but even without the revelation that he wasn’t actually the Jesus, the character was played with enough reverence that it couldn’t be considered as mockery; James Baxter’s performance won’t exactly go up there with Robert Powell’s, but he did a decent job with the character he was given.
My only real quibble with this plot thread is that he didn’t actually get very much to do once on board Red Dwarf. The idea of (a character we believe to be) Jesus spending time up in space with our dysfunctional heroes is filled with comic potential, and it’s never really mined here. Instead he’s knocked out and operated on, in a strangely distasteful scene which is saved only by Rimmer’s pride in holding Jesus’ you-know-what, and then he’s scarpered.
It would’ve been nice to see the crew trying to talk him around after reading the history book, or to have them leaving a more lasting impact on him than a penchant for bags, but it wasn’t to be. It smells of missed opportunity, and I can’t help but hope that if Red Dwarf XI is commissioned – and I really hope it will be – less time is spent on throwaway gags and setup at the top of the episode, and more time spent on the plot of the week.
Perhaps Naylor was worried that too much time spent talking to Jesus would quickly give away the fact that he wasn’t the ‘proper’ one? I suspected quite early on that this would be the case, and while the reveal was well-handled I can’t help but think it was a bit of a cop-out – although I suppose there’d be a fear that having them perform invasive surgery on Jesus Christ might be a step too far.
There’s a lot to like in this episode, with some strong jokes, a solid (if not spectacular) guest appearance, and great performances from Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules in particular (This seems to be their series so far). It also boasts some impressive direction and set design in the India-set scenes; the chase scene manages to give the impression that the set was much larger than it actually was (and that’s saying something). However, a slightly flabby opening and some missed chances stop Lemons from being a truly classic instalment.
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