Red Dwarf Review: “Samsara” (Series XI, Episode 2)

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Lister’s hair is not food. Repeat: Lister’s hair is not food.

“They’re dead!” “Hey, the medical reports aren’t in yet. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions.” – Rimmer and the Cat, discussing the bodies of Col. Green and Prof. Barker. Second time Rimmer’s introduced himself as a captain to dead people, by the way.

Airdate: 29 September, 2016

Written By: Doug Naylor.

Plot: The crew investigate a ship that crashed on an oceanic planet, as well as a pod that contains two deceased (read, dissolved) crew members. On that ship, they discover that the Samsara contains a karma drive – one which praises virtues and punishes callousness. The four split up – Lister has to deal with the Cat, while Rimmer and Kryten team up.

While this is happening, we learn more about the dynamic duo, who were locked in an affair with each other… and who’s reaction to getting caught may have damned the ship.

Review:

My thoughts about “Twentica” was that it was a rather solid opener to the series. While not ranking among my top 10 episodes of the show, it still managed to please me for 30 minutes. It was rather unique, but more of a way to establish something of a tonal shift. “Samsara” takes the tonal shift a bit further – rotating between two stories, past and present. Does it work? Well, let’s take another analysis at this.

The episode’s central theme is established from the start – that of moral balance – with Lister cheating at MineOpoly. If you’re wondering if this is in character for Lister, he did spend his childhood committing petty offenses. That, and he and Rimmer still don’t have the best relationship – although it has thawed compared to “Balance of Power”. Cheating to mess a bit with Rimmer’s mind isn’t completely baffling. That, and there is the pretty clear parallel to the affair on the Samsara way back when. Different strokes, but still.

Also, Rimmer blaming some random event from his past for cursing him certainly fits in with his character – what with blaming his parents for his warped life back in Series I-V. Here, though – given what we saw in “The Beginning”, it takes on a new poignance. Sure, maybe Rimmer wasn’t cursed, but given what he went through involving his parents and what we now know about Rimmer’s father, it’s understandable why he would try and find a new way out. So fundamentally tragic is Rimmer that he’ll do anything to deflect blame for his own failings.

Now, you also might be asking if Red Dwarf did this before. And the answer is an unqualified “yes” – “Justice” had the crew travel to a penal colony where the Justice Zone had karmic retribution to any and all offenders that committed crimes. (Lister found out the hard way when he tried to torch Rimmer’s bedsheets.) This isn’t that different, as Kryten so clearly exposits in the middle of the episode. The thing here is that the Justice Zone only penalized – the Karma Drive praised virtues and punished vices. It’s enough of a twist to make the episode interesting, but there’s still the nagging feeling that they are throwing back to Series IV.

What makes this different is the flashbacks to the Karma Drive’s prior use – involving two officers, Col. Jim Green and Prof. Rachel Barker. Their affair is set up from their first interaction – which works, but probably would’ve been better if Kryten had not noted their marriages beforehand. And their affair exposes them to the negative effects of the Karma Drive – bad food, illness, a reprimand from the captain. The issue, however, lies in the fact that the Karma Drive is programmable by anybody and everybody. Even the most trivial of negative actions – “criticizing others” – can be alerted to the captain. Indeed, Barker is able to reprogram the KD to invert the behavior guide – in effect, damning the ship and saving their asses. (Once out of the KD’s zone, though, they themselves are vaporized. Guess Karma didn’t get to them.)

The reversed Karma, though, still impacts the Dwarfers. Acts of selfishness result in a flash-heating being prevented and the ship’s power being fired up. Acts of Kindness lead to Lister’s dreads being cut, the Cat getting knifed in the foot, and Lister having to learn about how Archimedes invented gravy after having a bath dropped on his head and shouting “Formica”. (Hey, he got a special hat to wear at night!)

I think the bones of the episode are actually pretty great. Not the most original of plots, again, and I did laugh quite a bit at the various jokes during the episode. However, I do think the structure was a bit off.

For one, as I implied with the intro to Baker and Greene, the exposition veered into the superfluous yet again. Yes, there was a reason for the crew to hear it, but it still felt a bit excessive. Secondly, a lot of the gags went on a bit too long. Trim the skeleton and the Archimedes gags, and you could flesh out Baker and Greene a tad bit more, or maybe firm up a climax that felt rather weak. Then again, maybe the weak climax to this episode was intentional, given that Red Dwarf is known to twist around sci-fi tropes.

Still, I tip my hat to this episode for trying a plot structure I don’t recall being done in Red Dwarf before. The jokes worked, the character dynamics were alright, and the acting and scenery were on top form once again. Another alright episode from Red Dwarf XI.

Tidbits:

  • Between the skeleton scene and the captain’s reprimand, “Samsara” has a damn good shot of being second in the “bluest Red Dwarf episode” list. (C’mon, “Polymorph” ain’t getting dislodged any time soon.)
  • I liked how Captain Kardi was played by Canadian actor Eddie Bagayawa, mainly to create a parallel between him and Mac McDonald (an American playing Captain Hollister). If I recall correctly, I don’t think a single captain in this show has been British. Yes, there have been captains playing British actors, but those characters were GELFs. I don’t know if this was intentional on Naylor’s part, or they just went with the best available actors, but it’s still mildly interesting.
  • Much as I felt the Archimedes gag could’ve been trimmed down a bit, I do think the return to Lister and the Cat made me laugh. “Juliet Caesar?”
  • On a completely unrelated note, I have become rather interested in Star Vs. The Forces of Evil. Interestingly, I only watched the second half of “Bon Bon The Birthday Clown”, yet it was that second half that formally sold me on the show. Will I be reviewing it? Not immediately. After Red Dwarf XI is finished, I’m still trying to balance three shows – Futurama, Steven Universe, and The Simpsons. Still, reviewing SVTFOE is something I’m considering.

Wrap Up:

Favorite Scene: Rimmer constantly rolling the dice and getting the same losing result.
Least Favorite Scene: Trim the “formica” joke by 30 seconds, and I wouldn’t complain.
Score: 7.5. Flawed, yet still good.

 

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