It was a comforting start to the new Red Dwarf series, after the various misfires that blighted Season Seven and Eight (and let’s just pretend Nine never happened), we were back on safe ground with Lister and the Cat in the grubby confines of the Dwarf talking absolute rubbish. Specifically, the role that 'mooses' have played in causing car crashes in 1970’s Sweden (obviously). The drab cockpit and tight confines of the ship’s living quarters harks directly back to the show’s heyday, and Listy’s old pal Peterson even gets an early mention. It seemed like a return to the good old days, but could the rest of the show keep it up? Luckily, the answer was a resounding yes.
It was telling that the show didn’t offer any explanation as to how they got where they are and what’s been happening to them since last we were in there company, it’s just straight into the action. Our first glimpse of ‘Old Iron Balls’ sees Rimmer talking to Kryten about his impending Astro-Navigation exam results. Just like in days of yore, Rimmsy is still trying his darndest to become an officer. When he’s talking to Kryten about mentally preparing for failure and his calming newfound motto of “sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you’re ready to win”, we know exactly where it’s all heading. When Rimmer does finally see his results and realises he has failed for a tenth time, Chris Barrie proves yet again why he is such a gifted comic performer as his nostrils flair and head shakes in pure unadulterated rage.
The whole episode is focused on Rimmer and specifically his deep-rooted bitterness and resentment over his brothers’ success and his own distinct lack of it. After the Dwarf crew find an abandoned Space Corps derelict called Trojan, they receive a distress call from a nearby ship which just so happens to be from Rimmer’s brother Howard, now also a hologram.
At first, Rimmer tries to once more pass the Astro-Engineering exam before meeting his brother, but to no avail. His ill-fated revision produces perhaps the finest comedy moment of the episode though as he puts to Lister a seemingly mind-bending logical thinking puzzle regarding the cause of Swedish car crashes in 1971. The whole joke is worked perfectly and though we yet again see it coming a mile away, the scene’s payoff is expertly delivered by Danny John-Jules’ Cat. Naturally, after revision proves far too difficult, Rimmer makes the decision to rope his crewmates into helping him masquerade as captain of the Trojan instead. A ploy he hopes will finally allow him to get one up on his bullying brother.
Meanwhile, Lister’s ongoing telephone war of attrition with a droid-run shopping channel isn’t quite as effective a plot strand but it’s still good for a couple of decent comedy moments despite feeling a little bit too easy for Red Dwarf. The moment where Kryten takes over the phone call and calmly assures Lister he’ll have it taken care of for him in a few minutes is certainly timed to perfection.
The decision to once again return to performing before a live studio audience has definitely proven a wise move by the production team. The actors all feed off the audience’s laughter and the jokes hit home better than they have in years with "your IQ is smaller than the salad bar in a Scottish supermarket" a particular favourite.
They may have all aged a fair bit since they were last on our screens, but the four actors seem to be back to their best and revelling in the episodes’ back to basics approach. There’s nothing overly special about the episode’s story but in many ways this is a good thing. The weaker later series of the Dwarf tried too hard to weave elaborate plot strands together and forgot about what made the series so great in the first place, the characters. By focusing on them and allowing them be as cowardly, slobbish or stupid as ever, writer/director Doug Naylor has rekindled the winning formula and produced an extremely promising opening episode.