Note: This is our spoiler-filled review of episode 5 of Red Dwarf XI, currently available on the UKTV Play app. It will air on Dave at 9pm on Thursday the 20th of October.
As is somewhat cruelly pointed out by the bottom half of the internet any time a new series comes around, there’s no hiding the fact that the Red Dwarf crew are all a lot longer in the tooth than they used to be; the original twenty-somethings are now fifty-something, and both Kryten actor Robert Llewellyn and series writer Doug Naylor have entered their seventh decade. It’s fitting, then, and in keeping with Naylor’s ambition to tell completely new stories, that Krysis deals with the effects of middle-age, with Kryten experiencing a full-blown mid-life crisis.
Kryten-centric episodes of Red Dwarf have a bit of a mixed history; for every DNA there is a Beyond A Joke, and for every The Last Day there is a Krytie TV. And for a while, it’s uncertain what direction Krysis will take – after a funny couple of scenes featuring Danny John-Jules in particular on scene-stealing form as Lister tries to explain to Cat the concept of a mid-life crisis, Kryten reappears in his new red sports-car costume and things threaten to take a turn for the worse. There’s an undeniable cringe factor to Kryten bobbing up and down as he shows off his sub-woofer, and it tows a fine line between being a fitting portrayal of a mid-life crisis and something memorable for all the wrong reasons; it’s a tipping point for the instalment.
Mercifully, the episode decides not to linger too much on Kryten’s outlandish behaviour and sets a course for far more interesting and thoughtful territory as Lister arranges for a catch-up session with another service mechanoid, partly in order to show Kryten how far he’s come since leaving the Nova 5 and partly to demonstrate to Rimmer that Kryten’s years of devoted service to Lister haven’t held him back. The latter point falls by the wayside after this scene, which is a shame, because what follows suggests that Lister has held him back – but then, it’s always been presented as Kryten’s pleasure to serve Lister, so perhaps it’s a question with no obvious answer.
Unfortunately for Kryten, Butler (not the most imaginative name) is an accomplished polymath, having used his time in solitude to create works of art, cure diseases and generally better himself. Butler could easily have come across as an arrogant know-it-all, and the fact he doesn’t is entirely down to actor Dominic Coleman, better known as downtrodden butcher Neville from Sky 1 sitcom Trollied, who makes the character sympathetic and almost likeable. Coleman isn’t given many jokes in the role, but the scene in which he tries to get Kryten to correctly pronounce a Gelf word is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is silly.
Kryten’s tale is unusually emotional for Red Dwarf, and is sure to resonate not just with those hurtling towards their later years but anyone who feels they haven’t accomplished enough with their time on Earth or is starting to wonder ‘Is this it?’. The episode does do Kryten a disservice in its suggestion that he’s quite so useless, though; Rimmer may be keen to replace Kryten with Butler for the crew’s science needs, but Kryten’s done a pretty good job at seeing them through situations that Butler could only have written about.
The final act of the episode is the bit most likely to divide opinion, as the Dwarfers seemingly communicate with the universe and give it a mid-life crisis. For a series that is as grounded in realism as it’s possible for a show about a hologram, a cat person, a robot and a Scouser swanning around space together to be, the idea of a sentient universe voiced by a Morgan Freeman impersonator seems incongruous. But of course, there are ways around the idea for those uncomfortable with it – Rimmer’s demand for proof that this really is the universe goes unanswered, and in a series where even the toasters have personalities it isn’t implausible that one of them developed delusions of grandeur at some point over the last three billion years.
What shouldn’t prove divisive in the episode is the visuals, from the Gelf ship attack to the breathtaking space station platform. The awe-inspiring feel of the station helps transform Kryten’s rather trite conclusion, that life is worth living as long as there is love, into something heartfelt and profound – if out of step with Red Dwarf’s inherent cynicism.
Lister concludes at the end of the episode that it’s been a very strange day, and he’s not wrong; in some ways this is a strange episode, right down to the fact that it ends on a satisfying comedic note for maybe the first time this series. It may not be the funniest episode of Red Dwarf – though it’s far from devoid of decent gags – but it’s certainly one of the most emotional, and one of the few times I’ve been close to tears on first viewing. If nothing else, Krysis continues to confirm that, with one episode to go of the current series, Red Dwarf – and Doug Naylor – is still full of surprises.
Read Pete’s review of the previous episode, Officer Rimmer, here.