Red Dwarf XII: 6 “Skipper” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Red Dwarf’s series finales are often climactic stories, whether that’s Kryten facing imminent replacement in Series III’s The Last Day, a hallucinogenic trip back to “reality” in Series V’s, er, Back to Reality, up to Rimmer kicking Death itself in his sensitive parts in Series VIII’s Only the Good… Dave’s own series finales have carried that trend by being some of the most dramatic and hilarious episodes of the show, with Rimmer finally doing something decidedly un-weaselly for once in Series X’s The Beginning and Cat giving birth to a litter of polymorphs in Series XI’s Can of Worms. Series XII’s closer Skipper is a sizeable set-piece story for Rimmer in line with Series X’s, as Kryten’s newest science experiment gives Arnold the chance to find a dimension in which he’s not such a big loser.
As the Boys from the Dwarf read Lister and Rimmer’s captains notes (already done in Series I– different set of notes? Did their previous time-meddling change something? Let’s just agree not to dig into continuity too much for this one!), Rimmer gets the latest reminder that he’s stuck with the others, as he uncovers just how much less than stellar stuff Captain Hollister wrote about him, his face slowly scrunching up in legendary biting on a lemon style Rimmer-face (although best not to call it that) no doubt giving him the final impetus he needs to leave the trio of cleaning mechanoid, intelligence-deficient Felis Sapiens and, well, Lister, and vacate this dimension to find another one, surrounded by people who are brighter and more successful than him. Even if the other Dwarfers think he’s already in one, as Lister reminds him Hollister thought he was “quite bright” as Kryten and Cat nod happily in the first of the numerous hearty laughs in Skipper.
Luckily for Arnold, he’s given the chance to find a new home thanks to their newest brush with dimension-hopping technology which Kryten has fashioned into a “quantum skipper” allowing travel between realities. His tampering first causes some anomalies (sorry, weird stuff) aboard the Dwarf, as the Dwarfers find themselves in a situation where every decision they make is flipped, discovered as Lister and Cat end up in the sleeping quarters instead of the science room and an anomalous (sorry, weird) experiment where Kryten throws Rimmer an orange rather than the intended apple.
We’ve seen plenty of dimension tinkering in the show before, but having such an un-complicated yet constantly hilarious scenario as presented here allows for the funniest stretch of Series XII. You can tell how much fun Doug Naylor had writing the opposite decision making we see, including Lister taking advantage of poor Cat’s slowness to catch on as he makes him a drink and breakfast, tidies his bunk and polishes his boots. The set-up to each is telegraphed naturally however they just keep landing and I found myself in hysterics throughout, particularly as Cat ties himself in knots trying to beat the system but accidentally adding one too many “nots”.
This stretch of the Dwarfers struggling to figure out what’s happening lasts for much of the opening half before it’s brilliantly hand-waved away (it’ll take about an hour to fix according to Kryten!) and Rimmer jumps to the front of the queue to offer to use the dimension skipper, leading us to another goodbye from the hologrammatic goit, even if it’s not so much as dripping in emotion as his Series VII farewell regarding the other guys as “people he’s met”, cheerily saying “see ya!” this time before following in the footsteps of good ol’ Ace Rimmer (what a guy) who sadly doesn’t appear- a missed opportunity given the episode title? Or just that just make it even funnier? and skips on to another reality.
Rimmer’s fantastic voyage does bring him across two other former Red Dwarf stalwarts, one publicised (Holly!) and one not (Captain Hollister!), giving Skipper a heady celebratory tone. Holly hops back into our lives in the first reality Rimmer visits (As does Mac Macdonald as Hollister, whose unexpected appearance is welcome!), and it’s lovely seeing Norman Lovett back in the screen, even if it might just be for this one-off appearance. He’s still the Holly we remember as always, slow on the uptake and refusing to accept his senility (although he did have a brief spell as a dancing cabbage- he’s over it now). There’s already been spades of Series I throwbacks this series, and while in this reality Rimmer gets to enact a fantastic inverse of the classic “Everybody’s Dead, Dave” moment, exasperating Holly just as much as Lister did first time around, and every bit as winningly done.
The unbound nature of the premise allows for Doug Naylor to indulge in it entirely, yet managing to make the skipping more than just empty fan-pleasing, relating every reality to Rimmer’s best and worst possibilities he could end up in to help Skipper avoid being a wink nudge spectacular, with realities as simple as a world filled with just Lister, summed up expertly with an “ah, no.” keeping the laughs consistent even after the waterworks inducing funnies of the first half of the episode.
The most absurd reality Arnold visits is one initially seeming perfect for him, a Dwarf crewed by a non-neurotic Kryten and a cultured Lister, with his own collection of vintage wires, getting Rimmer all excited (of course). Breaking Rimmer’s happiness is the discovery that in this world, Cat is the Rat, out stepping what simply must be Danny John-Jules in a ridiculous full body rat costume rather than evolved Cat or Dog (Series II’s Parallel Universe) make-up, with an accent to match as he’s petted by Lister and demanding cheese sauce on his cheese. The ludicrous stupidity of Rat is sublime, and I’ve got no idea how the cast managed to keep a straight face. While Rimmer doesn’t get much luck out of his trips, he at least sums each one up expertly each time before skipping on (he’s skipping dinner!)
Rimmer’s final trip is where the emotional gamut of Skipper radiates from, as he finds himself on board a Dwarf by Earth, where he’s alive, respected and with a family. With all this positivity for Arnold, there just had to be a negative, and it’s terrific- Lister’s the captain, who stumbled across the drive plate fix and found himself captain with tons of cash. While this is the most evocative portion of Skipper in terms of nostalgia, with original costumes, model shots and rooms recreated (including the old bunkroom, with a well-deserved “aww” from the live audience), Rimmer’s reaction and characterisation here tells us everything we need to know about Arnold right now, and how even despite brief moments of hope like Series X’s finale, he’ll never really change. It’s a poignant and perfectly lampooned valuation of Rimmer’s character- even with a life he dreamed of, he just couldn’t stand a place where Lister’s more successful than him. And with that, he returns to his own universe, merrily destroys the skipper, and joins the Dwarfers card game resigned to his fate, for better or worse.
Skipper would no doubt be a wonderful final episode to the show if indeed it was to be (although thankfully that doesn’t seem likely to be the case). It manages to be a love-letter to the show embracing its past yet without feeling like a hollow victory tour, the silliness- and costume changes- allowing the cast to fire on all cylinders. Whatever legacy Skipper eventually has, it manages to be a wild rollercoaster that provides the heartiest, most consistent laughs of Series XII, and maybe even of the Dave era (so far!) with a wild, madcap rollercoaster of a central story embracing the ridiculousness Red Dwarf can reach, and leaving us on a final note that reminds us for Rimmer that the grass isn’t always greener, and maybe he’s better off stuck in deep space with the others- more than likely as the only ones who’ll put up with him