As we noted a few weeks ago, Red Dwarf has undergone a lot of changes over its 18-year history, at each stage picking up new fans who are attracted to the show in one particular format. This, combined with the highly subjective nature of comedy, means that it’s impossible for Red Dwarf XI to please everybody all the time. “Twentica” and “Samsara,” both of which we thought were fantastic episodes, have attracted everything from wild enthusiasm to hard-boiled pessimism – and nobody seems to be able to agree on which one was better.
“Give and Take,” the third episode of the series, is a different beast again, and is likely to prove just as divisive – if not more so. In a sense, its opening scene is similar to last week’s, with Rimmer on the receiving end of a seemingly throwaway scene which turns out to have greater significance later on. It’s a mildly amusing scene, though one which contains troubling echoes of the final episode of “Red Dwarf VIII,” in which Rimmer fell similarly foul of a vending machine he’d offended. The lift’s payback at this episode’s end is likely to cause far less fan consternation than on that occasion, but it’s good to see Doug Naylor trying to end the episode on a big laugh, even if its effectiveness depends in part on how annoying you find the sentient technology – more on that later…
Rimmer and a “hungover” Lister soon join the others on board Starbug to explore an abandoned space station. One of the biggest joys of Red Dwarf XI so far has been the increase in Starbug cockpit scenes. They’ve been a staple of the show for most of its run, and in some ways they’re more valuable than the hallowed bunkroom scenes – they allow for plenty of badinage involving all of the main cast without feeling contrived, while also moving the plot along. There’s some funny stuff here: “Captain Bollocks” is clearly a comedic highlight, even if it does feel a bit mean-spirited.
In fact, there’s an overly cruel streak running throughout the episode, from Rimmer’s glee at being the one who shot Lister’s kidneys to the sheer level of Cat’s denial and the way Lister and Kryten trick him. Now, before everyone writes in, Red Dwarf has always been a show about conflict. It would never have made it anywhere near this far without a healthy level of antagonism between the leads. But something feels off here. The barbs are a little too barbed (RIP Barb), and Rimmer and Cat’s natural bitterness and selfishness are turned up to eleven.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that this was the first episode filmed for Series XI. Would the events of the episode seem softer and more befitting the characters if it had been filmed after the cast had had a month to gel again and settle back into their roles? Possibly. We’ll never know. There are certainly moments where performances don’t quite feel right – for one thing, Danny John-Jules seems more like the version of the Cat we got in Back to Earth than the more familiar version of the character from last series.
“Give and Take” is not all bad. The crew get to go out for a proper bit of location filming, and it’s superb. The lighting and direction aboard the space station are truly atmospheric, and the design of the “no longer insane” robot Asclepius may render him one of Red Dwarf’s most chilling antagonists. The escape from the space station may be one of the most cinematic moments the series has ever had to offer, with practical and digital effects work, skillful direction, and Howard Goodall’s original score all combining to make it feel epic. It’s not an especially gag-packed segment, though there are a few neat visual jokes, but it feels like a superb bit of sci-fi television.
Unfortunately, all of that is over around the ten-minute mark, and that’s where the episode peaks. Vying with Cat’s selfishness for laughs is the tale of snack-dispensing robot Snacky, who Rimmer and Kryten pick up after they mistake him for Professor Asclepius. It’s a fun idea, and the scene in which Snacky “counsels” Rimmer may raise a knowing smile in anyone who’s been through a course of counselling. The design of the robot is also undeniably cute in its retro Robbie the Robot trappings, but the problem with Snacky lies in that he’s all-too-obviously a broad comic turn. The comedy in Red Dwarf works best when it’s borne out of real reactions to bizarre situations, but Snacky is a comedy voice coming from a comedy design and it just feels like too much. He just doesn’t add enough to the story to justify his presence.
The final act, in which the Dwarfers travel back in time a couple of days to steal Lister’s kidneys, is interesting. Again, it leans heavier on the sci-fi than it does the jokes, but at the same time it’s all over rather quickly. We already know from the start of the episode that Younger Rimmer doesn’t encounter them and that Younger Lister had his kidneys stolen, so the stakes aren’t particularly high, and it’s an easy fix.
But it’s a fix that asks the question: if Lister was already missing his kidneys at the start of the episode, whose kidneys did Rimmer destroy with his friendly fire? Logically, he didn’t steal Lister’s kidneys, because Older Lister had already done that. It seems entirely possible that Professor Asclepius, having detected Lister’s missing kidneys, was actually preparing to install a pair of newly created kidneys into Lister’s body. Though he probably would have still killed them both after he’d finished…
It can be difficult reviewing a show like Red Dwarf, because every episode is somebody’s favorite. For all we know, “Give and Take” could end up being widely hailed as a modern classic. It’s certainly not the worst episode of the show. But despite its impressive first act and some interesting sci-fi trappings, it’s light on the laughs and feels a little harsh. It feels like a massive comedown from “Twentica” and “Samsara” – and the wonderful thing about fans is that there’ll be people out there fiercely thinking the opposite.
Read Pete’s review of the previous episode, Samsara, here.