Monday, September 19, 2016

Red Dwarf II Episode 2: "Better Than Life"

Lister and Cat indulge their deepest fantasies by having a fancy meal and playing a bit of golf, while Rimmer becomes a gentleman of the road. A clever episode establishing an ongoing interest in the show in virtual reality and, subsequent to "Me2", in further exploring Rimmer's personality, "Better Than Life" is a strong character piece slightly let down by some ineffective location shooting struggling to visualise an over-ambitious script. The mail pod is an interesting device and I like the idea of communication arriving so many millions of years after it was sent. I also enjoy that this is used to reinforce the idea, first set up in "Balance of Power", that the Skutters like cowboy films.

Rimmer's reaction to learning of the death of his father is quite interesting and moving, supported by the composite shot used to realise the observation dome, as well as Howard Goodall's music cue. While I'm not that fond of the joke about Lister struggling to read Rimmer's mother's handwriting, I do like the conversation about his own (adoptive?) father's death and Cat's entrance to deflate the drama. I especially like "I'm so hungry, I just have to eat!" although "I'd prefer chicken" is of course the classic. Some of the jokes in the "Groovy Channel 27" news report are a bit naff, including the Bible one and the "rubber nuclear weapons" gag, although the one about poisoned Perrier water wiping out the middle class is vaguely amusing.

As I've said, the sequences within the Better Than Life game itself are largely let down by the dodgy location work, primarily at the beach in Rhyl. They should have just picked a different location for the characters to appear, somewhere that could be more realistically realised within the bounds of British location shooting. It's almost possible to overlook it until the shot of Marilyn Monroe walking off down the beach, at which point it just looks dirty and miserable. Perhaps something both pleasant and more achievable in England should have replaced the idea of a "beach in paradise", like a forest or garden or something. The restaurant screams "Eighties", but works well enough due to its quasi-Star Wars atmosphere, although a visible ceiling fan in one shot dates it heavily. It might have been better if the characters referenced the bad weather on the beach, which could have been added to the script as an early foreshadowing of how Rimmer's subconscious was tainting the fantasy.

In general, however, one can't help but feel that, locations aside, the script struggles to realise what a fulfilment of the characters' fantasies would be, at least for Lister and the Cat. This was something I must argue was handled more effectively in the novels, and I mean this in a sense that doesn't relate to the practical concerns of television production; purely on a writing level, the television episode possibly falls a bit short. In the novels, Lister's fantasy is a quiet family life, Rimmer's is grandiose success and Cat's is an absurd, impossible dreamland. By contrast, in the episode, Lister and Cat's "fantasy" is pretty basic, just a nice meal and some golf, which doesn't give us too much insight into the characters. Perhaps it's meant to imply that Lister and the Cat are level-headed enough to treat the game as just a game, and use it to simulate a sort of holiday from their normal day-to-day experience, while the needy Rimmer actually tries to experience, artificially, all the things that he genuinely desires in real life, at least until it all goes wrong.

I'm not sure how many woofers there are to enjoy in the episode. Holly's now-unfinishable chess game with Gordon the computer is a funny bit, and as I've said the Skutters' whimsical love of playing cowboys and indians is amusing. "Outland Revenue" is sort of funny, mostly in Chris Barrie's delivery and response, and Craig Charles's performance of the dad story is entertaining, with his embarrassed-sounding "So I thought they'd flushed him down the bog..." being a highlight. Cat, as stated, gets a good gag here, and Rimmer in the game imagining a Reliant Robin is a classic gag. Rimmer's failed joke with the "Officer chummies" and their sycophantic laughter is enjoyable, and as the episode goes on I like how Rimmer becomes more and more of a disgusting hobo, and reverts to being a hologram, as he becomes overwhelmed with insecurity and self-loathing, something explored several years later in "Terrorform". A great piece of dialogue arising from this is Lister's bemused "You fantasised that you had seven kids and a mortgage." The debt collector is a classic character and his surprise appearance at the end is a good way of concluding the episode.

There are definitely plenty of other shonky bits, like Miranda the Mermaid, although Cat's licking joke somewhat redeems this. The reprisal of Marilyn Monroe also seems weirdly pointless. I also think Lister and Cat's descriptions of their "rooms" in the game are not particularly funny. On the other hand, I like that Holly's monitor vehicle appears with a handkerchief on top like a stereotypical English holidaymaker's headgear, but I can't help but wonder if it would have been funnier if Holly had "appeared" in the game as a person in some fashion. Perhaps this would have distracted, ultimately, from the focus on Rimmer, his low self-esteem, self-hatred and superiority-inferiority complex, and the development of his fraught relationship with his parents. This is, as with other Rimmer-centric episodes, the story's strength, as it allows us to feel horrified by the depth and extent of Rimmer's neuroses while also encouraging us to sympathise with and pity him somewhat. It gives us an interesting insight into ideas like intrusive thoughts and how debilitating they can be, shows us how complex people's psyches can be, and encourages us to think about what we allow to shape our personalities and how our own choices intersect with our experiences and the influence of others. I'm inclined to argue that this is an episode that the Remastered Version almost improves on by cutting some of the twee stuff and improving the location shooting where possible, but it makes the serious mistake of altering the observation dome scene both visually and musically, to the detriment of the best scene in the episode, rendering the Remastering flawed in a different and more significant way to the original which, if it had benefited from perhaps slightly more script editing and some more creativity and compromise with location shooting, could have been one of the strongest episodes in the show's history.

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