Red Dwarf Review: “Timewave” (Series XII, Episode 3)

Merry Christmas, and welcome to the climax of our Christmas Spectacular Thing! And it is a climax this year, as we get ready to delve into one of the most critiqued Red Dwarf episodes of the Dave era, “Timewave!”

Red Dwarf Timewave

“Suggest you engage “skedaddle” mode!” – Kryten. Hey, we were warned!

Airdate: 26 October, 2017

Written By: Doug Naylor

Plot: The crew try and come to the rescue of the SS Enconium, a ship that is floating towards the titular timewave. Simple enough, right? Well, on the Enconium, criticism is illegal, punishable by a lengthy jail sentence. Thus, the crew are incompetent, dress like performance artists, and are smug morons.

Review:

I am of the opinion that Red Dwarf’s Dave era has been quite a success so far. Sure, the episodes haven’t really reached the quality peaks of Series III-V (although they have come somewhat close on occasion), but honestly, I don’t expect another “Back to Reality” or “Dimension Jump”. And I’m weirdly cool with that.

Besides, for the most part, the episodes have been funny, our characters have been relatable (in contrast to VIII), the drama and comedy are mixed appropriately (contrast to VII), and the story construction has largely remained good. Nothing mind-blowing, like the aforementioned “Back to Reality” or “The Inquisitor”, but for the most part, the show has produced a consistently enjoyable output since returning from the decade-long hiatus.

Unfortunately, the further you go, the higher your chance of slipping up and misfiring. Which is what brings us to Series XII’s third episode, “Timewave”. In the interest of not burying the lede… it’s a bad episode.

How bad is it? The more I think about it, the less I have to wonder “is it watchable” and the more I have to question “is it a contender for the worst Red Dwarf episode ever?” Oh, yes. As far as I’m concerned, this episode could give “Duct Soup”, “Beyond A Joke”, “Back in the Red”, “Pete”, and even freaking “Krytie TV” a run for their money in the disaster department.

The beautiful irony here, in an episode that I consider a disaster on as many levels as possible? This episode’s big topic is “criticism”.

No, I am not kidding here. This episode, ranked by many a fan as the worst of the Dave era, is about how criticism is necessary for the development of the soul. And honestly… that is a damn good topic to talk about. In a series that so far has been more socially topical (or at least more overly so) than most prior series, the art of criticism has become a major point of debate. I mean, our recent presidential election had one candidate who openly wondered why she wasn’t 50 points ahead (given the various controversies of her campaign), and another who has written off all criticism as “fake news”. Neither of them took critique well, and by the end, the election turned into “who do Americans dislike the least”. (The result, apparently, is the man who calls every news outlet that doesn’t praise him “fake news”.)

The term “snowflake” has been applied, particularly (yet not exclusively) to those on the left, that prefer to shut out all critique or their platform, their art, their style, etc, in favor of an echo chamber, one where they never improve. Likewise, a lot of these people tend to be just as critical, oftentimes with an aura of smugness to them. Kryten even brings up the idea that critics can become high off their critique.

Of course, critique is necessary to produce improvement, but we shouldn’t let it give us emotional leverage over others. For example, let me bring up Steven Universe for a second. I think it is a fantastically-written show, and when the animation is brilliant, it is brilliant. That said, even I can admit that the show’s attitude towards character design and proportion can be lackadaisical, as well as it’s liberal use of “Beach City” based episodes. While these would be more forgivable in a comedy series, this can adversely impact a dramatic show.

That doesn’t mean I love SU any less – episodes such as “Rose’s Scabbard” and “Keeping It Together” still stir emotions in me. I just think that the show has some weaknesses that need to be improved upon. I don’t think of Rebecca Sugar as a bum – she got her own show before the age of thirty, that takes some level of skill – I just think her style of show-running has its drawbacks that could use some tightening up.

There are, unfortunately, those that will look at the show’s faults and call her everything wrong with the left, complete with slurs. And those critics will also be blasted – mostly by reasonable people, but some will then call even rational critics of Steven Universe, say, alt-right fascist misogynists. It’s these people – the trolls on the internet, the Alt-Right, the SJWs, that perform their brash and pointless critique just to get some form of high.

And here’s where Red Dwarf tries to draw its thesis. On the Enconium, all criticism has been banned. All of it. Thus, crayon drawings by thirty-year-olds are framed on the wall, everybody dresses like they’re at a poor man’s Comic-Con (especially Ziggy), and nobody knows how the hell to pilot the ship – in fact, they’re thrown into various roles in slapdash fashion. Engineers are doctors, nurses are cops, up is down… and those that violate the strict anti-criticism law are jailed.

Okay…

I know Red Dwarf is supposed to be a comedy, but a good chunk of the show’s comedy has come from taking science fiction tropes and playing around with them in various ways. Wax figures of good and evil in a war? Not inherently funny, but the portrayal thereof (Elvis, Pythagoras, even Goering) elevates “Meltdown” to hilarity. That, and their performances were very on-point, with their own nuances – for example, Tony Jay’s portrayal of Caligula was the stuff of legends.

In contrast, “Timewave” plays everything broadly from the offset. The ship? Gaudy. The characters on board ship? Super gaudy. The acting? Oh, boy… Johnny Vegas may be a great comic actor, but his term here on Red Dwarf is way too over the top. There’s no attempt to add any nuance here – it’s “take the silliest ideas and cram them in”. There’s no attempt to flesh them out, no attempt to add a new element to all of this. And if there’s criticism, why are people arrested for critiquing? Isn’t jail a critique of one’s behavior? If the internal hypocrisy was intentional, I would be shocked.

But, whatever. More interesting to look at is how this episode ties the theme into our crew… up to and including Rimmer, whose parents – instead of being emotionally abusive smeggers, were overprotective morons who sent their kid to a school that eschewed competition. I could imagine Mrs. Rimmer doing this (she felt that holding him back a year would prevent him from being a test pilot… oh, how that panned out) but Mr. Rimmer? Mr. “Back on the Rack” who starved his sons if he got questions on Astro-Nav wrong? The show doesn’t look at this divide, conveniently lumping the two together. I could argue that, hey, Mrs. Rimmer cheated with the family gardener and their relationship was always on the rocks, but my word, where is the consistency?

Suddenly, this episode becomes Rimmer’s episode. An attempt to show why he is so thin-skinned… and by an attempt, I mean “my word, we’ve covered this already!” Can we please, please, PLEASE get some other character to do an in-depth analysis? It was a minor problem in “Siliconia”, but here, it bears repeating – much as Rimmer is the show’s strength, this is old ground we’re treading here. I would love to see Lister’s inner critic – even if “The Inquisitor” did a good job there with the titular antagonist (“You’ve got brains, man – brains you’ve never used”), there was surely room for something deeper with our protagonist, whether it be the Mech-Engineering program, his status as his own father… something! But no, we have to retread old ground about Rimmer.

It gets to the point where, as demonstrated above with Rimmer’s parents, the character traits and backstory are starting to contradict each other. Yeah, this happened in Series IV (Lister’s relationship with Kochanski and the size of the Red Dwarf manifest), but the writing and comedy there was strong enough to back it up.

Here?

In an episode that has a poor hit streak with comedy, this episode produces at least three of the worst jokes in the history of Red Dwarf – lines that probably would’ve been cut out of “Krytie TV”. The first is a joke about Helium 7 being “rarer than an ungroped bottom at the BBC in the 1970s”, a crack that was only rescued from being utterly dated thanks to the exposure of sleaze in Hollywood (and Washington, and 30 Rock, and…) weeks before this episode aired. Naylor, you got lucky… and the joke still sucks.

Second is a crack the Cat makes about the stupidity of the Crit Cop (dear god, Timothy Spall’s character had a name). All I’ll say is that it is probably the single most vulgar line of dialogue in the history of Red Dwarf, one out of character for the Cat. And yes, the Cat has had a sexist streak to him (“me, three girls, and a family-sized tub of banana yogurt”), but he was never as acerbic in his delivery as he was in his blasting of the Crit Cop. It’s so out of place in this show, so out of left field, that it did earn a laugh from me… if only one of utter disbelief.

The third? I’ll just leave it here… Rimmer noting how his brother taught him how to approach women? Let’s just say “spit on her wrist” is part of a joke that officially surpasses “You got Kryterred” and “Have a Fantastic Period” as The Single Worst Red Dwarf Joke Ever. It’s structurally incompetent, disregards the fact that Rimmer’s brothers all but abused him, and is a moronic attempt to throwback to “Polymorph” – a hint that Doug Naylor is out of gas.

When you get down to it, this episode has nothing. The plot is left in the lurch at the end (at least “DNA” has the excuse of almost being the last episode of the series), the attempts at social satire are underdeveloped and contradictory, the characterization is underserved, and the jokes are nil. Sad to say, but the more I think about it, the less I can find a single redeeming quality about “Timewave”.

Yeah, Red Dwarf was due for a clunker sooner or later in the Dave era. But this is less of a clunker and more of a burnt-out shell of a car from Crazy Vaclav’s, loaded with gunshots and suffering from a smashed front end. I’m even going to say that, for a brief mind, the idea of it being worse than “Krytie TV” and “Pete, Part II” passed through my mind. “Krytie TV”, as much as it botched an attempt at analyzing sexism, at least has the excuse of being in a series that was poor overall and having to deal with an unusual character dynamic, while “Pete II” was the second half of a completely vapid two-parter that didn’t really signify anything.

In the end, though, my biases against Series VIII take hold – “Krytie TV” downright assassinates every character, while “Pete II” is completely bereft of any sort of plot. So “Timewave” does escape from the depths of despair.

Barely.

Look, I like the basic message of this episode – critique is good for the soul, and we need it in our lives. It can only build us up, force us to re-evaluate how we approach our tasks, our hobbies. I also understand the argument that there are people who criticize for the sone reason to get a smug self-satisfaction out of it.

I’ll put it this way – if I was trying to introduce somebody to Red Dwarf and this was the episode that came on, I wouldn’t blame them if they wrote me off as a lout. “Timewave” takes a decent idea, botches it, and proceeds to screw up everything else, even violating the show’s premise of being about the last human standing (even if circumstances have shifted the plot such as Series VIII, this episode is probably the most direct violation of the show’s basic plot). Watching this episode, for the first time in my relatively brief fandom of this show (which started five years ago today, in fact), I had “the thought”. It’s “the thought” that has entered a mind of many a Simpsons fan, many a Star Trek critic, and even the odd Steventhusiast as of late (at least, as far as I can see).

This show is running out of gas.

Yes, Series VII and VIII were subpar, in my opinion, but that could be chalked up to technical difficulties and attempts to gamble that didn’t pay off. Here, we have a character dynamic similar to the “golden age”, and this is the end result? I wouldn’t be surprised if Red Dwarf didn’t get another series because of the backlash against this episode.

Again, this episode was trying to produce a thesis about criticism and how it can be good for the soul. Good on the staff of this episode, because they got a ton of it for ‘Timewave”. Take today’s lesson to heart – if you don’t polish up a script, you could put out an episode that drives a medium-sized fire ax in the back of your franchise. Remember that if you get another series.

Tidbits:

  • No comment on Ziggy and the controversy over him being a possible gay stereotype. That’s a controversy I don’t want to wade into right now.
  • I will say this – Vargas is normally a good comedian if the ITV Digital and PG Tips Monkey and Al campaigns are to be believed. (Didn’t save the former from super-duper bankruptcy, but still.) And let’s be real here – his performance, while over the top, is certainly not completely terrible.
  • …I got nothing else on this episode. I want to move on ASAP.

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene: “This mechanoid is reversing”. Yep. That one joke.

Least Favorite Scene: Can’t I just say “everything else” and move on? Oh, right, I can. In short…

Score: 1.

Merry Christmas, let’s move on.

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