Sunday, August 28, 2016

Red Dwarf V Episode 6: "Back To Reality"

Often held to be the best episode of Red Dwarf ever, "Back To Reality" is the first and best "group hallucination" story in the show's history, and almost certainly the best "alternate identity" exploration of the characters as well. I don't really have a "favourite" episode of Red Dwarf, and if I did it wouldn't be this, but "Back To Reality" is still definitely a very good one. The model of the Esperanto seeding ship is excellent and the work with sets, lighting and location shooting, with limited resources, to create a vision of earth under the heel of a fascist government, is in my opinion more or less completely effective and convincing.

I get the impression that this episode has a reputation for being "good, but not that funny". I fail to see how this impression has arisen; it's loaded with jokes around the effects of the despair ink, how the behaviour of the characters would appear if Red Dwarf was really a serious sci-fi adventure, the confusion over their identities and the way their hallucinations are being played out in reality. Probably the only truly "serious" sequences are the establishing material at the beginning, the majority of the scene in the car park and aspects of the scene in which the characters become suicidal at the end. These work for what they are, and reinforce the comedy elsewhere.

Even the premise is established in a funny way through Lister's quick realisation that "there's some huge damn fish out there [...] some kind of gigantic, weird, prehistoric leviathan who's porked his way through this entire ocean." The idea that an "oriental" person would "commit seppuku" seems like a weird stereotype. The funniest part of this opening sequence is Lister, Kryten and the Cat all getting weepy in the Esperanto airlock. Timothy Spall's scene as Andy the technician is an amusing way of playing up Lister and Rimmer's anxieties: Lister's led to believe that he failed to achieve his purpose and Rimmer's convinced that even his life within the game was a lie. I particularly like the way Chris Barrie delivers Rimmer's line " 'Jump starts the second big bang'?!"

Probably the highlight of the episode is the scene in the "recuperation lounge". It's impressive how much humour can be injected into the scene with a few facial expressions as the Cat realises that he's "Duayne Dibbley", and I've always enjoyed Kryten's dramatic, cliché speculation on what his personality as "Jake Bullet" must be like. The way Rimmer runs around behind the Cat and says "It makes perfect sense... Duayne," is another memorable moment. Probably the only weak line, in my opinion, is "Oh my god. My name's Billy Doyle and my cologne is Eau de Yak Urine" because it comes off as a repetition of Lister's joke about the coat smelling "like an elderly male yak has taken a leak in both the pockets." It should be noted that some lines are deleted here; in the deleted scenes, the "Eau de Yak Urine" joke works better because it's separated from the previous joke by Rimmer desperately trying to rationalise his situation as "Billy Doyle".

The scene in the carpark is arguably the "dramatic highlight", although Kryten's "move one inch and I'll crush every bone in your body" line is pretty funny. It's interesting how easily the idea of a totalitarian society is conveyed through some shooting in a darkened car park, a sign, some posters and a scarily intense man in an overcoat. The idea that Sebastian Doyle changes people "from being alive people to being dead people, to purify democracy" has always stuck with me as well as a line which very effectively conveys the nature of this nightmare world. I've seen some people argue that the cutaway to Starbug, revealing the hallucinatory nature of the episode, is done too soon, but it should be remembered that without this we wouldn't have the very funny car chase sequence; that being said, my favourite of all of this is how, after they "dump the limo" and take to the streets, the characters just run around and around the four boxes they were sitting on to simulate travelling a great distance. It's also interesting to observe that all of the "enemies" they face in the car chase – motorbikes with rocket launchers, fascist cops, a barrier, a raising bridge, helicopters and so on – are mentioned by Rimmer who, as established in "Better Than Life" and "Terrorform", is mostly likely to dream up horrible things happening to himself.

The "attempted suicide" scene, despite being pretty grim, has some good laughs too, mainly from Rimmer. The line about "being on the run with a murderer and a mass murderer and a man in a bri-nylon shirt" is classic, but I feel like a bigger reaction is deserved for "my best flashing mac is about to be splattered with an android's brain." You know, for a long time I never realised that the "fire extinguisher" Kryten turns on at Holly's subconscious instruction is actually the canister of mood stabiliser gas he suggested they use at the start of the episode. Since we see Lister and the Cat using gas masks when they get back to Starbug, I always assumed that they'd already taken the gas and it was simply taking a long time to take effect. Furthermore, I have to admit that I find Holly's explanation for what happened to the despair squid at the end to be a bit of a cop out, although obviously the creature had served its purpose as a plot device and was no longer relevant. If they had these "limpet mines", though, why didn't they think to use them earlier?

These minor quibbles aside, "Back To Reality" is definitely a strong episode indicative of what made the Grant-Naylor era so special: an effective use of the ensemble cast, an ability for the show to reflect upon itself with insight and competence, pervasive atmosphere despite budgetary limitations and plenty of memorable humour. The episode is also rather interesting in terms of how it explores the idea of what is fundamental to our self-image, and the traits around which we construct our own identity, indicating how complex and fragile our sense of self can be. I also found it, rather confrontingly on my most recent viewing, a bit of a reflection on how, as viewers and particularly as "enthusiasts", entertainment becomes an escape. Like the "sad acts who want to spend four years playing a computer game", there's a possible implication that consumers of media can be people "running away from god knows what" or who "have nothing worth living for in the first place." The world in which they're "sad acts" is the fake one, however, so perhaps the episode is not condemning the consumer's indulgence in worlds of imagination, but encouraging them to use it constructively to reflect on what they value in real life. Or perhaps I'm overanalysing a show about four idiots mucking around in space. 

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