Thoughts On Fifth

The budget may not have been bigger, but Series V made huge leaps forward in other areas.

Thoughts Of Fifth

It has become a cliché to suggest that Series V's primary contribution to the ongoing saga of Red Dwarf was a darker tone, playing out more complex stories within the same half-hour. Still, like so many clichés - apart from that one about the pen being mightier than the sword, which was clearly coined by someone who never fought in the Crusades - it's essentially true.

Thoughts Of Fifth

Red Dwarf V is, from a narrative point of view, probably the show's strongest season. Every scene advances the story in some fundamental way - a long way from those early seasons which had time to fit entire sketches into the story. (The Wilma Flintstone and Hammy Hamster debates, Holly's teasing Lister that his mouldy sausages have taken over the Earth, etc.)

Those early series were based on Grant and Naylor's sketch-writing past - indeed, some scenes are taken almost directly from their Son of Cliché radio show - but by Series V the writers had evolved into master storytellers in their own right. But story, in its finest form, is always drawn from character - as is the finest comedy. And it is in this way that Series V truly shines.

Every one of V's six episodes has a heady SF concept - holoships, psi-moons, hyper-evolution - but these are always used to plumb the depths of the characters.

Thoughts Of Fifth

Holoship gives Rimmer everything he ever wanted and asks how he, a hardened cynic, would accept this when weighed against love for another. The Inquisitor puts all four main players through the hardest judgement of all - their own. Terrorform extrapolates the mess inside Rimmer's mind and makes it chilling flesh.

Quarantine gives Rimmer a further taste of the power he's always craved, paralleling the lunacy that creates with actual madness. Demons & Angels pulls the extremes on character from all four Dwarfers. And Back to Reality shows us just what it would take, how bad things would have to be, to make our boys want to give up on life entirely.

Thoughts Of Fifth

Strong stuff, and the kind of thing you can only do with well-established and well-drawn characters. Series V makes good on fascinating 'what if?'s that were already coming in to play in the previous series. Dimension Jump showed us what Rimmer might have been like; but Holoship showed us how he'd react if a chance for success came up now.

It is perhaps unsurprising that V focussed so much on Rimmer, given that he was the character with the most complexity; his intricate backstory far stronger than Cat's or Kryten's, and riddled with far more conflict and inner turmoil than Lister's. Rimmer's is a past of grotesque mental anguish - hating a father who he also aches to resemble; resentful of brothers he also envies; disgusted by a mother whose love he still desires. Freud literally wrote the book on this guy.

While the Cat's shallowness remained, Kryten was beginning to be explored more fully - but with no history beyond the Nova 5, the mechanoid could only be probed so far. (Something that would be rectified in Series VI and VII.)

Lister, meanwhile, was a character with simple hopes and dreams, one with the most basic of goals - to settle down at home with the woman he loved. To all intents and purposes, Lister is 'at peace', and only the Inquisitor is able to pull out that vague sense of dissatisfaction. Even then, Lister himself refutes the simulant's analysis with an eloquent "Spin on it."

Thoughts Of Fifth

Ironically, however, while the characters were going through their strongest rigours, all four protagonists were losing their characteristics. Watch the series again and you realise just how little slobbing Lister does, how rarely the Cat is selfish, how infrequently Kryten concerns himself with domestic tasks. Even Rimmer has succumbed to socialising with his crewmates... even if he does bemoan the choice of films they watch.

But this is a superficial distinction, and one born out of that previously-mentioned Series V feature - plot. There's no time for the hum-drum day-to-day quirks of life when you're about to be killed by a personification of Rimmer's self-loathing. Fight for life now, order your beer milkshake later.

Many have commented - perhaps fairly - that in this series Kryten had become an exposition-bot. His job became, in part at least, to identify the SF concept we were facing this week. In a few lines of dialogue he conveyed what, in previous series, it might have taken half an episode to discover. (Remember how baffling Camille's identity was to begin with? Or just what was going on with what turned out to be echoes of the future?)

Thoughts Of Fifth

The story has to keep moving, and when that's the case there's no space - in a half-hour episode - for confusion. Just as Kryten knows his stuff, so Dave "What's an iguana?" Lister understands things quickly. There's just no time for stupidity.

Which goes some way to explaining the lack of Holly this season. While much of that role had been taken up by Kryten's 'exposition on legs', what is often overlooked is how little space V's tightly-packed stories left for ignorance. And, unfortunately, ignorance was Holly's specialty. (Notice also that the Cat's lack of comprehension is toned down in favour of keeping the engine running.)

The joke of all this is that, for all its reputation as a more solidly SF series, V has some of the most genuinely barmy - and pretty unlikely - concepts on show. Okay, so a psi-moon shapes itself to the psyche of a person. But, um, how, exactly? Where do all the life-forms come from, who builds the architecture? Is it a naturally occurring phenomenon (unlikely), or was it purpose-built? And if so, why? What possible good is it? And just why exactly does it render holograms flesh?

But while nitpicking is easy - and fun - this is no more or less sensible than anything else in the show's eight series run. What makes V seem so much more 'solid' - keen verisimilitude aside - is how it uses the concepts, how deeply it explores them, and how seriously it takes them. The tone, for all its humour (and let's face it, the gag-rate is also lessened, again time given over to the story) is deadly serious. Lives genuinely are under threat.

This is the scariest of all series - Rimmer is actually damned creepy in Quarantine, gingham dress or no, and that Terrorform scene with the master is horrific! Be afraid, be very afraid.

Thoughts Of Fifth

Finally, Series V offered the writers another way forward. Although all its episodes were 'stand-alone', the shuffling to broadcast order showed that things could be shaped to an overall arc in the simplest ways. Opening with a love story akin to the previous season's Camille, there is a feeling of progression, no matter how unintentional it may have been at the writing stage.

Rimmer's development through Holoship and Terrorform seems to be leading to Quarantine - after several episodes on the floor, he grabs a chance to get back up. Lister's defeat of The Inquisitor seems to strengthen him for his battle with the Lows in Demons & Angels.

And then there's that ending. How bizarre it seems now that Back to Reality might have gone out first! Quite aside from its impact as a potential 'end of everything', the pain and suffering of the previous five episodes seems absolutely vital to making this final tale work.

To begin with, Rimmer is glad to learn that he is not himself - and who can blame him after his time chained up in the psi-moon? And Lister is back on Earth and has wealth and power - surely a relief after being shown up as such a failure by the Inquisitor's judgement?

Thoughts Of Fifth

Back to Reality also has continuity references to previous series - Kryten's half-human status plays into his previous character explorations in Camille and DNA; Lister's relationship with Kochanski is mentioned, reminding both him and us of how we'd almost forgotten about her (she's never mentioned in V at all until this point); and Rimmer's swimming certificate is brought back to haunt him.

But, yes, the final episode worked best to frighten audiences as a genuinely final finale. And it was this kind of structuring that would so dramatically inform Series VI, VII and VIII. From this point on, every series would have a definite starting point - and a shocker ending...

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