Time for another patron-inspired post! Want to get in on the action? Check out my Patreon page!
I came to Red Dwarf by possibly the worst-best route ever. Technically, the first bit I ever saw was a very short (baffling) bit of “Meltdown” from series IV, but the first episode I ever watched properly was the final ep of series VI: “Out of Time”. My siblings and I were flipping through channels, and landed on PBS shortly after the episode started. We were riveted! When it ended, on one helluva cliffhanger, we dove for the TV Guide* to see when Red Dwarf would be on next.
(If you’re familiar with Red Dwarf, you probably know where this is going. Sigh.)
We dutifully hit the couch the very next week, ready to find out what happened after the explosion that seemingly killed the wacky characters we’d quickly come to love—only to be very confused. The episode title was “The End”. That in itself kinda made sense, but it most emphatically did not pick up where the previous episode left off. In fact, it soon became clear we were watching the very first episode of Red Dwarf ever. What the heck?
After a bit of research (which was much harder in those days!), we discovered not only had we caught the last episode of the most recent series (and PBS was wrapping around to start at the beginning of series I), but the show had been cancelled, and there were no more new episodes coming! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!**
On the bright side, it was fun to start from the beginning and watch how the characters got to the place we first saw them. We watched religiously until we got all the way back around to “Out of Time” once again. Then the real despair set in. We’d watched it all, and there was no more coming. Boo hoo! So we started buying the VHS tapes and rewatching it all as many times as we could. I lost track of the number of people I got into RD when I was in college. Those tapes got a workout.
And that brings me to “Polymorph”, which my lovely patron, Shelley, asked me to write about! “Polymorph” is episode 3 of series III. That’s a strong episode in the middle of a strong series. Not only that, it has all the hallmarks of a Red Dwarf episode. The characters are all displayed prominently. There are goofy gags, snappy-clever dialogue, and toilet-level humor. It’s just good old silly fun. If you like “Polymorph”, you’ll probably like Red Dwarf overall. [And yes, there will be some spoilers from here on in, so if you haven’t seen it and want to do so unspoiled, go check it out (it’s on Netflix Ireland) and then come back.]
I was surprised how many lines I still knew verbatim and how many scenes I remembered perfectly. (Though maybe I shouldn’t have been, given how many times I watched series III.) What a treat to have an assignment to watch something I love so thoroughly! What I didn’t remember was the content warning they aired before the episode started (the only ep of RD to ever have this). I suppose it must have been because the polymorph turns into a pretty scary monster at one point, but I was surprised they went so far as a pre-credits warning!
I was also surprised how many of the gags I remember fondly are from this single episode. Whether it’s Lister carefully measuring out a tablespoon of chili powder…and then dumping the rest of the can into his dish. Or Kryten attaching a vacuum hose to his “groinal socket”. Or the entire scene where Lister uses medical/surgical implements to serve a meal. That scene had me in stitches. (Perhaps not quite as much as when I was younger and sillier, but I still find it charming. I admit to rolling my eyes a bit when Lister’s shorts shrink on him, but I was laughing while rolling them.***)
Possibly my favorite thing about this episode is how it focuses on the characters. When it comes down to it, that’s what I love most about Red Dwarf. Yes, the plots are fun—it’s a situation comedy after all, but it was always the characters who kept me coming back for more. Yes, they’re often as much caricature as character, but that’s what makes them work so well in a show this silly.****
In “Polymorph”, the creature feeds on strong emotions, so it slurps up the defining characteristic of each character. It’s a really clever way to play with the personalities of our “heroes”, and it’s delightful to see the actors get a chance to stretch. Rimmer in a “Give Quiche a Chance” tee-shirt? Delightful. Kryten acting pissed off at everyone and everything? Refreshing! Cat becoming a useless, downtrodden lout? Just plain fun.
The only place where this falters a bit is with Lister. I don’t see fear as a terribly prominent characteristic for him, so it has less of an impact when he becomes a gun-toting maniac. I’ve always felt that Lister’s unwillingness to step up and get things done was due to his laid-back laziness, not fear. To be fair, having Lister become a Type-A personality wouldn’t lend itself to great comedy, so I understand why they made that choice. It’s funny. It’s just not as incisive as the changes in the rest of the cast.
To end on a more positive note, I’ll give a little hurrah for the very end of the ep. We discover there’s a second polymorph and it’s already aboard Red Dwarf, stalking the boys. Gasp! And then the episode ends.
I love that about Red Dwarf. They don’t get bogged down by their own continuity. They refer to it when it suits them, and they ignore it when it doesn’t. That in itself is kind of hilarious, so bravo and thumbs up to the boys from the Dwarf!
About the Patron:
Shelley (@tardisblue1963 on Twitter) is a self-proclaimed fan of Doctor Who fans, and thus is a Doctor Who podcast addict. She’s also one of the most engaging and supportive folks I know on social media. If I have a question about DW or want a fan’s opinion, I know I can always count on Shelly to provide. I cannot stress how important enthusiasm is in keeping me going when it comes to podcasting, blogging, etc. Shelly is top-notch at providing that. If you find joyous fangirls perk up your day too, go and follow her at once!
*Yes, children, we used to get a paper magazine to tell us when TV shows would air. It was a quaint and barbaric time.
**The show did eventually come back, but that was years later.
***I honestly wonder if I would love the show as much if I discovered it now. My sense of humor is a lot less wacky than it once was. I suppose I’m just glad I discovered it when I did!
****Maybe someday I’ll write about my enormous crush on Arnold Rimmer and cite the few episodes where he’s not such a pratty caricature.