Red Dwarf Review: Series VI, Episode 1: "Psirens"

Airdate: 7 October 1993

Summary: Two hundred years since that little incident with the Despair Squid, we see the crew again wake up from a 200-year sleep (except for Kryten). Apparently, Red Dwarf had been taken by an unknown party, and the Posse are only now catching up to the ship. All they have to do is pass through an asteroid field to get close. However, whilst in the asteroid field, they are intercepted by Psirens, who are shape-shifting GELFs who try to lure them in with their greatest desires… only to immobilize the crew by feasting on their brains. These GELFs take the form of such figures as Kochanski, Kryten’s owner, two temptresses, and even Lister himself.

Review: The first time I watched this episode, I wasn’t a huge fan of it. I was turned off because of the lowbrow humor (or rather, the amount of it), the running gags that would dominate the rest of the series, some continuity errors, and the recycled-ish plot. Now… I still wouldn’t call it my favorite episode.

This episode is occasionally cited as one that has aged quite well in the eyes of the fandom: the 1999 Better Than Life poll put this episode at 44th place out of 48 stories. Then again, that survey put “Pete” at 17 out of 44. In 2013? The two have almost switched spots: “Psirens” has taken 21st place out of 61 episodes, while the two episodes that comprise “Pete” are ranked dead last.

Now, I can see where they were trying to go with this. Shaking up the formula is not always a bad thing: we saw that with Series III. This time, they may have been trying to create something of a series-long arc, exploring more sci-fi concepts rather than just mocking them.

However, a good chunk (albeit not a majority) of Red Dwarf‘s comedy was based around making fun of the science fiction concepts in the show. By playing them relatively straight (picking off the crew one by one, for example), there is not a lot to work with in terms of comedy.

But that’s fine, what about the characters? They were the center of Red Dwarf since 1988; they still must be pure comic material!

Well, yes, there still is character comedy. Tragically, it’s greatly reduced. Why? Well, the show shifted its focus from character-driven plots to sci-fi plots. Rather, with the show not being character-focused anymore, there is less “need” for it. Rather, a good chunk of the humor is either sitcom-style gags (“We’re deader than (Z)”, “Space Corps Directive (X)”) or gross-out jokes. And yes, there are a ton of gross-out jokes here. Granted, not all of them are dire, but what made Red Dwarf work was its balance between high-brow humor and character comedy with lowbrow gross-out jokes. Here, it’s too tilted to the lowbrow jokes. It’s just not really as funny.

Speaking of character, it’s a mixed bag for character here. I do like the Cat’s smell being brought in; it reinforces the fact that he’s a cat instead of just a dandy. Lister’s slobbish behavior was almost good, except it was one of the reasons why the lowbrow humor was high in this episode. Kryten seems to be formally settled in his role as Mr. Exposition, which is actually a decent move, although it does take away some of his depth (i.e: his own neurosis). This one, however, was pretty bad for Rimmer; there is little trace of the tragic character seen in Series V. He’s a base coward, with not as much charm as he had in prior series. I’ll grant him that he was turned off for 200 years, and thus, may have regressed a bit in terms of character. Still a bit grating.

It’s not a total loss. If the lowbrow humor wasn’t overdone, it would actually be pretty funny. Almost all of the not-so-overtly lowbrow humor worked. (“This baby’s crashed more times than a ZX-81” was a personal favorite of mine.) I liked Claire Grogan’s appearance as Kochanski (her last), and the callback to “Parallel Universe” with Jim and Bexley. And, like always, all four actors deliver stellar performances.

The plot itself isn’t bad either. It isn’t going to light the world on fire; it just seems a bit too similar to the stellar “Polymorph”. But, let’s remove “Polymorph” from the equation for just a second. You have a damn decent plot here. I’d even go as far as to say that this episode explores the concept of the human id, falling for the desires of a potential lover no matter what the risk is. Also, who doesn’t love a good callback to Homer’s Odyssey?

Tragically, not even a decent plot nor decent humor or decent callbacks could resolve the main problem… it just seems dry. It’s decent, sure. But this first episode doesn’t really have the magic that even “Terrorform” or “Demons and Angels” had. Let’s just hope it’s an anomaly.

Tidbits: Yes, I’m actually doing it. Where this will be placed might change from post to post, but I’m actually doing a “tidbits” section.

  • This episode seemed to pull not one reset/error on continuity, but rather, three. One, it’s stated that Lister dated Kochanski for a few weeks, going against “Balance of Power”, which stated that Lister barely even spoke to Kochanski. This I don’t mind too much, since Red Dwarf has done resets to “before the wipeout” scenarios in the past (“Justice” increased the amount of dead on the ship by a solid thousand.) However, this series, as well as the next two, will pretty much run on episode-by-episode continuity, which I find ironic. They might have reset this fact to throw Kochanski in for a bit; this, again, is Claire Grogan’s last episode.
    • What got to me more was another error/reset, with one of the Psirens (disguised as Peter Tranter’s Sister) stating that Lister has not had sexual relations in three million years. All fine and dandy… until you remember not only “Parallel Universe”, which featured Lister and his female counterpart getting drunk and sleeping with each other (with hilarious results), but also “Polymorph”, where another shapeshifting creature shifted to Rimmer’s mother and promptly slept with Lister (to make Rimmer angry, and thus, vulnerable).
    • There’s also a redaction of “Marooned”. In that episode, Lister claims he’s not very good with the Guitar. Here, he believes he’s a diva. Now, I’ll chalk that up to Lister being close to death in “Marooned”, as well as his memory not being totally restored after a 200-year stasis.
  • The garbage compacter is a pretty cool Chekov’s Gun, with Kryten’s post-compacter appearance and actions being quite funny.
  • The guy who played Lister’s guitar alongside Lister? (Long story.) Phil Manzanera of the band Roxy Music.
  • Captain Tau shares the same name as the captain from the unaired pilot for Red Dwarf USA. (Tau there was a stand-in for Captain Hollister).
  • Back to “Polymorph”, it works as a sequel… that is, if it wasn’t for the actual sequel coming up this season.
    • It could also work as a sequel to “Camille”, with the Psirens being the villainous versions of the Pleasure GELF’s seen in that episode. Ironic as that episode parodied Casablanca, where this one parodied The Odyssey.
Favorite Scene: As Lister is getting his bearings straight, Kryten is getting ready to reactivate Rimmer. This ensues:

Lister: Rimmer? Is he my best mate?

Kryten: Sir, you are sick!

Second place? The contest between the real Lister and the Psiren Lister.

Least Favorite Scene:  The joke about Lister putting Tabasco Sauce on his cereal went on way too long. Given that I complained about the gross-out jokes, it’s a bit ironic that a relatively mild joke got the “least favorite”. It just feels like they wanted to kill time.

Score: 6.


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